Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How An Album Is Made.

Dear Curious Folks,

I get lots of questions on the process of recording an album. Mostly from other curious future-music-album-recordees. But also from just plain curious folk. Since I am in the middle of recording my second album (a collab with my mom), I thought I would let you in on the secret of how it is done.

Prepare to be amazed. Or not.

The Creative Process

This is by far the most important part of the entire experience because this is where the actual "stuff" is thought up. And it takes the longest. Months, sometimes years. You can't force inspiration to come, so you have to wait for it.

Sometimes it comes in the middle of the night when you have no desire to get up and write it down so you forget it.

Sometimes it comes while taking long roadtrips so you sing your idea into your cellphone and send yourself a voicemail.

In the case of this lullaby album, sometimes inspiration comes while you are trying to get your little one to sleep. And you test out your ideas on him.

Sometimes what you think is inspiration is just a stupid idea when you go back the next day and listen to what you came up with.

This goes on for months, all the while you start compiling ideas on notation manuscript, notebooks, and snippet recordings on your 30-second keyboard recorder. You come back when you can and add to them until you have a full song.

Another part of the creative process is also figuring out the details of what is going on the album. How many songs? Is there a common theme? Are they all going to be original compositions, or are any arrangements? If there are arrangements, what sort of copyright laws apply to the song? Are mechanical licenses needed to be obtained for usage? How much money in royalties will need to be paid to the original composer?

Since our lullaby album is a collaboration, my mom and I decided that we would each contribute 6 songs each. Both originals, and arrangements. No co-written songs. Just 6 individual songs from each of us. We each have 1 song from our 6 that are songs written by other composers who are either still alive, or who have not been dead for 75 years yet. In other words, we must write to obtain permissions, and then pay royalties (8 cents per cd printed).

Most of the time, obtaining permission is going to be assumed a green light (because other composers like royalties), so we go ahead and write the arrangements and plan it for the album while waiting for the licenses.

Designing an Album Cover

If you are either rich, devoid of extra time, or talentless in the Photoshop department, it is best to hire someone to design your album cover for you.

We are none of those, so we decided to design our own cover and liner notes.

It helps to have an idea of what color scheme you want on the album. What sort of feeling do you want to portray by the cover image? Are you using art, or photography? Are you going to be in the photos? (If so that is a whole other last album I worked out every day for 4 months to get in shape for my cover photoshoot. I designed my own outfit and had my mother-in-law sew the skirt. It took 5 different photoshoots and two photographers to get ONE perfect covershot out of thousands of shots).

Fortunately for our lullaby album, we are using artwork. We wanted the cover to be clean. Simple. Obvious. Inviting. Classy.

We found our perfect album cover from an old painting hanging at my Grandparents' home. As you can see below, we had to take a digital picture of the painting (you can see the couch in the background), since we could not find any digital prints online of the painting.

We then uploaded the photo into Photoshop and edited it to perfection. Since it was a very old painting, we had to get rid of some cracks in the photo, as well as many speckles and chips. We also had to adjust the colors and contrast a bit, as well as crop the frame out of the photo. We ended up with what you see above on the computer screenshot (as well as our blog sidebar, top left).

Finding what fonts you want to use is also important because you don't necessarily want to use the standard fonts that come with your Word programs. So we both spent several hours searching online for the perfect font for the album title.

Text and liner notes are also important because you want to be sure you are accurate in your credits, copyrights, etc. And since my mom and I are using our own publishing companies for our copyrights, we have to be sure to state that on each song. As well as the name of any other publishing company. For example, I am contributing an arrangement of a Billy Joel song, so I have to state his publishing company on the album since they own the original copyright.

The Recording Process

So, everything that I've already talked about are things that my mom and I have been working on since last August.

Now that we have almost all of our songs composed (I am still finishing up one more), we are at the point where we are starting the recording process. The recording part doesn't take very much time at all (in the grand scheme of things), but it is obviously very important to do it right.

Recording in 2009 is not the same as it was in, say, 1975. Back then everything was analog and tapes. If you needed to edit your recording, you would have to take the tape off of the reel and cut it and paste it (literally). Thank goodness things are a lot easier nowdays with the way technology is. I mean, did you know that most movie soundtracks use digital technology and sounds? Musicians are losing their job because they are being replaced by advanced software.

This is how we do it:

I have a "home studio" which consists of two keyboards, a computer, and a few thousand dollars worth of fancy music software. All of which are investments that cut down the cost of recording in-studio in the long-run.

One of my most prized pieces of software is called Ivory (see below).

When I record a song, I play it from my keyboard which runs to my computer and records it in MIDI (musical instrument digital interface). Midi is basically 1's and 0's that the computer can read and run through any plug-in device you want and translate it to whatever instrument sound you have.

The sounds are called VST's (virtual studio technology).

Regular keyboards have a very small amount of memory and therefore the sounds used inside are looped. That is why you can hear an obvious difference between a real piano and a digital keyboard. It is taking a small sample of a real piano sound and looping it over and over...which in the end makes for a pretty fake sounding piano sound.

With my Ivory software, because it has such a vast library of sound (15 DVDs of information that I had to load onto our computer. That was DVDs, not cds by the way), it actually does have the capability to produce a "real" piano sound. Engineers took a Steinway, Bosendorfer, Fazioli, and Yamaha grand pianos - put them in a studio - and precisely recorded each and every note for their full duration (no looping whatsoever) at 12 different velocity levels (meaning pppp, ppp, pp, p, f, ff, fff, ffff, etc...).

