Recording First My EP — Lessons Learned
Posted on May 30, 2021
Sorry for my recent unannounced absence — I missed last week’s post after receiving an inoculation last Wednesday that promptly knocked me on my butt for a few days. Once I got over that, it was crunch time for my band’s EP. The last step we had to take was artwork, which ended up falling to me. And with the prospect of pushing this release back again, I had to cook something up in a timely manner.
But now I can announce that the Natural Born Killer EP has been sent to our distributor, and is on its way to streaming services. At long last, the nightmare is over… on to the next one! After two years on this project, I want to write a bit about the process, since this is the first studio project that I (and my bandmates) we ever a part of, and… we really did a lot of things wrong. So let’s go through it all.
Originally, our debut was supposed to be an album with about 12 tracks. At the end of the day, however, we’re only doing four songs for our first release. The long and short of it is that we were way too ambitious. If we had decided to stick with a full album, I don’t know where we would be at right now.
Because we were recording everything on our own, I guess we thought we could handle the workload. But the more time we spent recording, the more we realized we had bitten off more than we could chew. We shouldn’t have gotten over–ambitious. A debut EP works just fine, but we didn’t really decide on the nature of this release until we had spent nearly a year on it. There was a lot of dead air on this project; periods where nothing was really getting done, and I think a big part of that was an incoherent vision.
We should have just honed in on four songs and planned out what needed to be done, instead of stuffing this release with different tunes that ended up spending all of their time in limbo.
Recording Part 1 (Scratch Tracks)
Our recording strategy was to record scratch tracks for all the songs, and then get to multi–tracking, starting with me. Unfortunately, we spent way too much time working on scratch tracks. We miked all of us up (including me) and took a few takes getting through each song. After the fact, I know now that we should have just used a handheld digital recorder to capture us.
For whatever reason, we prioritized fidelity over expediency — scratch tracks aren’t supposed to sound good, they’re supposed to help guide you through the song. We at least have some good–sounding demos, but it was ultimately an unwise time investment. We also didn’t do a good job of rehearsing the tunes beforehand — we were unclear on song structure and had difficulty playing to a click (I was the only one who was listening to a click; it would have been better to ditch the mics and spend more time getting us all listening to a metronome).
Recording Part 2 (Drum Tracking)
I had to do three separate sessions to record my drums. The first one was at my bassist’s house, and I had some significant problems. My biggest issue was a lack of part–writing on my end; even with the tape rolling, I was writing fills and phrases on the fly, which was a terrible waste of time. I had to do upwards of a dozen takes on a single tune, which also made the comping process tedious.
Some takes were full of flubs, while others were just not grooving correctly. I should have spent more time practicing the tunes on my own. This also applies to the rest of my bandmates, and we spent a very long time recording. I think one of the songs has close to 50 takes on it.
Round two was better and more efficient, but it still wasn’t good enough. The performance was generally up to snuff, but the sound of the drums was all wrong; the toms in particular were much too boomy and resonant. At this point, I hadn’t set up my own studio, so I had little experience as to what drums sound like when they’re miked up.
We took very little time “getting sounds” from the drums before we got to recording, and afterward, I decided that the tracks were no good. Months before this session, I took my first programming class and was introduced to the adage “garbage in, garbage out”. We learned the hard way to not rely on mixing to fix all your problems. Mixing is supposed to make good recordings sound better, not salvage a bad recording.
The third time was the charm, at least after some tedious trial and error. These tracks were done in my studio. Truth be told, the drums on the EP could sound better (I think I recently dialed in my drum sound for good), but it’s the first release.
Another topic to discuss is how unprepared I was for the amount of scrutiny I would give my performances. Dropping a stick is one thing, but even subtle changes in timing or a weak backbeat could require a whole new take. I also learned the hard way that rimshot backbeats are definitely the way to go in the studio (at least for this music). It was also tough to discover that certain fills just didn’t sound good coming through the monitors in a full mix, no matter how good they sounded in my head.
Tuning for the Studio
Tuning drums is a miserable experience. I’ve always known that you need to tune drums to the situation (i.e. tuning for a bar gig is a different process than tuning for a basketball stadium). But having to deal with mics that are a few inches from the drumhead was something I was totally unprepared for. As I said, the big issue was the toms.
I spent a lot of time farting around with different heads trying to get the right sound: PowerStroke, Pinstripe, Vintage, whatever. I wanted a very punchy, dry sound for my toms, but it seemed to escape me. Most frustratingly, the differences between the different heads were actually pretty subtle; I’ve now come to the conclusion that you’re unlikely to find the one head that will give you the sound you’re looking for out of the box.
My approach now is to get some versatile, well–rounded heads and rely on muffling. Currently, I have some coated Emperors over clear Emperors with a towel on top and a drum dot on the bottom. This has been much more fruitful than searching around aimlessly amongst the dozens of drumheads that exist. And if I need to liven the toms up, I’ll just take this stuff off.
One of the biggest failures of them all was the artwork. I think mixing and mastering went pretty smoothly because we relegated most of those decisions to our engineers. However, we were very involved with artwork, to our detriment. We should have started the artwork process when we started recording, but with the recording process taking longer and longer, it eventually turned into a last–minute development.
We reached out to an artist friend of mine, but we were more driven by urgency than a clear artistic vision. We wanted to get it done as soon as we could, but we did a miserable job of explaining to the artist and to each other what exactly we were looking for. Eventually, we had to go to plan B, with yours truly whipping something up in a couple of weeks. At the end of the day, I think the artwork is acceptable for a first release, but we could have gone about the whole thing better — I was excited to work with a real artist, but we blew it.
Well, I think that’s about it. We getting reading to start on a full album, and hopefully, the lessons learned will make the next process smother. We’ve already encountered a few hiccups, but we’re getting them sorted out. This EP was a slog, but I’m ready for the next one.