Angus MacPhail on the travails of recording an album

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Recording studios are mysterious places to most people, and to musicians they are familiar but can be frightening.

We are nearly finished recording our seventh Skipinnish album and the process is no easier than it was nearly 16 years ago when we embarked on our first CD. We are much better acquainted with the experience now, but it is every bit as nerve-wracking as when Andrew and myself first entered the in-house studio at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to record the debut Skipinnish album.

The work starts many months before the studio is entered and one of the first and most difficult jobs is to choose the material. This part of the job has been different for every recording we have done, mainly because of the changing nature of the band through the years.

The general principles that determine the choices are the same though. It is a combination of what we like to perform ourselves and what we envisage people will like to hear.

That sounds simple but there are vast grey areas of no-man’s-land between these two determining factors. On one extreme, I would love to play a whole CD of Gaelic waltzes, 2/4 marches, a pìobaireachd and have Norrie singing three different versions of Òran na Caiora. On the other end of the scale, we would have Highland Cathedral, Caledonia, Kenny Gillies of Portnalong and three different versions of Wagon Wheel.

Having our own songs to choose from complicates matters further. It is generally good to record original material but only if it isn’t a load of rubbish and that can only be determined after release. Through all these potential pitfalls it is really just a good old-fashioned stab in the dark.

What we have forged together this time is a 14-track combination with our new songs predominating, with some tune sets, a Runrig song and, due to the upheaval of last year’s exit from Skipinnish by Robert Robertson, some new versions of our own previously recorded songs with the new line-up.

What is markedly different is the means in which the music reaches the listener and the economics of the process. The current recording industry is a different world to the one we joined when we were students and the changing vehicle of recorded music from CD to download is exciting to watch and scary be part of.

Hard copy album sales in shops that were once the mainstay of music industry income, are disappearing fast and this nosedive will undoubtedly accelerate as downloads and streaming relentlessly take over.

The impact of music being sold and shared online represents the biggest change in this sector since it was first possible to record and reproduce music well over 100 years ago. Significantly, it has taken a huge chunk of income out of the industry. High Street record shops are sadly fast becoming a relic of the past, large record companies are downsizing or folding left right and centre, and custom-built recording studios are becoming few and far between as the income that once flooded into them is being diverted and depleted by online channels.

This is not all bad and the accessibility of new music the internet provides, gives great opportunities for people to easily share recordings instantly with a wide audience without having to go through major record companies.

The access to large audiences and the instant platform the internet gives was very obvious on the Highland music scene through December and January as five acts in this genre released download singles with accompanying videos over that period. In fact, the internet at the turn of the year was like a musical dating agency for lonely Highland bands with all the new singles that were kicking around on iTunes and YouTube.
Mànran, Torridon, Skipinnish, Gary Innes and Skerryvore all released new songs over the course of around six weeks and all did well in music download charts. This would have been unheard of in the days before download.

Further, despite this change to digital sources, CD sales are still strong at live gigs and by online order. As with the continued love we have for books, the value and beauty of having a physical entity to touch, to feel, to open up, have signed, look at, to read lyrics from, to hold and treasure is still keeping the less intimate download at bay to some extent.

While we all lament the passing of the era of the record company and the music shop, we can gain some solace that the music itself is still being created, recorded, shared and performed as much, if not more than ever. The world’s tune can cope with change.