Part 1: From Ideas to Radio-Ready Tracks
How I produced a full-length rock album at home during a pandemic
The creation of a complete rock album in which you play nearly all the parts and do all the engineering and mixing is a true labor of love. It takes strong inspiration and belief that the album needs to exist to put in all those hours.
I proceeded anyway, knowing that if I’m lucky, a decent number of people will listen to the songs through a streaming service. A much smaller number will purchase downloads of the tracks. It takes conviction to move forward knowing that the release will need to be all-digital because getting physical product manufactured in 2022 doesn’t make sense financially.
It All Begins with Lyrics
I write my songs around a premise. A song idea becomes a title, usually the chorus with a strong musical hook. Then all the other lyrics tell the story summed up by that central premise. As I’m coming up with lyrics, I’m sounding out the rhythm of those words in my head. This will lead to improvising a melody over a chord structure. Melody follows soon after the lyrics.
I like to type my lyrics into a note taking or word processing app, because I do a lot of editing. Being able to drag lines or pairs of lines to different parts of the verse helps me visualize and find the right order for the parts of my song. Being able to quickly replace words and phrases helps me cut lines down to the minimum number of syllables needed to tell my song’s story and sing it in a way that’s comfortable for me to vocalize and for you to listen to.
A Quick Demo
Once I know roughly how the song will go, I use the voice memo recorder app on my phone to get a quick recording of my vocal and guitar (or ukulele – or piano). Later, I can refer back to it for melody, chords and tempo.
Laying the Foundation
This artist then cracks open the Macbook and launches Logic Pro X. I then load a template containing empty tracks set up for a typical rock band arrangement. I’ll add these layers one-at-a-time.
To help me hold down the song’s rhythm I add Logic’s automatic “Drummer” track. This feature conveniently adds a basic drumbeat at your song’s chosen tempo. It has a relatively natural feel, a big improvement from the canned-sounding drum machines I used to use. My foundational tracks are the instrument I wrote the song on. So, if I wrote the song on acoustic guitar, I’ll record that first, using the “drummer” track to guide me.
I then add a guide vocal. This is not usually the final vocal you hear on the record. It’s a reference so I know where we are in the song and where the vocal comes in and out of the picture.
I use the “Drummer” track temporarily until I record all the melodic instruments – guitar, keyboard and bass. Finally I hop on the drum kit and play the beat alongside the automatic drummer and all the other instruments I’ve recorded. This keeps me in time more effectively than the click track alone. The click can get buried under the prerecorded tracks and what I’m currently recording.
The Icing on the Cake
With the instruments in place, I mute the automatic drummer track and add the final vocal, backing vocals and any instrumental embellishments I’m hearing in my head. This is a phase of the project where I feel extra inspired. This is where I hear the finishing touches of the recording coming together.
Short, Focused Sessions
My recording sessions are fairly short, as I begin them after helping my daughter to bed. I must remain mindful not to stay up too late when there’s work in the morning. The time limit keeps me focused on the task at hand. It forces me to use the available time wisely or walk away from a session empty-handed.
As I finish a session for the night, I export a rough mix that I can listen to on my phone. I enjoy playing my previous night’s work for my wife over breakfast the next morning – then listening again in my car on my way to work. Hearing the tracks in different environments and over different speakers helps. It gives me my first clues about how the tracks will fit together volume and stereo position-wise in the final mix.
Mix It Up
If I feel like the ongoing rough mix is really close to how I want the final mix to sound, I’ll use the existing levels as my starting point. I’ll take some notes and make some decisions over how I might want volumes to change over the course of the song. When mixing a record, it’s important to make sure the volume of at least one track changes at some point in the song. Perhaps I’d time a little boost in volume on the guitar going into the chorus. At the end of recording a part for the song, I may let the final chord ring longer than needed, knowing I can gradually lower the volume of the track in the mixing stage to fade it out gracefully.
If I’m not feeling like my rough mix is working, I’ll bring all the volumes of all the tracks down to the bottom (we don’t call it zero, we call it negative infinity! Zero can actually be a really loud level depending on how the track was recorded!) Then I’ll raise the volumes of the tracks a little so they balance with each other. I steer clear of an overall volume that would distort (clip) when exported for a final mix. I tend to go by the advice to have the loudest peaks on combined volume register at -3db, so there’s room to raise volume in the mastering process.
In Full Effect
In mixing, we don’t just set volumes. We also apply sound effects to the tracks that could benefit from them. I use a bit of reverb (natural room echo) to the vocals and drums. I’ll apply some compression (conditional volume control) to even out tracks (like drums) that tend to fluctuate wildly in volume. Not all of these effects require much manual tinkering. Logic lets me apply “library” settings to my tracks. I can select my vocal track and apply the setting “warm vocal.” The software will then apply typical effects at typical levels and I can then modify that to my liking. This takes a lot of guesswork out of the process.
Finally, I’ll apply a subtle reverb to the master stereo output (the one “track” that represents the mix of all the tracks overall). This gives the whole recording a sense of spaciousness and a bit of a sparkle.
Mastering is the process where the final mix is made louder relative to the volume setting on the listener’s device. This makes your track roughly the same volume as the tracks of the most popular artists in your genre. This prevents listeners having to constantly fiddle with their volume control. In raising the volume, the mastering engineer must preserve the clarity of the mix.
Back when I had larger budgets for my records, I’d hire a mastering engineer to meticulously go through each final mix and decide on volume compression, frequency equalization and any overall effects. These mastering engineers had just the right speakers and just the right acoustical spaces to make my tracks radio ready.
It was the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) based automated mastering that made it possible for me to efficiently create radio-ready records at home. To master the album “Salt and Sand: Rock Songs to Heal the Mind” I used CloudBounce. I pay one subscription fee for the year and can master all the tracks I need. I can also upload a mix, receive the master, and hear what’s working and what’s not. Then I can re-mix, re-upload and get a new master.
To be continued…
Be on the lookout for Part 2 where I introduce you to the various instruments and equipment I use.