Recording An Album, Part 4: Hitting the Studio

My producer Craig Newnes wants to make me a record (in exchange for cash, as it turns out), and all that stands between me and a fully grown Folk album is a long stretch of recording time. So let’s do this!

Preparation is Everything

I play half a dozen rhythm instruments on my record, so I had to drag all of those into the studio. Step one was to figure out a route, because I depend on public transportation. My instruments are acoustic, and I recorded lots during the winter – acoustics really don’t like the cold.

Fortunately, there is a bus that stops 50 meters from my house, and the same distance from the studio. Phew! Obviously that makes the recording schedule dependent on the bus schedule, so let’s mark this as complication number three, right after the schedules of my producer and myself.

I honestly don’t know how I would have dealt with that situation had I not been a graduate student with an incredibly open schedule.

Guitar and ukulele are portable enough, and can be tuned pretty easily, but banjo and mandolin represent a whole new level of difficulty. Since I did not want to spend the first studio hour restringing and warming my instruments, step two of my preparations consisted of dressing up my acoustics in sweaters, and wrapping their cases in blankets.

That looks very silly on the morning bus, but it sure was cheaper than upgrading my hardshell cases to super-insulated tanks.

One Instrument Too Many?

Various instruments - recording in the studioMy friend Frank Zeritch, who has to put up with my various acoustic instruments at our monthly songsmith open mic, told me this: “one buys instruments for what they sound like plugged in.”

That is true enough for a performing musician, but it does not apply in the same way for songwriters. My first attention always goes to the live sound, unplugged, and straight from my hand.

I have a Washburn mandolin that is more than a century old, and has a very deep and rich sound. You can probably amp it up by installing a $500 pick-up, but odds are that such an operation would change the sound and structural integrity of the instrument.

Considering that today most acoustic instruments can be purchased with an installed pick-up for very little money, I chose a different path.

Of each class of instruments that I play regularly, I have one nice sounding stage specimen, and a variety of vintage instruments that I primarily use for jamming, writing, and recording.

That means that my stage performance does not replicate the album sound, but there are not likely to be many people in the audience that will even notice that difference.

By the way, replaying your exact album sound on stage is boring; you might as well spare yourself the effort, and just hook up a CD player to the stage speakers. My record features five of my guitars, two ukuleles, a banjo, a mandolin, and an autoharp. All of those guitars have a different sound, and it was worthwhile dragging each and every one of them into the studio.

The biggest challenge was my autoharp. That 36-string beast is finicky at the best of days, because the old wooden body warms up in my hands, which changes the tuning, and the tuning pegs are so fickle that it takes half a minute to even get one string right.

I halfway solved this by tuning it up at home, wrapping it in two warm blankets, and then re-tuning it carefully in the studio. In essence: the closer your home environment reflects the conditions of the studio, the less time your have to spend tuning your instruments.

The other issue revolving around my autoharp was its general age and construction quality. Halfway through a song, the buttons of the darn thing started to squeak. Craig and I spent twenty minutes taping little bits of paper into the hinges, so as to stop it from squawking. I think it was worth the effort.

Recording An Album

The recording process itself was quite enjoyable. My producer was happy to see new instruments every week, and it usually took me around three takes to record each track.

You can probably get around with less, if you are less of a perfectionist than I am, but three is a pretty good number.

Last week someone asked what kind of feedback I got from my producer after he heard my demo recordings. The honest answer is: barely any. My producer Craig was quite happy with my songs, and the way in which I performed them. He had some things to say about arrangement, but we will get to that next week.

Overall Craig and I appear to have a very similar taste in music, and we never had an argument regarding my sound. His major feedback during the recording sessions consisted of phrases like “there were some hesitations in that guitar part”, or “you need to be more articulate when you sing that line”.

However, such a connection between producer and songwriter is not universal. When my friend Clint Marco recorded his first album, he had several sessions in which his producer was in complete disagreement with Clint’s style.

For one particular song, his producer wanted a heads-on Rock ‘n Roll experience, which was not at all what Clint had in mind. Clint’s producer won that argument, and the song really sounds great on the record. In the end the decision is always yours; just keep in mind that the man at the mixing board is more experienced than you are.

