Keeping a Clean Record
Meet the Comatose recording team: Jay Van Poederooyen (engineer), John Cooper (Skillet,
co-producer), Brian Howes (co-producer)
It's not often fans have the opportunity to glimpse the recording experience of one of their favorite
artists. For the better part of a decade, hard rock band Skillet has recorded at the historic Ardent Studios in Memphis, but because of a new crossover partnership with Lava/Atlantic Records,
they chose to relocate to Chicago Recording Company for the recording of their latest album, Comatose. It doesn't release
until October, but front man John Cooper granted Christian Music Today an early sneak peek in the studio, offering
some insight into the early stages of the recording process.
How do you go about picking a studio to record an album?
John Cooper: I'm a little unqualified to answer that with my history at Ardent
Records. Contractually we had to do all our records at Ardent Studios, so I've pretty much been at one studio my whole life
until the Lava Records thing when they wanted to do an extra track on Collide and set us up at CRC. I love it here,
which is why we decided to do this new record here as well. They've been around a long time, but they're also really up to
date [with equipment], which some studios are not.
Have you noticed a change in recording techniques since Skillet's beginnings in the late '90s?
Cooper: When we first started, nobody would record on a computer. It would all
be done on tape, which is a lot harder. You can't make as many mistakes on tape, and you have very limited track space. On
a computer, you can edit much more easily, and you're not limited by space. It's all changing now with the modern technology
of recording—you don't have to be in a really amazing studio anymore.
I've heard stories that Prince's Purple Rain had to be recorded in a big studio with multiple tracking
rooms, and they had to link [multiple mixing] boards together because there weren't enough tracks for him to [record all the
instruments and parts] he wanted. There were like 100 tracks going, which was unheard of at that time. And yet for us today,
almost every song on this new record has over 100 tracks on it. Things are a whole lot easier now and a lot more inexpensive
compared to the costs of tape machines.
When you're singing in the vocal room, explain for us what the producers and engineers are doing twirling
all those knobs and buttons on the soundboards.
Cooper: The computer is where everything is recorded to, and the board allows
you to control the levels of how you hear things. Basically the way they do it now is, I'll sing a part and they'll save it.
Then I'll do that same part over and over, and they'll compile the best phrases from the different takes to make one super
good take. When recording on tape, they called that "punching in," which was really hard to do—timing your corrections
to your best take. Those old school engineers were really good with their work, and so computers today are like a dream fulfilled
I wonder, however, if maybe we've lost something with this new technology—like classic recording
techniques or the warmth of analog tape.
Cooper: These days everybody wants to hear something that sounds a certain way—more
modern and clean. You can still use the old techniques if you want and you can still record to tape, but these days people
are less forgiving when they hear [what they perceive as] a mistake on a new band's recording. It sounds like a mistake because
everything else is so polished and perfect.
Because the technology's so good now, they can take people who can't sing very well and make them sound good
in the studio. In that sense, I can understand somebody saying the new technology is ruining the vintage vibe and taking some
of the magic away. You don't have to be a good band to do a record anymore, and you don't have to play your instruments all
that well because they can cover it up.
More bands seem to be recording songs part by part, but what are the advantages to recording a track live
in the studio?
Cooper: The White Stripes are a good example that you can still make records
the old way if you want. I think the simpler the music is, the easier that is to do. Ben Harper's another example—I
could imagine him recording with a full band for more of a roots vibe. Skillet's music is much more modern in sound and polished,
so I like to focus more on the individual parts because you can get the drum part perfectly and the guitar part just the way
you want it. If you're doing it as a whole band, you need to get it exactly right as a group without wanting to change it
later. With the way we do it, you can always change the guitar chord later, or even the key of the song if you want.
But Skillet is a solid bunch of players, even without these editing methods. Does it offend you that a
sloppy band can "cheat" and make such a crisp record?
Cooper: It does take away some of the excitement I used to feel for music knowing
that it's been manipulated. The reason why people like me hate American Idol so much is that I never wanted to think
rock stars were "made." I always wanted to think they just had that special something. I hate the idea of artists being manufactured
and of everybody liking you because you look or dress a certain way. It's taken away some of the artistry and authenticity
of what makes rock n' roll exciting, and people abuse it to sell records. Nobody did that with Robert Plant, nobody did that
with The Beatles, and my assumption is nobody did that with Gwen Stefani—she's just cool!
So do you personally have to make any special preparations before recording a take, or do you naturally
dive in cold?
Cooper: The latter is the case, though I wish I could say it's not, because that
would make me sound more into what I was doing! (laughter) That's not to say I'm not prepared, but I've been doing this so
long that I don't have to get myself in a mood. Because I spend so long writing the lyrics, I know what I'm saying and I feel
passionate about it. At any given time, I've never felt dispassionate about it. I've heard weird stories about people who
need to get in the mood by turning off the lights, burning candles, or dumping water on themselves like they're at a concert
to get in the mood. That's just not me.
I noticed that after taking some time away from the vocal booth when you were recording "Yours to Hold,"
you dropped by the piano and began pounding out some chords and a lyric. Is that common for you to come up with ideas like
that in the studio, or are they typically all written out on paper before a session?
Cooper: It's usually always planned for me, but it's different for all writers
of course. Like I said before, I get in a headspace for singing, and it's the same way for writing. In this case, I was working
on something earlier and just felt like fleshing it out since I had a couple of spare minutes. You always hear stories at
the end of a [recording session] about important songs being cut last minute. "Sweet Home Alabama" wasn't even going to be
recorded, but in the last week, somebody at [Lynyrd Skynyrd's sessions] said it would be a big hit and they recorded it. At
the end of any record, you always try to one up yourself.
When you went to the control room to hear a playback of "Yours to Hold," what were you listening for?
Cooper: Tonight was a very informal listening session. I'd just finished the
vocals, so we wanted to hear how they turned out. We were listening for the whole feel of the song, trying to put ourselves
in the mind frame of turning the radio on and hearing it for the first time. It's a little hard to do after working on it
for 12 hours straight, but it's the time to ask whether it's lacking or whether we love it. I have to decide if the recording
gives me a good feeling right now, because if it doesn't, then there's something wrong, and you try to figure out what it
might be. That's why you playback and listen—to make lots of little changes until the song's totally done.
How does budget play into the amount of time you spend in the studio on playback sessions or spontaneous
Cooper: We're in a beautiful studio that costs a lot. I've heard from indie bands
that are very fearful of writing in studio while they're on the clock—time is money. But these days, a lot of bands
are recording in cheaper studios, and you don't have to rely on as much gear anymore.
Has recording at this particular setting had any spiritual impact on you?
Cooper: Recording this project has really reinforced what God is calling me to
do on this record. [A lot of the studio guys] we're doing the record with aren't Christians, so that's been exciting. They
don't even know the basic truths of the gospel—like who Jesus was—and they didn't know the Bible was against racism.
The topic of homosexuality has come up, which in general most Christians are so scared of that they wouldn't even talk to
a gay person. I think [these studio workers were] under the impression that Jesus wouldn't have hung around with someone like
that, and they were shocked to find out he was just the opposite. That confirms for me that if people could see the love of
Christ, they would want to know him, which sometimes [Christians] don't do a good job of showing.
I was told by one of the guys that in his whole life he'd never met a Christian he liked. He's 35 and tells
me, "You guys are the only Christians I've met that I like." And I thought that was so sad, but then you realize you've made
a connection. When something bad happens, you're the one they're going to want to talk to, and they're going to want you to
pray for them. So that can be an awesome opportunity. That's what's happening on this album. It's been very cool and reaffirming
Comatose hits stores October 3.