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Advice For Musicians Making a Recording

Harvey Reid has played and taught guitar for 40 years, was a former national Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and has released 32 highly-acclaimed solo recordings of original, traditional, and contemporary acoustic music. In 1980 he wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar. He now lives in Southern Maine.

"I have now made 32 recordings, and all of them have made money except one, and I am still at it after 36 years, so I guess that sort of qualifies me to expound on this subject. I am assuming that any one who is already making successful recordings would not be reading this, so it is targeted more at the beginner. I just listened to a Sam Kinison record, and his voice is shouting in my ears, so if this sounds slightly harsh, I apologize. It is meant to help and to encourage people to record their music. (HARVEY REID 2003)
First and foremost, if you want to "do something with your music," one of the best things you can do for your career is to make a good recording. When someone suddenly "appears" in a music scene and has a buzz, there is usually a good recording behind it. There are many definitions of what a good one is, but if you make one, it can help you immeasurably and it can open doors you did not know existed. If you make a bad one, it does not necessarily sink your ship, and the list of people who have recovered from a lousy first recording and gone on to do great things is a long one. (I will refrain from sharing my list of great artists who made dreadful first recordings.) When you are an emerging artist trying to make a mark in the world, it does you no good to spend your precious time, money and wear and tear on your friends to make an unsuccessful recording. This is all sort of obvious, but worth saying. Having a good promo package helps, and being young and attractive helps, and being a great talent helps, and being persistent and pushy and beleiving in yourself is incredibly helpful. But none of them helps that much if you make a bad record, and none of them helps you as much as making a good one. Anybody can make a bad record, even if they are good artists. It's a lot like getting your picture taken-- a bad picture might just be a bad picture, and it might not mean that you are unattractive. It takes sometimes rolls of pictures to get a good expression on your face to last for 1/32 of a second, and it is very hard to play a 4 minute song into a tape machine perfectly. I have done as many as 43 takes of a song. Elvis did too. Go listen to all the takes he did-- they have made records of all his outtakes-- it's painful but educational. Recording can be a lot like a long, slow-motion photo shoot, where you are trying to look natural while at the same time trying not let on that you are struggling to do it.

If you can capture your best work, you have made it. You have to figure out what you are, what you are best at, and then find a way to capture that on a recording. (I may call it "tape" even though you are probably now recording to a computer.) Deciding what is your best work is hard, though, as is the act of capturing it. It is almost impossible not to get caught up in the recording fantasy process or to compare your idea of a recording with those of big stars. There are so many fantasies and stereotypes about recording, and few of them are much help. Movies so often show childbirth with a woman in pain, on her back, begging for drugs, when in truth it is not usually like that. The rock & roll movies that show recording footage are mostly fantasy also.

Get involved in all the decisions. There are a lot of tough decisions, like choosing mikes and mike placement. If you don't get involved in making those decisions, they can be easily made in a way you will wish you could change later. In fact, if you let someone else make the decisions, you can end up in a no-win situation. If the recording succeeds and you made the calls, there is no better feeling. If it succeeds and you did not, then perhaps you are getting known for something you are not. If it fails, and you did not make the decisions, it fails twice because you won't have the feeling of "Oh well, I did my best and it did not do that well." You'll be haunted by wondering what would have happened if you had done what you wanted to do. Choosing the best takes, or selecting the songs on your recording is a tough job, as is creating the song order, the title, the art work, cover photos, typefaces, color, package, etc. (Song order is getting less important, now that "shuffle" is so often in charge.) I can't tell you how many times I think the best songs on somebody's reording are the ones at the end, that they were unsure of. The "radio ready" songs at the beginning of a lot of records are quite often much less "listenable" than the ones that might reveal more of the artist's feelings.

It's very hard to evaluate your work. Listening back and finding the best take might be the hardest part of recording, especially when you do it yourself. Some people are better at this that others. Listening to yourself all day every day for weeks is like living in a house where there are huge photos of you on all the walls. One reason why I have succeeded in making recordings is that I seem to have a strong stomach for listening back and evaluating my recordings, and I seem to be able to detach myself from the process better than others. (My wife Joyce Andersen is a stellar musician, for example, and is often very bad at evaluating her recorded work.) It's easy to be wrong and to think that a take is the keeper, and it's just as easy to miss the best one. The more takes you do, the more takes you have to listen back to and compare. Once you have heard 15 takes of yourself doing the same song, it's easy to lose all perspective and stop liking the song. Friends and family may well be of no assistance either. I have sent 5 trusted friends a CD with 5 songs on it, and asked them only to tell me which song they liked most and which one they liked least. None of them agreed on anything, and I did not agree with any of them.

