how to

How to Make a Record

Or: Alex Grim’s Guide to Financial Ruin and Emotional Distress

I haven’t been posting here in a while. There are a few reasons, like that I can be lazy and that I have a job that takes a lot of my time and generally leaves me tired as all hell and also cranky. But I have at least one decent excuse: I’ve been working on an EP. It’s a heavy as hell (IMO) four track that will be called When the Sky Fell when I finally get it done. As of this writing, I still have to record the vocals for two songs and the drums for all four. I have next week to get that done.

I guess we’ll see.

Perhaps preemptively, I present to you:

Alex Grim’s Guide to How You, Too, Can Make a Record (of Arbitrary Length) and Annoy Your Friends.

Step One: Write Some Songs
There’s actually a somewhat optional Step Zero first, wherein you conceive of the record. I say optional because some people either write in their own particular style consistently enough that once they’ve written enough songs, they could do a record. There’s another class of people who aren’t worried about being that consistent on a single record, and so similarly are basically just fine to put a few (or a heaping handful) of songs that they’ve written that they like in some order and then worry about cover art. I actually especially admire this second group, and maybe one day I’ll have the balls to just do a record that’s all over the place. Purple, by the Stone Temple Pilots, is all over the place and it’s brilliant. So are a bunch of Zepplin records. Some artists (like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, no doubt entirely coincidently) have essentially two kinds of songs on their records: singles and other stuff that sounds only very slightly like the singles. “Scentless Apprentice” and “Heart-Shaped Box” sound so little alike that one could be forgiven for thinking they were by two different bands, or possibly very different stages of the same band. But nope, they are, in fact, tracks two and three of In Utero. For me, I like to pick a sound or idea to explore and really get into the mindset of whatever that may be (in the case of When the Sky Fell, death/doom with lots of jazz chords) In any case, regardless of your stance on Step Zero, you still have to come to Step One: write some songs.

How you write your songs is your own damn business. I usually fuck around on guitar for awhile until something good comes out, record it on my phone, and either keep playing with the idea until I have a few parts figured out, or just move on and come up with something else entirely (or have lunch). Having done that, I’ll usually go back and listen later and decide if anything I recorded was worth keeping. About eighty percent of the time, it’s yes, but I’m also a whore, so don’t necessarily aim for that. You really should be brutal with yourself when writing songs, but also not until they’re done. Just write the damn thing and then decide if you want to keep it later. If you spend too much time worrying about getting it right on your first go, you’re just going to be stuck. So, for riffs, ideas, and doodles, cull, but not excessively. My only real criteria are that it sounds original, and not “suck,” a highly technical term.

So far I’ve been talking about song writing as a solo process, because for me it usually is; if you’ve got a band or someone that you like to jam with and the however many of you write stuff that way, do it that way. I would say, however, to be cautious with jams. They’re usually super fun, but they tend to go on and on. If that’s how you’re writing material, make sure you’re recording and make sure you have the patience to listen to those recordings, or at least have the discipline to stop the jam when you hit on something, start recording, and then remember to hit stop before you run out of room. I have never, ever met anyone who can remember every cool, worthwhile idea that happened in a jam, but I have known a lot of people and bands that spend all of their time jamming and never write a full song, much less enough to record an album. Music is supposed to be lots of fun, but it also has to be hard work sometimes. So write some damn songs.

Step Two: Demo That Shit
I’m swearing and wandering more than usual. I think it’s because I just read The Martian, by Andy Weir (I saw the movie first. Full confession: I didn’t even know there was a book until I was leaving the theater). It’s a great story with great characters but some clunky writing. Andy, if you’re somehow reading this, know that your ideas are great but you need to lay off of the adverbs; you do such a good job on your characters that we almost never need to be told that Watney is moving “groggily.” He was just knocked out for a few hours, of course he’s fucking groggy.

Anyhow. Demo that shit. I use Reaper because it’s awesome and only costs $60. Garage Band is fine, too, or even Audacity. I’ve done entire songs in a day in Garage Band on my iPod because I was bored at work. Whatever you use, do it. Demoing is important because it forces you to make decisions in a way that merely coming up with a song does not. Is the last chorus a double? Is the solo four bars or eight? Will you do that neat key change or is it too weird? You have to make up your mind. Demoing helps make those choices because you can try it a few ways, walk away for a week, and then just listen to your three versions or whatever and decide which characteristics you like best. Sometimes you’ll have a tie, but that’s ok. It’s art. You can do it that way live sometimes, or do a “(slight return)” sort of thing, or just collect enough cool, different demo versions and eventually do a whole album of those. It’s your art, maaaaaan. In any case, most of the time, demoing will make you finalize the song structure.

An aside on lyrics: When should you write them? Well, Kurt Cobain once said that music always comes first, but Elton John made an entire career on fitting music to the poetry of Bernie Taupin, his primary writing partner. As a songwriting exercise, I recommend making yourself do both. For me, I find that having the music, and therefore at least a framework for a vocal melody, makes it much easier to write lyrics, because you know where things have to fit. It is, however, pretty exhilarating to pour a piece of yourself into a poem and then write music around it. This is another one of those “however works for you, maaaaan” things.

