Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Drums
Part 3 - Drums (video)
Part 4 - Bass
Part 5 - Guitar
Part 6 - Bass (video)
Part 7 - Update
Part 8 - Vocals
Part 9 - Vocals (video)
Part 10 - Mixing, Sequencing, Mastering
Part 11 - Fun times (video)
Welcome to our grand experiment in which we document, in some form, our adventures in recording our first album. Since we're basically making this up as we go along, I can't really say what exact form this will take. There will probably be a lot of blogging like you are reading right now. And possibly some photos. And likely some video. Perhaps some work-in-progress audio clips? All of the above? Yes. Probably. Maybe. Likely.
In this first episode, let's address some FAQs (Fully Anticipated Questions) that may be going through your mind...
What exactly are you doing?
Secret Apollo is recording our first full-length album.
What do you mean, “full length album”? Did you guys get signed or something?
No, not signed, at least not yet. As long as you can pay for it yourself, you don't really need a record label during the recording phase, since its really just, well, recording.
Oh, I see...so its really just like a demo, only longer, right?
While its true that in the world of indie music, the line between “demo” and “self-released album” is a bit blurry, I can sure assure you that what we are recording is a real, actual, album. At least by my definition. Which in this case is the one that counts.
Ok then, smarty-pants, what is “your definition”?
Well, to me, the difference is in its purpose. The purpose of a demo is to get people interested in your music, to book shows, attract label interest, showcase your songs, etc. An album is sound recording that is an artistic expression in and of itself.
Where are you recording your album?
At my house. In my garage, bedroom, living room, etc. And no, you're not invited.
At your house? Aha, I knew this wasn't a real album!
That's not technically a question. But in regard to your comment, we'll certainly be happy to let the final product speak for itself. Losers!
So when's your album going to be released?
At this point, we have no idea. So many factors will affect this, mainly the amount of time is will take to record it.
OK then, so when will you be finished recording it?
Don't know. It will probably take quite a long while. Which is bad because you won't get to hear it for a while. But it's also good because it means more entertaining recording updates in the mean time!
So what's your album called?
Don't know. We're open to suggestions. Suggestions that we will gladly steal and not give you credit for. (I mean, hey, we're the artists after all).
You said weren't signed...who's going to release your record then?
Good question. We would love to have some sucker...ahem, I mean label release our album when it's done. If that doesn't pan out perhaps we will release it ourselves. Or perhaps we will withhold it from the world, as punishment for not understanding our art.
Well now, the recording has started, and we have started with the drums. We started early-ish on a Saturday morning. I even got up extra early-ish to go buy a scone, blueberry muffin, coffee cake, and banana nut bread...to feed the troops...the troops being Steve and Amber.
We're starting with the drums, which have to be recorded in our small rehearsal space in my garage. Not the ideal acoustic environment for recording, but dammit, drums are loud, and I don't want to piss off my neighbors more than I have to. Drums can be difficult, or at least tricky, to record, so we pre-armed ourselves with some nifty new mics, and a ton of research. The plan is to spend as much time as we need setting up, tuning the drums, placing the mics, listening, moving the mics, experimenting, listening, etc. so that we have a good, I mean great, I mean awesome drum sound. All this before recording a note. It turns out that “as much time as we need” turns out to be all day. Which sucked for Amber since her responsibilities on this day were more related to the mechanics of doing the actual recording.
I should mention at this point that during a late morning-break, my plan to enjoy some delicious baked goods was thwarted by my evil arch nemesis and dog, Willie1, who decided to cleverly climb up onto a chair, then onto the counter, and eat all of the scone, blueberry muffin, and coffee cake. Strangely, the banana nut bread was completely and utterly untouched. Now while it occurred to me that this likely meant that the banana nut bread contained poison (as dogs tend to have a sense about these things), I, having nothing else to eat, laughed in the face of danger, and consumed it completely.
Sunday was a new day, and it was time to actually record(!) some drums. We had a large number of songs to do, and we basically spent the whole day booking through them. Steve, as you know if you've heard us, essentially kicks ass as a drummer, so it was, with few exceptions, rather easy to burn through all the songs by the end of the day. Unfortunately, at the end of the day we decided it would be wise to re-listen to all the songs recorded, just to give them a final inspection. Now I must point out that as a band, while our live performance standard may not be of the highest level, we sure as hell want the album to sound tight, kick ass, rock, etc. So as we were being super extra nitpicky, it turned out that upon further listen we needed to redo about a third of the songs. Re-recordings were accomplished in a matter of a few days, and by mid-week the basic drum tracks were officially done.
