My producer Craig Newnes wants to make me a record (in exchange for cash, as it turns out), and all that stands between me and a fully grown Folk album is a long stretch of recording time. So let’s do this!
Preparation is Everything
I play half a dozen rhythm instruments on my record, so I had to drag all of those into the studio. Step one was to figure out a route, because I depend on public transportation. My instruments are acoustic, and I recorded lots during the winter – acoustics really don’t like the cold.
Fortunately, there is a bus that stops 50 meters from my house, and the same distance from the studio. Phew! Obviously that makes the recording schedule dependent on the bus schedule, so let’s mark this as complication number three, right after the schedules of my producer and myself.
I honestly don’t know how I would have dealt with that situation had I not been a graduate student with an incredibly open schedule.
Guitar and ukulele are portable enough, and can be tuned pretty easily, but banjo and mandolin represent a whole new level of difficulty. Since I did not want to spend the first studio hour restringing and warming my instruments, step two of my preparations consisted of dressing up my acoustics in sweaters, and wrapping their cases in blankets.
That looks very silly on the morning bus, but it sure was cheaper than upgrading my hardshell cases to super-insulated tanks.
One Instrument Too Many?
My friend Frank Zeritch, who has to put up with my various acoustic instruments at our monthly songsmith open mic, told me this: “one buys instruments for what they sound like plugged in.”
That is true enough for a performing musician, but it does not apply in the same way for songwriters. My first attention always goes to the live sound, unplugged, and straight from my hand.
I have a Washburn mandolin that is more than a century old, and has a very deep and rich sound. You can probably amp it up by installing a $500 pick-up, but odds are that such an operation would change the sound and structural integrity of the instrument.
Considering that today most acoustic instruments can be purchased with an installed pick-up for very little money, I chose a different path.
Of each class of instruments that I play regularly, I have one nice sounding stage specimen, and a variety of vintage instruments that I primarily use for jamming, writing, and recording.
That means that my stage performance does not replicate the album sound, but there are not likely to be many people in the audience that will even notice that difference.
By the way, replaying your exact album sound on stage is boring; you might as well spare yourself the effort, and just hook up a CD player to the stage speakers. My record features five of my guitars, two ukuleles, a banjo, a mandolin, and an autoharp. All of those guitars have a different sound, and it was worthwhile dragging each and every one of them into the studio.
The biggest challenge was my autoharp. That 36-string beast is finicky at the best of days, because the old wooden body warms up in my hands, which changes the tuning, and the tuning pegs are so fickle that it takes half a minute to even get one string right.
I halfway solved this by tuning it up at home, wrapping it in two warm blankets, and then re-tuning it carefully in the studio. In essence: the closer your home environment reflects the conditions of the studio, the less time your have to spend tuning your instruments.
The other issue revolving around my autoharp was its general age and construction quality. Halfway through a song, the buttons of the darn thing started to squeak. Craig and I spent twenty minutes taping little bits of paper into the hinges, so as to stop it from squawking. I think it was worth the effort.
Recording An Album
The recording process itself was quite enjoyable. My producer was happy to see new instruments every week, and it usually took me around three takes to record each track.
You can probably get around with less, if you are less of a perfectionist than I am, but three is a pretty good number.
Last week someone asked what kind of feedback I got from my producer after he heard my demo recordings. The honest answer is: barely any. My producer Craig was quite happy with my songs, and the way in which I performed them. He had some things to say about arrangement, but we will get to that next week.
Overall Craig and I appear to have a very similar taste in music, and we never had an argument regarding my sound. His major feedback during the recording sessions consisted of phrases like “there were some hesitations in that guitar part”, or “you need to be more articulate when you sing that line”.
However, such a connection between producer and songwriter is not universal. When my friend Clint Marco recorded his first album, he had several sessions in which his producer was in complete disagreement with Clint’s style.
For one particular song, his producer wanted a heads-on Rock ‘n Roll experience, which was not at all what Clint had in mind. Clint’s producer won that argument, and the song really sounds great on the record. In the end the decision is always yours; just keep in mind that the man at the mixing board is more experienced than you are.
It is important to record every song completely in one session. If you split it up, and return to the studio later, you are likely to end up with bits that don’t belong.
It is really difficult to simulate the same mood and intensity twice, especially with vocals. There are two songs on my record for which we replaced bits of the original recording; for each song we exchanged one line with an alternative version that I sang half a year later.
If you are a good listener, you can audit that edit on my record. It’s better to prepare and record all of your own parts of a particular song in one sitting. Your producer and fans will thank you for it. Yes, many things can be fixed during the mixing process, but keep in mind that mixing time also costs money.
If you record whole songs in one sitting (as I strongly recommend), your schedule is not likely to hold up. In the best case you will be able to just sit around for another hour, and do two more takes of a particular song, until everything fits, and your producer signals you utter happiness.
But frequently you will run into schedule conflicts, because your producer, the studio, or your travel arrangements don’t allow for another take. It happens to all of us, so let me assure you that this is nothing to freak out about.
All you can do is practice your songs to the best of your abilities. The recording studio is not a good place to experiment with sound; instead treat it like the most glorious of stages – your one chance to deliver the perfect performance.
Practice and Perfection
Practice is essential to success. If you are recording vocals and rhythm instrument separately, you need to practice a lot before hitting the studio. Maybe even with a metronome.
I know, it’s tedious, and boring, but the alternative is to record songs that:
- Don’t reflect your regular singing speed.
- Are very difficult for your session musicians to follow.