MYTH - The 1st take is ultra-important. It is possible to blast out an amazing perfomance, but if you record a lot, you may come to find it's better to ease into it and do a few tentative takes to make sure the mikes are placed right and make sure you like the arrangement and the key and the groove before you dig in and try to do an incredible performance. I think Take 3 and Take 4 are the most common keepers for me, though I often take longer because I often finish writing a song as I record it, so I can listen to the structure and do things like vote on what kind of intro or tag to put on. Before I put my heart into a take I want to know that I have it in the right key, and that I like the tempo, etc.

MYTH - Overdubbing and editing can fix most problems. Especially if you are in multi-track mode, a high percentage of musicians make the classic error. If you do your solo track first, and it is not that great, then you or your engineer (you will be lucky to have a real producer) will say "That doesn't grab me, it needs something." Then you will spend hundreds of dollars or dozens of hours adding bass and lead guitar and harmony vocals to something that was not that great to start with. Covering yourself up is the last thing you need to do with a first recording. You are trying to show yourself. Play the song better. Re-arrange it. Do a different song. Find a way to make it work, or you should not be recording. Which is why you should find a way to make it work at home first. If you can make a work tape of one of your songs, by playing and singing right into a tape recorder or even a laptop, that sounds pretty good to most people, then you have something. The classic error situation gets another level worse when you realize you just spent $500 working on producing a song, and it still doesn't quite work, but your financial investment is so great that you have to keep it and move on. You can do a similar thing laying down a click track and putting all the stuff on before you do your part-- you have already spent so much money you feel like you have to go through with it. Recording engineers and the small-town studio guy always encourage you to overdub and add more stuff, and you should not listen to them. Somebody who hears you at an open mike and buys your CD will not want the drums anyway. They already liked what they heard-- that's why they want to buy your recording. They don't need or want it to be different. And if the promoter hears your CD and books you and then you show up to play and sound different-- that does not help much either.

MYTH- You will get discovered somehow- Rather than operating under the assumption that you will get discovered and your career will magically blossom, you are almost certainly better off operating as if this will not happen. Don't spend all your money making a record to compete with commercial recordings if you are a beginner. Don't model your career after the handful of lucky famous people who got famous without effort. If you are an "unknown artist" then your recording will do two things for you primarily: 1) you will send it to radio and promoters or club owners who will decide whether or not to play it, or whether to book you 2) you will sell it to people who heard you perform live. In both these cases, it does you no good whatsover to have a recording that does not sound as close as possible to what you sound like on stage. It sounds harsh, but nobody wants to hear your friends play bass. Unless you are making a firm commitment to always performing with a bass player, there is no need to have one on your CD. "Commercial airplay" is unthinkable for an unknown artist with a self-produced recording in today's syndicated, corporate conglomerate world. Save your time and money. You will almost certainly not get on commercial playlists, and you will only risk looking bad because your drum sound is feeble compared to Garth Brook's production, and you simply will not be able to get a "sound" on your recording like they get in the big-time studios unless you work with a big-time producer. There is a whole world of technical things like reverb and compression and how to get a drum sound, and the chances of you and your small-town studio-owner/wannabee record producer really making something that sounds big-time are extremely small. However, if you have been performing for your friends, and something is happening when you do, and you are pulling them in with your music, then all you have to do is capture that magical thing that happens when the music is right. That's all you are really qualified to do, and that's all you should do.

Focus on you. Make some recordings of yourself any way you can. If you play gigs, record all your gigs for 6 months, and listen to the recordings carefully. You may find you need some reverb to listen to vocals on tape, and it takes a strong stomach to listen to yourself on tape for days on end, but that's what you do when you are paying $100 an hour, and you might as well get used to it for free. Get a reverb unit-- something like a Lexicon Alex-- that has a decent sound and a Mackie mixer and any kind of a mike (preferably two mikes) It is quite possible that you will make a better recording of yourself in your apartment with a stage mike and a baic recording rig than you would in the world's best studio. The sound quality will not be better, but sound quality does not matter that much. What matters is capturing something exciting-- when you are soaring and playing well. When you are paying $100 an hour and looking down the barrel of a microphone (yes, they look like guns till you get used to them) wondering how you are going to pay for all this, you will probably not deliver a relaxed and confident performance. But that is what you have to do, and if you can do it in your living room, there is a chance you can do it again, and it will help you vastly to have a reference tape of what you should sound like.