Song-Per-Session

Producer Craig NewnesIt is important to record every song completely in one session. If you split it up, and return to the studio later, you are likely to end up with bits that don’t belong.

It is really difficult to simulate the same mood and intensity twice, especially with vocals. There are two songs on my record for which we replaced bits of the original recording; for each song we exchanged one line with an alternative version that I sang half a year later.

If you are a good listener, you can audit that edit on my record. It’s better to prepare and record all of your own parts of a particular song in one sitting. Your producer and fans will thank you for it. Yes, many things can be fixed during the mixing process, but keep in mind that mixing time also costs money.

If you record whole songs in one sitting (as I strongly recommend), your schedule is not likely to hold up. In the best case you will be able to just sit around for another hour, and do two more takes of a particular song, until everything fits, and your producer signals you utter happiness.

But frequently you will run into schedule conflicts, because your producer, the studio, or your travel arrangements don’t allow for another take. It happens to all of us, so let me assure you that this is nothing to freak out about.

All you can do is practice your songs to the best of your abilities. The recording studio is not a good place to experiment with sound; instead treat it like the most glorious of stages – your one chance to deliver the perfect performance.

Practice and Perfection

Practice is essential to success. If you are recording vocals and rhythm instrument separately, you need to practice a lot before hitting the studio. Maybe even with a metronome.

I know, it’s tedious, and boring, but the alternative is to record songs that:

  1. Don’t reflect your regular singing speed.
  2. Are very difficult for your session musicians to follow.

I know what you’re thinking: “my rhythm is nearly perfect; I can do this!” Forget it; you’re not good enough. You never will be. Even the anatomic clock runs at a different speed, if you change its gravitational environment.

There are so many environmental factors that impact the human perception of time that any attempt at perfection is doomed to fail. The best you can do is practice, and get better, no matter how good you already are. Practice until you can hold the rhythm of your song with the instrument, but without singing the song.

I have a few songs for which that worked really well. For example, “The Fair”, or “York Railroad Station” both have a very simple and repetitive instrument part.

“The Fair” is a waltz, for crying out loud! I can play these songs half asleep, which is why I often play them at open mics, when I‘m too tired to perform anything sophisticated.

The main danger with that kind of song is to miscount the number of lines or verses. I actually recorded one instrument take of that waltz that is about thirty seconds shorter than the others, indicating that I left out one complete verse. Yes, that happens.

The eternal nemesis of folk music: repetition perpetuating discontinuity. Obviously you can edit that by inserting a verse that you copy from a different part of the song, but playing the “correct” version is by far your best option.

I use two utilities to prevent such discontinuity:

1. Lyrics

Always have a lyric sheet in front of you. Always do. Sure, you know your songs, but if you ever have the slightest doubt regarding your progress with a song, you can have a quick look, and receive assurance from your writing.

Reading and playing simultaneously is easily done, if you know your way around the instrument, but it is tricky if you are insecure with it. No shame; we can’t all be professional musicians!

The 12-string guitar that I play on my album sounds amazing, but she is a tricky lady to please. Even after more than fifty repetitions of the same songs with that guitar, I still have to be careful with some of the chords, because the strings and my fingers don’t always cooperate perfectly.

Focusing on your instruments reduces your capabilities for looking at the lyrics, and you want to give the former as much attention as possible.

Thus, always practice with the same lyric sheet in front of you. That way you should always be able to locate the critical line of that song, if need be.

2. Learn to Sing Without Sound

You can probably read, think, and sing without opening your mouth, because your education taught you to do so.

But doing so a) on the bus, while staring out of the window, or b) whilst playing guitar in the studio, are two very different things.

My friend Emma Rouleau has written some very jazzy songs on her ukulele, and is now trying to prepare them for recording purposes. She finds it very challenging to get her timing right. Jazz is a mixture of multiple components, and you don’t get the same feeling for timing, if you only play one part of that puzzle.

The most obvious solution is to demo the song in full, feed it into your head via ear phones, and play along. In my experience, that approach is a waste of time. You may get a better idea of the timing of your song, but hearing your rhythm instrument from two different sources simultaneously prevents you from focusing properly. The result will be messy at best, but will probably lack a lot of inspiration as well. Don’t do it.

