Tim Dowling: my band is recording in rural Devon and I’m ruining every take

<span>Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian

I’m driving along a narrow lane in rural Devon, looking for a recording studio. According to the satnav I still have a mile to go, and I am very much hoping I won’t meet a car coming the other way before I get there.

A bit further on the satnav tells me to make a left turn, which proves to be unexecutable: the angle is too sharp, the incline too great. I drive for another two miles before the road widens enough for me to pull over to read the directions I was emailed.

I haven’t looked at the directions before now, but there’s a handy line about ignoring your satnav to avoid the impossible left. I turn around and drive back to what is now an abrupt but perfectly navigable right.

By the time I get to Middle Farm Studios the band has set up. I just have time for a strong coffee before I unpack my banjo, with no chance to describe my difficult journey in any detail.

Middle Farm Studios is run by a man named Pete, who has long hair and a laid-back demeanour. The place is filled with vintage equipment, and we are here for what we believe will be a more organic recording experience.

Normally we record our parts separately, on different days. Here we’re all in the same room, standing in a circle around our seated singer.

“How come you get a chair?” I say.

“I don’t know,” he says.

We all play together, live, and the track is recorded through artfully positioned microphones on to old-fashioned tape. The result is mixable but not fixable: if anyone makes a mistake, it’s on there for ever.

As soon as we start I regret having had the strong coffee. My heart is pounding, my fingers are twitching and I am singlehandedly responsible for wrecking the first two takes.

It becomes clear that Pete’s easy-going manner has a few sharp edges. I draw him aside to suggest the banjo sounds a bit loud in the mix.

“Play quieter,” he says.

Later I watch as the fiddle player politely asks Pete if we could have a metronome click in our headphones, the standard way to keep everything in time. Pete smiles serenely.

“Absolutely not,” he says.

Everyone begins to get frustrated. Take seven becomes take eight. When we finish take nine, Pete’s voice comes through our headphones.

“You should come in and listen,” he says.

That afternoon we decide to tackle a song we hardly know, and ask Pete to suggest an approach. 'Learn it, he says

“We’re nearly there,” says the singer. “Can we have one more go first?”

“No,” says Pete.

Listening back is difficult. The sound has a warmth and a certain immediacy, but it’s hard to hear anything but mistakes and glitches.

“There’s a floorboard creaking in that quiet bit there,” I say. “Anything we can do about that?”

“Play standing still,” says Pete.

“So is it fun?” my wife says when I speak to her later.

“It’s tiring,” I say. “And a little deflating.”

“I thought the whole thing was supposed to be fun,” she says.

“I’m sure it would be fun if I were better at it,” I say.

The next morning I arrive at the studio with downwardly revised aims – I just need to get through it. Pete suggests we listen to everything first, which makes my heart sink.

A minute into the playback, the mood in the room shifts.

“This isn’t bad,” says the singer.

“It’s actually amazing,” I say.

“Are you sure this is us?” says the piano player.

“What have you done to it?” I say.

“Nothing,” says Pete. “It’s just perspective.”

From then on we are under Pete’s spell, only occasionally making requests in order to delight in his brusque refusal to countenance them.

“Absolutely not,” he says, beaming.

That afternoon we tackle a song we hardly know, and ask Pete to suggest an approach.

“Learn it,” he says.

We retreat to a picnic table in the garden and run through the song a few times. Pete brings out a big mic, and later two smaller ones, then returns to his mixing desk. By the time we’re ready to record it, it turns out we already have: a spirited outdoor version, dense with breeze and birdsong.

“We’ll never play it that good again,” I say, when we listen back.

“It speeds up a little,” says the accordion player. Pete shrugs.

“You all speed up together,” he says.

“It’s charming,” says the singer.

“Can you do anything about those damned birds?” I say.