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Singer / Songwriter - The Making of a DIY CD Part 2
By Henri Ferguson - 08/25/2002 - 05:02 AM EDT

The Cast: I have seen projects where the production was essentially a one man show. A multi instrumentalist/vocalist, who owns his own studio, engineers and produces the entire project. I will assume that this is the exception and not the rule. I am very aware of where my own strengths lie with respect to songwriting and performing, and right from the outset looked to others’ expertise to compliment those. There is a school of thought that says if you want to be a better tennis player then you need to start playing with people better than you. This easily translates to music as well. In my years in the music biz as a songwriter/ performer, studio owner/engineer, live sound and audio tech I have garnered enough knowledge and skills “to make me dangerous”, but still would fall short of an expert in any of these categories. Therefore I decided that I would find people who were “experts” or in any event, more skilled than I was in their respective fields. A good, no great engineer and a producer who could understand what my music was all about was my first step. Obviously greatness covers a lot of subjective territory; suffice it to say that these people need to be more than your friends, and must have tangible skills to bring to the table as well as a total commitment to your project. I cannot overemphasize this last point.

Players: If your project involves a working band and you are happy with the performing abilities then you can skip this next section.

Since I am not a multi instrumentalist and planning a full production as opposed to vocal/guitar or vocal/piano recordings, I looked for the best players available that I could afford. I was very fortunate that the engineer (Ray Titiryn) and producer (Barry Sherwood) were both multi talented on different instruments and this proved to be an invaluable asset. Just as an aside, Ray and Barry ended up co-producing my project and I suspect that more often than not, the engineer has a major influence in production decisions which do not always get the recognition they deserve. I was determined to give full credit where it was due.

It is easy to overproduce when you’re in the studio and tracks are available; the line does get fuzzy at times. This is where a seasoned production team and a good deal of restraint and judicial editing will take you where you’re bound. This ties directly into my next point. When I work in the studio I put a box by the door with a sign above it “please leave your egos in here”. There is all the potential in the world for the project to become an ego centric work of self indulgence if you don’t leave ego out of the equation. The problem becomes exponential with more egos. Therefore, size of the box may vary from project to project.

As a musician you will likely know other veteran players or at least know of them. I would encourage you to check them out by going to their gigs or, if they’ve done other recordings, listen to them. It is advisable to find a bass player and drummer who have worked together before. Since they will form the foundation of the bed tracks, the more solid they are, the stronger the tunes will become. When it comes down to recording those solos and lead fills, I suggest waiting until the tune has had a chance to develop organically. This will help you to decide the flavor of the solos and the respective players.

Pre-production: This is where you will save yourself a bundle of cash and give yourself time to crystallize your thoughts on how your tunes need to be manifested. I recorded rough guitar/keyboard vocal tracks of all the tunes to give other players and producers a chance to develop a relationship with the song. Your songs are your children and to take the metaphor further, they grow and develop their own personality and that takes time. Most of my songs appear like a blurred image on a distant horizon, and I don’t have a clear idea where they will end up until I get closer to them. This is where I see pre-production as an indispensable part of the overall project. A common flaw I see with many DIY projects is that all the tunes come out sounding very similar, and unless this is your intent it does not demonstrate the breadth of your writing skills. My tunes took a variety of incarnations before ending up in the style in which they were recorded. Should you go with that killer trumpet solo, that absolutely kicks ass but you don’t see yourself performing with a trumpet player? That’s a difficult decision (one I had to make) but ultimate went for it since my objective was to showcase that tune in a particular interpretation. Something to consider when choosing players and arrangements will be what your final objective for this CD will be. For instance if performing these tunes is a goal, then depending on how true to the recording you’d like your gigs to be will dictate the production a great deal. Conversely if you are just plugging tunes to publishers, you will want to demonstrate all the scope they have with respect to commercial viability. Steely Dan is a prime example of a recording act that did not let this conundrum stand in the way of stellar recordings. Think about it.

Recording sessions: This is where your pre-production efforts will prove to be the best idea since sliced bread. There is nothing like walking into the studio with a map. This does not mean that there won’t be any detours but you will have a clear sense of direction (thanks to the producer), the players will be lined up, the agenda set and everyone will be on the same page (more or less).

