Sunday, 15 April 2012

Nebraska & demo chasing

When I pop into a charity shop these days I'm finding myself less interested in the books and more inclined to crouch by the dusty bins of creased and faded vinyl. Over the last 12 months I have scored quite well on these forays, turning up the odd gem amongst the endless folk collections and multitude of 1812 overtures. Up until today my best find was Deep Purple's 'Machine Head' which the kindly old lady behind the counter who rang up my 99p assured me she remembered well. Today however I happened across Sprinsteen's 'Nebraska'. In it's own right a fine find (if you'll pardon the alliteration) but made all the more satisfying for the fact that I've been researching it recently due to it's rather odd genesis. For a start it was recorded on this:

a Teac 144 Portastudio 4-track cassette set up in Springsteen's spare room. This is apparently the very one he used and it now resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There is a brilliant article about the recording of the album here but these are some of the highlights:

- Recorded by Springsteen with the aid of his guitar roadie Mike Batlin, neither of whom fully understood the workings of the Portastudio
- Mixed at the wrong speed through a Gibson Echoplex, a tape based delay unit
- Mixed down to a Panasonic ghetto blaster which had spent at least some time on the bottom of a river (seriously)

It was never Sprinsteen's intention that these tracks would be released in this form, they were demos plain and simple to be worked up into full tracks in the studio. But he fell fowl of demo chasing, an affliction every studio engineer is familiar with. Picture the scene; the last crash of the cymbal dies away, the guitar feedback tails off. The engineer turns from the recording console to look at the band, trying to gauge their reaction to the playback. There is a pregnant pause. The guitarist shifts uneasily, looks at his fellow band mates, and utters the terrible edict "I think it sounded better on the demo."

It happens all the time for any number of reasons. It's happened to me on more than one occasion. Often it's not the actual sounds but rather the energy and spontaneity of the performance which is more satisfying on the demo. It is almost a guarantee that the band were more relaxed when tracking the demo than they were in the studio in the grip of red light fever and this can have a marked effect on the quality of a recording. Also, it may really have sounded better and that is the hardest pill for the studio engineer to swallow. That despite all their equipment, ability and effort they will be unable to attain the peculiar essence of the demo.

Thus we have 'Nebraska', awash in slapback delay, a hit and run victim of the demo chase, but sounding pretty good on it.

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