How To Start Recording When You’re a One-Person Band
In the last ten weeks, we’ve gone through songwriting and arranging in Ed Elefterion’s One Person Production Machine for home studio producers that record and produce themselves. You can find the rest of his posts here.
Today, we’re shifting gears into where to start producing. I hope you love this article as much as I do.
Take it away Ed!
It’s a daunting task, like standing at the foot of a mountain you’ve got to climb. You look around and if you’re all by yourself? I’m sitting here shaking my head as I type because I know the colossal effort required.
You’ve got a song (complete with intro and outro). You’ve carefully structured it, your choices full of intention and purpose.
The only question now is:
Where do you begin recording?
What Do You Play?
I either pick up a guitar or a sit at a keyboard when I’m writing, so for the songs that are guitar driven, I start with the guitar. Same goes for the keyboard. Whatever instrument inspired the writing, that’s where I start recording.
When in Doubt: Sketch
If I’m not exactly sure about the parts, I’ll work with just block chords so that I have something to push up against when I’m carving out the precise patterns. I do this process of “sketching a part” every single time when I start.
Click Track or Drums?
A click track kills my inspiration. I just don’t like the sound. However, experience taught me that it’s a huge mistake to record without one so I sketch in a drum track to keep time for me. I’ll spend whatever time I need to find the right kit sounds (or close enough) and create a rhythmic pattern that approximates what the song needs. Once I’m happy, I use that to record everything and customize it at the end.
I used to think that I was wasting time doing this, but I’ve learned that hearing a drum kit is a huge source of inspiration for me.
Way back in Week 8 I did a deep dive on Tempo. Now that I’m happy with my click track (drum kit sound and pattern and I’m ready to record, I make sure that the tempo feels right. At this point, I pay close attention to tempo changes.
I’m not talking about large, obvious tempo changes. I’m talking about subtle, realistic, accelerations (and decelerations) that approximate an actual band. I build these changes into my recordings from the very beginning. They’re not noticeable unless you listen with a metronome, but they lend an organic quality to the way I play the parts.
Remember my point-of-view: I’m a one-person operation. And I have a healthy imagination that comes in handy when you consider one of my main recording goals:
To create the experience of individual musicians playing their own instruments.
To that end (and I know how weird this sounds), I’ve named my imaginary bandmates. David L. Lopez on drums, Tom Newman on keyboards, Mike Cheri on bass, Pete Simon on guitar, Debbie Webb on trumpet, Phil Torres on tenor sax, Brian Harwood on baritone sax. I’ll stop there. [Editor’s Note: I LOVE THIS!]
Why did I do this? It helps me remember that actual people have styles and ideas of their own. If the song is a story and the instruments are characters in the story, the musicians are the actors that interpret the various parts. And actors do not play the same parts in the same ways. Even if they’re trying to.
The truth is that I play all the instruments. But this imaginative layer helps me remember that no performance is perfect – perfection doesn’t exist. Performers are always improvising inside. Even if they know their part backward and forwards. Surprises happen. Accidents happen.
Unplanned moments are golden.
They happen all the time when I’m recording. Especially when I’m singing. I have no idea where certain phrasings come from, but I’m alert enough to listen for them and create deliberate choices from very happy accidents.
The task then becomes repeating and polishing them. More on that later when I focus on recording vocals.
I’ve got my drums keeping the tempo that I’ve mapped out (to incorporate any tempo changes I’ve got planned), and I’ve got my main instrument recorded. Let’s say the song is guitar driven. That means that once the rhythm guitar part is done, I’ll add keys next – to strengthen the rhythm section.
I’ll record a quick vocals scratch track next. Just once or twice through to capture the melody and heart of the song. Sometimes this scratch track makes it to the final cut but most often not.
I find it immensely helpful because this throw-away scratch guides the choices I’ll soon be making about the overall sonic quality of the track. The spirit of the vocal wants certain instruments…and doesn’t want others.
This is when I look around at my bandmates and imagine who’s playing on this song – and who’s sitting out. I’ll consider Debbie, Phil, and Brian (trumpet and sax players) – but they don’t play on every song. If they play on this one…now’s the time I sketch them in.
Save the Bass for Last
Mike (on bass) usually plays on every song, but he knows that his job serves a larger purpose. He’s not just playing root notes for every chord change. He’s a more melodic bassist, so he waits until after everything else is done before crafting and recording his part.
Which instruments should you use for the story you’re telling? I’m talking about Orchestration. I enjoy working with all kinds of instruments for all kinds of reasons, and I’m looking forward to sharing those ideas with you in the next post.
(If you’ve been following the series you’re sick of seeing this section. I kind of am too. But I tack it on at the end for those who are just dipping in here and there so I can get the word out to as many folks as possible. Thanks for putting up with it.)
(And everyone else who’s confused by that last paragraph…you’re missing out. Go back through the previous posts and dig up some nuggets for yourself.)
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email, and I’ll help you out with a…
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min, and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much you want me to be involved.
We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists.