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Performance, Musicians, and Demo Making
By Queenie Sataro - 03/21/2004 - 03:18 PM EST

In my previous articles on Being Your Own One-Person Indie Team, I mentioned that creating a self-produced album was a lengthy but achievable process for the self-motivated musician. Here is a brief outline of the process of getting and promoting an album:

I. Song creation--a song is born!
A. Song creation and song choice
B. Time management
C. Performance, musicians, and demo making

II. Recording the songs
A. Laying down tracks and vocals
B. Mixing and mastering
C. CD design and duplication

III. Promotion
A. Offering a CD for sale online
B. Creation of an artist website
C. Free web promotion and beyond

In this part of the series, I will discuss Part IC, Performance, Musicians, and Demo Making. Each are integral to the album process, even if the only performer or musician is yourself and the only demo is created with a tinny tape recorder. In this article you will learn about the art of the trial run from practice to perfection.


Use the clicking box

Keep your goal in sight: you want a debut album. It is not a problem for you to practice and refine your 12-14 songs, but here is the catch . . . you really should use a metronome. Yes, that evil clicking box that in the old days used to have an upside down pendulum on it to better hypnotize you with my dear, the metronome. The reason why to use it: tempo problems can ruin the greatest of songs. Most musicians, when left to their natural devices, will wander all over the beat and obscure any opportunity for a listener to tap his foot along. What you want is the rock solid underbelly of a good beat, later provided by a click track (modern term for "metronome") that is either included in your digital recording device or in your sequencer. Confused whether your song is in 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4? Ninety percent of songs in this modern era are in 2/4 or 4/4, but if you are still confused, please email me from my site at http://www.queeniemusic.com and I'll do my best to assist.

Learn to use the power of MIDI

Not a drummer or virtuoso pianist? I understand. You can still create your debut album as long as you can create a simple MIDI file on a keyboard workstation or digital sequencer. The MIDI file is not just a rough draft for your music, it is a virtual method of communication! MIDI is explained a thousand places on the net, I will not go into it here. I suggest you think of MIDI as the dippy Casio version of your songs that will help you to go on to bigger and better things. For instance, as rhythm tracks will be the first thing you record, try to write the drum and bass first on a sequencer or as MIDI files. I guarantee that you will hate the sound of the cheesy keyboard "drums" or the even worse MIDI "bass", but there is a method to the madness. You will get an approximation of what you want which you can change, tweak, and refine. You can give the MIDI recording to a future drummer or bass player that you hire and say, "duplicate this on your drums". If you have a drum machine or a nice sound module, that MIDI file will get transformed into some pretty decent sounds. Lastly, there is a way of printing sheet music from existing MIDI files. It is a free program called Finale Notepad available at http://www.codamusic.com. I love this free program and have bought more robust versions of the software.

Get something done

Personally, I sequence entire songs minus vocals on my keyboard workstation before I record the rhythm tracks (drum and bass) or anything else, for that matter. That way I have all the MIDI files I could ever want and I can solo whatever track I need. This approach works for me. If you are in a band, it is probably not an option to pre-sequence all your parts beforehand like I do. Instead, try to record a demo on a tape recorder or analog 4-track and then have the crew listen to it and critique it for every aspect except the physical recording itself. Are the songs complete and ready? Is there a steady beat?

Decide the instruments you can and cannot perform

Find your strength and tone up your weaknesses. The more instruments that you can play yourself, the better off you will be, but that said, there are other musicians waiting out there to help you. Which instruments are you willing to use "substitutes" for?
Examine how you feel about drum machines, synthesizer bass, and the keyboard version of a piano. These sounds are far from perfect, but in some cases, they will do. You may be hiring a musician right away, or perhaps you can play a little bass yourself. Nevertheless, it is usually rhythm tracks that should get laid down first, drum and bass, dry and without effects. The other route is a delayed form of instant gratification. The scenario: you hire a band, practice like hell for weeks, and go into a fancy studio and record all the songs in a weekend. Whatever works!

Acquire and learn your equipment

There is a lot of recording gear out there to choose from, yes?
The basic list if you want an extremely professional sounding debut album:

A dedicated PC or Mac computer with a sound card & CD burner that is only used for recording music, up to $2200
Recording software such as Cakewalk, Cubase, Digi, Soundforge, etc. $800
Studio monitors (i.e. speakers), $500
A microphone, $200
Small mixing console (may be included as part of recording
software/hardware package), $200
A keyboard workstation or recording synth, $1100
Miscellaneous cables and accessories, up to $200
Software effects units, $400-$500

If you are creative and know how to buy used you could do this for MUCH less. It is a lot of money to get started, but trust me, you will lose a lot more cash if you go into a professional recording studio on your own with a recording engineer. I know. I have done this and have both lost money and gotten burned on the final product. Recording engineers don't care about your music, no matter how good it is. In my opinion, most recording producers and engineers are at best paid drones and at worst egomaniac hackers that exist primarily to take your money. That was my experience, anyway. I'm sure there are good recording engineers who love music out there, but I have never had the good fortune to meet them in my major metropolitan area. Don't let it stop you from looking, but keep in mind that if you buy your equipment outright you get to keep it forever.

You will get to know your hook up, your machines, your spaghetti. In my next article, Laying Down Tracks and Vocals, I'll go into some of the details. In the meantime, you should study the demo recording provided with the recording software, which is often so bad songwriting-wise that it is downright humorous! Trust me, after getting the computer up and running and the software installed, you'll need some comic relief.

The mixing board is starting to look slightly familiar, and you have just recorded your first MIDI drum solo!

You are on your way.

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