1 aka One Eyed Willie, Willie Nelson Mandela, Willimoto (Emperor of Japan), Willis McGillis, G. Willikers.
Well, we've started to record the bass tracks. While the drums were recorded in our practice room (for undisturbed soundproofed reasons), everything else is going to be recorded inside my house. So we moved all our recording equipment and connected it to the (more powerful) computer in my office and got ready to go.
Since we're using the one-instrument-at-a-time approach, the idea is to go through every song we recorded drums for and record the bass part for them one by one. Real fun stuff, let me tell you. Did I mention that we're recording about twenty songs? And sure they're short, but really, in the recording process, shortness doesn't really matter. No matter how many songs you finish, it still feels like there are a ton left to do. Trying to avoid the tendency to rush through them as fast as possible, we settled on a 2-3 songs per session approach, so we could spend the time to do it right.
There was much less setup time for recording bass (compared to the previous all-day setup for the drums), since we were basically recording direct. It was just a matter of plug in some cables, adjust the levels, and we're good to go. This was Amber's first time at the recording process, and I think it was a bit of strange sensation for her to be able to hear herself playing so clearly (without guitar to get in the way), every slight nuance is showcased so clearly. Just wait until we get to the vocals. Ugh.
We've started recording the guitar as well, and you'll hear all about it in our next installment. And yes, we have another exciting video to follow, so check back soon.
Getting back on track...yes, we are still recording. I admit we lost a bit of steam, mainly due to the fact that I got rather busy looking for a job, and then I got rather busy actually working at a new job. Sigh. Work sucks. But I did find time to do a lot of guitar recording, so that's what I'm going to talk about in this segment.
We are recording at my house, and all the equipment is at my house, and I'm the guitarist, and I'm always at my house. This led to a situation where the guitar wasn't so much recorded in concrete "sessions", but rather recorded basically continuously over a period of a few weeks. After all, once all the amps, guitars, etc. are set up, it stays set up, and I could record a bit or two, watch TV, go back to recording, and so on. Whenever I had a bit of spare time, I'd work some recording in.
Now lets talk set-up. I isolated my guitar amp in a closet in the bedroom next to the recording room. Well, actually, I had to try several closets in order to find the perfect one which met the following criteria: (a) mic cables can reach the studio room (b) guitar cables can reach the studio room (c) was not in a place that would disturb my neighbors and (d) would not rattle like a mutherfucker. I finally settled on the closet that I used last time for our demo...you'd think I would have just immediately done that which worked last time...but no, I have to and re-learn everything the hard way...again. So let's see. Amp in closet, mic in front of amp. Mic cable connects mic to pre-amp in studio room. Guitar cable connects amp to guitar used by guitarist in studio room. When all is conncted and working I could play guitar, and hear it through the studio monitors while recording. Yay.
I used two guitars and two pedals, giving a whopping four total guitar tones (six when you count the case with no pedal). Ok, its really more than that because the pedals have knobs. And so does the amp. But for my purposes I tried to the think of it as six basic tones so I wouldn't spend an infinte amount of time fondling my knobs. For most songs, I knew what the "basic" tone should be, so I'd usually set that up and record that first. Then for any overdubs, I would usually just swap guitars or pedals to make it sound different. Yes, that was my highly scientific strategy.
I should remind everyone that we are a one-guitar band. So when a one-guitar band records, you have several options. Option 1, record one guitar track per song since there is only one guitar in the band, and any more tracks than that is cheating. Option 2, multiple guitar tracks are allowed to give a fuller guitar sound, but its still one basic guitar part in any given song. Option 3, who gives a shit, record as many different guitar parts as you want, even though you'll never be able to reproduce it live. We ended up settling for a bit of a blend betweem options 2 and 3. Yes, there's some stuff that will never work live, but it still basically sounds like our band. Of course, all this could change during the mixing stage...
