Lessons in Creativity, Part 1: Productivity

I was recently asked whether or not I’ve ever experienced writer’s block.

I smiled, shook my head, thought about it for a moment, and responded, “Nope. I’ve been burned out before, but I’ve never had writer’s block as far back as I can recall.”

The signs of burnout were:

  • Shortness with colleagues, coworkers, and people in general.
  • A lingering tiredness or fatigue that wouldn’t go away.
  • A lack of creative energy.

None of which were characteristic of who I naturally am.

Call it intuition, or call it an incisive word of God, I was prompted to take a sabbatical around that time.

When I decided to go fishing one summer day, I was listening to a podcast on the very topic of sabbaticals.

It was a timely message, and one I would have never heard had I not made a rare excursion into nature.

And when I say rare, the last vacation I had even been on was three years prior.

I took about a month off to think things over, enjoy myself, and go fishing a few more times.

I still fulfilled my daily commitments, of which I had a few, but I focused on completing the minimum amount of work required and not on doing a lot of extracurricular work.

***

I do think I get a lot done – though if I were to measure my personal output against my standards, I’m sure I would say I’m a far cry from where I would like to be.

People do sometimes ask me, “How the hell do you do it all?” Still others have commented, “You’re the hardest-working person I know.”

And in the past, I tended to deflect what I probably could have been taken as a compliment.

I would just shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know”, or maybe throw around a term like time management.

True, I have learned a great deal about productivity, time management, or priority management – whatever you want to call it – from the likes of Derek Sivers, Steve Pavlina, or Stephen Covey.

And maybe managing your time is something that becomes obvious to you given enough practice. And maybe if you have goals that really drive you, you’ll have no choice but to be productive.

Completing projects in one fell swoop instead of chunks, listening to podcasts while driving, conducting weekly reviews, or setting action-based (and not fluffy) goals… These things come naturally once you’ve done them for long enough.

But as with anything people ask you regularly, you start to form a more eloquent answer – or at least try to.

Even so, whenever people posed me with “How do you do it?” type questions, trying to respond in a caring yet direct way in conversation seemed impossible. I just started saying, “read the blog post Do It Now by Steve Pavlina.”

I guess most people don’t listen to advice, or maybe they just don’t take me very seriously. Maybe what inspires me doesn’t inspire them, or, maybe, like me, they fear being exposed.

To me, productivity is a serious life-or-death matter, and I don’t think anyone who calls themselves a professional would say anything to the contrary.

But if you’re serious about doing more with the time you have – we all have the same 24 hours in a day – you’re going to have to make some changes, and I think we’re all afraid of anything that threatens our comfortable way of life.

***

Is writing a creative pursuit? I suppose it is. But I can’t say that I’ve ever been at a loss for words, unless I’ve been completely burnt out.

I have observed, however, that there appear to be different rules for different mediums of creativity.

Throughout my life, my creativity has known many expressions – I’ve written and drawn graphic novels in Japanese, I’ve painted scenery, I’ve written songs… I could go on.

But I have never known a muse more fickle than the musical muse, if there is such a thing.

I’m either inspired to write a song, or I’m not – there is rarely any kind of middle ground. It’s like an on-off switch.

Significant life events often seem to prompt the need for a song – or many songs – but not always.

I’ve lost several family members through the years, including my dad, who passed away when I was 13.

But despite the haunting beauty of a song like Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”, I have rarely felt able to adequately express the emptiness that accompanies death.

A song called “Now That You’re Gone” is about the only one I’ve penned that has stayed with me over the years.

Some inspiration is worth waiting for, but most of it is gotten. You have to expose yourself to fresh stimuli on an ongoing basis, and even when you think you’re getting nowhere, you have to remember that your brain is putting the pieces together, absorbing everything you willingly open yourself up to.

***

W. Somerset Maugham, the playwright, is famous for saying:

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’ clock sharp.

But truly, not much more needs to be said about consistency. You already know that you should be consistent.

You already know that you should have a specific time and space for your creative work. You already know that you should have certain cues in place to remind you to do the work on a daily basis.

You already know what you should do. But why won’t you do it? To me, that seems like a far more important matter.