One thing that you super-duper should do is figure out your tempos and time changes, if you have any. I mean, you will have a tempo (…probably), and setting your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to play you a click track is so beneficial it’s basically just stupid not to do it. Having a good click track makes it so easy to punch in edits, move sections around, experiment with extending or cutting parts, and just generally makes your life easier and your music sound better. Obviously, there are exceptions, and some bands simply do sound better if you record everything all at once and they just play off of each other. It’s more fun to do it that way, too, but if you’re playing most or all of the instruments yourself, or sending files to other musicians to record their parts, or doing anything at all with MIDI or programmed drums, you will *need* that tempo map. If you write weird stuff, said map is both much harder to make and even more critical. The EP I’m doing has a lot of pretty weird stuff, and getting it tight would have been impossible without a metronome.

Step Three: Make a Plan for Recording

These are both of the shapes I can draw

An extremely sophisticated example of planning for microphone placement

This is a pretty involved step. You need to be able to answer all of the following questions:
-Who will play the instruments?
-Who will sing?
-Where will I/we record?
—If at home, how is your room? Your gear?
—If at a studio, which one? Do you need to provide any gear?
-Once it is recorded, who will mix it?
-Once it is mixed, who will master it?
-Once it is mastered, how will you distribute it?
-Who will do the art?
-How much will it cost and what is my budget?

There are obviously legions of other questions, but most of the ones I can think of stem from answering these (what sort of microphones should I buy?) and the rest (What am I doing with my life? Where is my rent? Fuck!) are more ephemeral and are probably best answered by your high school philosophy teacher. Except the rent one. You’re on your own there.

(In regards to the microphones, oh man are there too many choices, but if you want to record heavy guitars, it’s really hard to go wrong with a Shure sm57. An Audix I5 or a Sennheiser e835 are similar choices.  The Audix is slightly scoped out of the box and the Sennheiser has a smoother high end (the Sennheiser is my favorite vocal mic of the three)).

Anyway, have a plan. A flexible plan is fine, but make sure you know and answer to all of those questions and at least have a good idea about the answers to any second-order stuff that pops up.

Step Four: Record the Motherfucker
You ideally want to do this as quickly as possible without rushing. It can be hard to maintain momentum if you’re chipping away over the course of months, not to mention the difficultly in maintaining consistency in sound and recording quality. That can be hard enough day-to-day, much less over the course of six months of Saturdays or whatever. This is currently the step I’m on now with my EP. I’ve been doing the most of my work on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the days I have off from work. It is not ideal, but it also the reality of living with people who go to bed at reasonable hours.

This is not my first rodeo; I’ve done two more records. Full lengths, in fact. I’ve never played every instrument before, though, which is what I’m trying to do now. I’ve done everything but drums before. I’ve engineered, mixed, and mastered everything myself on the other two; this time I’ll do everything but master, because I want a fresh pair of ears on the project. In other words, some of this is uncharted territory to me, as well. But, as Frank Turner says, we’re all in this together, there is no God, let’s have a beer (paraphrasing).

Some Final Thoughts (That I Stole From Something Else I Wrote a While Ago)
An album is no small thing. It should be somewhere between thirty-five and fifty minutes, ideally. Longer is pushing it, while any shorter and it starts to feel like an EP, a different kind of release. An album is big. They used to call them “LPs,” which stands for Long Play, a term that has fallen out of relevance with the advent of the compact disc and now iTunes and web streaming. An LP is longer than an EP, Extended Play, a term which is still around today. An EP is a smaller work, though it was originally an improvement on the 45rpm records at the time. The original EP format was designed to compete with the LP format. Turns out they just had different uses. EPs are for going off on tangents, or for releasing songs that didn’t fit on the last album but a band or a musician still want to release. Jar of Flies, by Alice in Chains, is a great EP. It’s clearly the same band, but their typical metallic grind is replaced with acoustic guitars and a deeper, rounder sound. It would not work as an album, but it is a near-perfect EP. An album should say something, and there should be a unity to it. An album does not have to be like a novel, a monolithic story, though it certainly can be. An album should, however, be much like a collection of stories or novellas which are related. Musically and lyrically, an album should be unified. This is not to say that every song should sound the same or be about the same thing, but rather that the songs should logically lead into each other, and that the lyrics should all contribute to the overall atmosphere of the album. Failing these things, an album becomes a lesser thing, a collection of songs that happen to fit all on one disc. The visual aspect of an album should not be overlooked. Album art should contribute to the music of the record. Pink Floyd were excellent at this, though many are as well, of course. The cover photograph for Wish You Were Here, two men in business suits shaking hands, one of them engulfed in flames, is a perfectly surreal compliment to an album dealing with loss and the damage the music industry can do to those working in it. An album requires a lot of work. Songs have to be written, every instrument must be played and recorded, and then those performances must be edited and mixed together in such a way that each part comes through in just the right way. It has to be loved and tortured forth into the world, and once it’s out it is tied forever to its maker. In that way, an album is a little like a prominent tattoo. It is not able to be ignored, and is a time capsule of the state of a musician at the time of its making.

     In my particular case, I’m calling my record (a catchall term) an EP due to its length (four songs, clocking in at around 25 minutes), but it terms of atmosphere and construction, I do feel comfortable using the term “album,” as I defined it above. Maybe I’m just fooling myself. In any case, drop me a line when you make your records, dear readers. I want to hear them. I’ll be posting mine here soon enough.

Peace, Love, and Death Metal,
Alex Grim