I took the more laborious approach, and it paid off with a very nice recording quality. I usually start off by performing the song just normally, with rhythm guitar and vocal, so as to get myself into the right mood and tempo. Then I perform it again with very little vocal effort, almost whispering the lyrics.

After that I try to sing it without activating my vocal chords. It is tricky, but it’s getting easier the more often you do it. Relax your lips, and allow yourself to be sloppy with your jaw movements; perform your song as you usually would, but breathe normally, and leave your vocal chords slack.

After a few attempts, you should be able to stick to the groove of your song without making any sound. The idea is to “sing” the song, without vocal sound, so that your play speed reflects the actual song speed; basically sing with your lips, but without your voice.

Don’t forget to test your progress by recording yourself, and trying to sing to your recordings. My own instrument demos usually turn out to be about five percent faster than my regular performance tempo. Any more, and you will loose control of your song!

The Mighty Click Track

I remember sitting in a studio setting a few years ago with five actual musicians (by their standards I am still a beginner). We recorded one original song each, and only one person in the round (Tomy Thisdale) used a click track.

Others tried and failed. I did not even try. A click track is a predefined beat count that settles as the basic layer of your song; like a metronome that is confined to your head phones, and then subtracted from the final mix.

If you are used to having your rhythm dictated to you by the metronome, you probably won’t have trouble with this approach, and all your session musicians will thank you for it, because it makes their job much easier.

However, I personally have never used a metronome, and I don’t see myself doing so in the foreseeable future. As a direct result of my ignorance, you can hear faster and slower sections in some of my songs, which freaked some of my session musicians right out.

My rendition of the traditional “Every Rose” (which you may know as “True Love” or “Scarborough Fair”), in particular, alternates between lines with twelve and thirteen beats. That’s just how it goes; I don’t confine myself to regular music conformity, but instead play what I feel.

My timing is good enough to keep a steady rhythm that even a drummer or bass player can count on. However, if you are comfortable with the metronome, the use of the mighty click track is greatly encouraged.

By the way, everything that I wrote above applies equally to vocal recordings. Practice your songs often. Sing them on your way to work, and while you are sitting on the loo.

Try different intonations, harmonies, and alternative melodies. Art knows no perfection, but some intonations and note sequences work better than others.

When you are in the studio, and your producer asks you to end that one verse on a high note instead of a low one, you will be thankful that you already thought of that idea months ago, and had a few practice runs with that particular note change.

Art is an experience, and the more experiences you can bring, the more interesting your recordings will sound.

Final Thoughts on Hitting the Studio & Preparation

That’s it, really. Preparation is everything, because you need every minute of studio time to count for you.

So practice your songs until you actually know them, and can keep a beat that session musicians can follow.

Next week I will report on said kind of people, session musicians; the wonderful characters that elevate the quality of your music from “nice sound” to “what a great record”.

Did You Enjoy This? There’s More Waiting for You in the eBook…

Recording and promoting a release of any size can be a massive undertaking. That’s why I put together a new eBook titled: How to Record, Promote & Sell Your New Music Release – Single, EP, or Album. This resource is packed with information detailing each step of the recording process, and even how to promote and sell your new release. Click HERE to find out more.

TQP 008: Science & Myth I

The Question Podcast

Our popular but simple judgments about myth are kind of a smug, self-securing firewall to the apparent ignorance and backwardness of ancient people. We protect our intellectual security against such ancient ignorance by believing nothing when it comes to myth.

Could this firewall to the ignorance of our ancestors be an unintended barrier to the pursuit of knowledge or even truth?

Is it possible that we put up this firewall to protect what we believe is the common sense of science from the utter nonsense of myth?

In this episode of The Question Podcast, you will hear from presenter Frederick Tamagi as well as singer/songwriter Toni Vere.

Thank you for listening!

What questions will you be taking with you after listening to this episode?

We encourage you to connect with us via social media:

We look forward to interacting with you.

How to Write an Effective Band or Artist Bio: The 7 Elements You Need

How to Write an Effective Band or Artist Bio: The 7 Elements You Need

It’s hard to underestimate the value of writing a proper band (or artist) bio.

Your artist bio is going to be seen by the press, magazine editors, bloggers, venue owners, booking agents, industry reps, and even your fans.

A bio is a promotional tool. It can open up a lot of doors and opportunities for you if you take the time and care to do it right.

