During the second half of 2009, I was involved with co-producing and recording an album of singer/song-writter Tim Cannon. I have written about various stages of the process in previous posts on my blog (here, here, here & here). This was the first time that I had been involved with recording an album in this way and I have found it to be a very effective way to maximise creativity in arrangements whilst also keeping budget constraints in check.
There were a number of steps in our approach which I will outline below. While this process may not be possible or practical for everybody, I certainly found it a very rewarding way to create/record an album.
To take this approach you need a small amount of additional gear, however most musicians own, (or have access to) this gear already. Items and skills that you will need include:
- Basic DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) in the form of a computer running an audio recording program (such as Logic, Pro Tools, CuBase etc). The program you have isn't THAT important. Sure, it's nice if you have the same program as the studio has but your knowledge of the software you use is much more important. More on this later.
- A decent microphone (condenser usually), to capture the sound
- A decent audio interface (sound card), to convert the audio into digital information.
- Time, &
This equipment can be purchased for under $5000AUD. While that may sound like a lot of money, think of how far that would stretch if you were in a cheaper studio paying $400-600 per day, let alone a professional studio (upwards of $800 per day). You can see that it doesn’t take long before your equipment has paid for itself.
So anyway, where was I?
Ah yes, the first step was to get a basic demo of the material to be recorded. For this process, I got Tim to come around to my place (my home studio is our second bedroom) and basically got him to play a gig for me. I set up my two microphones (Rode NT3 on the guitar and the Rode NT2-A for his voice) to capture the sound clearly, but without making too much fuss about it. After all, these were just going to be the demos for the band. As Tim was quite used to performing solo gigs, this process was very easy to do and went without a hitch.
After listening to the demos over the rest of the week, we started to get an idea of most of the songs. Which ones were going to be straight forward to arrange in a band ensemble, and which ones were going to need a little more work. My good friend Stew, whom I’ve played in bands with for nearly 10 years and I, got together to ‘nut out’ some of these songs. I wrote a blog entry back in September about one of these songs (High Hopes) and put a number of audio examples up so that you can hear the song progressing through the different stages of production. Workshopping song ideas in an environment where you are not paying by the minute (i.e. a recording studio) is a huge bonus. It allows you to really relax into trying ideas and it also gives you the freedom to scrap them if after a week, you don’t like them. Once we were happy with the overall arrangement ideas of the songs, we workshopped them with the band. Now, this may seem like an unnecessary step, but it’s one that will save you a lot of time in the studio. You should only go into the studio once the whole band (or everyone who will be recording) has a clear idea of what they are playing. So much time is wasted in recording studios debating song structures, which chords to play, what guitar tone to use etc etc. If you can go in to the recording studio with a clear idea of what you want to play and how you want it to sound, you’re more than halfway there. A good practice to get into is to record each band session as much as possible and listen back to the recordings while making notes. It doesn’t have to be a great recording, just good enough so that you can hear the song. There are plenty of portable stereo recorders out there which you can buy for a few hundred dollars which are fantastic. Just remember that you might have to do a test recording to make sure that the band/ensemble is balanced in the recording. Play around with amp levels and placement of the recorder till you get something that you’re happy with. You might just find that magical drum fill or melody which may have been played by accident which you think, ‘that’s it! That has just made the song complete!‘ It’s amazing how often you find the really good things in an otherwise ordinary rehearsal recording.
We now had the basic band ‘beds’ (the basic drums, bass, piano and acoustic guitar arrangements) ready to roll and had booked a weekend in our favorite studio to lay down the beds of the ten album tracks.
After we had recorded the beds of the ten album tracks, I loaded the files onto an external HDD so that we could continue working on additional tracks or layers back at my home studio where we weren’t paying by the minute. This is the part where you need a little bit of “technical know-how”. You need to make sure that you are able to open or import the song sessions from the studio, onto your home studio setup. You should also talk to your engineer about what settings he would like you to record with (things like sample rate and BIT depth). While there are obvious benefits from recording things at the professional recording studio, rather than at your home studio, there is still a lot that can be done in your home studio. Having this time and freedom to explore all the creative potentials of the song arrangements while saving up money for the professional studio is a great use of time and a really good way to keep the momentum of the project up. We recorded all the keyboard and organ parts at home as they were straight from my keyboard with no microphone required. Most other additional layers were recorded, or demoed at home with the knowledge that they would be re-recorded later in the real studio. Again, knowing exactly what you are going to record going into a recording session saves HEAPS of time. Preparation is key! As a musician, I can’t remember how many times I have read that in magazine articles, on studios websites etc but I never really paid too much attention to it. So with the hope that it helps even one person have a better, more productive recording session, get organised!
We booked another weekend at the recording studio and went in armed with an external HDD of audio files and a check list of ‘to dos’ (see example below).
|From Blogger Pictures|
Having completed all but a few main vocals, the project just needs to be mixed. I hope that this has given you an insight into a slightly different way to create an album. As you can see, we have had many months of pre-production and production and to my knowledge, have paid for approximately 6 days in the studio. I encourage you to sit down and talk about how you are going to attack your next recording session. Be it an EP or an album. Discuss it amongst your band mates and your engineer (once you have decided where you want to record). Most engineers are happy to help out independent musicians when they can, especially if they can see that you are going to be easy to work with and organised during the recording sessions. Remember, recording an album should be an exciting time, a creative time and an enjoyable process. Don’t cheat yourself out of it by wasting time unnecessarily and therefore stressing about not completing the recording or worrying that you’ll have to book another day and that will put you over budget etc. It’s not worth it.