Forget about the Beatles
, and all the stuff you have seen and read about how they make commercial records. Think about how they made records for the first 50 years-- they stuck a mike in front of the artist and pushed "Record." You have to find a way to capture something real and something exciting, with a minimum of production and things between you the artist and the listener. I make a point to only record with people I already perform with-- I don't like the idea of using a "hired gun" on a recording, even though it is done all the time. I recommend that if you are going to use other musicians, only record "live" with them, and do as little overdubbing as possible. It never has the same urgency. I don't even think people should play music together when they are in different rooms. I cannot sing properly with someone unless they are at about arm's length from me, and that is how I record it, and I will never use baffles and separation. It's going to be a single sound when it is done, so let it be single sound from the start. It's harder, but it is doable.

Let the recording find its own way. I have never known the title of an album before it was started. I have never been sure of what songs were going to go on the recording. I have always had songs that I intended to record that didn't make the cut. I have always found or written things at the last minute that turned out to be hilights of the recordings. Be prepared to give up on anything, and be prepared to be open to a last-minute idea or song. Recordings are a good motivation to finally learn or even go write a song, and to finally work out the way you play it or sing it. Since I record at home, I often record the song over and over, and listen back as I am working it out. It is very hard to tell how it sounds until you hear it. It is incredibly common to be wrong about how you think you did.

If you get frustrated, stop. I only do another take if I am enjoying it, and if I am sure I can do a better one. As long as they keep getting better I keep recording. When they start falling apart and getting worse, stop or switch to a different song. One of the most enduring things I have ever recorded was something I had no intention of recording, and I was just trying to settle down after a frustrating hour trying to record something else, and I wanted to sing this new song I had just learned, to make myself feel better. Luckily I told the engineer to roll it, and 28 years later people tell me how it is their favorite thing I have ever done. This sort of thing happens sometimes. Don't show up without a plan, but don't be afraid to scrap the plan and lunge for something that moves you at the moment.

Never stop in the middle of a take, or slam the guitar down before the final fade is done. Wait until the fade is done, then swear and say it sucked. You will be surprised how often you find out it was your best take. Just because it felt great does not mean it was a great take. You might have to do it again. There are a lot of false positives and false negatives in the recording process. A lot of things you think of as mistakes, others will not even notice.

Avoid marathon recording sessions I never schedule more than 3-4 hours at a time in the studio, and always leave a few days between sessions to listen back, evaluate how I did, and plan for the next one. Forget that rock & roll movie hype about working around the clock for a week and grinding out a masterpiece. It has been done, but it is not likely, and the story is more romance than truth. Take a few weeks and you'll avoid more mistakes. Your ears get tired after 3-4 hours anyway, and it is really easy to make bad mistakes and not notice them during a 12-hour marathon session.

It might be much easier to just do another take. It costs a lot to record your music, but it costs just as much to listen back to it at $50 an hour. You can do another take in the same time it took you to listen back to the one you just did. You could re-record the song 5 times in the time it takes you to identify where you need to fix something, rehearse the punch, do a bunch of takes, listen back to them and talk about it. You are almost always better off doing the whole song again, unless your voice is shot or you are tired or something.

Trust your gut. Remember that if you ever are dead sure that you nailed a song, and listen back to it with a profound sense of YES, then you probably did, no matter what you might think a week later. There is always a devilish sort of rotation, and if you listen to a recording you made, certain songs will make you cringe and others will make you happy, and They Will Not Always Be the Same Songs. The same listener listening to the same recording will change their mind a lot about what is good. This is important to understand. Recording an album is hard, but listening back and evaluating it all and deciding when it is good enough and when it is not, and what songs should be on it-- that is Really Hard.

Don't make the mistake of ruining the recording by trying to fix the mistakes. Remember that you will always grow tired of a recording of yourself, and if you drag the recording process on too long, you will keep thinking you have to re-record things just because they have sat too long. Remember that no matter what you do, your recording will fit what they called in statistics a "bell curve." There will always be some of it that is really special, and there will always be some of it -- usually an equivalent amount-- that is the worst, and there will always be the majority in the middle that is just fine. You cannot escape this. If you try too hard to squash out the mistakes, you will squash out the excitement also. The most exciting performances almost always seem to have the most mistakes, and you have to decide what a mistake is. It's a mistake to squash out the life in the music by trying to get rid of the mistakes.

See if your recording passes the "gift test." There is no better sign that you have made a good recording than if someone gets hold of one, and then wants to get some more as gifts. I would not spend money promoting a recording this has not happened to.

© by HARVEY REID 2001- 2009

5 Fernald Ave York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886

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