Guest Post: Pickering Pick & the art of the studio recording

Sam Pickering Pick

If there is an artist I wouldn’t mind just hanging around with it would be Sam Pickering Pick. I have gotten to know him (from a distance) over the last year or so over an admiration for his music. So much so that when we had an opportunity to work together on releasing an album, we did just that over at Yer Bird Records. Sam is gracious, immensely talented and a down to earth guy…I am pretty sure y’all would like him to.

So then…his guest post. Sam provides a bit of insight into recording and an experience that just didn’t go well overall…even if it worked out “in the end” (check out his newest album for that reference).

You can visit Pickering Pick on his Bandcamp Page and even listen to a great track that we had the pleasure of releasing over at Yer Bird Records from his latest album “Tiger Balm”. Enjoy a sampling of Sam’s music and a snippet into his home recording world below.
Pickering Pick – “Like A River” by Yer Bird Records


Sam Pickering Pick

The Loneliness of the Artist-Producer
How Everything Conspired Against Me In The Studio.

The whole point of building a studio for myself, I thought, was to create an organic space in which the walls between creation and production could be eliminated. Ideally, in my head, my studio would be a warm, cosy, space, filled with soft light and soft walls, rugs, rich colours and muted textures. All my equipment would be there, primed and ready to spin. My mics, preamps, compressors, instruments, tuners, headphones, monitors, cables. Everything out of the reach of my two young children, never missing, always working. The place would sit there quietly waiting for me to show up with a cup of chamomile tea, hit the switches, relax into a chair and start recording.

That was the point, of course, and – a lot of the time – that’s what I have. My studio, which occupies a building behind my home in California, is a private, peaceful, well-constructed, soundproof haven. It ought to be all I need, as a musician, to produce my recordings with the minimum of trouble or stress. It should be an extension of my creative realm. But when I started planning the demo sessions for my next album, problems arose which started small and then grew gradually larger. Over the course of a few weeks, my well-intentioned writing-recording sessions turned into days of frustration and despair.

It started with a single hardware issue. My audio interface – the device used to feed signals from an analogue source into a computer – decided to check out. I had just acquired a new pick-up for my acoustic guitar, and while I was testing it in the studio, the interface died. It went out with a whimper, and it took me a day or so to trace the problem, but I finally figured out that the onboard preamp, which powers the pickup and amplifies the sound, was kaput. Unfortunately, that meant the microphone preamp – which, much more importantly, powers my microphones – was also kaput. No preamp, no recording.

This was not a disaster. In fact, I had been planning on buying a new audio interface for a while, and this gave me a good excuse to go shopping. Within a few hours, I had ordered a new MOTU audio interface, which would also give me a greater recording capacity. While I had my buying hat on, I also picked up another large diaphragm condenser mic I had my eye on. The new album, I thought, would pay for it.

The MOTU arrived and sounded amazing. The mic followed shortly afterwards. I changed my classic recording set-up to accommodate a stereo pair of mics. Everything was going great. I wrote half a dozen new songs. I started tracking them in the studio as the weather got rapidly cooler outside. Then the wind arrived.

And the wind stayed. I mentioned I have a soundproof studio. It is soundproof up to a point: the walls and ceiling are insulated, and I get a good isolation from ambient noise under normal conditions. Unfortunately, when the wind is blowing at 50mph, the trees above the studio get a bit excited and they start rapping their branches on the roof. That translates to a barely audible tap-tap-tap to the human ear, but with a pair of condenser mics in position and the gain cranked up, you hear every little tremble of every tiny twig.

Suddenly, recording was a game in which I was required to guess when the wind would blow, and then schedule my recordings in between. Most of the time, I had seven or eight minutes in between major gusts. Long enough for a song? Sure, as long as you’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Finally, after several days, the wind died. I had a stack of recording I wanted to do, and the conditions – I thought – were finally right. It was cold, and the air was dry. California is pretty dry anyway, but we were in a particularly dry spell, which meant low humidity. I’m a musician who almost exclusively uses only an acoustic guitar to accompany my voice, and I had not anticipated the sort of impact humidity – or lack of – would have on my guitar.

I was recording a piece with an alt tuning – BEBEBE – when I noticed the noise. A creaky, croaky, groaning sound coming from the bridge of my 17-year old Seagull folk guitar. I’ve been using this guitar in my recordings for years. It is my best friend in the studio. I know it like the back of my hand, and I know how it sounds when the microphones are on it. This was a new noise, and it tore through the mid-range, making my finger-picking sound like someone had thrown up inside my guitar.

I was devastated. I thought my guitar had died. It sounded like a massive crack had appeared in some unseen place, and it made recording impossible. I spent two days trying dozens of different things to see what the problem could be. I talked to my father – a veteran record producer in the UK. We ran through the possibilities. I started looking for a new guitar.

Then something my dad said reminded me of an old physics lesson from when I was a teenager. It concerned relative humidity, which I had forgotten could plummet when you took a room from 55F to 75F. Low humidity becomes dramatically lower when the temperature rises, and I had been using the studio a lot in the cold, warming it up every day, reducing the humidity, letting my poor guitar sit there and get thirstier and thirstier until it got so dried out that it started to croak at me.

When it finally clicked, I immediately turned on the shower in the bathroom, left my Seagull in there for half an hour and then put it back under the microphones. Creaking gone. Sound improved. Huge sigh of relief.

Lessons have been learned. When you are your own producer, you are also your own technician, engineer, meteorologist and physicist. It is liberating if you enjoy your own company, but as a songwriter, I’m spending about 10% of my time writing songs, and the rest of the time I’m solving problems.

There will be a new album soon, and I will enjoy making it. This is how I work, and the studio is my beloved workshop. If being a physicist and an observer of winds results in a better, richer, more organic and involved album, all the better for it.