Recording An Album, Part 9: The Release Concert & Calgary’s Broken Community

As you recall, I recorded an acoustic album, and after nearly one year of labour I released it into the wild. It has become a tradition of the songwriter community to celebrate any album release with a concert. I chose to follow that call, and organized a release concert for my album.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from that endeavour. Some of it will sound like a bitter settlement with the Calgary music scene, some of it might be very specific to my personal circumstances, but the combined account of my negative experiences will hopefully be helpful for other recording/performing artists.

Nobody Likes You

Every concert lives through its audience. If nobody comes out to listen to your band, you might as well keep playing in your garage.

Organizing an elaborate show with various well-rehearsed and skilled band members is a pointless exercise unless you have a vibrant fellowship. Vibrant as in “whenever I post an event on social media, it takes me less than two days to get positive interactions with 20 people.”

And I’m not talking about clicking the “Like” button, which takes next to no effort; I refer to people who actually write a response. No matter how great you think your friends are, how positive the direct interaction with your fans is, remember that most people still are full of shit.

More than half of the people who tell you how excited they are about your show won’t have any recollection of said word exchange when the show time comes. Some of them will have legitimate excuses, such as a reunion with a dear family member, or simply their inherent inability to manage their own schedule.

But people who tell you that they “didn’t know” about the show are most likely either lying or incapable of maintaining attention. I contacted plenty of people directly, who then still claimed that they had no idea that I was making an album, even after ten months of marketing.

Directly after my album release, I had contact with about half a dozen people who tried to attend my show one or two weeks after it had already happened. There is nothing you can do to prevent that. I gave people handbills, and even saw them typing the associated information into their mobile devices; they still managed to mess up their schedules.

Promotional material from Goemon5's album release concert

Promotional material from Goemon5’s album release concert.

As a German, I find it very annoying when people are incapable of reading their calendar, but as an artist I also find it forgivable. Humans make mistakes; it’s no use to dwell on them.

By far the greater tragedy, both in (lacking) attendance numbers and in the level of perceived nuisance, are the “shit people.” I struggle to find an alternate term for that kind of human; nothing else appears to have quite the same descriptive power.

Unless your fan base consists entirely of beloved relatives, it is inevitable that more than half of your fellowship is full of verbal diarrhoea. It is relatively easy to walk up to a musician after a show, and tell him/her that the performance was very enjoyable. It is comparatively much more difficult to actually become an engaged fan of said artist, to react to a call for attending a future show, or even helping him/her to promote it.

There are dozens of “friends” that I have played for over the years, at jams, shows, or open mics, who assured me that my music is splendid, and that I should record an album and play shows, because they so very much enjoy listening to me.

When those same “friends” play a show or start a crowdfunding campaign, they do not hesitate to ask me directly to share and like their social media posts, yet to date the majority of them has not “liked” my artist page, interacted with my funding posts, reacted in any way to the events that I organised, or shared any of my posts on their own social media pages.

When I say “you are full of shite”, I mean exactly that: you ask me to organize a show, but you don’t actually intend to attend it. Nobody needs this kind of false encouragement. I have plenty of musician friends who share this experience.

Remember that most of your virtual friends, no matter how well you communicate with them, are still just friendly assholes. Do not build yourself any alternative illusion. Your “friends” are not your “fans”. Most of your friends are full of praise and poop, and you won’t be able to tell the difference until you count the number of smiling faces at your release concert.

But not to worry, your fans won’t come to your show either. One of the disappointing truths about life in Calgary is that there are more artists than patrons. No matter how far ahead you announce your show, most of your fans will have something else to do at that time, and be it only the folding of laundry.

They don’t actually want to hurt you – they only disappoint you unconsciously. Much of this is built on the idiotic premise that “one person less won’t actually make a difference”. Right-winged political parties have always celebrated great success by embracing that idea.

In order to acquire a good number of paying audience members, you need lucky connections to the right people. Despite all the contrasting tales that people tend to tell you, there is no actual lack of time or money.

I have seen Calgary artists gather $5,000 for a trip to England within a week, without great reason or rhyme or any personal benefit for their patrons. People with money will gladly part with it for your personal benefit, but you need to find those people first.

If you don’t know them at the beginning of your campaign, you should not count on meeting them through your campaign. The campaign for your album release primarily targets and affects the fan base that you already have. It does not grow that fan base.

I did not know that when I started to plan my album release, and it had disastrous consequences.

The Campaign

To put my experience into perspective, here follows an account of the effort I put into my album release concert.

