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Recording a Real Life Spinal Tap

In the past, it was surprisingly customary for budding novelists and later, “new journalists” to take jobs in–or at a minimum, spend considerable amounts of time researching and observing–fields they wanted to write about. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was based on his experiences as a dishwasher in a seedy Parisian hotel. George Plimpton built a whole second career for himself as an amateur sportsman who wasn’t afraid to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions, box with Archie Moore, or compete against Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In virtually all of his sporting endeavors, Plimpton had his clock cleaned, but his willingness to actual get in the ring or on the gridiron provided him a very different experience than writing from the sidelines. Likewise, Tom Wolfe researched the highs and lows of New York for The Bonefire of the Vanities by spending considerable amounts of time with both bond traders on Wall Street and observing firsthand the legal system in Brooklyn.

Today, there may be a new trend developing: because getting something published (at least self-published) is much easier than it was in the past, its possible for more and more people to write books, online diaries, and Weblogs about their firsthand experiences. And often times these “non-professional” writers beat the pros at their own game.

On the Internet, there are numerous examples: “Sgt. Stryker” is an Air Force jet aircraft mechanic who oversees his own extremely popular Weblog, which he regular writes for, along with others in various arms of the service. Numerous actors have their own Weblogs, including Star Trek stars William Shatner, and Will Wheaton. And while Howard Cosell seethed in the 1970s and ’80s about “the jockocracy” of athletes turned journalists, today, lots of professional athletes have online diaries or Weblogs.

Meet “Mixerman”

In the same spirit, “Mixerman” is a Los Angeles-based recording engineer who began his own online diary in 2002 of a recording project he was assigned to. It was a young band, recently signed for $2,000,000, but as Mixerman writes, it’s amazing how quickly a rock group can blow through a seven-figure deal:

Willy ["Willy Show" is Mixerman's nom de rock for the band's superstar record company producer] called me at the crack of dawn. We would not be working on the album today, since he was going to have a long meeting with the band to try and deal with the rift that had formed. Willy then provided me with some history. Apparently, this was not the first rift during Willy’s short tenure with the band. During the rehearsals, the band had another similar blow-up. The band members hate each other. No surprise there. What I didn’t know is that the money is almost gone.

For the most part, the band is under a tremendous amount of stress, because the band members have been living on their advance money, and each of them was quickly running out of that money. At first, I was taken aback by this news. Two million dollars–the reported value of the deal–was a lot of jack to piss away. Of course, I don’t really know the details of how that money was disbursed, nor if the budget for the record was included in that figure. Then, of course, there are any number of whacky accounting practices that go on at record companies. Regardless, the more I considered the possible costs of taxes, possible down payments on houses, musical equipment, and two years of no income in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the US, this was NOT that surprising. When I think about how much of my own money goes out the door from living in L.A., the scenario was not that hard to imagine. On top of all that, I’m sure the band never dreamed that it would be writing for two years before it would be making a record. I’m sure the band members thought they’d be touring by now and making money playing.

The label was taking a “tough s**t” attitude with them, which was exacerbating the situation. Allegedly, the label has been pretty shitty with them all along. Last week, Yore was telling me that their previous A&R reps (since fired) were total assholes to them. The way it was described to me, it was as if the label was psychologically torturing them. This somewhat explained to me the constant depression that Paulie Yore was in, although it didn’t make hanging with him any more pleasurable.

It’s not like the band didn’t have good songs when it was signed. Quite the contrary, I’ve heard the songs that they had when they were signed, and in my opinion, they’re great. I can even understand why this band was a bidding-war band. Labels don’t give a s**t anymore if there’s a weak player in the band. Everyone just assumes you either fix it with a computer or get a session player on the project. The only thing that labels are interested in is a song that they can break to radio. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. Everything else can be fixed.

Besides “Willy Show”, in order to keep everyone’s identity secret (not to mention Mixerman’s!) he used a variety of pseudonyms, some of which had more than a little raunch to them: Dumb Ass, the group’s sloppy, soon-to-be-axed drummer, Fingaz, the young, lily white editor who thinks he’s the second coming of LL Cool J, and of course, “Bitch Slap”, which is the fictitious name Mixerman creates for the group itself. It’s got to be second only to Spinal Tap in the pantheon of great fictitious rock group names.

Slapping The Band Into Shape

The amount of work that Mixerman, “Willy Show” and Fingaz perform to make Bitch Slap sound halfway decent is staggering.

Willy obviously was a man that wanted a record with some feel. If he didn’t, we’d have gone into Alsihad ["alls I had", Mixerman's mocking term for Pro Tools, his digital recording platform] already. The editing jobs would take entire days, and everything–including the guitars, bass and vocal, would be chopped up, tuned and put together again like a chicken nugget–which, in many cases, is reconstituted. That is the way many, many of today’s rock records are made.

If U2 were to put out Boy [their first album] today, I contend that record would have been a sterile piece of s**t. They really weren’t great players back then. But U2 had a vibe, and they were innovative, and the fact that they weren’t great players made the music all the more alive. Today, a young U2 band would have more than likely been destroyed by a producer and his Alsihad, that is, if they ever got signed at all.

That’s a brilliant observation. With music, and especially musical production, sometimes less truly is more. But to make a less than competent group like Bitch Slap (who based on Mixerman’s descriptions clearly lacks the collective vibe of an early U2) compete in the big leagues, Mixerman puts in an enormous amount of production work and studio trickery–and ultimately ends up replacing one of their musicians with a veteran studio musician, a fairly common practice in L.A.

In The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, author Mark Lewisohn illustrated that at least until the end was nigh, George Martin ran a surprisingly tight ship in the studio, and his discipline paid off with some of the most incredible pop music ever made. While Led Zeppelin was infamous for their outrageous hijinks and destruction (often self-destruction) on the road, in the studio, Jimmy Page said that he too was an extremely disciplined producer, and for the most part, the sessions he oversaw ran like clockwork. In contrast, the Bitch Slap sessions illustrate months of pulling teeth and ego clashes with a band that doesn’t seem to understand how much of their career is riding on the success–or lack thereof–of the record they’re making.

A Few Minor Flaws

Is this a perfect book? Not quite: The language is very salty, but then, that’s no doubt an accurate reflection of what transpires in recording studios. And while I’m sure he did some editing in transforming it from an electronic medium to print, it appears that Mixerman largely ran with his online diary almost verbatim. He could have used some additional editing to tighten the narrative in places.

Also, since the book combines a Spinal Tap-like look at a band slowly imploding, with a surprisingly detailed technical glimpse at the making of an album, an index would have been nice, to find, say, when the band was comping vocals. (Including a glossary of terms like “comping vocals” was a very smart move though.) And it’s a minor point, but I have a feeling the book could have benefited from a subtitle. Something along the lines like The Adventures of Mixerman: How A CD Is Recorded might have made the title more accessible to the layman, rather than to strictly us recording junkies.

But these are minor points. The Adventures of Mixerman is a fun, easily accessible look at why today’s CDs are frequently terrible–and why so much money gets wasted recording them. If you’re interested in how the CDs in your collection were recorded, or you’d like to a read about a real-life group that’s stranger than Spinal Tap, The Adventures of Mixerman is well worth your time.

(Self-published; available for $19.95 from the author’s Website.)

About Ed Driscoll

  • Jim Carruthers

    I followed Mixerman’s site until it trailed off, where does the book end?

    My favourite observation from the original posts was that it is much cheaper to treat a band like millionaires than it is to make them millionaires.