So when we record a song, it records as MIDI, then is run through Ivory and translated into my choice of piano. I personally like the Steinway German D 9 foot concert grand. :)

We do multiple takes until we get the best possible recording. If you make a mistake while recording, you can either "punch in" in the middle of the song and re-record a section, or you can fix it in the after-edit. I personally feel it is more important to get the best emotion into a song rather than the right notes.

I turn down the lights and pour my heart out when I record. If I make a mistake, I keep going and then fix it in the after-edit.

Being able to record this way from home literally saves us thousands of dollars in professional studio time. For example, a good friend of mine just released another solo piano album. It is beautiful, and she did the entire thing in-studio on a 7 foot Yamaha with mics and the whole bit. About a week after she got her master recording back from the studio, she noticed she played a wrong note in one of her songs. Just to fix the ONE note, the studio was going to charge her almost $300.

After the initial piano scores are recorded, then comes time to edit. Bring on the looooong hours of computer time.

You want as pristine of a recording as possible because once you send your master copy off for replication, there are no re-do's. If you've got mistakes in there, well, you will get to hear it every single time you play the CD. I will listen to a song over and over, and then have others listen to it (so I can have another set of ears) to "proofread" a song. I want it perfect. Mistakes are for live performances, not for recordings. :)

Once we are finished with all of the home studio recordings, we then take all of our files and head into a professional studio. As you can see, Dextor is our studio engineer (my faithful sound engineer, Zak Dewey's beagle).

If there is any audio that needs to be recorded, we do that in the professional studio in soundbooths with awesome mics.

After all digital and audio tracks are finalized, then we mix. Mixing is just taking all of the different tracks and finding the right volume levels for everything. For example, you don't want the background strings to overpower the piano, so you mix and adjust things until it is just right.

Zak has us listen to everything on 3 different levels of speakers. 5" "ghetto blaster" speakers (which is what most people actually listen to music on), 8", and then my favorite the 10" HUGE speakers that make any and all music sound great. The reason for all of this is because sometimes you have to go back and adjust the mix until it sounds pretty even on all three sets of speakers.

After the mixing is complete (which can take several days), then Zak masters everything. Mastering should be called magic. It takes any notes that stick out and compresses them down. The piano is actually one of the hardest instruments to master because it has such a broad range of notes and dynamic levels. You don't want those high notes to peak out and hurt your ear drum, but you also don't want to back too much off so the bass still resonates. It's tricky.

CD Production

Once you are completely finished with the recording process and have everything mixed, mastered, and you have a final master copy of your album in your can begin the production process.


Last time this was quite stressful for me. Hopefully this time it will go much smoother.

We use a CD production company called Disc Makers. They are back East in New Jersey. But they have an office here in Seattle. We basically take our Master copy, our CD cover artwork files, font files, text files, and give it to their rep here in Seattle. She reviews it to make sure she has everything, and then ships it back east.

We then are assigned our own personal account manager who oversees the entire project from start to finish. Lots of emails. Lots of phonecalls. Lots of FedEx deliveries. Lots of everything until it is proofed and approved by us.

Once it is approved, they make a glass plate copy of your cd and then replicate it according to however many you ordered. Then UPS shows up at your door about 2 weeks later with 20 huge heavy boxes of cds that sort of look like this:

Once you get your boxes, then you have to worry about selling them. :)

The Sheet Music Process

This is something that I am actually still working on from my first album: getting all of my songs into sheetmusic for sales. I get sooooo many requests for sheet music it's not even funny. I have a standard response that I send out that says something along the lines of "I'm working on it, check back later." LOL

I use a program called Finale. With this software you can either use MIDI again to play your songs from the keyboard into the Finale program and it translates it into sheetmusic for you (which never comes out right), or you can enter every note manually by hand. Which is what I do.

So I take pages of scribbles like this...

And turn it into printed organized readable copies like this:

And this:

If you even made it this far, congratulations. That was by far one of the longest blog posts I've written on here.
Anyway, so that's it. After this entire process is done, you have a CD that you spend the next however-many years marketing. Creating a website, finding distributors, licensing opportunities, booking concerts and gigs, etc....I have to say the marketing of everything is even more work. It is never ending. It is a daily thing. You set goals of trying to do one thing everyday to market your album.
So anyway. That's all folks!


Carolyn said... went into far more detail than I did, trying to explain the recording process. I guess I'm a woman a few words. (or at least fewer!)

Kate said...

Wow, that was awesome! Thank you for sharing.

Lisita said...

That's really amazing, thanks for sharing. Loved the sneak peak you shared and I can't wait to get the new album in my hands!

McClains said...

wow, lots of work! How do you even find time for that? Amazing!

Anonymous said...

This was so fascinating for me to read. I real look into your life. Then you add Preston into the mix and may I just Superwoman comes to mind. You are amazing and so talented. I am lucky to call you friend. N

Brandie said...

Wow this was so interesting I never thought that it took so long. But then again I just love to listen and not annalize the music when I listen to it. I am so excited to here you album.

Brian & Veronica said...

Wow. A-MAZING! I cannot BELIEVE the amount of work and time that goes into that. And you only sell your CDs for like $12 a piece. That's crazy. I can't believe you sell them so cheap, you better charge more for your sheet music! You rock.