Is it because you’re lazy, distracted, busy, unstructured, or tired? These are the problems and excuses you need to tackle. Forget about consistency until you’ve identified what’s getting in the way.

And I will add the caveat here that not all of us have a nine-to-five job, a symmetrical and pre-structured daily routine. Some of us are freelancers, contractors, entrepreneurs, or self-starters. I certainly fall under this category.

The reason I bring this up is because a pro always finds a way to do their work, regardless of whether or not they actually have a consistent time and place to do it.

It is immensely beneficial to have that predictability, but you can’t always afford it. You can’t always make it happen. Do the work anyway, or it will never happen.

Time is about all we have, and it’s going to pass whether or not you do something with it. Choose to do something with it.

Do you like what you read? You can pre-order the new book now.

Recording An Album, Part 8: How to Determine the Track Sequence or Playlist of An Album

So I went to the studio, recorded fifteen songs, hired a jamboree of session musicians, mixed and mastered the whole record, and received a pile of finalized songs, each of them sounding awesome, and ready to conquer the world.

Time to celebrate? Not quite yet, because my least favorite aspect of album creation is still pending. There is one task left to do, and this one is a rage of tedium: determining the final sequence of songs.

We have all bought albums that contain only one or two good songs. We digitized the whole thing, shuffled the two good ones into our MP3 player, and forgot that the rest of that record ever existed.

The boom years of the 80s and 90s, in particular, saw many music albums that were built around one well-sold single, and that contained nearly a dozen songs that we desperately try to forget about.

Big record labels continue to work with that practice: throw a bag of bones at the audience, and see which ones stick. Thus, it has become common practice to single out a few beautiful compositions on any given album, and not bother with the rest.

On top of that, the biggest music distributors (radio and other music streaming services) rarely play more than one song of a particular artist within a given set. Therefore you might be forgiven for thinking that the song sequence is not actually worth contemplating, except for the first title on the record.

You would still be horribly wrong, though, because your track sequence determines the impact of your record on the global market. The order in which your songs appear on the album determines which ones get listened to by producers, radio hosts, music directors, and festival managers, so this is actually one of the biggest marketing decisions that you are facing.

In the following I will outline how the track sequence for my debut album came to be.

How to Sequence for Radio, Festivals & Music Directors

Firstly, you should understand that music directors often get a dozen new records a day, so they won’t listen to your whole album, even if you duck-tape it to a chocolate cake.

Everybody listens to track #1 on an album, because that’s the default setting of nearly every music player in existence. But where do we go from there? Apparently the key positions on a songwriter album are 1, 4, 7, and 10. These are the tracks that are most likely to get listened to by anyone who scouts music.

I don’t know how that sequence originated, but it has become a common practice. Many music directors will deliberately listen to those four songs, and decide within 10 minutes whether they hand your record over to the radio host, or add it to the pile of festive giveaway gimmicks.

Yes, when radio stations give away “a box of CDs” at their annual fundraiser raffle, this is often the source of the content of said box: rejected albums. But since that magical track sequence is no longer a secret, record labels have adjusted to it, and everyone else in the music business followed in their wake. Therefore, positions 1, 4, 7, and 10 should be filled with your strongest songs.

Obviously, the four key songs need to be amazing. As a general rule, you want a fast one, another fast one, a slower one, and a quirky one. These four songs should be potential radio hits: catchy, personal, yet universally true, with great cadence and groove, and, of course, hitching on a sing-back chorus.

If you have four songs that fulfill these criteria: bugger off, Taylor Swift, there is nothing I can teach you. It’s unlikely that your record is filled with radio hit songs, so you will need to identify the three or four songs that are most likely to be loved by a significant portion of the population.

At this point, a remarkable number of my readership will call out in dismay: “I am a songwriter. I do not write for a mass market. My spectacular poetry will find acceptance eventually.”

You are obviously free to think of the market whatever you like, but you should consider that even the most unconventional personalities of music history, such as Bach, Beethoven, and Kurt Cobain needed to appeal to their audience in order to be successful musicians.

If your music doesn’t get radio play, barely anyone will hear it, and the chances for getting “discovered” will soar somewhere between basement and foundation of your little musical glass house. In other words: pick your strongest songs.