I know what you’re thinking: “my rhythm is nearly perfect; I can do this!” Forget it; you’re not good enough. You never will be. Even the anatomic clock runs at a different speed, if you change its gravitational environment.
There are so many environmental factors that impact the human perception of time that any attempt at perfection is doomed to fail. The best you can do is practice, and get better, no matter how good you already are. Practice until you can hold the rhythm of your song with the instrument, but without singing the song.
I have a few songs for which that worked really well. For example, “The Fair”, or “York Railroad Station” both have a very simple and repetitive instrument part.
“The Fair” is a waltz, for crying out loud! I can play these songs half asleep, which is why I often play them at open mics, when I‘m too tired to perform anything sophisticated.
The main danger with that kind of song is to miscount the number of lines or verses. I actually recorded one instrument take of that waltz that is about thirty seconds shorter than the others, indicating that I left out one complete verse. Yes, that happens.
The eternal nemesis of folk music: repetition perpetuating discontinuity. Obviously you can edit that by inserting a verse that you copy from a different part of the song, but playing the “correct” version is by far your best option.
I use two utilities to prevent such discontinuity:
Always have a lyric sheet in front of you. Always do. Sure, you know your songs, but if you ever have the slightest doubt regarding your progress with a song, you can have a quick look, and receive assurance from your writing.
Reading and playing simultaneously is easily done, if you know your way around the instrument, but it is tricky if you are insecure with it. No shame; we can’t all be professional musicians!
The 12-string guitar that I play on my album sounds amazing, but she is a tricky lady to please. Even after more than fifty repetitions of the same songs with that guitar, I still have to be careful with some of the chords, because the strings and my fingers don’t always cooperate perfectly.
Focusing on your instruments reduces your capabilities for looking at the lyrics, and you want to give the former as much attention as possible.
Thus, always practice with the same lyric sheet in front of you. That way you should always be able to locate the critical line of that song, if need be.
2. Learn to Sing Without Sound
You can probably read, think, and sing without opening your mouth, because your education taught you to do so.
But doing so a) on the bus, while staring out of the window, or b) whilst playing guitar in the studio, are two very different things.
My friend Emma Rouleau has written some very jazzy songs on her ukulele, and is now trying to prepare them for recording purposes. She finds it very challenging to get her timing right. Jazz is a mixture of multiple components, and you don’t get the same feeling for timing, if you only play one part of that puzzle.
The most obvious solution is to demo the song in full, feed it into your head via ear phones, and play along. In my experience, that approach is a waste of time. You may get a better idea of the timing of your song, but hearing your rhythm instrument from two different sources simultaneously prevents you from focusing properly. The result will be messy at best, but will probably lack a lot of inspiration as well. Don’t do it.
I took the more laborious approach, and it paid off with a very nice recording quality. I usually start off by performing the song just normally, with rhythm guitar and vocal, so as to get myself into the right mood and tempo. Then I perform it again with very little vocal effort, almost whispering the lyrics.
After that I try to sing it without activating my vocal chords. It is tricky, but it’s getting easier the more often you do it. Relax your lips, and allow yourself to be sloppy with your jaw movements; perform your song as you usually would, but breathe normally, and leave your vocal chords slack.
After a few attempts, you should be able to stick to the groove of your song without making any sound. The idea is to “sing” the song, without vocal sound, so that your play speed reflects the actual song speed; basically sing with your lips, but without your voice.
Don’t forget to test your progress by recording yourself, and trying to sing to your recordings. My own instrument demos usually turn out to be about five percent faster than my regular performance tempo. Any more, and you will loose control of your song!
The Mighty Click Track
I remember sitting in a studio setting a few years ago with five actual musicians (by their standards I am still a beginner). We recorded one original song each, and only one person in the round (Tomy Thisdale) used a click track.
Others tried and failed. I did not even try. A click track is a predefined beat count that settles as the basic layer of your song; like a metronome that is confined to your head phones, and then subtracted from the final mix.
If you are used to having your rhythm dictated to you by the metronome, you probably won’t have trouble with this approach, and all your session musicians will thank you for it, because it makes their job much easier.
However, I personally have never used a metronome, and I don’t see myself doing so in the foreseeable future. As a direct result of my ignorance, you can hear faster and slower sections in some of my songs, which freaked some of my session musicians right out.
My rendition of the traditional “Every Rose” (which you may know as “True Love” or “Scarborough Fair”), in particular, alternates between lines with twelve and thirteen beats. That’s just how it goes; I don’t confine myself to regular music conformity, but instead play what I feel.
My timing is good enough to keep a steady rhythm that even a drummer or bass player can count on. However, if you are comfortable with the metronome, the use of the mighty click track is greatly encouraged.
By the way, everything that I wrote above applies equally to vocal recordings. Practice your songs often. Sing them on your way to work, and while you are sitting on the loo.
Try different intonations, harmonies, and alternative melodies. Art knows no perfection, but some intonations and note sequences work better than others.
When you are in the studio, and your producer asks you to end that one verse on a high note instead of a low one, you will be thankful that you already thought of that idea months ago, and had a few practice runs with that particular note change.
Art is an experience, and the more experiences you can bring, the more interesting your recordings will sound.
Final Thoughts on Hitting the Studio & Preparation
That’s it, really. Preparation is everything, because you need every minute of studio time to count for you.
So practice your songs until you actually know them, and can keep a beat that session musicians can follow.
Next week I will report on said kind of people, session musicians; the wonderful characters that elevate the quality of your music from “nice sound” to “what a great record”.