SO YOU WANNA be a recording star?
Imagine the scenario. Your rock'em-sock'em original tune lands on the desk of a record industry mogul in New York. It's immediately recognized as the platinum seller of 1980. You sign with the label, reap a giant advance and watch your song bolt up the charts.
Granted, you have a better chance of winning the Irish sweepstakes. But anyone can record a song and make some part of the dream come true.
At least two dozen local studios are busy turning out tapes and, less frequently, finished discs for Washington's budding musical talent. From radio commercial quickies to marathon band sessions, stuidos offer a range or recording services -- mixdowns, overdubs, voice-overs and tape edits -- just like the Nashville hardcore.
They'll record anything . . . even a voice only a mother could love. When you've got the bucks, recording you own song is easier than publishing a novel through Vanity Press.
You can spend a mere $6 to have three mintues of cronning, joke-telling or strumming transferred from a homemade casette to a vinyl 45 at Omega Recording Services in Kensington, Presto! Your first disc.
If you're out to impress a crowd, order a hundred copies of your audio masterpiece for about $200. When you become a star, of coure, those basement-recorded singles will be collector's items.
Musicians more serious about the technical quality may pay anywhere from $30 to $80 an hour for stuido time -- which includes the services of an experienced engineer -- to record and "mix" the 16 to 24 tracks of your future hit. It costs roughly $115 at several leading studios for a two-inch master tape, and another $12 to transfer that to a quarter-inch tape, to make a "demo."
Demos, or demonstration records, are the musical auditions pitched by unknowns to music publishers and record companies in hopes of landing that golden contract.
Now if you're aiming for the big time, the field is crowded with would-be superstars, and some studios are booked weeks in advance. Every day and through many long nights, in soundproof rooms dotting the city, hippies and corporate types alike are tucked away, engrossed in capturing sounds for posterity.
Methods for taping a demo vary from producer to producer, but as Soundwaves (off Dupont Circle), the rhythm tracks are put down first, perhaps using piano, bass, drums and lead guitar.
Then the vocals are recorded and the rest of the arrangement build around that combination. An overdub of strings, gongs or other effects follows.
Finally, the mixdown, which may take 30 minutes or many hours per song, allows technicians to fiddle with the blend until it's perfect. It takes a total of three to five hours per three-minute song to make a top-notch demo.
Future stars take heart: There's a remarkable range of touch-up techniques available to a band. Most musicians admit studio engineers have achieved their own star status because of their god-like roles at the controls. Machines can "fix" you bad notes, bring up the speed to change pitch. Mistakes are rubbed out, individual instruments made louder or softer.
It's a far cry from the early days of sound recording when session players had one chance to etch their grooves forever in wax. In fact, critics of disco music argue that without stuido gadgetry, a lot of glittery groups would be nowhere.
Still, the key for the everyone involved in producing a record is perseverance. Expect hours and hours of takes an retakes. It's no myth that studio sessions often start late in the evening and dissolve into parties in the wee hours, littering the acoustically padded rooms with beer cans and bleary-eyed musicans.
A typical scence at Soundwaves: "Take it from the top and you can noodle around with it," company president Jim Harmon calls to a sax player who's been taking it over and over again (at $75 an hour for 16-track), looking for the perfect take.
Jamie MacKinnon is working on an LP for Adelphi Records with the Nighthawks, blowing away madly on a '60s rock-blues number called "Gotta Have Soul." After more trials and errors, Harmon had an idea for an improvisation and leaves the control room to tinker at a piano in the studio. He and MacKinnon agree on a possible direction for the overdub and everyone braces to try it again.
And again, McKinnon's licks on tenor and baritone sax will be added to the already completed tracks by other players. Eventually he'll sip a beer while Harmon and his engineers take charge at the control board.
In the best studios in town, amateurs vie with the pros to book session times. At Bias Recording in Falls Church, studio facilities are reserved 2 1/2 months ahead, which speaks well for company efforts, Rocker Danny Gatton records there, as do Brian Bowers and Mike Auldridge, names familiar to the local bluegrass set. Marvin Himelfarb, from a local ad agency, regularly auditions aspiring radio actors there for commerical spots. It's not unusual for a Bias engineer to record a religious rock group, a couple of jingle-makers and a bluegrass band back to back.
The steep prices and weird hours don't stop the truly ambitious from getting in line for Bias' facilities.
Discovery, a country-rock group from Leesburg, is attempting the formidable task of writing, performing, producing and distributing its own album. The whole LP is expected to cost $2,500, which to a major label is hardly enough to pay for the jacket design. But to the moonlighting musicians -- music teachers, cattle dealers, auctioneers on the side -- it's serious dough. They've already put six months into the project and are spending days at Bias ($70 an hour in the main stuido) on the crucial mix-down stage.
"The engineer is one of the band at this point," Discovery leader Jay Tinsman says. Bias engineer Bill McElroy adds, "You can go into a studio that costs more and end up spending less," because the more experienced engineer and sophisticated equipment combine to produce a better product in fewer hours.
Aspiring stars should know this is an especially bad time to quit a secure job to look for a recording contract, given the industry's current doldrums. The labels aren't taking many risks on new talent and, even in the best of times, the A&R (artist and repertoire) scouts are tough to snare if you're an unknown.
"What young talkent doesn't realize," says Soundwaves' Harmon, "is you have to weigh music is a serious, high-risk biz that travels to the beat of the bottom line.
The odds are stacked against finding commerical success, and the advice Harmon give newcomers is realistic though not very encouraging: "The harder you hit it and the more tapes you send out, the better your chances."
You may be discouraged to know that he uses perhaps one out of a hundred demos he gets in the mail, and "I'm just a little guy," he says. So imagine the undiscovered gems and duds gathering dust in the offices of Warner/Elektra/Atlantic.
Even, so, serious musicians aren't deterred by the hard knocks of the business world. One afternoon, Discovery's five members listen to a tape of themselves playing an original bluegrass banjo instrumental. While they trade commentaries on each instrument's hot licks, engineer McElroy tightens the sound mix. It's a slow, painstaking process that, with luck, might win limited airplay on small-town radio stations.
But the group isn't aiming for a limo or a national concert tour. They're content to have turned out a respectable recording of their own music. Top of the carts or not, they're making tracks toward their first album.
"The odds are ridiculous as far as accomplishing anything monetarily," Tinsman warns hopefuls. But by producing their own record, the band maintains control of the music. And that, Tinsman says, is worth more satisfaction than money can buy.