People who buy your CD will listen to the whole thing, and eventually discover all of its beauty. But music directors only have 10 minutes to spare for you, so they will need to be convinced of your genius within one-and-a-half songs.

That obviously means that you can’t pick long songs. Ideally they should be around three minutes or shorter, because radio hosts can always fit an upbeat two-minute song into their program.

Also keep in mind that the average listener decides within seven seconds whether he wants to keep listening, or change the track/channel, so the hook of your song needs to get introduced very early.

There is much more to be said about radio hit songs, but other people have written more competently about this subject, so I leave it to you and David to reel in that information yourself. I will just quickly explain which four songs I picked and why.

Number one, “Good Morning Sunshine”, is the catchiest song on my record. It is a real good, feel-good song, and nothing else would be more suitable for that position.

The banjo song “Brown and Blue” (4) is less catchy, but is a real foot stomper. There is no repeat chorus, which is very risky for that position, but the funky instrumentation combined with my quirky vocal movements make it a great two-and-a-half minute listening experience.

“Make da Music” (7) has a beachy ukulele groove to it, and its sing-along chorus makes it pleasantly comforting at any time of the day or year. Again: catchy, memorable, and good sing-back-ability.

“Shannon” (10) defies all rules, and really shouldn’t be at that position: it is the longest song on the record, relatively slow, depressing, lacking a beat or chorus, simple in its composition, and you have to wait more than one minute for the hook to appear. However, “Shannon” is my personal favorite, because of its lyrical strength, vocal harmonies, moodiness, and the great musical effects that it achieves with a very simple composition (guitar, cello, and piano).

This song will potentially never be played on the radio, because it is longer than six minutes. But since I already had three upbeat songs for the other key positions, I made the executive decision to have music directors listen to my personal favorite. With a bit of luck, their radio hosts will give the song a listen and fall in love with it.

There were a couple of other songs that I had under consideration as “key songs”, but ended up rejecting, because they were either not catchy, too repetitive, too depressing, or not universally interesting enough.

For example, I have a catchy song about a grain elevator, which is really interesting from a songwriter perspective, but will be of no interest to a host of New York college radio, because he has never in his life even heard of grain elevators.

I also have another upbeat ukulele song, which would have made a good fit, but it is more repetitive than the key songs that I selected, and it would sound too similar to song #1. Remember to provide a decent spectrum of styles with your three key songs!

“Free Bird” I contemplated for position #10, because its slide guitar groove is quirky, yet catchy, and the whole song is pretty cleverly constructed. I decided to leave #10 to “Shannon”, and count on the popularity of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to get browsers interested in my lyrical 80s rehash.

The Rest of the Album

That takes care of the marketing positions 1, 4, 7, and 10. What about the rest of the album? Here I loosely follow David’s recommendations for a great set list (link yourself Dave!): tell a story, make it an interesting journey, couple up songs with similar topics, but don’t group songs together that sound very similar or very different.

With this record you are basically playing the show of your life, and whatever track sequence you decide on will be available to your audience; forever, and right off the shelf.

Therefore, you want to make this playlist an interesting and well-consolidated musical journey. If you are making a true concept album, your track sequence is nearly set already, because you basically started at one end of the story and will be finishing at the other end.

If you chose to record your favorite songs that are loosely based around one common topic, like I did, you have a bit of work to do.

My first step was to enter the song titles into a spreadsheet, and assign certain attributes to every song, so that I could easily spot songs with similar topics or compositions.

Song Order Spreadsheet

Working on the track sequencing in a spreadsheet.

I bold-faced upbeat songs, italicized romantic songs, and colored everything that was longer than four minutes. Then I began shuffling the songs around, starting with the key positions as outlined above.

Note that at this time I had picked my four “key songs”, but did not have positions for them. So I assigned the four key songs to the four marketing positions, and then tried to squeeze in all the other songs between them.

This is where the hassle began, because I didn’t want slow songs following each other, but also tried to tell a comprehensive story, so as to keep listeners interested all the way. I talk more about that topic below.

Whenever I came up with a sequence that looked good, I stashed it away, so as to pass judgement later, and then I started the process anew.

I got better as time went by, because I started to see groups of songs that naturally fitted together. The four “key songs” were of great assistance in this process, because they nailed down four of the track positions, thus markedly reducing the number of possible combinations.