I paid the players $60.-$100. Per tune. Usually they had a tape of the tune beforehand so they would be familiar with it before the session. This means if they nailed the track the first time, or if it took them 10 tries your budget remains fixed. Even in those instances, where the first take was awesome we would get a couple more safety takes for good measure. More than once when we were editing we found that annoying string buzz or an intonation problem that we hadn’t noticed when we were tracking. Obviously the recording format will be a determining factor here. If you are recording on analogue with a limited number of tracks then you have to scrutinize the tracks very carefully before the musician leaves. In my case we used a digital system which allowed for lots of virtual tracks. A nice luxury when I think back to my analogue days.

We tried to schedule players to come in so that we didn’t end up with a big group of people all at once. Depending on the size of the studio this can make it crowded but more importantly can be distracting. Working with individual players results in a more focused and efficient use of everybody’s valuable recording time.

Create a comfortable environment in the studio, have refreshments handy, make lunch plans etc so that a good comfort level is maintained. Know when to call it a day. The law of diminishing returns will kick in after hours of listening to the same tune. Walking away to go for lunch or just take some time out will do wonders for your ears and your ability to make critical decisions.

The Mix: For logistical reasons we had 4 months between the last tracking session and the beginning of the mix. Although I wished this time period would have been shorter, I can say in hindsight that I felt much more prepared for the mix because of it. We had rough mixes of all the tracks so we each had time to listen to them and prepare for the mix.

This project has been all about teamwork for me. Although I was the songwriter, Barry and Ray were involved with every aspect of manifesting these tunes to how they appear on the CD. I found that Ray (engineer) liked to have a couple of hours with a tune by himself before the mix session started. This allowed him to do some preliminary tweaking and generally get a sense of how it was coming together. Then when the session started, he had already established “the big picture” with all the little details and nuances of the song. I found this to be very helpful and so did he. Something that I noticed was that each of us Barry and Ray (producers / engineer) would at different times focus on one particular aspect of the song. Barry might be listening to how many cymbal crashes there are and thinking he needs to eliminate a few, Ray may be listening to the acoustic guitars and I am listening to the harmony vocals. What I’m saying here is that although we are all listening to the same tune, our attentions can be worlds apart. This is where communication is so all important and calls for a strange brew of honesty, tact and an open mind. I think it fair to say that two people can mix the same tracks and come up with two very different sounding tunes. So having a clear sense (and discussion) of where you are going with the tune will help to get the whole team on the same page. We also found it helpful to have a reference CD of material where we liked the overall mix, and would A-B this while mixing.

Although the monitoring acoustics in our control room were considered to be true we would always take the finished mix and listen in a variety of settings like a car, living room etc. I think you need to A-B the mix with setting in the “real world” to make sure you are on track. Many home speakers and car stereos are bass heavy by design so if your mix is too then it will show up very quickly.

If you are planning to have your project professionally mastered, I think it wise to sit with the mixes for a while before going on to that next step. Here again I found it helpful to not listen to them for a few days and give my brain a break as well as getting a new perspective for the next time you listen again.

Mastering: This is the final step before pressing and one I highly recommend. This process will reveal any shortcomings in your monitoring room, and although some of these can be adjusted there are no smoke and mirror tricks where they can turn a bad mix into a good one. Mastering is more intended to do the fine tweaking and balancing of the overall mix, even out levels and make your record “radio friendly”.

This is also where you will need to have your song order worked out. This proved to be tougher than I had expected. I put the tunes I thought had the most potential for airplay first as well as an order that had a natural rhythmic flow from one tune to the next. We actually made a last minute line up change during the mastering session. The gaps between songs are critical as well, and need to be timed so that as one tune finishes the brain has time to regroup and prepare for the next one. There are many different criteria you can use here (and most are highly subjective) so lots to think about.

There are many mastering facilities so I suggest doing some research to find what you like and what you can afford. Check out some of your favorite CDs that are consistent with your style of music, and see who mastered them. There is a wide range of prices in this anywhere from $150./hr to $650./hr The trend for many high end productions seems to be digital recording mixed down to ½ inch analogue which is then mastered back to the digital domain. There are many opinions around with respect to the pros and cons of analogue vs. digital but they are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that mastering does make a significant difference and I would think it foolish to omit this step when you’ve spent so much time and money getting to this stage. Typically they will give you a reference master to listen to before they actually burn the final glass master. This glass master is then sent to the replication facility.

Summation: This article could go on into much further detail but that would likely turn it into a book. I hope that this has been enlightening and helpful to those who are contemplating this next step. I would invite feedback and questions regarding this or anything else connected with this musical journey. Thank you for reading.

Musically yours,

Henri Ferguson

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