Recording and Releasing Your Own CD
by Chris Juergensen
If you have read my "Shapes of Things to Come" article this is sort of a follow up. Times are perfect for releasing your own CD and this article will give you some ideas on how to record it and what kind of investment it will take.
Recording at Home or Away
Do It Yourself Approach -
There are basically two ways to record your own CD. The first is what a lot of independent artists are doing: they do it themselves in the privacy of their own home. They get themselves a computer, install Pro-Tools and go to town. The advantage to this approach is simple; you can spend a year recording your CD and tweak every tiny thing that bugs you. You can punch in your guitar solo seven thousand times between Thanksgiving and Christmas 'till you get it right. You can fix any pitch problems, add tons of layers, spend a bunch of time getting a killer tone, go nuts without getting yourself in debt like you would if you had to pay an engineer or for the same amount of studio time.
The only problem is that unless you practically have a studio in your home, you are going to have a rough time recording a full band, especially if you play the kind of music that needs to be played live, with real musicians. Jazz, Fusion, Blues and some Rock are a few examples.
Drums are a nightmare and big amps can also possibly pose some problems. That is why the kind of music that generally gets recorded using this "do it in the privacy of your own home" method is ambient, techno, electronica and the like.
Not to say you can't record other genres effectively but a recording studio tends to produce better recording results when you need to record traditional instruments. A decent quality pro-tools system can cost anywhere from five to thirty grand depending on how many tracks you need and speed but it is a great investment if you plan on producing good quality recordings at home.
The Traditional Approach -
Rehearse the band and get in the studio. This poses one big obstacle: MONEY! Studio time is expensive so you need to be well rehearsed or at least use musicians that are quick. Both my CDs, "Big Bad Sun" and my first release, "Prospects" where recorded this way and with no rehearsals.
We only had three days to record the "Big Bad Sun" CD so more then the other two guys in the band, I had to be totally prepared. I had to know exactly how I wanted to start and end each song, the form or each tune, have my lyrics together.
Recording a CD in three days is impossible if you have to spend more than two hours on each song so I had to have an image of each song in my head before we even got in the studio. By the way, most CDs are recorded in about a month but when you are paying for the studio time yourself, plan on doing it in about five days or you'll go broke.
Who Does What
The Engineer - When recording at home an engineer is out of the question (unless it is you), you would have to be Bill Gates to be able to afford paying an engineer to come over everyday for six months.
In a recording studio, you will have to hire one or use the one that they give you. Out of all my years playing guitar in dozens of recording studios, I still don't know how to turn half the stuff on much less mix my own tracks. As I said, most recording studios will supply an engineer but you may want to hire one with a good reputation. You can always listen to CDs that they engineered. Basically engineers are passive for the most part, they work best when they are told what to do. That's where problems arise. I mean, during a recording session if the engineer where to ask me; "How do you want me to EQ the snare drum?" I would be dumbfounded for an answer. I know what I like when I hear it but I don't know how to EQ it to make it sound like what I like. So if you are not up to giving the orders, you may want to consider hiring a producer.
A word on Engineers - Engineers are different than us guitarists. Unlike us, they are into compressors and limiters and things like this. Compressors and limiters are boring to guitarists, they have unexciting brand names that sound like French food or German medicine, names like Sennheiser, Neuman or Neve.
We aren't interested in them because they are basically made to control volume, which is something strange to us. We are always trying to figure out ways to play louder anyway. The last thing that we want to think about is ways to compress or limit our volume.
Besides, guitarists like things with exciting names like "Nuclear Harmonic Expander" or "Tri-Stereo Distortion Booster" (I made these names up, but you get the point). Plus the compressors and limiters that they like are old and crusty and look like crap, we guitarists prefer things that gleam and are shiny.
As much as engineers love compressors and limiters, mastering engineers love them even more (I'll get to mastering later). Mastering engineers go so crazy with compressing and limiting that recording engineers get pissed off. They often complain that the engineer that masters the music cranks up the volume too much and then cuts off the highs and lows and erases the dynamics of the music. It is best to stay out of the whole thing and let them do what they like to do.
The Producer -
Sometimes you can find a guy that is good at both engineering and producing. One reason a producer is good to have is because with only a few days in the studio, you are going to have a hell of a time editing your tracks by yourself.
Let me explain: let's say you are recording your vocal track, usually you sing through the song four or five times and record each take on different track. Each time you sing through it, the producer sitting at his groovy producer desk in the studio, picks the phrases from each vocal take that he likes the best. He makes notes on your lyric sheets, marking which phrase he likes from what take. After you are done singing through the song several times he will tell the engineer how to glue the different parts he likes together. If you aren't the greatest singer, it is an enormous undertaking, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It would take you way to much time to do this yourself.
He will also tell the engineer how to mix everything, what kind of reverb, delay, how to EQ your guitar. Being a musician, you would figure that you could tell the engineer how to mix everything but I found that after hours in the studio I tend to lose my sense of perspective but a good producer's ears never seem to get tired.
A good producer also has a fascinating ability to know how things will sound recorded. Guitarists tend to listen to the sound of our amp and that's where it ends but the producer listens to the sound of our amp, imagines the sound hitting a specific mike placed in a specific location in the studio, travel to the mixing board, get some reverb and delay added, get mixed with the other instruments, get mastered, burned and getting stuck in a $27.99 CD player bought at K-Mart and getting listened to by someone who probably doesn't even play the guitar.
Musicians tend to listen in real time but a producer must be a clairvoyant. You should definitely take a listen to the CDs that he has produced before you hire him. Each producer has his style, some guys like everything super wet and some hate wet sounding recordings, so it is best to match up your likes and dislikes with his. When you meet with him, tell him what kind of image you have and maybe give him some CDs of recording that you like. One reason I picked the producer I did for the "Big Bad Sun" session is because he, like me, is a guitarist and pays special attention to mixing the guitar correctly.