Another help was song #15: I have one a cappella song on this album, which just naturally goes onto the last position.

And so I went on, shuffling, grouping, and positioning songs; creating one plausible track sequence after the other, all flawed in different ways, but less and less confounded by big problems.

After two days (not consecutively; I only spent half-hour blocks on this), I had a few track lists that I considered decent, so I charged the music player with them, and listened. I mostly played the first and last thirty seconds of each song, so as to check how well they fitted together.

Finally, as my attention span grew shorter, I wrote all song titles on a sheet of paper, cut them out, and pushed the physically manifested track sequence around on my desk, again testing the better sequences on my MP3 player.

I also asked my friend Joanna about her opinion, because she has an arts degree, and I incorporated her ideas into my labor. Yes, feedback from your audience helps!

All this probably sound like a trial-and-error process. Because it is. You create a track sequence, look it over, discover that the last two songs that you fitted are actually destroying the story line, so you pull them out, and try to refit a few songs to other positions.

This job is boring, tedious, and not very rewarding, but it has to be done. I understand if you want to hand it off to someone else, but be informed that there is no one who knows these songs as well as you do.

You won’t find a more suitable person to do this, so you might as well give it a try (or a hundred) before you hand the task off to someone else. It took me nearly a week to come up with the finalized track sequence, and the only enjoyment from said process was the realization that it was done.

How I Determined My Track Sequence

Here are the criteria that I employed to evaluate my potential track sequences:

1. Tell a story, and tell it well.

Remember that the preferred method for listening to CDs is still en bloc, shoved into a CD player, and played end-to-end during a four-hour car drive, or during the morning shift at the office.

Thus, your sequence should reflect something that the listener can enjoy, and relate to. Try to group songs with similar mood and topic together, to create an interesting story line.

About one third of the songs on my album are love songs, and another third are break-up songs, and you don’t want to hear those in close succession. “I love you”, “I hate you”, “you make be so happy”, “you broke my heart” – that might be a story as life tells it, but condensed into twelve minutes of music, it will sound like the diary of a psychopath.

Better group a few love songs together, and follow them up with a gentle break-up song before you blast out the tougher, edgier break-ups. Remember to keep the music and emotions flowing without clashing them against each other.

2. Watch out for songs that sound similar, and separate them out.

I have seen performances at Folk Festivals where the artists had half their audience asleep by the third song, because every song had the same sound.

It does not matter how great a songwriter and flat picker you are – no one wants to hear about your broken heart in E minor for twenty minutes!

Compartmentalize that story by inserting a song about a farm fair, so that the audience gets a rest from your depression. And those four piano songs sure sound nice individually, but if you listen to them en bloc, and find that they blend into each other, you should move them apart.

Look for songs with a similar key, mood, instrumentation, lyric, tempo, or hook. Separate those songs by inserting one that differs in several of these attributes. That allows the listener to continuously bathe in the flow of music without being lulled to sleep.

Of course, there is plenty of room for exceptions. Nick Kane’s “Songs in the key of E” is a great album, despite its notated redundancy. Old Man Luedecke’s “Domestic Eccentric” is filled with banjo tunes, half of which focus on young love; and still it is a great listening experience.

The key or “note family” of your song is but one aspect of music, and you can easily stick three cello songs together, if at least one of them has a very distinct lead part, or anything else that sets it apart from the rest. Just make the journey an interesting one!

Some songs create a relatively clean break in the story line, despite their lyrical content, and you can use those to separate songs that tell very different tales.

For example, “Free Bird” is technically a break-up song, but it is relatively upbeat, very funky, and its premise is built around popular music from the 80s.

Despite its general topic, it does not actually work as a break-up song, but rather constitutes a weird foot-tapper that is so different from the rest of the album that it creates a natural barrier between songs. Thus, I used it to separate two slow/depressing break-up songs from another.

Conclusion

Goemon5 surrounded by instruments

The final track sequencing.

Creating this track sequence, this “ultimate set list”, was quite tedious, but it was well worth it – the songs on my record follow two separate little story lines, with the mood and tempo oscillating organically throughout the album.

