Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Music/Creative: A Recording Guide: The Making of Unavenged

"Live For Revenge!" (photo by Tiffany Mueller)
This is kind of a continuation from the 'Making of Self Titled'... Aka: My personal growth as a recording musician, or a cautionary tale of things to think about before going to a studio... Aka: The ghost of Credit Cards Past...Due. 
So where I ended the last post it was 2010, I was close to $7000 in debt from recording an album, my entire band had quit, and I was just about to quit my semi-public career as a musician. Somehow, less than a month after the band played its last show I was optimistically performing shows with a final and present incarnation of the new band of the same name. I'll skip most of the details here, so just accept that Rook, Moose, Kit and I were enthusiastically performing as the band Random Encounter (occasionally with our friend Konami) for about a month when we decided to start recording a new album that represented us, as opposed to the previous 'Random Encounters.' Our goals were well defined and fairly simple: to record all of the tracks we performed on an album called 'Unavenged!' So I called up the local recording studio again and explained that I had a new band that would actually show up to record their parts; No bs, no experimenting with arrangement for 4 months. We booked weekends at the studio for a solid month and a half.

A New Band is Born!
The recording process for Unavenged was fairly straight forward. The band (driving together from Orlando) showed up, recorded parts, and went home. We were all there for moral support, discussed what we wanted on the album, and even made lists for each bandmate of "things to record" and "things to re-record" until we were happy with how it sounded. It was insanely fun and I personally remember that we (the band) started to really feel like a family of sorts. Notably I also wan't the only person putting in money either (the unemployed in our number sold blood plasma to help contribute). It was a really pleasant experience and the only strange thing about recording the album was the fact that we didn't actually know how to play all the songs before we started recording, nor had we finished really experimenting with them. There's a grey area between waiting too long to record something (stunting the growth of a new band) vs recording too soon and while we definitely could have recorded a better album had we waited a few months I don't think we would have had as many good opportunities if we'd waited, so I'm still happy with our decision. It's also worth mentioning that you should trust a professional engineer to make what you have sound good (setting up mics, mixing, etc) but you ultimately should know your equipment (and what you want to sound like) better than anyone else. Don't let someone else dictate the FX/EQ settings on your guitar, bass, or amp if you have a specific sound you're going for or else your preferences will just become what the engineer thinks sounds good... Which can be really generic.

In The Studio, Late at Night
When it came down to my parts it was similar to the experience with the last album in that I went to the studio alone with the engineer, recorded, and edited for (a few) days on end. There were some things that we were ultimately unable to change due to time constraints (I wanted the album done in a very short period of time) such as: Re-recording the first pass of -72 hours-, which i'd originally thought would be hilarious at 72bpm only to discover that it felt too slow (for me... that and no one seemed to get the 72bpm, 72 measures joke), or that we forgot to record an introduction to Gerudo Valley (which I had to personally make happen), or the way I'd sort of envisioned Still More Fighting's intro. I also reached the same point as I'd reached in the last album, where I noticed that we were pretty much done recording but felt like something was missing... However, this time we were prepared.

Rook's Lucky Doll Head, Masha
A month or so before recording we preemptively requested assistance from a few friends to record parts with the anticipation that we'd need help to reach our deadline. The biggest contributor was Konami (the same awesome guy who later joined as a regular band member). He was insanely busy at the time helping NASA or something but graciously recorded parts for more than half the album on his guitars to help fill in some of the gaps. It wasn't that Kit couldn't learn and record the parts, it was that Konami already knew them (because he performed with us) and could record while we worked on other parts of the album, further helping our very restrictive schedule. Other guest musicians on the album included Elaine Li from Select Start, who drove 4 hours to the studio through a bad storm, was involved in a car accident on the way to the studio, and still showed up 10 minutes early to deliver some of some of the best performances on the album! It's also very much worth mentioning that Moose enlisted Sir. Dr. Robert Bakker from The Protomen as I enlisted Johnny "On The Spot" Frank to record parts on some really intense acoustic guitar tracks (Gerudo Valley and Unavenged respectively) from their respective states while the band was in the studio in Florida. The sound engineer and I also recorded a fun "Clank" sound for Boletarian Syndrome by smashing a piece of iron with a 2 handed mallet, which is technically a sort of guest instrument. The only other guest-oddities of note are that I'd started working with "The Great Juja" and "Auriplane" shortly before the band disbursed and re-formed (in 2010) on a Sonic medley called "The Sonic Suite" (The drums were recorded by Adam "One" during one of the self-titled recording sessions and accordion was recorded at my home using a slightly nicer vocal microphone than the $50 one I started with), which found it's way onto the album. In an effort to tie our album into the previous Random Encounter incarnations we also re-recorded the Introduction Theme from Final Fantasy 6, using it as a 'starting point' of sorts to (somewhat personally) acknowledge that previous incarnations of the band existed but to signify that the name had evolved into something different. We used the original piano track from Neo Symbiance (recorded years earlier by Helios!) to complete it. Lastly, we included a pleasant piano track Helios had recorded and forgotten about (but that I got permission to include) called "Miss You," which I found burred in an old computer he'd asked me to scour for specific data before formatting.

