Bill Stevenson Part 4: Learning Time

[Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4]

It's never surprising to find that many innovative artists learn their craft in an innovative way. Hunter S. Thompson learned to write by copying down The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises verbatim, visualizing what was going through Fitzgerald or Hemingway's minds as he copied down their words. When Bill Stevenson was young, he would put an album on his record player, lay down on his bed while staring at the cover, then listen to one side at a time as he tried to “endeavor into a relationship with the band,” striving to get to know them, and trying his hardest to visualize what the musicians were attempting to say on their instruments. Still, when he listens to old jazz records he tries to get a sense of what the people are trying to do as players--and it's something he see's less and less of these days in our sped up culture of “right now,” where hit singles are here today and gone tomorrow. “That stuff is not as satisfying as putting on a big body of work by a band,” Stevenson said, “getting your head around what that band is actually about--what they might be like as people. What they might stand for.”

Stevenson's attempts at musical empathy are a practice he maintains to this day. Tempo, in particular, is one of the things he tries to distill from any band that enters The Blasting Room. Often the first thing a group does when they arrive is spend days recording demos. Stevenson explains “usually I'll do demos that are untethered by any kind of restricted meter--demos that are done in free time with no click. Those demos will inform me to the intention of the band as it relates to the song and it's various parts.”

Learning Time

While the demos do inform the tempo map, Stevenson does take “real time” into consideration. If he just modeled the tempo map after any fluctuation in time, then he'd “basically be etching in stone any kind of meter or timing errors the band has” he explained. He listens to different takes of the same song side by side, then gauges their consistency in tempo fluctuations. For instance, he's often noticed that many drummers speed up the tempo when they go into half time. “Then you have to study it,” Stevenson says, “then make a decision about what the true ‘manifest destiny’ of that bridge is. Sometimes it's a matter of meeting the band half way with their push-and-pull, willy-nilly tempos that occur when they're just jamming and practicing. Sometimes it's a question of the band meeting ‘absolute time’ half way. Maybe the chorus is 3 beats a minute faster than the verse. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn't. Maybe they were just rushing when they played the chorus that time" [laughs].

“This is the judicious part of production and recording that really requires brain power, because that tempo map becomes the DNA of the song. It's like the foundation for the house--and if you don't get that right, it's hard to change that later down the road when you already have a bunch of stuff on tape.”

Although tempo mapping is a tedious task, it has the major benefit that it allows the band and drummer to work on certain sections of the song out of order. “You always know exactly where you are,” he says, “which can save you considerable time later.”