You can even listen to the album on repeat, because the last song closes a lyrical circle that naturally leads into track #1. I am very proud of my playlist, and I am sure that my listeners will find it comforting.

Without it, my debut album would merely be an agglomeration of songs, and there are already plenty of those around.

In the past eight weeks, I have told you pretty much everything you need to know about recording a studio album, from its initial conception, to recording and mixing, to the final touches, visually and technically.

I taught you how to identify the “key songs” on your record, onto which track positions to put them, and why. I also revealed the tedious magic of determining a great track sequence.

Whether you do it in a digital spread sheet, on paper, or “by ear” in a music player, the criteria for a good track sequence stay the same: 1) look for an interesting, yet well-balanced story line; and 2) avoid boredom by separating songs that sound similar, due to their similarity in key, tempo, instrumentation, mood, or lyrics.

I may follow this blog with one about my CD release concert, and the associated social media campaign, but since that is not technically part of the recording cycle, I can leave that topic for a few weeks.

Goemon5 album release promo poster

Goemon5’s upcoming album release party in Calgary, AB.

I hope you were able to glean a minimum of infotainment from these lengthy blog posts, and I hope to see you soon, either at my CD release or in the comments section below.

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7 Ways Musicians Can Make Extra Money

Hey, gang. This guest post comes to us via Merchant Cash USA.

It is definitely important for musicians to be thinking about creating multiple streams of income, and this article suggests several ways in which you can make this happen.

By the way, if there’s something you’d like to share with our audience, please consider submitting a guest post. We don’t accept low quality articles, so you better show us that you’ve got what it takes!

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at how you can make extra money as a musician.

Music is a wonderful form of artistic expression, but if you want to make money with it, you have your work cut out for you.

With record sales in decline, you will need to approach your sources of potential revenue streams with an open mind. The more you can diversify your income, the more lucrative your musical endeavors will be.

Here are seven ways musicians can make extra money.

1. Teach Music

Depending on the amount of time you have available and your work schedule, you could teach music to others. Whether a particular instrument, theory or a combination, you can inspire budding musicians while putting some extra cash in your bank account.

2. Sell Your Compositions

Likewise, you can sell your composition skills. Many artists work for the recording industry in this way. You might land a full-time job with a major production company where you create songs for their most popular superstars to perform.

You can also find similar work in the film and television industries. Although you may prefer to be performing onstage yourself, writing for others can be quite lucrative.

While being a starving artist is often romanticized in the media, there is nothing glorious about eating generic macaroni and cheese in the name of art!

3. Studio Or Session Work

Studios often hire artists for session work. Solo artists need people in the studio to play various instruments on their recordings, and backup vocalists are also in demand.

You may even have the opportunity to become a member of an artist’s backing band once the album is cut and the tour starts. Even if you do not, it is a great way to network in the industry.

4. Live Gigs

Most musicians enjoy performing live, and it can be a fantastic way to make money.

However, you need to think bigger regarding income streams related to live performance.

When possible, retain control over ticket sales through your site, eliminating the commission charged by ticket agencies. This doesn’t mean that this is the only type of gig you should pursue though.

5. House Concerts

House concerts are an exciting way to grow your fan base. Usually, these are done on a donation basis and you will need to encourage fans to consider scheduling one.

Most people love to hear live music at a family reunion, picnic or anniversary. This is an opportunity to add to the festivities and hopefully make new fans in the process.

6. Corporate Events Or Weddings

Similarly, private concerts for corporate celebrations and weddings can add to your income streams. You might tour the college circuit, jam out at fairs and festivals, or put together a set list of popular cover songs. You can even live stream shows via the internet!

7. Merch

No matter where you are performing, you can use the event to make additional money through merch sales.

CD sales will give new fans an opportunity to remember you long after the show is over. With the surging interest in vinyl, investing in a printing of your most popular or newest works could be worthwhile.

You should also sell merch at your concerts and on your website. When people show off their purchase, your brand image grows. By providing the right products, you should see a good return on your investment over time.

Come up with a few ideas that are within your budget and then, set up a poll on your website asking fans which are most interesting to them. You can see what similar bands have for sale and consider avoiding the types of items with high markdowns that indicate poor sales.

Sign some of the CDs, posters and other items you have for sale to boost interest and value. Stickers and phone cases are inexpensive and wearables are very popular. Hats, shirts and buttons are common concert wares.