When I began recording this album, I immediately started an advertisement and funding campaign for it. For nearly 10 months, I shared weekly updates to all of my social media channels, and linked them to my presale campaign on the PledgeMusic page.

Those updates were not advertisement spam, but rather comprehensive snippets of information. Video updates from the studio, photos of instruments and session musicians, stories about the recording process, and music videos with updated rough cuts of my songs.

After 10 months, my campaign managed to draw support from five individuals: JF, a friend who is immensely engaged in the music community; Mercy and Jim, who are both emerging artists and great friends of mine; Ralph, one of my former professors and friends at the university; and James, a musician who plays on my album. Five supporters in 10 months – that is quite a catch.

Of course, funding campaigns and pre-sales are only one measure of success (or lack thereof). As soon as I had determined time and date of my album release concert, I created a ticketed event on Eventbrite, and shared it on my dominant social media platforms.

Many people interacted with the event, some even shared it. That my session musicians were not among the people who shared the event with any regularity (except for James, again!) is, in the end, my fault. I should have asked them to do so. I could also have given them an incentive: if the concert had attracted enough paying costumers to exceed the production costs, everyone would have gotten paid.

We will talk about finances further down, but it is generally a good idea to provide your collaborators with a financial incentive, so that they get personally invested in your project. This makes the difference between session musician and band member – one is there for the gig, the other for the journey.

Goemon5 onstage with fellow musicians

Goemon5 onstage with fellow musicians.

My concert event page was up for about eight weeks. I linked every album update, every music snippet, and almost every Twitter blurb to that event page. I received plenty of interactions, and lots of promises, but when the time of truth drew near, I still had only two tickets sold – to family members of one of my musicians.

So I increased my enthusiasm for posters and handbills; everything I printed contained the line-up of session musicians, a web address, and QR code. The payoff for my perseverance was barely noticeable: the number of paying audience members at my release concert was one lower than my number of musicians on stage.

Mind you, half of these audience members were close friends or family members of my musicians, the other half were dearest friends of mine.

Then, of course, there are the “poor people”, fans and friends that can’t afford the $20 fee for a three-hour concert (which included the album on CD), and I had various “friends” asking me if they could attend the concert free of charge.

Don’t worry about those low-budget fans. Give them all the tickets that they want; they won’t show up anyway. If people are not personally invested in a project or event, they won’t have any reason to attend it.

I contacted about 30 people who I owed favours to, who sold me an instrument that I recorded for my album, or who have otherwise been of support throughout my musical journey. Of those 30 people, about half replied and requested the free tickets that I offered to them. Of the 20 free tickets that I gave away, only four were used. Four! I had more volunteers at the show than I had takers of free tickets.

That’s it, that’s the payout of 12 months of campaigning, hanging up posters, handing out flyers, playing at open mics, talking to friends and strangers, preparing videos and sound bites, updating profile pages, organising rehearsals, and planning out a whole concert from scratch: nine paying attendees; five, if you count only those who actually reacted to my campaign.

If I had not run any campaign at all, and instead just booked a one-hour slot at any of Calgary’s readily available bars, I would have gotten the same number of attendees. Don’t try to correct me – I actually tried that approach a few years ago.

With a random show at a coffee shop I gained the same audience count. People who hear one of my songs usually stay for a few more. Thus, I know that the problem is not my level of performance. If I had used my spare time to serve coffee at Tim Hortons, instead of running a social media campaign, I would have made approximately $2,000 CAD. That is more than twice the amount of money that I spent on my album release.

I don’t want to prevent you from running a campaign yourself; I actually encourage you to do so. But be aware that said campaign will be fruitless if you don’t already have a vibrant and engaged fan base. Friends are not fans, and, therefore, won’t buy tickets.

The Costs of Putting on a Release Show

If you have been around the music scene for a while, you will know that making music costs time and money. Release concerts in particular are notorious for sucking at your finances.

My first intention was to give a great show; a spectacle of sound, a celebration of that long artsy process that started over six years ago when I picked up my first guitar, and culminated in a beautiful acoustic album.

I wanted control over the venue, so as to eliminate the random drunk hobos and hecklers, and make the show enjoyable for its entire audience. That obviously meant I had to pay to rent the venue, and it took me a month to find one that was relatively cheap, yet big enough for 50 to 100 people, which was my expected attendance level at the time.

After considerations of various schedules and prices I booked a Sunday afternoon at the Royal Canadian Legion. It was cheap, available, child-friendly, and situated in a great location. Calgary downtown is easily accessible via public transportation, and the afternoon time slot enabled parents with children of any age to attend, and still be home early enough to get plenty of sleep for the upcoming workweek. That particular Sunday did not conflict with any concerts, conferences, or grand celebrations; I checked for everything!

