SOUND HEAVEN Recording Blog

Hi.
Welcome to the initial post of the SoundHeaven Recording Blog. Over the Coming months we will post series of articles dealing with the  techniques and psychology of the recording art .

Hopefully they will not all come from us . Indeed our first post is from  songwriter Nicholas Brennean who has been kind enough to write an article for us dealing with the process of Making his first record.  Over to Nick.
John Stuart

Let me first introduce myself.  I am a busy health professional with a passion for songwriting.  I read and write music, sing and play guitar and have hit a rich vein of creativity in my middle age (it’s called a mid-life crisis).  I have always hung around with handy musicians and gigged in the past, but I am way too busy to bother about this now, so my musical get togethers with friends are more about having fun than anything serious.  Still, deep inside I am pretty serious about my music and was determined to have a good recording of what I considered to be my best songs.  Like most housebound singer songwriters who bore their wives to distraction (she is still my harshest critic though, which is a good thing) I was initially enamoured with the latest ProTools and home recording studio that one could set up in the blink of an eye.  A half decent microphone, the latest Band in a Box software and away you go.  Simple really, and to be honest I was really quite chuffed at the results I was getting.  However, it was still far short of where I wanted to go in terms of recording, so I took the plunge, got my mates to come along for the journey (they were all actually thrilled to be invited to play in a “real” studio) and headed off to the Blue Mountains.

The First Bit

I did a few days of what you might call “pre-production” with John Stuart and my friend Barney, who is my co-writer and arranger.  Sure, we had chord charts and everything well worked out in advance, but there was so much more to figure out in terms of the songs’ structures and arrangements, beginnings and endings etc which are the basic nuts and bolts of music that amateurs like me don’t think enough about.  We quickly found out that we had so much more work to do before we could really get started.  No dramas though, as we had taken time off work and were able to spend long days and nights getting it all written out.  Even if you don’t read or write music, you still need to devote a lot of time to planning before you actually start, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get as much done from day one as you had hoped to.  I had thirteen songs that I wanted to get done, which is very ambitious and this fact began to dawn on me pretty quickly.  However, once we got the band set up and all the sound checks done, all that planning came into its own.  First up, we set our goals to just get rhythm tracks down for all the songs.  That might not seem much to the uninitiated, but this entailed several days of work for amateurs like us.  If I had chosen to use studio session musicians from the outset, this process would probably have taken half the time; we live and learn.  I also learned that John was very keen to make real music, not just overdubbing and airbrushing mistakes, but really trying to achieve a cohesive, ensemble, “live in the studio” sound.  This was the most challenging aspect of recording.  Until everyone gets that click track totally internalised and really listens to what the others are doing, it simply won’t sound very good.  You quickly develop a deep appreciation of the skills of the recording artist.  We were a pretty unrehearsed, ragtag group and the fact that we were eventually able to make it sound really good all came down to John’s firm direction and negotiating skills.  He knew what was required, and if we were patient, listened and learned then everything worked.  I think we might have stretched his patience a bit on some days, but we got there eventually.  

You might think that the Blue Mountains is a long way to go just for a recording session, but there is something fantastic about the excitement of the journey up there.  Even better though is the journey back home with a rough mix of the day’s work belting out on the CD player as you drive home, delirious and completely worn out.  At least it saves your poor wife hearing it all again as soon as you get home.


The Middle Bit

Everyone will be different, but this “middle bit” as I have called it, actually took me quite a long time as I could only devote a session here and there over many months due to my work commitments.  However impatient you may get with the process, remember that it is always worth persevering with.  Nothing worth doing can be done overnight.

This is where it gets complicated and you really need to decide how far you wish to go with your project.  How long is a piece of string?  You will quickly realize that you are working with a professional, a producer and recording artist in his own right as well as a great sound engineer.  This is where you have to place your trust in the hands of experience, as what might sound OK, good or even terrific to you, may need a lot of work to make other people think the same.  For example, we found that there were problems with the intonation of the double bass which had been difficult to appreciate earlier.  However, it was there and would require a lot of work to fix it.  This is just one example of how things crop up and you have to be flexible in your thinking as to how quickly things can be done.  The next stages of recording; the laying down of the melodies, harmonies, solos and other instrumentals as well as extra little bits of percussion that John would sneak in here and there, gave me immense pleasure.  It is very hard, exacting work and not always a lot of fun.  I usually work very long, hard days in my day job, so you’d think I would find a day in the studio a breeze.  However, each night I would come home thoroughly exhausted from the day’s recording.  John then arranged a succession of outstanding session musicians to add bits and pieces that Barney and I (mostly Barney) had written; mostly solos, vocal harmonies and one song with a full brass section.  Considering I had started out just trying to get a decent recording of my songs, you can see that this project suddenly grew wings and became much bigger than I had originally expected.  However, things never got out of control and John was always very accurate in his estimation of costs as we went along, so there were never any nasty surprises.  I remember finishing late on a Friday (sorry Veechi), both of us totally exhausted, but at least I now had a final rough mix with all the vocals, instrumentals and percussion laid down.  John had “rescued” a few songs that were now sounding great and I was on a high; it was a great trip back home in the car that night.  


The Last bit

You might think that it is all plain sailing from here, once you have everything down pat.  You would be wrong!  Sure, you can leave your guitar and your voice at home for this bit, but the final mixing is where all the hard work really pays off.  Yes it is painstaking, but it is here you learn how modern music is made to sound “good” and where all the amazing technology that is available (in the hand of someone who actually knows what he is doing) comes into play.  This is where a disparate collection of songs is moulded into an album; it’s about creating moods, dynamics, colouration and polishing.  I was amazed at how my songs continued to sound better even when I thought I had already exceeded my goals.  Eventually, I had to decide on the order of songs (we ended up dropping one as it didn’t fit with the rest) and finally I had “the album” in my hot little hands for the journey home.

I made several mistakes along the way, but I would encourage you not to do what I did next.  Don’t now go home and burn heaps of copies to give to your mates, as excited as you may be to have a final mix of your first CD.  You have not finished the CD and it actually sounds heaps better after it has been fully mastered.  This final technical bit pulls it all together by evening out and compressing the sound, increasing the volume and putting in all the fade outs etc.  It is the cream on top and not to be missed.

The Bit After the Last Bit

I had an artist friend do some artwork for cover of the album and a few silly photos to go on the inside.  A graphic designer put it all together and a CD producer manufactured it really quickly.  It really was not all that expensive to turn the plain white disc in an anonymous clear plastic cover into a very personal statement.  This too was a very satisfying aspect of the creation of a CD that I hadn’t really thought much about before now.  Now you can give it to your mates for Christmas and even sell a few if you are lucky.  I used mine to help raise funds for the hospital where I work.  We had a great night with an “official” CD launch as a fundraiser.  So far I have sold plenty of albums and have had amazing interest in it from many people of all backgrounds.  Put simply, recording my own songs properly at Sound Heaven has been one of the most rewarding and life changing experiences ever and I regret not having done it sooner.  I can’t wait to do it all again especially now I know what is involved.  Thanks for everything John!

I hope you have found this review helpful.  If you want to listen to my songs, they are on bandcamp.com under my name Nick Brennan from Sydney, the album is called “Marching Single File”. If you want to buy an album, unfortunately I still have plenty left; I am sure John could put you in touch with me.  I hope you take the time to check it out, because if you do you will get a better idea of the great production values that come with recording at Sound Heaven.

Do not try this at home!
Sound Heaven