Conclusion

You do not have to choose between your art and living comfortably. By using multiple revenue streams, you can develop an income that allows you to enjoy your musical endeavors and maintain a desirable quality of life.

Recording An Album, Part 7: Mixing and Mastering

After spending all that money on studio time and session musicians, what did it get me? How can we transform a pile of digital recordings into a finished CD? And how much feedback can I throw at my producer before he gets annoyed and stops answering my messages?

The answer lies in the right mix, and today I will talk about my experience with mixing and mastering, so that you get a feeling of the amount of change that is involved in each of these steps.

Rough Cuts

Once you have recorded your own parts for the album, your producer can stick your tracks together like LEGO bricks, and provide rough cuts of the songs as they sound so far.

“Rough cuts” are not optimized for anything, but should provide you with an impression of the general structure of the songs. Every song comes with layers of tracks, each recorded separately.

Depending on how many takes you recorded for each song, your producer will have various options for every track to choose from, so he probably won’t spend much time mixing before all of the tracks for one song are assembled.

Still, it is important to listen attentively to the rough cuts, because sometimes you sing a song in a bunch of different ways. You swallow a syllable, mispronounce a word, or even sing or play notes and words that are not supposed to be in the song.

For example, the first rough cut of my banjo song “Brown and Blue” missed multiple syllables, predominantly the “s” sounds at the ends of many of the verses.

Story-wise it makes a huge difference, if the “lies melt away in her blue eye” (singular) or her “blue eyes” (plural). One letter can mean the difference between romantic hypnosis and physical assault.

You better check for these problems early, so that your producer knows what he is up against, and can make corrections before sending the tracks off to the session musicians.

Especially if your sessionals sing vocal harmonies – you have to ensure that they are getting the right source material. Otherwise they will sing as wrong as you did, and as time passes, the mistakes will be increasingly harder to correct.

Editing

Errors like the missing endings of words are often leftovers from early takes of a particular song, but can also be the result of early editing.

My producer Craig loves to fiddle around with the various tracks, and so I got many rough cuts with missing consonants, because Craig used fade-transitions to puzzle two tracks together.

Mixing and mastering in the studio

Communication is an important part of the process.

The only way of knowing exactly what happened to your song, and how it might be fixed, is by providing your producer with an exhaustive list of all the errors that you found. He or she will then hopefully go through your comments, and fix the tracks accordingly.

Here are some of the issues that I looked out for:

Is the timing of solos and words correct? Sometimes the piano starts a bit late, or the chorus is a bit early, and it is simple enough to shift those bits around.

My two vocal duets with Joanna and Emma required much puzzling with sound snippets to align the harmonies of these songs. Matching the timing of notes can be annoying, but definitely pays off.

Are all tracks loud enough, or is the lead vocal outshouting everyone else? In several songs we had to turn up the volume of the vocal harmonies, because they were otherwise not audible. I spent good money on those harmonies; I want to hear them!

Do volume and intonation change in an ear-pleasing manner? Gregorian chant is nice, but outdated, because polychoral song (layering of vocal chants) is so much nicer.

No one wants to listen to the same chorus four times, but you can fix that by incorporating different versions of that chorus. Ideally, the changing intonation of the vocals would match the story of the song.

My ukulele song “York Railroad Station” consists of five verses and choruses. That could have been a disaster of repetition, but we saved the song by letting different instruments dominate different verses.

Since every lead instrument improvises its own harmony line, getting another instrument to lead the next verse can make it sound very fresh, even though the vocalization remains almost identical.

Some of your editing comments can be accommodated with a few simple mouse clicks, while others take considerable effort. You probably won’t know the difference until your producer tells you. I didn’t.

That’s okay, just make sure that you keep a comprehensive list of all your comments, so that you can return to it at the end of the mixing process, and check whether or not every suggested change got accounted for.

This probably sounds ludicrous when you are just starting to record, because “you can hear what is wrong with the song”. However, towards the end, when you are listening to fifteen songs, with five or six instrument and vocal tracks each, you will not be able to recall the long list of issues that you wanted to change about your songs back when you heard them for the first time. Keep an itemized list, and check it in the end; being organized is nothing magical.

