How lucky we are to live in a time when anyone can record! Years ago, the only way a musician could create an album for sale was to be “discovered” by a large record company, and if you signed their contract, they took charge of your life – even told you what music you could or could not play. In the late 1980s a change came about as recording equipment went digital and became less expensive, smaller, and easier to use – which meant it was accessible to more people. Those who could afford the equipment started “independent labels”. This, of course, changed the entire industry and how music was marketed. Now, the industry has changed once again as digital downloads have replaced CDs. The income we used to get from CDs has been slashed by digital downloads that cost the listener pennies. Musicians aren’t making an income from their recordings anymore unless they are super-idols, so we’re sort of back where we started. Big business is once again in control.
As a recording artist, I grew up in the era of vinyl records, survived the cassette tape era, thrived in the era of CDs. I was one of the lucky ones to have a producer back in the early ‘80’s who created the first of the independent labels and was a genius at marketing; I was his primary artist, so before more artists discovered they could do that too, he had a heyday and sold over 100,000 of my first serious album. Later, he got into other things and I began producing my own albums. After more than 30 years of making new albums (whenever the demand prodded me or I felt creative), I’ve just released what will probably be my last album, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. (Shameless self-promotion: “Infinity” is available on the Books and CDs page at the above link.)
But I ramble. Let’s get to the subject at hand…
Recording is very different from performing, and a lot easier. Logistically, the equipment and how it’s set up is different, but so is the atmosphere and the attitude. There’s no pressure. You can relax in the studio, because you can fix anything that’s not perfect, and you get as many re-do’s as you need. Once you understand the logistics, you can concentrate on your music and do your best.
A brief overview of studio logistics:
As in a stage performance, the sound engineer sets up your microphones and runs the control panel, but in a recording studio there is no audience and you’re in a quiet atmosphere, so every nuance of what you do is audible – and that’s a good thing. Great playing isn’t just about accuracy but is also a sum of sensitivity and nuance.
After everything is recorded, the engineer will go over the material and remove as many imperfections as he or she may find that didn’t get corrected during the recording process, the tunes will be placed in the order you request, and the volume and tone of your instrument will be set to best levels. You will be given a “master”, which you will upload to whatever duplicating company you choose (browse online for “CD Duplication”). Your CD is now called “Product”. From most duplicators you can get as many or as few pieces of product as you wish, or you can just go through the process of doing mp3 downloadable tracks.
But what about how you feel and how you play when recording?
As mentioned above, you can relax in the studio. The engineer isn’t judging you, and the only other thing listening is a machine that doesn’t care what you do. You are free to play your best and to play expressively, to sound the way you want to be heard by those who will eventually be listening to your recording.
In a recording you have no visuals. The musician’s facial expression and body language can make a difference in what a live audience perceives they hear, but when those factors are absent, the music is all that’s left. So we need to make sure our expression is also in our music, not just in the visuals we usually create. You want your personality to come through.
If the musician is uptight while recording, that affects musical expression. I recall during the recording of my second album, the sound engineer (who was also a good friend) said, “I know you as an expressive musician. But you’re playing dryly. Why?” I thought for a moment and realized that I thought I had no right to play expressively for a recording when my skills were not, at the time, as high as those of some other recording artists. I had to laugh at myself. Expression is part of skill.
I think the most important thing I can tell you is: keep it simple. If people like your performances, that’s what they want to hear on a recording. Some recordings are overproduced, which hides the personality of the musician. Sometimes there is too much reverb, or too many other instruments, or the balance of volume of voice vs. instrument isn’t natural. More than once I’ve bought recordings that had world-class production quality but sounded nothing like the artist does in person. Another thing that can affect whether the recording sounds like you is if the sound is “equalized” too much (the range of frequency is condensed). Resist the temptation to make your recording sound commercial. It usually doesn’t work. It’s good to get a sample mix of what you’ve recorded, and take it home to play for several trusted people who know your music well (preferably also musicians) and can give you an honest critique before you approve the final version.
Another bit of advice: It helps immensely to remember that if you are playing your own arrangements, your listeners do not know what you heard in your head as the “correct” way to play each piece. In other words, if you play a note or chord you didn’t expect, or play the sections out of order, nobody is going to know you didn’t intend to play it that way, unless it’s disturbingly disharmonious. The listener isn’t expecting what you expected. If it sounds OK, let it go. You have more important things to do than to correct little things that sound fine. Timing and tempo do matter, however. If you have hesitations or tempo irregularities, fix them.
Most importantly, be yourself. Have fun. Enjoy the process!