These are the seven elements your bio should contain:

1. Two to Four Keyword-Rich, No-Filler Paragraphs

For general purposes, you should keep your bio short. You can have a tagline, a short version, a medium-length version, and even a long version, but for your website, use the medium-length one.

Additionally, proofread, spellcheck and grammar-check your document. Professionalism does count. A lot of people don’t take this point seriously, so I will repeat it again. Please proofread your document, and if possible, get a second and third pair of eyes on it.

If you can’t write it yourself, ask for help or hire someone who knows how to craft an effective artist or band bio.

2. Names of Your Band Members

Clearly identify each band member, their name, and what instrument they play.

It may seem obvious, but this information can help sound techs, venue owners and even media people a lot. Don’t make assumptions about what people know or don’t know. Assume you’re writing for someone who doesn’t know the first thing about you.

3. Your Location

Make sure to note where your band hails from, and where you are currently located.

Geography is more important than you might think. If there are venue owners looking at your bio and they want to book your band for the following weekend, they are going to be a bit surprised to find you half way across the country. Oops!

That’s fine if you want to be catching a flight every other week, and maybe you don’t mind if you’re driven and have a lot of money to back it up. But otherwise this is vital information you should be relaying to the reader.

4. Quotes, Press Clippings & Facts

Keep it simple. You don’t need to dazzle anyone with your eloquent writing skills or a long list of credentials and accomplishments.

Stick to the facts, and don’t go overboard with press clippings either. You don’t need more than one or two quotes.

As for credentials, list three of the most important, or create another page on your website if you must list all of them. It’s great that you can show credibility, but some artists overdo it. It’s annoying, because your accomplishments don’t tell a story. Your story tells a story.

Your story tells a story. Click To Tweet

5. Genre & Influences

You could try and describe your music until you’re blue in the face; at the end of the day, most industry reps just want to know what genre you are closest to, and who you sound like.

I know, you don’t like being pigeonholed, but if they have this information, it’s going to make you easier to book and promote. So, again, keep it simple. Save the clever, funny, and obscure references for face-to-face conversations.

Alexisonfire used to describe their music in this manner:

The sound of two Catholic high-school girls in mid-knife-fight.

Clever, but that’s not going to work for industry people (I would find it annoying to try to promote you with a tagline like that, because it basically says nothing about you). Save it for your elevator pitch or Twitter profile instead.

6. Story

Emphasize story over facts. People are more interested in who you are than they are in what you’ve done.

Certainly it’s worth mentioning any high-profile bands you’ve toured with, but a story is going to engage better than facts (i.e. you could talk about your favorite coffee shop in terms of its physical address, but that’s not going to give anyone a sense of why you like that coffee shop). I’ve already gone on about this, so let me sum this up by saying share your heart.

7. Contact Information

Guess what people are looking for when they finish reading your bio? If they are in the industry, they are looking for your contact information.

So don’t disappoint! If they are already excited about your band and want to book you for an upcoming event (logic need not apply here because people make decisions on emotion anyway), don’t put another step between them and getting in touch with you.

If you prolong this process, their excitement could wane and they might even forget about you completely. Get them while they’re hot!

Conclusion

So there you have it. These are the seven elements your cut-and-paste bio should contain.

Is there anything else you would add to this list? Do you already have an effective band or artist bio? Feel free to share the link in the comments below!

Should I Try to Get Featured on a Spotify Playlist?

Can streaming be profitable?

For many artists it isn’t, but there are those that are seeing considerable traction from it right now.

This was first brought to my attention by Juno-award winning Helen Austin, a recent interviewee of mine (podcast episode is here).

She mentioned that one of her songs was featured in a curated Spotify playlist, and wondered aloud whether or not she could engineer this type of success in the future.

Now, let’s keep in mind – someone who has as many placements as Helen wouldn’t be bringing up such matters if it wasn’t profitable for her.

I’m going to digress for just a moment, but I swear what I’m about to share is related to the topic at hand.

As you may know, I was recently approached with the idea of guest blogging for JTV Digital – a project I have chosen to take on.

I asked Jeremie what types of posts he wanted me to create for the blog, and he sent me a bunch of different ideas.