Some of your initial comments may just be silly. A few of my first rough cuts came with a very loud and bulky vocal track. I was already worried that I would have to sing those songs again, because my voice was so loud that I could actually hear the air being compressed in the microphone.

As it turns out, this is nothing to panic about. A vocal compressor gets that fixed easily. Finding the right settings for the compression takes some experimentation, though, which is why Craig likes to perform this step in the end, when he has nothing left to record, and only has lots of tracks to mix.

If you are not sure how helpful or silly your comment is, put it on the list. Your producer will tell you what he thinks.

On a different note, try to be coherent and organized about your commentary. When you have two or three rough cuts assembled, work on a comprehensive list, and send it off when you feel that it is complete.

Don’t bother your producer every day with new brilliant ideas. He has other projects to work on, and can tackle your suggestions much more efficiently if you provide them in form of a wholesome compendium rather than in random bursts of unfocused annotations.

Mixing

I had very few arguments with my producer regarding the way that he mixed the tracks. As you know, I was in the studio for every single recording session for this album, so I gave my commentary live and directly to the session musicians.

That made the whole recording process feel very organic, and we had most of the mixing discussions long before Craig even got to the mixing board. If you don’t have the time to follow this path, you can always let your hired hands record without you.

Craig Newnes at the mixing board

Producer Craig Newnes hard at work.

Your producer will pick the tracks that he finds most suitable. You can then object and comment, but if the musician did not record the funky riffs that you wanted, you won’t be able to mix them in.

The final mix is something quite precious, so don’t be afraid to attend to every detail of it. Whichever way it turns out, this record will stick with you until the end of days.

You can always remaster songs, but remixing is very difficult, especially when time passes by, and you forget what you actually wanted remixes of a particular song.

When your producer sends those “final mixes” around, sit down with them, and listen. No matter how often you have heard a particular song, listen to it at least three times, and write notes while you do so.

If there are songs that you cannot enjoy three times per day, they shouldn’t be on that record anyway. The first time I listened to my final mixes very intensely; just me and the computer, writing down every comment that jumped into my head.

I then carried on with my work whilst continuing to listen to my album on repeat (this was the time during which I created the final layout of my physical album, so I was actually able to attend to both tasks at hand without having to focus too hard on either of them).

There really isn’t a good rule about this, but you probably should listen three times to every song before you check it off the list. For example, “Shannon” became my favorite song as soon as I got the rough cut with piano track from Craig.

The composition of this song was totally amazing fairly early on, and I never wanted to change anything about it. Yet, when I listened to it three times in a row, I found a few tweaks here and there that made the mix even better.

The first impression is not always the right one. Some ideas and comments have to ferment before they can be decanted and savored by your producer.

Once you have assembled a list of comments, let it sit for a day or two. Return to your ideas a few days later, with a fresh set of eyes and ears. After four repetitions of the same song, you undoubtedly start to hear little gremlin giggles.

When you reach the point of tedium, you have to stop. Let it rest. There is no perfection in art, and some of the blotchy details that annoy you on one day might turn out to be beautiful spots of color on another.

Time helps wonders in this process, and re-listening with a few day’s distance will open your understanding of the music to a much richer spectrum of options.

Repetition kills. Remember that 90s pop song that you totally loved when you heard it the first time, but grew increasingly annoying the more often you heard it?

To ensure that your own songs don’t suffer the same fate, you will have to simulate the test of time yourself by putting critical songs on repeat.

Yes, that lonesome harmonica tweet sounded really cool and innovative when we mixed it into the second verse of “York Railroad Station”.

But as I listened to it more often, and the fresh and innovative song became “just a song”, it became increasingly disturbing not to hear any more of that harmonica in the second verse.

The song composition had to change in order to keep the song enjoyable long term. We eliminated the harmonica from the second verse, and the song immediately sounded much more complete.

If you are uninitiated to the recording process, as was I, you may think that a lot of the little fixes are done during the mastering, such as the volume levels of the different tracks that comprise one song. That is not how it works.

For various reasons it should be your producer who attends to almost all the details of the mix. He knows your song, knows your style, and together with you he has created a certain vision of your music.

