John Ellis

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I'm recording an Album

I'm recording an album - it sounds like a singular thing.  It leads people to think that there will be a full complete album right away.  It takes a lot of time, at least for me.  An album is not only a record (a documentation) of music performances, it is also a record of decisions made.  A single album is composed of hundreds of decisions.  And if you haven't finished all of the songwriting decisions before you start recording, then those decisions are stacked on top of all of the recording decisions.  This is why musicians without deep pockets will have everything completely rehearsed before going into a studio where they have to pay for use of the facility.  With the meter running, money burns up fast - so the only other option besides rehearsing before heading into the studio is to say "hell with it" and just record in one take and consider the album done.  But if you dig into the sound by doing multiple takes to get the best performance, work hard to balance out the different sounds and add effects before the final version is ready for the audience, you never know how long it will take to work everything out.

Your first decision is to write the song - this should have been decided before you say "I'm recording and album", but artists also will craft a song right on the spot, either in a moment of inspiration or to complete an idea that has been on their mind for a while.  Ozzy wrote "Paranoid" while Black Sabbath was recording the album just to have a song to complete the album.  Between the moment of "I have a good idea" to either calling a song finished, or as I often do, calling the song "as good as it will get", you have to make many more decisions.  There are those fortunate moments where a song somehow comes forth from your mind basically complete with just a few words or musical notes to adjust.  This has only happened to me a couple of times out of over 30 songs started and 9 or so completed.  One of the challenges is to fit the ideas and word choices into a constrained form.  When you set up a pattern you have very little room to add or even remove words.  If you've never written a song, think of it this way - you're given an assignment to write a story, you have to fit the story into 5 words per line and a total of 20 lines and all lines must be used.  Now you have to write that story and make it interesting.  You also have to come up with a rhyme scheme.  Now think of it as a song - you have to fit it within the melody, so not only are the number of words limited, you have to choose the number of syllables per word wisely.  So you may be able to see now that you have to play a complex word game.  If you have the beginnings of a song, but the meaning doesn't seem clear, you may not be able to add another verse to clarify, you likely will have to find good replacements for the words already on the page that fit in the form that you established and they may also have to rhyme, so you have a limited number of words to choose from.

Now that all songs are ready to record, or you have some ideas that will be finished during the recording project, how do you get them recorded?  Part of the answer is just mechanical - set up a guitar amp and put a mic in front, or plug the amp's line level output into the mixer, or plug the guitar straight into the mixer.  You have decisions to make about which set up will work best, but you just have to pick one and get the sound flowing into the recording equipment.  The other part of the answer is "one take at a time".

During the process of listening to what you have recorded, there will be things that you want to change.  Unless you have a great mind for hearing your work in your imagination, or hearing it very well when you play it in rehearsal, you'll likely hear at least a few things in your recording that you didn't really hear as you developed the song.  Certain notes in a guitar lead may sound different against the rhythm guitar and bass than you thought they did when you worked out the solo.  Or the notes sound fine, but the lead guitar didn't quite have the right energy you wanted, so you want to re-record and attack the notes with a bit more energy or relax your playing to make the sound softer.  When I recorded the instrumental "Chimes" I realized that I either wasn't fretting precisely or I was otherwise muting some of the notes that I thought would ring out.  This song that I had regarded as finished except for recording one or two takes, took me many takes in order to get the sound right.

Many modern day producers will take a band's recording, cut out anything that sounds displeasing to the producer's ear, then replace it with a clip of the musician's performance that sounds better or use technology to improve the sound.  This can save some studio time, but it's not the way I like to produce an album.  This can require extra takes to get everything sounding the way you want.  There's also the process of "punching in", which is where you take a recording of something like a guitar track and replace a short segment of the performance by recording over the section to be replaced.

Now that you have recorded, and re-recorded, each instrument and vocal that you want, you may go back and decide to add extra hand percussion, or get another vocalist to come in and add something to the recording.  What started out as a simple song on a guitar, ends up with many tracks in a big arrangement.

Throughout the recording process you make decisions about what type of instrument to use, how to make the sound better with effects, whether to move sounds to the right or left speaker, and how many total sounds to include.

So while you should have a pretty good idea of what songs you want to record as you head into a recording project, hitting the record button is just the first step in a process of many more decisions.

I used to go on and on with this process, rarely getting anything done because I couldn't get things to sound exactly as I wanted them to.  Now I go through the process and when I get to a point where I feel like I can't make any more improvements on the song, that's when I call it finished.  I never FEEL like it's finished, but I know I have to stop at some point or no one will ever hear it.  That was a breakthrough for me when I first came to this realization.  It's rare to get something that originates in your imagination to turn out exactly the way you want.  But when you start putting a song together in the recording studio, you CAN get a good sounding product out.  So the effort to precisely match something you thought you wanted can lead you away from something you created that is already a good song.  This leads only to more frustration and lost time from other projects.

Now that I've gotten all of this off my chest, let me start that decision process and hit the record button.

 

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