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Open Windows: Amplifying The Background

Listening to Terry Gross talk with Joe Henry about his new album, Reverie, I was struck by an aspect of his recording technique. As the price of recording technology has plummeted, many musicians have home studios. At one time that meant a custom facility similar in construction to a professional recording studio. Nowadays a recording studio might be an extra room in the house, the basement or the garage.

Even though it’s well known that every room has its own sound, the professional recording studio attempts to isolate musician-produced sound from its surroundings. As much as possible, the room should be invisible to the recording. And of course, we’re referring here to building a digital recording rather than the documentation of a live performance taking place in a particular room.

In the sessions for Reverie, Joe Henry recorded in his home studio. Rather than build a wall between the recording studio and the world outside, Henry decided to literally open the window. The world was invited on to the tracks. Cars might drive by, dogs might bark, perhaps that’s a freeway you can hear off in the distance. The kicker for me was this, Henry didn’t just open the window on to his recording session, he put a microphone at the window so that world would have its own track on the recordings. This also allowed the musicians to hear the world outside the window and respond to it in their playing. Think of it as a kind of playing live without a human audience.

The takeaway is an instruction that can be added to a personal set of oblique strategies: open the window and give it a dedicated microphone. In Joe Henry’s case, the result sounds real good.

Here’s Joe Henry on the thought process:

We set up not only in the same room, but as close together as we could physically manage; the noise we each made spilling heavily into the space of the others, committing us to full performances and blurring the lines between us. Additionally, and perhaps in response to the frequent anxiety I shoulder regarding noise in the ‘hood when producing other artists in my own studio, I left all the windows open –inviting barking dogs, fighting birds and postal deliveries all to stand and be counted, to be heard as part of the fabric of the music –the way I always hear it around here. Though rarely autobiographical in nature, none of these songs, in fact, exist apart from my day-to-day life that allows them; and as such, there is no silence to be found on this record, only the outer world rising to speak as the songs descend.

Published in collaboration difference music performance

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