No one is better suited to fix the mix than the producer. So don’t hesitate to send him a detailed list with everything that you want to change about your songs.

Maybe you will disagree on certain points, but whatever doesn’t get changed during the mixing process might just stay in those songs for eternity.

And in a few months, when one of your friend’s names the one thing that he doesn’t like about your album, and you recall that you wanted to change it, but didn’t dare to ask, then you will be angry with yourself.

Thus, give yourself time to reflect, and foster a thorough investigation of your final mixes before approving them.

Mastering

Once you have approved the final mixes, the tracks should then go off to a third person for mastering.

What happens during that process is that someone listens to your music with relatively fresh ears, and through really huge speakers, so as to hear how bad your sound can get under difficult circumstances.

The masterer will then adjust frequency ranges, volume settings and other aspects of your tracks until your music sounds awesome again.

Ideally, that mastering person has lots of experience with said process, is familiar with your genre and style, and is not directly associated with your project.

In my case the mastering was done by Spencer Cheyne. A suboptimal choice, considering that Spencer not only co-operated the studio that I recorded in, but also provided the percussion for all of my songs.

Spencer Cheyne

Mastering engineer Spencer Cheyne.

However, Spencer is a brilliant producer, and he mastered my record very professionally. The final product is an absolute masterpiece, and I am very proud of the sound that my producers, session musicians, and I have created.

Conclusion

Including complications like a moving producer and time conflicts galore, this whole project took about ten months from start to finish.

I contacted Craig in the second week of May 2015, recorded the first tracks a few weeks later, and received the mastered record in early March 2016.

A lot can happen in ten months, and there were times when I was doubtful about the whole enterprise. My enthusiasm for and involvement in the recording process oscillated as time went by.

But whenever my motivation hit a low point, my producer would send me a fresh set of rough cuts, and the musical genius of my session musicians ensured that my love for this record was renewed.

It cost me a lot of time and money to get here, but the view from where I stand is simply unmatched by anything I ever experienced before.

I love my debut album, and without patting myself on the back, I can say that everyone who listens to it will find something enjoyable on this record.

Yet, there is one step left before I can translate my own pride about this album into universal enjoyment among its listeners.

Next week we will contemplate the perfect track sequence for the album. It is probably the most tedious and subjective decision that the album has to face, but it determines who will listen to the album and for how long. If you have come this far, you really don’t want to mess up that final step.

Stay in tune,

Goemon.

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Why You Need to Stop Pleasing Others as a Musician

If you’ve spent any time in the independent music market, then surely you’ve come across the name Derek Sivers, founder and former owner of CD Baby. I feel Derek is someone who has consistently made the effort to offer the best advice possible to independent artists everywhere.

The following video features a conversation between Ariel Hyatt and Derek Sivers. Take a moment to listen to what Derek has to say about pleasing others and I will offer a few more tips below. I had a laugh-out-loud moment at what he said about becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s very true.

Here are some key points I took away from this discussion:

  • You know what’s best for you and your career.
  • You can gather knowledge from a variety of different sources, but in the end you have to be the one to figure out how to apply it to your situation.
  • If you’ve got a great product, it has the potential to hit it big – you won’t know unless you try.
  • Don’t wait for someone else to give you recognition and validation; market and distribute your works anyway.

The bottom line here is that we don’t always think for ourselves when we should be (though getting absorbed with oneself is also a trap). More than anyone else, we should be aware of our own goals, desires, and objectives for our own career. And yet, every time we encounter an obstacle, we think we have to adapt what we are doing to a particular trend or audience. We think we need outside opinion to validate our actions, which could prove useful, but may not apply.

Like Derek says, I think it’s important to read and consume information and become familiar with the industry and various aspects of the music business (mindset, guerilla marketing, etc.). However, you still have to act on the information that’s right in front of you. You still have to make autonomous decisions. For example, you can’t just assume that your R&B music won’t find an audience because you’re Caucasian.

I think Derek is also saying that nobody – including the staff at CD Baby – can predict what music is going to catch on. You just have to put yourself out there and hope for the best. If something doesn’t work, that’s a good time to consider making some tweaks. Be careful not to defeat your own efforts. Give your idea or project a fair chance. Also beware of beating a dead horse. Know when to try something new.