The Phonic Polygraph

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He’d been kind, giving me that easy way out.

It was within the first fifteen minutes of ever having recorded anything, and the click track, the discipline of tempo, just felt impossible and overwhelming. There was no way, no way!, that I could both sing and play the chords and keep up with that tempo. With its clicking and beeping and see-saw binary melody. So, he said I could just play with whatever tempo felt right, and that the software had a feature that would adapt to it. Adapt to you. Like some overly warm blanket of an accommodation; just play however you like, and Logic will take care of the rest.

And it did. Which was just wild. It took care of me just enough to keep going and not succumb to that always suspicious desire to think it was too hard and how could I possibly or why was I even doing this? We recorded the first few takes until I’d made it all the way through, finally, and then listened, and then after a break we began the editing process and I fixed, slowly, at first long stretches, and then I closed my eyes and found my voice somewhere in there, found my stronger opinions somewhere in there, and would take the same little line two or three times. I think he was surprised, just as I was, that it maybe even sounded better than okay, in parts.

Then he gave me some advice.

“Don’t listen to it right now. Just let it sit, and see how you feel about it tomorrow. Because you’re going to find that you might feel one way about it today, and then actually really love it the next day. Or hate it. And you don’t know yet. It’s just gonna change.”

And he was right. It sounded, in the minutes and days between sessions just so absolutely awful and then occasionally, like, surprisingly decent, at least. And it was entirely unclearly which of those opinions were correct.

When we returned to the question of the acoustic guitar, it needed fixing. But herein was a problem. My easy way out at the beginning, and all those moments after the first few hours when he had hinted, “Well, you probably still could just start over again, and do a scratch track but in tempo.” Because without an even tempo, there was no forgiveness in trying to overdub perhaps the one or two major flubs (always the B7), because there’d be no way to match the tempo. It was just unforgiving. As much as I’d been witness it like a magical audio airbrushing, there were some things, time, which you just couldn’t really mess with once you’d already been so cavalier and unintentional with it.

So, I could either just start over, again (but the vocal was pretty good, so that didn’t make sense); or I’d have to play to a click track. In one complete take. But a click track adaptive and reactive to my changing tempo, in varying degrees, unpredictably every couple of bars. I’d have to play it exactly in the tempo I’d made it before, in order for anything to remotely line up.

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We looked at the timeline after my first failure, that arrived in the first three and a half bars, and I just had to laugh. Hard.

“The tempo is the truth. It’s like a little polygraph.”

It revealed, absolutely, each time what I’d been thinking, or fearing. “That’s gonna be hard, I better slow down to get ready.” And so, then you’d see it, little and big dips, where I’d slow down ahead of the elusive, challenging chord each time. And then here, in trying to improve the sound itself of the guitar and the strumming a bit, and so focused, it was even harder to follow the click-track than it had felt when I took the detour at the beginning.

There was no consistent rhythm to feel, and anticipating what was ahead seemed to actually make it even worse.  Or impossible. It didn’t even make sense, how to do it, and felt like being in an ocean, blindfolded, subject to an uneven swell. And I couldn’t memorize the whole thing, either. If I was going to do that, I really should just listen to the sunk cost fallacies and begin again. And so, in that difficulty, eventually I just learned how to really listen and play to the click-track. You just did feel it, and were as much in the moment as you could be.

And so it was with this, the most challenging click-track I’d ever play. And what I’d thought would make it easier, made it harder in the long run. And in watching that play out over the course of ten hours of recording session – how that first decision felt like a small gesture, ended up being a huge lever upon which the work continued to arrest, and made itself into this unexpected lesson. I just wanted to record a song, but somehow that too would illustrate the great weakness in my personality. Like a polygraph, or a seismograph, telegraphing and making visible what had been opaque but still vaguely obvious lately.

The harder you worked, the easier it was.

And so now, through that crucible, I’d be militantly disciplined. If I ever did this again (and I had no idea if I would) it was clear I’d play by the rules exactly, because now I understood exactly why you did it that way. And forever after, they’d always be easier click tracks than that first, gloriously uneven one, in which I played to my own tempo. The hardest one with which to play along.

 

 

 

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