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Gilded Serpent presents...
The Making of a Bellydance CD
by Dunyah
of Americanistan

Making a CD is a labor of love that requires perseverance, time, and of course, money. Money is always a factor! Our band, Americanistan, is based in Eugene, Oregon, and has been playing music for bellydancers for 13 years. We have produced three CDs - two of which were released in 2003. We are fortunate to live in a city full of musicians and recording studios, which made it possible to find recording facilities and great sound engineers at affordable prices.

Creating music is always a learning experience, and that can make musicians feel a little vulnerable. “Recording-studio nerves” can be worse than stage fright.

After performing hundreds of live shows, we knew what to expect with a live dancer and an audience. The energy of the “live” experience is very inspiring. But we were about to record our music in a sterile recording studio for posterity. Any glitches or flaws in this environment would become very apparent

Good chemistry between band members, and between the band and the engineer, goes a long way toward easing anxieties and creating a positive experience. We had to find a balance between what we could afford, what was available in our time frame, the engineer’s experience, and the almost indefinable qualities that make the engineer and the band mesh well.

Most studios deal with the standard blues or rock styles of music and they don’t have any experience with Middle-Eastern music. Their ideas of what the music should sound like and our ideas were very different.

We learned that the hard way through an unproductive, expensive experience with a very qualified engineer who had all the latest equipment, but was mainly a rock music guy. He literally did not know what kind of sound we were after. So we were thrilled when we found Eric, an Algerian/French engineer who grew up listening to Middle-Eastern music. His love and understanding of the music, and his low-key, supportive manner (not to mention his lovely accent!) more than made up for the fact that he was less experienced than the rock ‘n’ roll guy.

The actual recording of the music is called “tracking”. After tracking comes “mixing”, and then “mastering”.

Each phase of the process is expensive, time-consuming, and important. Some groups record by isolating each musician in a sound booth. The sound booth creates the best separation of the sound and enhances the qualities of each instrument through individual microphones. We used this technique for our “Journey East” CD. The positive side is that the sound quality is excellent. Each instrument is recorded individually on its own track, and can be manipulated or edited later during the mixing phase. The downside is that most musicians aren’t used to working that way. It’s an unnatural situation for a band that normally plays together in the same room. (Especially when playing ethnic, acoustic instruments as we do.) The strangeness of being unable to hear the other musicians, except through headphones, along with the periodic inability to make eye contact with them, can be frustrating at times and can slow down the recording process. It may even be difficult to hear oneself playing one’s own instrument, which is why many musicians wear the headphones over one ear only, leaving the other ear uncovered.

Time is money when bands are tracking, mixing, or mastering. The clock is ticking at anywhere from $35 to $100 per hour, depending upon the studio.

It can be hard to get past the feeling of money trickling away when one does not have a rich sponsor or deep pockets. If a band is going to track using the isolation sound booth method, members should be extremely familiar with their material and have everything worked out ahead of time. This is not the time to start improvising!

An alternative to the sound booth method is tracking with all the musicians in one room. Low sound barriers between musicians help provide some separation of sound. We used this method for our “Mosaic” CD. This allows more of a “live” feeling in the music and still gives good sound quality. Since much of our music is improvisational, it is good for us to see each other, hear each other, and respond to each others’ musical ideas. We were recording music that we had been playing together at shows for 18-24 months before we went into the studio. Our goal was to capture the sound that we had developed during that period. We had a great group of musicians and we had fun tracking the pieces that involved five or more musicians. We also did some tracks with fewer musicians. My husband Wayne and I recorded some pieces with just the two of us. We did some “overdubbing” to create the illusion of more musicians playing together on two or three pieces. Most of the tracking was done with Eric, and he was great.

Then Eric moved back to France. We subsequently ran out of money, suffered job loss, and had health problems and family matters to deal with. Two of our band members left to play with other bands. The recording studio curse had struck!

Among recording studio personnel, it is a well-known fact that many bands break up during or shortly after a recording project. Some theories about why this occurs are:

a.) It is the end of a cycle, or a sense of completion, and for some, time to move on.

b.) Musicians feel very “evaluated” when hearing themselves recorded. Even if the band frequently records their shows, it’s just not the same as a studio recording. Flaws that can go unnoticed during a live show become very apparent.

c.) People spend so much time together on the project that they just get sick of each other. I suppose there are many reasons for the recording studio curse. I can attest that it has happened to us three times!

The project was on hold for many months as we rehearsed with new band members and kept our commitments to play at different events.

Meanwhile, we found an incredible sound engineer who became a friend as well as trusted “ears” - Wayne Leeds. (I call him “Other Wayne” to distinguish him from my husband Wayne). He is a genius with sensitive ears and an unfailing sense of what will make a musical piece “work”. Wayne Leeds worked with us to complete the Mosaic project. My vision all along had been to create a studio recording of music that dancers could “cut-and-paste” into their own routines. Many shows use taped music, and dancers always need routines of 5-8 minutes for these shows. I wanted to create short pieces that could be strung together to create different moods and different sections of the dance.

As a dancer myself for 25 years, I understand that dancers need changes in the music. They need different things to do and different aspects of the dance to express in their performance.

However, as a result of Americanistan’s improvisational style, many of the pieces the band recorded with Eric were too long. Wayne Leeds was invaluable in helping us edit and mix these pieces.

Because we had not been isolated in sound booths during tracking, there was not a separate track for each instrument. But Wayne was able to tweak the overall sound in extraordinary ways. My Wayne and I worked many hours with “Other Wayne” to get all the details finished in the best manner possible. We did a little overdubbing on some tracks, which can be tricky to mix down in this situation, but Wayne could do astonishing things. We would come in for a session and he would say, with a twinkle in his eye, “While you weren’t looking, I did something to this piece. . .” He would play it for us and it was always an improvement. He is truly amazing - an angel from heaven who appeared to help us finish our labor of love! We truly could not have done Mosaic without him. We remixed the Mosaic album seven times with Wayne before we were satisfied. Wayne also mastered Mosaic for us.

Mastering is the final step in the recording process, and is a technique used to increase the sound quality. All recordings played over the radio, for example, must be mastered.

A third recording method for bands to consider is the live recording. We used a digital recording device to capture the music on “Live at the Wow”. The digital recorders give a very clean sound. Of course, instruments can not be individually isolated, but it is possible to record several tracks and then mix them. Certain instruments, like flutes, tend to bleed into every track, so there are fewer options available during the editing process.

But the wonderful “live” quality of a show is something that just can’t be reproduced in a studio. The audience . . . the adrenaline . . . it all works together to inspire the musicians to do things they may not even know they can do!

There is less self-consciousness in a live recording, because even though bands know they are being recorded, their awareness is focused on the performance and not on the recording. And it is a lot easier on the budget because there is no tracking time. However, there is still the expense of mixing and mastering.

The final step is production. We produced “Live at the Wow” at Sony with a four-color print job for the cover. The minimum order was 1000 CDs, and the print job was as expensive as the CD burning. Five years later, CD burners are now common and color laser printers have come down in price. We found a local home-based business with professional quality equipment. They can produce smaller quantities with a short turn-around time, and the prices are reasonable. And now there are web sites that will host digital audio files, and people can pay to download and burn their own CDs. I think that will be the wave of the future. We are currently investigating that possibility for our music.

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