Can't think of anything else to write right now. We're starting to record vocals tomorrow! I'll tell you how it goes. The next update will probably be a video of some of the bass recording sessions. Then maybe I can get Steve and Amber to write a couple updates, to get their point of view on things. After all, I tend to lie a lot.
So it's been a while, time to catch up a bit I think. When we first started this journal/blog thingie, we assumed that it would be updated every couple weeks. Of course, that's back when we thought recording would only take a few months. I'm afraid that as the recording process has “stretched”, so has the distance between entries. What can we say, we want to make sure there's enough to go around.
The question I get a lot lately is “So, when's the album going to be done?” Now I know that the correct interpretation of this question is really “Why the hell is it taking so long?” The funny thing is, to me it doesn't feel like it's taking so long. I mean, I know we're not exactly quick or anything, but it doesn't feel like its sooooo long. That is, until I start to do the math, and realize that yes, we actually did start recording one, two three, four, five, SIX months ago. Geez, I guess that is kind of a long time.
So why the hell is it taking so long? For that, I have no answers, but I do have some thoughts:
- We're slow. Shit, I admit it, we're simply not in that big of a hurry. Any other band would work on this thing all day every single weekend and every evening after work until finished. For us it's been a bit more…a few hours here, a few hours there…a few times a week.
- We're lame. Well no, we're not actually “lame”, but we're certainly not “masters of all that is music”. Let's put it this way…we do a lot of takes. And when I say “we”, I mean “me and Amber”, because Steve actually kicks ass and did all his parts in one or two takes.
- We're busy. Hey maybe we have lives outside of the band, you ever think about that?
- It's free. Ah yes, the “luxury” of recording yourself. No paying a studio by the hour, no rush to get it done. The problem is that most projects take the exact amount of time you have to do them. And if you have forever to do it, that's how long it will take. We're trying to rectify that by making, well, not a “deadline”, but let's call it an “generally agreed upon goal”.
Ok, well with that all being said, I will now tell you that we are almost done with vocals. Expect a report on that soon. And obviously when I say “soon” I mean “whenever”.
Pathetic apology in the form of the preface: Yes, it's actually been quite a darn while since the last update. Have you all given up on us yet? Well, don't because we have several new updates ready to go, which we will now post at a more reasonable pace, starting with this one. Don't hate us. We can still be friends.
In some ways, recording vocals are "easy". Easy because, well, it's just your voice. No strings to break, drum heads to tune, pedals to break, cables to come undone. No experimentation with a myriad of possible amplifier settings, pedal knobs, and mic positions. Just stand in front of the mic and sing to your already-so-wonderfully-recorded music. Just stand there and do it. In other ways, recording vocals are “hard”. Every nuance of your voice exposed. You realize that you can't “bury” the mistakes in the mix. You know that 90% of all people who listen to the finished album will be listening to your voice 90% of the time.
Lucky me, I am the "lead"1 "singer"2. I pretty much have to sing throughout the whole song. Amber, on the other hand only has to chime in about half the time. We have decided to have both of us do our vocals a song at a time. Which means I'll do mine for "Song A", she'll do hers for "Song A", and then we'll move on to "Song B", and so on (don't get too excited there, those aren't the real song titles). This is in contrast to the other option, which is to have me do my vocals for all the songs, and then Amber do hers for all the songs. Our approach allows us to make corrections and changes a little bit more flexibly, as well as allowing us to be a little more spontaneous. When I sing, she plays "studio engineer", and vice-versa. We just keep trading off until everything sounds decent. ish.
I find it surprisingly difficult to sing while not playing an instrument. You would think it would be easier since all I have to worry about is singing, and as opposed to a live situation, I can actually hear myself well. But it feels strangely "naked"…like, what do you do with your hands? Sometimes I resort to playing air guitar just to make it feel a bit more normal. Even that is dangerous because you don't want to accidentally make some loud sound with your hands that will be picked up by the vocal mic, and then everyone will say “geez it sounds like he was playing air guitar while singing (and not even good air guitar I might add)” when they hear the record.
When singing live, I haven't really given much thought to the "style" of my singing, because really my only goal is to sing as much in tune as possible. But in a recording situation, when I am afforded many takes, punch-ins, and good monitor mixes, I find myself thinking a lot about how I want my voice to sound. After much analysis, I have come to the conclusion that my singing style can be divided into a handful of useful categories, which I have named as follows:
"Bratty" This encompasses the majority of my singing, especially live. Extremely non-subtle. As if I'm trying to knock you over the head with every syllable. Has many sub-variants, including "whiny", "snobby", and "taunting".