Goemon5 performing at the Royal Canadian Legion

Goemon5 performing at the Royal Canadian Legion.

Of course, people found excuses anyway. “I thought it was in the evening,” “I did not find a parking spot,” and “I worked that Sunday” are some of my favourites. We determined above that most people are full of horse manure, so these lame excuses are no longer surprising.

Also vivid: “I need to clean my apartment.” OCDs are on the rise, so you can’t actually argue against such a notion without sacrificing your political correctness. Instead of renting the Legion for $360, I could also have had the Red Bush Theatre for $75. That would have sufficed for the meager turnout that my concert gained, but you don’t know that beforehand, do you?

No matter how much upfront support you are promised, I strongly recommend that you count on an audience number that is about twice as high as that of your regular shows. That approach will prevent you from booking a venue that you can then only fill to 5%.

If your venue of choice does not have a sound system, you need to rent or borrow one. My friend Jonathan has a good sound board, and he himself is a very capable sound manager, so I spared myself a couple of big bills in that regard.

Similarly, L&M has relatively low overnight rental rates for sound and lighting equipment. Two huge speakers with stands and cables cost about $40, and my lighting technician asked for a separate investment of $50. We also “lost” one cable at the end of the show, and had to pay $30 for it, so including rental insurance I paid approximately $130 for equipment. That part went pretty well.

Now we get to the beefy bit. My idea of a concert requires musicians. Unfortunately, not all of the musicians that I wanted to play with were good friends of mine, so I actually had to be prepared to pay. I will spare you the gruesome details, and will only talk about the costliest chunk.

My violinist of choice got sick just before the show, so I needed to hire one. The violinist that I was referred to argued that, considering she only had one week to practice, she would need $200 to commit to the concert. I didn’t have much choice in the matter, and ate the costs.

But even that is a relatively mild investment, compared to the other item on the same cheque. My original violinist requested sheet music of her parts. Apparently classically trained violinists don’t like to improvise on stage, so I had to hire someone to transcribe all of the violin parts from those four songs on the album into notes on paper.

Oddly enough, such service is not available for free, so I spent another $400 just to make my fiddler happy. Had I known that transcriptions are so expensive (you only get the bill once it’s done), I would have rejected the request of my original violinist, and instead I would have hired a fiddler who was willing to play a spontaneous improvisation on the theme.

Please note that no one else on stage replayed the album sound, and I personally prefer a rehearsed improvisation over a sight-reading concerto. Splendid – $600 for just one instrument. Whether or not you want to spend that amount on your release is up to you, but you really want to consider carefully how much a particular instrument part is worth to you.

The more elaborate you want your concert to be, the more money and time you should be prepared to invest. Ideally you will have a budget. It is not generally a good feeling to be constrained by one’s finances, but it really is good to have some numbers to work with.

After the disastrous outcome of my album campaign, I had virtually no expectations towards my release concert, and therefore I did not prepare a budget for it. I had a few thousand dollars in my bank account, so I was able to pay all the necessary costs upfront. That also meant I did not need to make any money with the show, which was great, because I didn’t. Without talking details, I made approximately $210 at the door, which translates to a net production cost of about $850 CAD for the whole concert.

In hindsight I would have made many of my decisions differently. I would have booked a smaller venue, maybe even a bar, so as to pay less or even no money for the venue itself. I would have drastically changed the violin booking, or just rejected it completely. The violin remains one of my favourite instruments, but it is not worth $600 for four songs. At least not for a concert with only 10 paying attendees.

Your own thought process probably differs from mine, but you should ask yourself “just how good is ‘good enough’ for my audience, and how much money do I want to invest, considering that this concert probably won’t make its money back?”

Broken City Calgary (Not To Be Confused With The Venue Of The Same Name)

Much of this blog may read like a hate tirade against all of my false friends, which really is awfully close to the truth. It is, however, also a word of advice, and a very wordy opening for my testament on Calgary’s music scene.

Calgary is a broken city; that is no longer a secret. This city has a vibrant arts community, but sadly the latter mostly acts as its own benefactor.

Whenever any of my musical friends organizes a show, I try to attend it, and the majority of audience members that I see at those events are other artists. The communities of Money and Art very rarely overlap in Calgary, and I know few Calgarians who are able to support their music through their music.

In order to create a successful show, you need to gather sustained support from an audience that is a) willing and able to part with money in exchange for entertainment, and b) prepared to attend your concert, despite the tragedy of having to move one’s own body through the door frame.