One idea revolved around Spotify playlists. He also sent me this post from the DIY Musician Blog as reference. It tells of how Perrin Lamb got featured on a Spotify playlist out of the blue, and now has a song with more than 10,000,000 plays on Spotify, not to mention increased play count on other songs in his catalog.

Oh, and by the way, my post about getting featured on a Spotify playlist just went live today. Check it out here: How to Get Featured on a Spotify Playlist.

So, is it worth getting picked up? Yes, but only if you have the time to pursue it. If your music career bandwidth is already stretched, you may want to think twice about adding more to your plate.

7 Quick-Fire Tips for Getting Featured on a Playlist

Most of this seems pretty obvious to me, and I’ve even discussed many of these tips in my book.

But I’m happy to share with you what I’ve been learning, and would also love to hear about your successes on Spotify or with streaming in general (leave a comment below).

Here are seven quick-fire tips for getting featured:

  • Identify tastemakers and influencers. Find out who’s making these playlists.
  • Craft an awesome online presence. You’ll increase your chances of making a great impression with list creators.
  • Reach out and connect with influencers. Be quick, be respectful, be upfront about what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Practice professionalism. Contact people in the manner requested, and always be thinking about how you can add value to them.
  • Follow up. People get busy and they forget things. Don’t give up – follow up!
  • Promote. Once you’re on a playlist, do everything in your power to promote it to get more plays.
  • Make your own playlists. There’s nothing saying you can’t make your own. You may not have the marketing power major labels or agencies do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rise from the groundswell.

Will you be putting in the work necessary to get noticed by tastemakers?

How to Handle Internal Conflicts in Your Band: Conclusion

Like I said at the outset, conflicts within a band can take a variety of different forms, and there definitely isn’t a cure-all.

I’ve shared a bunch of tips with you in hopes that it will give you some ideas on how to handle different situations, but it’s important to tailor your approach to the specific individual and circumstances you’re dealing with.

I believe developing a long-term vision for the band is absolutely essential to its success, and unless you and your companions are willing to look at the next five, 10, or even 15 years and determine what your goals are, making your dream a reality is going to be an uphill battle.

When it comes right down to it, there are really only a few ways you can deal with conflict. Let’s take a look at each.

You Can Ignore It

Some say if you ignore something for long enough, it will go away. This usually isn’t the case. Even if everything appears fine on the outside, your band members are probably stewing on the inside.

Doing nothing is an option, but in most cases not the best one.

You Can Put It Off

It’s unlikely, but you might be dealing with a time-sensitive issue that could be better dealt with in the future. For example, one of your band members may be having some time related issues now, but once they’ve streamlined their life a little better, they’ll be better able to focus on the band.

If you have an important show or a recording sessions coming up, you might choose to deal with it later. But like I said earlier, problems tend not to go away on their own, and putting it off for too long is just irresponsible.

You Can Confront It

You can charge headlong into the issue to try to sort it out. It’s still best to exercise grace and sensitivity to the situation, but confrontation is often a necessity.

It isn’t always the best option, but it usually is. It’s better to get things out into the open early than to have things blow up in your face at a critical moment in your career.

You Can Agree To Disagree

You don’t have to agree on absolutely everything, especially if it doesn’t affect the outcome of the music you make, the image you portray, or the message you’re putting out into the world.

You might think you need five rehearsals before the show. Another band member may only need two. If two is enough, and they’re performing up to snuff, there’s no point in pushing the issue. You can always spend more time in personal practice if you need to brush up on your material.

You Can Reach a Meaningful Compromise

In instances where decisions have to be made, but you haven’t reached consensus as a group, you may consider coming to some kind of compromise.

This isn’t the ideal situation. The dangers of design by committee are well-documented. But if it means the difference between maintaining peace in your band and stirring up issues unnecessarily, compromise might be a better option.

Just beware of compromising on every issue. This is unlikely to turn out well.

Final Thoughts

If you can, designate a leader in the band. This may not work in every instance, but it often is a better idea to defer to a balanced (i.e. not arrogant or prideful) leader than it is to take sides on issues. If you have an even number of members in your band, division (i.e. two-member splits on the issue) can be a real pain.

Also seek out mentorship or counseling if need be. The pain of losing members can be far-reaching, and replacing parts of your band could have a huge impact on your sound, either for the better or for the worse.