"Spooky" This is more of a quiet, breathy, sinister sound. Works especially nice when Amber pretty-sings in unison.
"Creepy" Basically a mix between Bratty and Spooky. Seldom used, but effective when appropriate.
"Rage" Easily recognized BECAUSE I'M YELLING!!!!!
"Angels" A new style developed specifically for the album. Keep your ears peeled.
Perhaps once the album is out we should have a contest to see who can most accurately match the style to the song/part that uses it?
As we wrap this up, let me assure the fans that we have managed to have some inspired moments of vocal creativity. Some interesting ideas that will amaze the kids. Even Steve makes a surprise appearance or two. Just don't ever play our record backwards. That would be…bad.
1 Quoted because I hate the modifier "lead" in front of any position or title.
2 Quoted for irony.
Next time...can we appease you with another video? 'Cause we're gonna!
My normal inclination at this point would be to apologize for the huge huge huge delay in posting this latest installment...but...I seem to have done that for the last several parts, so you can just assume that I'm really sorry, and I can just assume that you forgive me.
So what's been happening the past couple months, you may ask? Let's start with the latest, and work backwards from there...
The album is done. Ah, that felt good, let me say that again. The album is done. The final step was the mastering, which happened last month. For those that don't know, mastering is the final step in the recording process. You take all the final mixes, apply some final tweaks, volume adjustments, etc., and you end up with a "master" CD-R which can then be used to replicate the CD at the pressing plant. There's a wide set of options here, ranging from half-assed DIY, to expensive professionals. We decided to "go pro" for the mastering, although we used the somewhat more affordable variety. It turned out good, we are happy, it actually sounds like a real album now.
Since mastering involves the creation of the replication-ready CD-R, you really have to know exactly what songs are going to be on the album and what the final order is going to be. This of course took us a bit of time, because we wanted to get it...just right. We had recorded 20 songs with the original intention of using about 15 or so...but it turns out that after spending countless months laboring over them, you get kinda attached, and it was hard to decide if we were going to let any of them go. For a while it looked like we were going to use all 20, but then we finally cut two of them, for a final count of 18. Amazingly, once we cut the two songs, it made the sequencing much much easier, and everything seemed to flow a lot better. There were some other sequencing issues that made things a little more complicated than your average album, you'll probably be able to fifure out what I'm talking about once you hear it. And I should point out for those who have not heard our songs, that although 18 songs sounds like a long album, the whole thing clocks at only 39 minutes.
In the last installment of this blog, we talked about recording vocals. What else did we do since then? Well, I've left out a HUGE piece of the puzzle...mixing. What is mixing? Mixing is the answer to every question you've had about the album the past few months. Why did the album take soooo long to record? Mixing. Why haven't they updated the recording blog? Mixing. What is a huge pain in the ass? Mixing. Let's me be straightforward here. Mixing this album almost killed me. For those that don't know, mixing is the part of the process where you take all the parts you've recorded (drums, bass, guitar, vocals, etc.), and mix the levels and sounds together until they sound right. Part of the difficulty is "What sounds right?" What sounds right today sounds like ass tomorrow. So there's the seemingly endless cycle of mix, listen, ponder, cringe, repeat. Mixing things yourself for "free" only gives one endless amount of time to tweak and second-guess. So it took a really really long time. Even without the tweaking, it took a long time, just for the initial mixes. Having 20 songs to mix only makes things take longer. So really that's the story, the scoop. Unfortunately there wasn't much new and interesting to blog about during the long mix cycle. Had I blogged more often, most entries would have read like this:
Mixed "My Solo Album" today. It took a long ass time. Tweaked the reverb on the previous mix of "Piccolo". It took a long ass time. Listened to "Daydreamers" again and decided the kick drum isn't loud enough. Please kill me.
Did I mention that the name of the album is "Homemade Time Machine"? Well it is. Coming soon to a store or something sometime. Oh, when I said it was "done", you didn't actually think that meant it was released, did you? In the meantime, check out some songs from the album.