Gaining the support of those people takes years, if not decades. That is why I won’t try for that support anymore, at least not in Calgary. I attended hundreds of open mics, went to dozens of album release concerts and other shows, shot photo and video at those shows, and used those images to promote later concerts. Barely any of the many artists that I supported over the past five years has made any effort to return those favours.

After spending five years on Calgary’s stages, I have grown tired of the lies, the ignorance, the false sympathy, and the selfishness. I won’t spend any more time on the arts community of this city. I will play shows, if I get invited to do so, but I don’t intend to organize any myself.

If I want to play a show without audience, I can do so in my living room. If I long for an unpaid show in front of a drunk and inattentive crowd, I can play an open mic or go busking downtown. Wait, the latter actually involves payment. It is true, I have made more money through busking than I ever made playing at venues in Calgary.

I continue to love and make music. Maybe I will even make love to the music, but that is none of your business. However, I won’t put any more effort into building a “Calgary fan base”. I have tried for five years; my hands are worn, but still empty.

Please stop bugging me about visiting that one place, that one website, one jam, one venue, event, or community that will change everything. It does not exist. The one ring is a myth, not a miracle.

It takes decades of dedicated labour or a big box of luck to get your art the attention that it deserves. I have neither, so I won’t bother anymore. I sincerely thank all of my true friends who have walked this path of disappointment with me, and wish them the best of luck for acquiring recognition in this broken city.

All of this sounds bitter and depressing, but life is essentially a bitter cup, so you might as well drink it as such.

You can still grow as an artist in Calgary. You can gather appreciation and loyal fans. Just don’t use this city as your primary resource. Go out and explore the world. If you don’t have a huge supporting fan community, don’t organize big shows. Keep it small and simple. Just you and your three best musician friends, on a pretty little stage, on one bill with two other bands, in a venue that regularly showcases music.

If you only get two fans to show up, you still have the six fans of the other bands to keep you company. And should you actually sell the place out, you can book a bigger show next time. Live and learn. Grow and sustain. Baby steps, and all in good measure.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Recording An Album, Part 6: Visual Art and Album Design

Recording An Album, Part 6: Visual Art and Album Design

Most art is at least partially visual. The majority of our great composers tried to encapsulate visions of events, landscapes, people, or relationships in their songs. Thus, the visual representation of your album should receive at least some thought.

Even if you only plan to distribute your music via download, there will be a digital picture associated with your digital album. The better this picture fits the mental image of your record, the more memorable your music becomes.

If this is starting to sound like labor to you – tough luck, because today I will be writing about the process behind generating the cover art, layout, and logo of my album. As an artist, you are supposed to have an opinion about these sorts of things, even if you hand all of the actual work over to a professional graphic designer. Yes, even if you are blind, your opinion matters!

Deciding on an Artistic Direction

Visual art is always subject to personal taste, which makes it impossible to create an all-pleasing CD cover. However, for your debut album, you should still try to create something beautiful.

For example, the covers of Chumbawamba albums are often the subject of controversy, because their weird artwork rarely shows a direct association to the content of the CD, or even to reality itself. Nobody buys a Chumbawamba album for its beautiful, thoughtful, eye-pleasing cover art. So, if your first record looks anything like that, it is not likely to sell well.

The Album Title

The first step for me was to generate an album title. As you recall from my fourth blog post, all of the songs on my record circle around the topics of life and love, so I put those two words on a piece of paper, and allowed them to fester.

I dug deeper into my music, and discovered that more than life itself my songs explore the forces that drive it, investigating the spark of life, if you want.

After a few days of penciling words on paper, I arrived at The Fire Within, and I was quite happy with that. My songs generally explore the fire that burns inside the human mind, the mental forces that drive our existence. Title: check.

The Imagery & Cover Art

Next I thought about the things that I wanted to showcase on my album cover. If you sell physical CDs, you have at least three advertisement panels to consider: the two sides of the CD sleeve, and the surface of the silverling itself.

Obviously, you can plaster those spaces over with a picture of your favorite guitar, and a long list of thank-you-notes, but I find that a bit boring. It is a nice thought, but you are probably targeting an audience that is much greater than your circle of friends and mentors, so the vast majority of your readership won’t have any interest in reading your thanks.

You can still put them on there, but don’t make them a focal point. In my typical selfish manner, I wanted to showcase my personal passion and dedication to music and art, so I planned to show pictures of all the instruments that I play on this record. But how could I make that subtle?

My album title focuses on fire; how about a campfire, made of instruments? Setting acoustic instruments on fire is obviously not a great concept, but a wood pile consisting of guitars, ukuleles, and other instruments would look pretty interesting, eh?