Sound Check
Back to editing: Around that time I'd started taking private lessons for rhythm (specifically snare drum) to improve my sense of timing and also saw a dramatic improvement in detecting if something was 'off rhythm' in the editing phase. The ever-developing "ear for editing" was also kind of a curse because there's no way to turn off the ability and I annoyingly found things I wanted to "edit" when listening to music recorded by other artists I'd previously found soothing. It was a feeling akin to discovering that movies are shot in multiple "takes", as opposed to all at once, and now being conscious of continuity or dubbing errors. The sound engineer also expressed that he experienced the same thing and made a game out of finding mistakes in songs on the radio. In short, I became a significantly better editor during the project (practice makes perfect) and started coming up with creative solutions and "fixes" that the engineer didn't even think was possible. I started to think I was pretty awesome until it came to the part where I had to record vocals...

Kit Enjoying my Vocals
 From day one I immediately loathed working on vocals, especially my own, and there were some big moments during the project where I'd strongly considered stepping down as the band's vocalist altogether. Atonal vocals? Fine. Happy Joy? Fine. Songs with vocal variety were another matter altogether. In working with Melodyne (a program that shows you exactly what you're singing on a grid, kind of like Rock Band), I saw that I knew nothing of how to sing on pitch. To make matters worse, early exports of the vocal tracks I'd shared with a friend got me the single brutally honest criticism of "you sing with no emotion whatsoever." He was correct though, and accepting that fact was invaluable to my growth as a musician. I started taking vocal lessons to improve my pitch and during the recording process I did everything to try and sing "with heart" in the studio. I thought good thoughts, brought pictures of pets and loved ones to the sessions, and ultimately sacrificed some pitch for emotion (Worth noting: I was also still revising the lyrics to -72 hours- and Unavenged during the recording sessions) because I wasn't able to start vocal lessons until after the recording sessions had begun. People have since seemed generally happy with the vocal tracks (or at least didn't comment negatively on them) so I feel a lot better about my vocal abilities (and limits) but I was very upset during this process. I also found it frustrating trying to sing notes you've never heard sung before, pitch-perfect, like when you're writing a new vocal melody. A final note on vocal recording is that I recorded the vocal 'harmonies' during some of the chorus sections on the spot, completely improvised, just for laughs and (surprisingly enough) kept most of them. Looking back I should have thought the vocals through more, practiced them, and recorded them at a later date but we were able to make many of the backing vocals sound passable through the magic of editing.

Fall 2010
After what felt like a month or so of recording and another month of editing (I kid you not, we were billed for exactly "72 Studio Hours" of recording) we sent the tracks off to Rob Kleiner. I can equate the experience of sending our tracks to a true industry professional to the story of the princess from Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold. I only had a small understanding of how professional mixing and mastering worked but even then the differences were easy to hear. While this was being done the band sat down and had deep discussions about our branding, back story, and "age rating." I feel it's worth mentioning that once again we cut the new set of extremely explicit introduction tracks I'd recorded and again cut 'What's Up People', which has allowed us to share our music with a lot of (very young/old) people I wouldn't have thought possible over the years. We also agreed to produce a high quality album on a jewel case (as opposed to "sleeves" or a digital-only release), because we felt strongly about wanting to present ourselves as professionals. While I worked on finding a printing company, Kit worked on our Kickstarter, Moose scheduled an album release show, and Rook worked with Dennis Hansbury on the album art.

Original Album Concept by Rook
Somewhere in the all the above chaos the band had commissioned our friend Dennis Hansbury to make the album art without much of an idea as to what we wanted. Did we want video game iconography, to focus on the Russian monster-hunter mythos, or something else entirely? During a brainstorming session at Yogurt Land while Rook and I were gushing about the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, (my memory is hazy as to how, but) we finally concluded that we wanted to recreate a sketch Rook had drawn of the band, in a style similar to Bilibin's, focusing on the band's conflict with Koschei the Deathless. Moose mentioned he wanted dilapidated buildings and someone (Kit?) said that profiles might be cool. Dennis gave us some alternate concepts of Koshei, took reference photos of the band members, and eventually the drafts we received quickly evolved into our album art, despite Dennis fighting a rather horrible cold at the time. My favorite piece is definitely the disc art/backing with the needle-egg-duck-rabbit-chest-tree. It just fit really well together.

Rock Party, Fall 2010
Where Self Titled was released quietly and kind of fizzled, Unavenged had an album release party complete with guest musicians, Protomen, and home baked goods! We also got a mention on and the opportunity to introduce people to our album on an east-coast tour of the U.S.! On a financial note, even if you technically 'break even' on the cost making an album, the sheer amount of effort involved with getting your music in front of people (shows, driving to shows, gas, interviews, promotional stuff, giveaways, the great migration from Myspace to Facebook, and your tour van breaking down every other show) comes at a large cost. At the risk of sounding like a corporate tool I'd still like to say that the tools we found most helpful on the post-production side were Kickstarter (crowd-sourcing which helped cover some of the costs associated with making the album), Bandcamp (which helps us conveniently share our music with people who can't afford our album), and (which puts your music almost everywhere music is sold and has really solid reporting/remittance).

Random Encounter Photo Shoot (Fall 2010, (photo by Tiffany Mueller))
This certainly isn't a Disney success story by any means but it's the journey I've undertaken to learn more about how recorded music is made. I hope that my misadventures are amusing and perhaps insightful. I also can't wait to write one of these about the upcoming Random Encounter album I'm currently working on! ...speaking of which.

Full Band (Photo by Ben Trivett)

1 comment:

  1. I've recently become a big fan of this band from Rdio/Spotify related artists, and as a FF music lover I have to say you captured the essence well. I'm looking forward to another album!