Ever wondered what’s involved in making a CD of original music? I just recorded and self-produced my first “official” release, Online Dating Blues, and here’s a glimpse inside the process.
Part Four: Support from Unexpected Corners, and Finally In the Studio!
I’d done my homework: thanks to suggestions from friends I’d met at Music Strategies, the email I sent to my fan base included links to a web page tricked out with PayPal buttons for donations and pre-orders. I have a modicum of html skills, and thankfully PayPal makes it super-easy to make a “buy now” button, even for a non-techie. I also offered people the option of sending a check, calling me up with a credit card, or giving cash if they preferred (which turned out to be very wise), but I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to donate on impulse!
Would people contribute? My guitar teacher, Carol McComb, had raised an unbelievable amount for her CD 10 or so years back, but I think her list of (incredibly loyal) students was a lot bigger than my list of fans (about 500 strong), and being a performer with an erratic (to put it mildly) gig schedule, rather than a performer and teacher with multiple ongoing weekly classes, meant that I didn’t have quite the loyal following that she did. (But then again, with a budget of about one-twentieth of her last CD’s, I didn’t need to raise as much either.) Still, there was a fair amount of fingernail biting. $2,000-2,500 isn’t enough to bankrupt anyone, but without outside contributions it would certainly be going to debt…
And then there’s The Economy… I knew I wasn’t the only one with a lot less disposable income to play around with these days.. Was my whole idea just completely crazy?
Then lo-and-behold, 52 minutes after sending my email my first contribution rolled in, for 100$! Talk about validation. Especially validating, and surprising, was that it was from a friend from the calligraphy and book arts world, Carol, who has never seen me perform, and whom I hadn’t seen in more years than I can count.
Within 24 hours, I received eight donations and pledges, to the tune of $285. Not a bad start!
Now that money was actually coming in, the pressure was on. This CD project was becoming more real! I was going to have to deliver a CD, and one that would, I hoped, satisfy all of my contributors! My first recording session was scheduled for December 21, and as the date drew nearer and friends left and right were catching colds, I felt as if I were holding my breath, praying that I would stay healthy. I recorded myself singing my songs and playing my guitar and uploaded these “scratch tracks” to a page on my website and sent the link to the guys in the band so they could get a (rough!) idea of what we’d be recording. I
The morning of the 21st I packed up charts of all my songs and drove an hour to my drummer John’s garage studio, Idea Room, in Concord. John spent the next hour setting up mikes and plugging in cables until the tiny space was a tangle of black cable. With a drum kit, an upright bass, an electric keyboard, music stands, mikes and various large boxes of sound equipment, I had about a 2-foot square space to stand in. The four of us were in a for a long day of very intense work, in very close quarters. And honestly, I can’t imagine much that would be more fun!
After much fussing with cables and computers on John’s part, we all had big (tight!) earphones on, through which we could hear everyone: John’s drums, Doug’s bass, Jake’s keys, and my voice. We spent a few minutes on sound checks, trying to get the mix right in the earphones, so everyone could hear themselves and each other. After all the sound checks were done I pulled out my charts and we started practicing.
We hadn’t met to rehearse, so this was the first time the guys were playing my songs. Being the consummate professionals that they are, however, they took my ideas and ran with them. Until that moment my songs had mostly lived as ideas in my head. I played them in my living room, but (inexpertly played) acoustic guitar and voice give a completely different feel than a full jazz trio! I can’t tell you what a delight it was to hear a band bring my music to life!
And the guys had fantastic ideas! It was like being in a creative stew pot, with ideas popping up like dried corn kernals in a hot pan. Over the course of our two studio sessions we worked out intros and endings, where breaks would come in the music, and what kind of groove each song should have. Doug started playing a “Killer Joe” intro to Online Dating Blues and we all said “let’s use it!”; Jake suggested a straight-8s feel for I Need A Vacation (brilliant); John used brushes to create a mystical, dreamy intro to Geary Street; Jake pumped out a Gospel feel on the keys for Married Men (a hilarious contrast to the content of the song) while Doug created a “overweight marred men in Dockers” solo.
Here’s how the day went:
- Rehearse a song, work out feel, intros, endings, solos
- Record the song
- Assess our performance, make notes of what to change, and record the song again
- Repeat as needed, until everyone was ready to move on to the next song
- Start process over with another song
I have to confess that there was no point during our 11+ hours of recording over two Saturdays when everyone was 100% happy with his or her performance! If we’d had unlimited time I suspect we’d still be working on it today (or at least until we all got completely sick of it! A certain amount of perfectionism is the curse of being an artist and wanting your work to be the best it can be). However, I did not have the budget for unlimited studio time, so (thankfully) we didn’t have that luxury. Instead, we moved on whenever we felt like the song we were working on was “good enough” for the CD. Understand that with four professional musicians, “good enough” is a difficult determination at best, and a little distance can turn something “awful” into “not bad” or even “pretty damn good – hunh!” Jake was convinced he needed to re-do his solo on one of the songs, but when we reconvened the following week and listened again, he decided it wasn’t as bad as he’d thought.
Musicians’ memories of our own performances are rarely reliable… This truism came back to haunt me in the mixing studio, but more on that next time…
Next: Mixing and More