Then there had to be a picture of myself. That is just self-promotion 101 – people remember you by your face, so you better stick it on your product.

Luckily, I am not associated with any record label; they will force you to put your face on the front of the album. For the band manager exists simply no alternative, which can be pretty frustrating.

Ask cellist Ben Solee: he loves his vinyl covers, because he co-designed them. Yet he is at odds with his CD covers, because his record label always slaps his face on the front.

However, I would be releasing my record independently, so I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. Since I was determined to print CD wallets, I had four paper panels to fill, which allowed me to perform a little party trick: the front cover shows my beloved pile of instruments, and in its continuation to the left (on the back of the CD wallet), the photo shows myself playing the autoharp.

Goemon5 surrounded by instruments

Goemon5 surrounded by instruments in his album artwork.

There we have the cover art: an exploration of the album title The Fire Within, illuminated through a potential campfire constructed of acoustic instruments, and in self-discovery via autoharp (the inner fire that the album actually explores). I shot a few concept photos via self-timer on my pocket camera, and asked my friend James Tworow to professionally shoot the scene, so as to control lighting and object positions. Cover art: check.

Photography & Design

That’s where I ran out of ideas, so I indirectly asked for external help. I employed my friend Alyssa Hanke (Alyssa H Photography) for a promotional photo shoot. I dressed up in my stage outfit, grabbed my favorite 12-string guitar, and met Alyssa in a park downtown.

We picked a gloomy autumn afternoon for that occasion, so as to fill the photos with colors, as well as with natural emotions. Alyssa is a master of her craft, so the photos that came out of that shoot are all beautiful.

I employed one of them for the inside of the CD wallet, and another for the CD itself. External assistance: super helpful. Even though Alyssa knew little about her actual involvement in this project, she supplied me with some pretty iconic shots for two of the five panels.

All the other photos that she shot during that session are great promotional pictures that I spread throughout my social media pages and other promo material.

The fifth panel was tricky. I did not want to see any more of myself. Nobody wants to see the performing artist on every single panel, so the last shot had to be something new.

As you remember from last week, I shot a whole lot of material during my studio sessions. Thus, the last panel would either contain a collage of all the session musicians that contributed to this record, or a highlight of a few exceptional artists.

With sixteen session musicians on this album, the former would have required very small pictures, so I decided on the latter option.

There is one person that is featured on a great number of photos, from various sides, and it is the person who made the greatest contribution to the beautiful sound of this record: my producer Craig Newnes.

I quickly singled out a small number of potential shots, and after some debate decided on one of them. Warning: if you plan to put pictures of people other than yourself on your CD sleeve, you better ask those people for permission. Producers, in particular, love to work in the background, and may not appreciate your plans.

Producer Craig Newnes on the album artwork

Producer Craig Newnes in the album artwork.

So, there we have all five panels filled. Evidently this rough design process was followed by a lot of trial-and-error to fit album title, artist names, track list, and other text onto the CD wallet, and I thank Alyssa H and Martin Aak for their input in this matter.

It’s always good to show your design ideas to a friend, and ask for an honest opinion. Art grows through constructive criticism, so make sure you get some.

As you can see, my layout works quite heavily with photos. Some people don’t like that, and if you are one of them, you can bugger off and wait for next week’s post, because the rest of this blog walks in the same direction.

There are numerous reasons for my decision to go full-scale on the photo front:

  1. I don’t trust anyone to mock around with my art.
  2. I did not have much money to spend on layout.
  3. I have a little bit of talent for graphic design and photography, so I took this as an opportunity to develop the artwork myself.

Many artists utilize geometrical patterns or photos of generic objects as CD backgrounds, such as curtains, tapestry, or floor tiles. Obviously, you can use whatever you like, just as long as you fit the artwork to the concept of the album.

Whatever your main criteria might be, keep in mind that this is your personal product. You will have to live with its look until the end of days, so you better pick a layout that you can proudly present to an audience of thousands of uninitiated fans.

Another great advantage of working with myself as graphics design team is the permanent access to the source material, as well as maintaining a flow of ideas.

Whenever I need a new promotional poster or handbill, I can easily build on a previous collage, implement new ideas, and integrate older photos or artwork.

For example, in my social media campaign, I mostly used digital posters that show a number of studio shots of my session musicians, and that roster was gradually updated as my list of sessionals grew.

Goemon5's session musicians

Some of the many session players that appeared on Goemon5’s album.

Even the last of my advertisement posters for the album release concert incorporates design elements from previous editions, although the layout differs vastly from anything that I designed before.

