Ever wonder how an album is made? Neil Finn live-streamed the process

“I wanted to make sure the album could stand on its own, without any knowledge of the way it was put together.”

For artists conditioned to labor over their studio recording for weeks and even months upon end, the thought of recording new music live and in real time, and then getting it immediately into the hands of the listening public without delay, can be quite the liberating experience.

And that’s exactly what happened with New Zealand’s favorite son, Neil Finn, who had the bold idea to live-stream both rehearsal and recording sessions held in his own Roundhead Studios in Auckland for his new album, Out of Silence. Fans could watch the multi-hour rehearsals between Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz) and a variety of bandmates, a full choir, and a string section live-streamed on Facebook for four consecutive Fridays before the 10 songs that made the final cut were recorded live over the span of four hours on August 25. Finn and his ace production team then made sure Out of Silence was properly mixed, mastered, and available for download worldwide exactly a week later, on September 1 (physical formats have since ensued, with CDs out now and a vinyl release due in November).

“Even if it’s beautifully filmed, it’s not necessarily a direct connection like live-streaming is.”

“The main thing I wanted to make sure was that the album could stand on its own, without any knowledge of the way it was put together,” Finn revealed to Digital Trends. “And I’m pretty pleased, because I think it does sound like that — like we went in and made a studio record.”

Based on the feedback garnered from what was also known as The Infinity Sessions, Finn plans to continue live-streaming in the foreseeable future. “I think there’s a lot of potential there, so I’m going to keep doing it,” he confirmed. “Whether I make more full records that way I don’t know, because Out of Silence was a one-off. But I’m definitely going to keep live-streaming, because I love that format. The feeling of something that’s coming directly from the artist to the audience unfiltered like that is really unusual. Normally, if you’re doing TV, it’s the director and the cameramen who are calling the shots. Even if it’s beautifully filmed, it’s not necessarily a direct connection like live-streaming is.”

Digital Trends called Finn while he was on holiday in Greece to discuss how to balance mystery and transparency with your audience, why the final version of Out of Silence came together so quickly, and how he’ll weather his next live-streaming experiences.

Digital Trends: I think you’re probably of two minds about how much you let live-streamers see of what you’ve called “the mystery of creation,” as opposed to just letting us receive the experience via the final product alone. You feel if the final recording appears seamless, then you’ve done your job, and people won’t even realize how much work went into it, right?

Neil Finn: Yeah, and that’s a good question, because I am concerned about that wave of mystery an album can have, and what you’re trying to create with music to where it sounds effortless.

The preparation we did before the cameras were rolling was pretty crucial because, where I would normally be moving waveforms around sitting in front of a computer screen — at least at certain times, anyway — I was sitting in a room with musicians and my arranger, Victoria Kelly, doing things in quite a methodical and old-fashioned way. We had the sole aim of getting to a point where it was muscle-memory and every song was really in great shape, and we could perform the hell out of them. And therefore, we could be confident to let people watch that process, since we knew we had that live performance to do.

We didn’t reveal all of the warts and cracks of the tracks, though. In the preceding weeks, there were a few transitional moments with some of the songs, where we were still routining [i.e., rehearsing and arranging]. I think it was interesting for people to see, but I hope we didn’t undo any of the mystery.

I don’t think you did. I like seeing how you get from Point A to Point B in a project like this, which is something we saw in the recent Crowded House Deluxe Edition box set series that came out in 2016.

Well, that was definitely an unveiling of a large amount of work. Enough time had passed with that Crowded House stuff that I thought it was okay to examine it like that. I had actually talked to Mitchell Froom [who produced/co-produced the first three Crowded House albums], and I asked if he still had the demos when we first worked on those songs. And he said, “No, I throw those things away! I don’t think anyone should ever hear them.” (both laugh)

Would you say Out of Silence was a reaction to the deep-dive historical evaluation of your career with Crowded House? Was it a conscious, or even subconscious thought of, “Hey, I want to strip things down and just do something that’s in the moment”?

I’m not sure. Some things you’re unaware of when you’re aspiring to being motivated to create. These new songs seem particularly exciting, and I liked finding new ways to make an event of making a record.

I’ve made a lot of records by now, and I’m fully aware there are mysterious forces out there I cannot predict. I don’t know if this record is going to find an audience, or a big audience, or a new audience at all. But rather than fixate on that, I’d rather make each record now into a current event that’s really enjoyable for its own sake.

You sent the master files to [noted mastering engineer] Bob Ludwig in New York to master them in real time in order to have the finished record turned around in a week. How did that work?

