Smile Politely

Making a record in five easy steps

The night sweats, the excessive worrying, the waiting. Making a record bears striking resemblances to pregnancy without the benefit of an estrogen-induced glow. After the musical gestation period, bands let their love children out into the world, hopefully to wide acclaim and acceptance. There are hundreds of decisions to be made and just as many questions to be answered during the process. Here’s some advice three local artists have gathered through writing, recording, mixing, mastering and shopping their records.

Step 1 – Writing

“Making a record requires a lot of time and even more inspiration,” Stan McConnell of Santah explains. “The reason most bands don’t discuss the writing and recording process is that privacy is absolutely necessary.”

This could be the hardest step of all. There isn’t any technological advancement that can help you write a good song that won’t drive you to homicide after hearing it played back hundreds of times.

After writing a solid set of songs and practicing them with the band, it’s time to narrow the focus and purpose of your song choices for the album. This part of the process can be internal or external, depending on your preference. For Santah, they narrowed the songs down to the most comprehensive group of 10 from their body of new work. Local duo Common Loon took advice into account when deciding which songs made it on the record and their particular order.

“I think people have short attention spans,” explained Robert Hirschfeld of Common Loon. “The songs are highly varied, and we really liked the idea of a 35 to 40-minute record. It was hard to figure out which songs to cut. To me, I felt confident in everything that’s on here.”

Step 2 – Recording

Once you’ve gathered your body of work, it’s time to make a few more decisions. Analog or digital? Do you want the album to sound live, or do you want to fool around with polishing measures in the studio? Do you want to start out with a 7″ or an EP before you record a full album? The indecisive may now bow out.

The analog v. digital debate is lengthy and has the potential to wind up in a quick and dirty brawl, so we won’t be entering that territory. There are pros and cons to both options of recording — two different sounds, two completely different processes. Common Loon had planned to record by themselves in Hirschfeld’s basement until some technical issues came into play.

“The goal was to record it ourselves and have Adam Schmitt mix it,” Matthew Campbell said. “Two things happened — we had mechanical issues with the machine, and we realized what we were doing was larger in scope than we had anticipated.”

New Ruins recorded their most recent unreleased album at Matt Talbott’s Great Western Recording Studio in Tolono. They went through the process of a live recording, and the usually very difficult process was made simpler through a surplus of pristine equipment.

“We got to choose from maybe 20 different microphones,” Caleb Means explained. “It’s a relatively simple setup, but it’s so expensive.”

Santah also took the rough road to recording.

“We picked a stressful way because we did it without any computers,” McConnell said. “But we ended up making some cool mistakes and getting a rougher edge to the sound.”

It may seem obvious, but playing the instruments as well as possible is the most important part of recording. With the possibilities of digital technology, the temptation exists to keep polishing until the songs are squeaky clean, but even technology can’t change the heart of the song and the amount of talent displayed.

Step 3: Mixing

Mixing takes care of frequency issues, delays, peaks and lows, and the overall flow of the record from one song to the next. Frequency ranges from zero to 20,000 decibels. There are highs, lows and mids included in each recorded song, and mixing gives bands the abilities to scoop out the bad frequencies and level out the good ones.

Compression can be added, reverb controlled and volume adjusted, but don’t get too carried away with the post-recording options.

“If you’ve got a kick-ass room and microphones, you’ll have to do a very limited amount of mixing afterward,” said Caleb Means of New Ruins.

Mixing requires a keen ear and boatload of patience, so if you’re unprepared for the process, send it to someone a little more experienced.

Step 4: Mastering

“Ninety-nine percent of bands who mix and record themselves don’t master their own record,” Means explained. Let’s leave this one to the pros, shall we?

Mastering fine-tunes the whole project and requires an even sharper ear. It balances the whole recording and ensures songs float easily from one to the other.

Step 5: Shopping the Record

I hope you read the baby books. It’s almost time to push.

If you’ve chosen to go through a record label, shop it out. Shop it everywhere. Now’s not the time to be too discerning. The backing of a record label can help publicize your body of work and add some advice and input to the situation.

In the meantime, play your songs as much as possible. Practicing will help you bring your live show up to the standards of your recording. Touring prior to recording an album can also have its benefits — “Bands go on tour first because they play their songs for a month straight,” said Roy Ewing of New Ruins. “Then they’re really ready for recording.”

We’ve given you the steps. You do the pushing. Mazel tov.

Common Loon‘s album The Long Dream of Birds is available now, Santah‘s album White Noise Bed drops locally May 6, and New Ruins‘ record drop is soon to be determined. Stay tuned.

(All photos by Steven Howard Plock)

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