“Corporate Identity” is an important factor in your public representation. Yes, even as an artist. If you have a consistent visual representation, people quickly start to associate a distinctive font, graphic style, or logo with a certain style of music, and eventually your artist name.

There is something to be said about variety, but you should also try to define a visual framework for yourself, so that people start to recognize your show announcements, even if your poster is surrounded by dozens of posters for other events. Specific color compositions and logos work great for that.

Personal Logo

As mentioned, I get high on graphic design, so I decided quite early that I wanted a logo.

Your personal logo can cost anything from $200 to $1000 CAD, or more. You can also design one yourself, if you feel so inclined.

For example, if your band name is “Bold, Amplified Music”, you can print out the letters BAM in a font of your choosing, and rearrange them, until you reach an eye-pleasing combination. Simple graphic designs can be very effective, so don’t hesitate to give it a try yourself.

However, I wanted something more sophisticated; a logo that is unique to myself, and representative of my cultural background, as well as my music. For that reason I hired another Calgary talent: Cari Buziak (Aon Celtic Art).

After a few discussions and three revisions, Cari presented me with my personal logo. I could write a whole blog post about this, because there is so much to discover in her art, but for reasons of simplicity, I will confine myself to some key points.

Goemon5 personal logo

Goemon5’s personal dragon logo.

What you see is the perfect dragon. It combines all five elements of the philosophy of Japanese sword fight. Yet, its design is founded on a Celtic form, which also defines my music.

The dragon head even features a mustache; how much more ME can you possibly put into this logo?! This dragon is a perfect representation of me and my music, so I have something that I can proudly slap on every one of my products, be it T-shirts, CDs, or posters.

Goemon5 dragon T-shirt

Goemon5’s great-looking logo on a T-shirt design.

If you see this dragon anywhere, there is little chance that you will think of anyone but the Celtic guy with the painfully long blog posts on DAWcast. Perfect! Okay, enough of that.

Identity

The most important lesson in all this is IDENTITY. Whatever you choose to do with your record, make sure that it represents what and who you are.

The journey of self-discovery can start with the album title: create one that represents the music on your album. Then brainstorm about the cover art, starting with the album title and expanding into a deeper understanding of your music.

Don’t forget to incorporate your own face into your layout. Even if it is just a sloppy ink drawing of your head in profile – YOU are the face of your music!

The remaining panels of your CD wallet, sleeve, booklet, or CD should be filled with pictures that you like, and which ideally have some association with your music and personality.

Just keep in mind that this is going to be out there forever, standing as an eternal representation of your visual taste (or lack of it). So, remember to show the design to your friends and request honest feedback.

If you want the whole deal: get a logo. A personal logo is not just emotionally satisfying; it also serves as a great visual mark of identification. And in our quickly revolving world of media, news, and resulting hysteria, identity matters more than ever before.

Final Thoughts on Visual Art and Album Design

I hope you found something useful in all this. Yes, graphic design is not everyone’s hobby, but you should at least have an opinion on it.

Remember: this is YOUR product; own it! It is never too early to think about the layout of your album, because these ideas take a long time to develop and ripen.

Goemon5 album release promo poster

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

Ideally, by the time your producer has finished your album mix, you should have a nearly final album layout as well. You can then put the finishing touches on the design, while a man with big speakers masters your record.

That’s where we are headed next week: mixing and mastering the album. Until then, stay puff!

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.

Recording An Album, Part 5: Session Musicians

Recording An Album, Part 5: Session Musicians

Recording session musicians can be a source of great fun and inspiration, because you witness your songs growing through the craftsmanship of professional players.

But it can also drag your day into an emotional abyss, if your sessionals lack the energy and experience that your record requires.

Today I’d like to share some of my most and least favorite studio moments.

Choosing Session Musicians

When my producer Craig and I started discussing the choice of session musicians for my debut album, I made the point that I wanted to be present for every recording session.

Firstly, I wanted to have a say in the arrangement of the songs. It is a lot easier to change a particular banjo riff or flute note, if you’re able talk to your musicians live in the studio.

Many things can be changed afterwards during the mixing process, but it is a lot more time-consuming to push little snippets of sound around than it is for the musician to play a particular part again.

If you have the time, I definitely recommend sitting in for every session. Even if you don’t have anything to add to the discussion between producer and musician, you still get to watch your song grow.

My second reason for sitting through every single recording session is my social media campaign. During every session I took pictures and shot video of the musicians in the act of art, and I posted those snippets as teasers on my social media pages.

How that turned out will be discussed on a different day. In any case, I now have plenty of material that I can use for promotional purposes. I think that’s a good thing.

On Working with a Producer

If the option exists: stick to one producer. When the recording process of my album was completed to approximately 80%, my producer Craig decided to move from Alberta to British Columbia, and oddly enough that move was not helpful for our work relationship.

Craig promised to return to Calgary relatively frequently, and attend remote sessions via online conversation. Neither of these options found fulfilment to any great extent. We pulled through, and the record sounds great, but recording without producer was a great labour.

Both quality and efficiency of the recording sessions dropped markedly after Craig had left town. Despite all the wonderful options that modern technology has to offer, nothing beats direct conversation.

How to Determine What Instrumentation Your Album Needs

What kind of session instrumentation your album requires is subject to consent between your producer and yourself. In general, your producer is more experienced than you are, and will probably not only have a good idea of the instruments that will sound good with your music, but also know the right players for those instruments.

Personally, I play about a dozen different instruments. Some I play much better than others, but still good enough to provide me with a reliable perspective on composition and sound.

If you play more than one instrument, you can obviously play lead yourself, but I don’t recommend it. As my friend Frank pointed out: “that would be too much YOU on that record.”

No, I wanted to drag as many of my musically talented friends into this project as I possibly could, because I wanted to implement their unique perspectives and talents into my music.

Except for one player, I enjoyed every single recording session, and I am very happy that I made time to witness them live.

Against all odds I did end up playing a bit of lead guitar on one song. “Your Love” is probably the weirdest song on my album, not least because I wrote it on autoharp. After Craig sent me the rough cut of that song, I experimented a lot with its composition. Some relatively simple, but intentional guitar chords added a lot of structure to it.

I think the greatest obstacle for my session players was the absence of a click track on my songs. Due to the absence of a metronome, the tempo of my rhythm tracks changes a bit over time, and even deliberate tempo changes are not always easy to follow.

Still, we managed. Various studio artists asked about the absence of the click track, but everyone found their way to follow my rhythm.

Working with Session Players

Obviously, some sessions were more amazing than others. The key players on my record (as judged by my own subjective perception) are Corry Ulan (banjo), Barb Olorenshaw (violin), Dan Mills (flute), and Joanna Drummond (vocals).

Every one of these four sessions was terrific. These four musicians are masterful artists, and brought a lot of beauty to the table.

I remember sitting in the studio with Barb, and my producer asking me if I had any comments on her contributions, and all I could say was: “can we just sit here and listen to Barb playing for the remainder of the day?”

There are sessions that are simply joyful. Art knows no perfection, and sometimes you end up with three different versions of a song that are all equally splendid. That’s just how it goes.

Decisions are part of our life, and sometimes they are so overwhelming that we cannot make them ourselves. And it’s always better to have multiple options to pick from, instead of being confined to one mediocre take.

Music needs time to grow. You cannot force art, and thus some sessions require more time than you might be inclined to put in.

Recording horns with Goemon5 - session playingWe sat in the studio with Johnny Summers, who was supposed to contribute French horn to one song (“Long Black Braids”). It took about an hour to get decent takes for that six minute song.

At first I thought that maybe Johnny was out of touch with his instrument, or even not good enough, but that is an odd thing to suggest to the director of the Calgary Jazz Orchestra. As it turns out, that horn is just typically French: rude and uncooperative.

Johnny managed to wrangle the French horn into submission, but it took a long time to get the sound that we wanted. He also played an option of Flügelhorn, which went swimmingly, and took us one take to complete.

Accordion - recording with Goemon5As result, we now have a beautiful dialogue of horns on that track, both played by Johnny Summers. You won’t get THAT with a live recording! Neither will you get Hammond B3 legend Mike Little on the accordion, because he is a busy man, and even for him it takes more than two tries to get accustomed to my weird bluesy chord choices.

So, be nice to your session players, and send them the rough cuts of your songs ahead of time, if you can, so that they have an idea of what will be happening on recording day. Recording an album in sessions has the advantage that you can experiment with its sound; use that!

There were various other recording sessions that either took longer than planned, or needed to be rescheduled.

Emma Rouleau, who sings a very beautiful duet with me, offered me ad hoc to sing the second half of the traditional “Every Rose”, because the song lends itself to a male-female dialogue.

Since my version is a bit difficult to follow, Emma needed to study the song at home, and return the studio at a later time.

When I asked Joanna Drummond to sing an a cappella duet with me (“Winter’s Cold at Sunset Bay”), she basically tore that song apart, and reassembled it into a much more structured form. Luckily we did that in a rehearsal session.

And then there was the tin whistle. Oh, dreaded instrument! Apparently tin whistle players are incredibly rare in Alberta, and it took me half a year to get a lead on one. That is already a bad timeline, considering that we had planned to finish the album within six months.

