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How do you know when your performance has peaked?

You might make twenty takes of a track before you get one that really works. But could the twenty-first have been better?

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A while ago I had the interesting task of playing Fender Rhodes piano in a recording with a conventional jazz trio consisting of normal piano, standup bass and drums.

An odd combination you might think, but it had the sound that was required for the task in hand.

Now I have to say that when it comes to jazz piano skills, I'm not exactly Oscar Peterson. I'm not even his left hand. I'm not even the little finger of his left hand.

But I can hit the notes, mostly the right ones and mostly in the right order.

So, Take 1... not even close. All the right notes were played, but it didn't mean a thing because plainly it didn't yet have that swing.

Then Take 2, Take 3, Take 4... on through the evening.

I don't actually remember what take number we got up to, but it was pretty high.

So someone suggested we take a break. That might do us good.

So we had a break, consuming only innocent substances such as tea.

Feeling refreshed, we sat back down at the instruments. Apart from the standup bass of course.

And...

We couldn't get it. We just couldn't get it at all. Individually we were playing OK, but the combo just didn't gel.

But then the engineer spoke up and said, "You know, you really had something going around Take 15."

So we listened back. Fortunately the engineer had kept all the takes, which wasn't always a practical thing to do back in the days of tape.

And he was right. The take before nearly had it, Take 15 (or whatever it was, I can't remember precisely now) had it. The take after had gone a little bit downhill.

What we can see from this is quite typical in recording.

Things will start off a little shaky and not quite together. Then everything comes together for that 'golden take', then it goes downhill.

The thing is... you don't know you've recorded the 'golden take' until you have recorded a few more that are not as good.

The job of the producer is to spot exactly when everything is at its best. Performances often go in a kind of arc, and somewhere among them is the one that is exactly at the peak.

By David Mellor Thursday January 6, 2011
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