The first week, we recorded the song More Than One of You and sent that to Bob overnight, and it was back by the time I literally woke up the next day — and, I must admit, with a hangover, because we had a party after the first one. (both laugh)

We recorded that one as it appears on the record during the first Friday night stream. We sent it to Bob three hours later, and it was in my inbox the next day with a note from him: “Mastered and ready to go!” (chuckles)

I have a copy of the album’s detailed QC notes, which mentions all the mouth noises, ticks, and clicks, and when they occur on each track. I actually like hearing those “real” moments in the final recordings. They weren’t all cleaned up and taken out to sanitize the mix. In a lot of cases, we’re hearing what we saw happen on the live-stream.

Bob mastered the whole album three days after it was recorded, and he loved the way the record was put together. He said, “I took out some of the noises I heard, but I figured you’d probably want to leave some of them in. I didn’t want it to get too stuffy.” (chuckles) So it was a tricky job for him.

But in some ways, I also wanted it to sound like a studio recording, so I didn’t want to sacrifice or compromise anything just because of the fact it was recorded live.

“I wanted the choir to sound like really good campfire singing.”

I think some of that comes from how you had to work out a lot of the level-matching and sound-balancing details before the on-camera rehearsals and performances with the choir and the strings actually took place.

We had opportunities to rehearse with the string players and the choir quite a few times. And they weren’t a professional choir; they were just friends, and singers and songwriters — quite a lot of them. I wanted them to sound like really good campfire singing. Not too powerful with their voices; just good plain singing. I was really happy with it. it took a little work to get the character of the voices. By the time we got everyone in recording position, they all knew the songs really well, and I was delighted with the way it sounded. It was a lovely, natural sound.

In terms of the physical positioning in Roundhead Studios, you had a very tight space to fit everyone into. How critical was it for you to make eye contact with your fellow musicians?

We spent a good bit of time figuring out how to lay the studio out, and it worked out quite well. There was quite a bit of leakage from one microphone to another, but that was just inevitable. We did have a good bit of separation too.

I was using my old upright piano that I wrote all the songs on, and it was a little tricky for visual contact. I was in the same room as the strings and made good contact with Victoria, obviously. The choir was in an isolated booth, but there was a lot of synergy there, and some good visibility as well.

We did do a little bit of mix and match. We might have pulled a verse of the choir from another part that sounded better to our ears. We didn’t set rules for ourselves. We had three days to mix, so there was a limit to what we could achieve, and we did what we could. Everything we used on the record was recorded live.

You also had some guests appear via Skype like your Crowded House bandmate bassist Nick Seymour, which was fun to see.

(laughs) Yeah, there were some good moments that came from that. The last one we did on the second-to-last week was with the singer Jimmy Barnes, from Australia. We had the least technical setup for that one where it was just one computer to another, but he was a man possessed.

I think we have to call you a tech innovator here, because this is about as modern a way to cut a record as anybody could, wouldn’t you say?

Neil Finn crazy suit
John Stanton/Getty Images
John Stanton/Getty Images

Well, it’s a double-edged thing, because in some ways, it’s actually an old-fashioned concept to rehearse like we did, to practice and get all the arrangements right, and then perform it live.

But what is modern about it is we were able to let people watch everything in full view. Doing stuff by Skype — I’m surprised that sort of thing isn’t done more. We even did Skype live onstage with my mother several years ago.

I love live-streaming, and I’m going to keep doing it. And I’m pretty reasonable about people seeing it, because that’s the way we perform live — freewheeling, and we get the audience involved. Nothing is better than being in a room and performing live for people, but the next best thing to me is to do what we did — allow people to have access to music-making without having too much of the sheen of production added to what you get.

Where do you go from here, now that you’ve tasted a certain level of positive, instantaneous response to a finished piece of work that people got to see come together right on their screens?

“I’m interested in live-streaming because of the potential within it of launching new music.”

It’s definitely inspired me to do more with that process. It’s not necessarily going to be with strings and a choir next. I might be tempted to rehearse up a four-piece band, and then try and cut something that way.

I’m particularly most interested in live-streaming because of the potential within it of launching new music, and also doing some really spirited performances of songs I don’t get to do very often from all of the different entities like Split Enz and Crowded House.

I’m looking forward to all that. Lastly, I have to quote one of my favorite lines from Weather With You [from Crowded House’s 1991 album, Woodface]: “Well, there’s a small boat made of china, it’s going nowhere on the mantelpiece.” That almost seems to be the mantra for the state of the world we’re living in right now, doesn’t it?

Oh my God — it’s a crazy world, yeah! I don’t know how to make sense of it, but I do know music is more valuable now than ever in terms of creating a soundtrack to give people some sort of comfort and hope — and hopefully some inspiration as well.

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