But we can top this drama: when we finally sat in the studio with my elusive tin whistle player, he turned out to be just not good enough. I know, I should have noticed that earlier, considering that I had several rehearsals with him, but I didn’t.

Flautist - recording with Goemon5As mentioned before, I am quite new to the idea of music, and my ears don’t always work as the well-trained harmony detectors that they should be. When Craig sent me the rough cuts of the whistle tracks, we immediately omitted the whistle from two of the three intended songs, and Craig said: “I’d be okay with finding and recording another flautist.”

This was in January, about three month after my originally planned release date, and three months before my intended departure from Calgary, so you might conclude that the schedule looked a bit tight.

And considering the small amount of luck that we had with that topic thus far, the outlook was rather bleak. But fortune smiled upon me, and I got into contact with Dan Mills, who had just moved to Alberta a few weeks earlier.

And not only did Dan play all the whistle parts that we wanted, he also added some incredible Irish flute sections that we had not even planned. I think the grand prize question is this: what would we have done without Dan? Probably we would have omitted the flute and whistle parts.

In such a stripped-down composition, you would hear that something was missing from those songs, but in this case parts missing are better than parts half-asked.

Budgeting for Session Musicians

Jonathan Ferguson - recording with Goemon5Besides the fact that I have many friends who I love to hear play, there was also a financial component to my decision on the identity of session musicians. Friends usually charge friendship fees, while unacquainted artists don’t.

I paid around $100 per song and artist. A bit more for unionized musicians; a bit less for friends. It was worth every dollar.

Some musicians won’t like to accommodate your schedule wishes for just one song, but you have little influence on that. James Hutniak plays harmonica on only one song, and he spent at least three hours on that, because said session was riddled with technical difficulties. Still he was kind enough to not charge me by the hour.

Similarly, Johnny Summers and Jonathan Ferguson played their instrument for one song only, and like true professionals they gave it their best possible effort. I think the key is to find session musicians that actually love their job, and put their emphasis on passionate play. In that regard I totally lucked out.

How Do You Get the Musicians You Want on Your Record?

Playing piano on a record projectYou Ask. Duh! It sounds obvious, but when the session musicians on your wish list play way out of your league, you might hesitate to contact them. Sometimes you just have to overcome your little butterfly daemons to progress with your art.

I asked Hayley Sales to sing lead vocals for “The Fair”, knowing that her level of musicianship lies yards above mine, and that she was likely to laugh politely in my face. Surprisingly enough she agreed anyway, which provided me with a great leap of energy and enthusiasm for my art in general, and this record in particular.

It didn’t work out in the end, because Hayley signed a contract with Universal Music, but that is beside the point. My message is: you’ll never know unless you ask.

My friend Jim Burke performed his debut album together with grand talents such as Steve Pineo and Mike Little. Initially, Jim did not think that he was good enough to draw those Country legends onto stage with him. Honestly, who would?!

But he asked, and he succeeded, and that is really all you need to know. Music connects people. You will never know what kind of connection your art can draw unless you actually approach your prospective collaborators.

Some sessionals may only materialize before you due to sheer luck, or because your producer has worked with them in the past. About half of the 16 musicians that played on my debut album are friends of mine; most of the other half are in some way associated with the studio that I recorded in.

Playing blues harp in the studioSome are actually rather recent additions to my circle of friends, such as flautist Dan Mills, as described above. My blues harpist James Hutniak, in particular, was a last-minute find.

My producer had big trouble getting any blues harmonica player to commit to our project. It was only one song, but the harmonica was to be the only instrumentation on “Free Bird” beside my slide guitar, so I did feel the pressure to find someone. And I needed to find him or her quickly, because Craig wanted to close the project within the week.

I took my chances, and posted a message on “Calgary Music Classified”, one of our musical Facebook communiqués in Calgary. Within two hours I had three replies, one of which was actually committed to the job. James turned out to be a great person, and the player for the record. Sometimes you just luck out.

Final Thoughts

Recording this album has been quite the journey. The record sounds amazing, and I can say that without sounding self-centred, because the impressive bits were all contributed by my producer and my session musicians.

My own participation in this project is dwarfed by anyone else who worked on it, but still it feels like I earned this piece of art. Because I was there when it happened.

I cut out and arranged many of the pieces of this musical puzzle, and I was present when they started to fall into place, revealing a majestic landscape of sound.

But there is a lot more to be done to develop your music into a commercial product, so next week I will take a break from audio, and will talk about design, layout, and advertisement instead.

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