Lessons learned, or, How NOT to record your first album

I finished recording my first mini-album about a year ago, and as it’s close to the New Year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the last year, so I thought a post with some perspectives from my first recording experience would be appropriate.

Let me start by saying that I am beyond thrilled at how “Highway Songs” turned out. Going in, I had absolutely no idea how this thing was going to turn out. For the first time, I was turning my songs, my babies, over to somebody else, and would then be putting them out there for the world to hear (and judge… eek!). Once I had decided that I had enough songs I felt were “good enough” to put together on an album and had saved up a little bit of money, I went to work trying to find the right studio and producer to help my vision for these songs become a reality. I had been talking to a lot of friends in the network I had created for myself in Nashville, doing research online, and getting referrals from almost everybody I talked with. (Hey old lady in the grocery store, you say you recorded a birthday greeting once? Who was your producer?) After about a month of searching, I was getting really frustrated with the results I was coming back with. Some of the best studios I looked at were way too expensive, and the ones more in my price range just didn’t have the quality of sound I was looking to achieve. I couldn’t seem to find a middle ground, and was starting to feel like I was going to have to cut the number of songs I wanted to record or seriously compromise the quality of my recordings unless I wanted to throw a lot more money at the project than I had initially planned.

Then, out of the blue, I got an email from a contact of mine who booked songwriters at a local bar. He was recommending the studio of a friend with some great production and engineering credits behind his name, and who had very reasonable prices. I checked out his website and found just what I had been looking for. As God or fate would would have it. the next time I played at that particular bar, the owner of the studio was there, and talking with him, I felt an immediate creative connection, and knew this was the guy to take the reigns on my recording. After several emails and phone calls, we met to discuss my goals, and started talking pre-production. I booked a block of time, and after one more pre-production meeting, we got to work recording my songs.

Lesson learned: It just takes one to be the right one, so don’t get frustrated if things don’t fall into place right away. Patience truly IS a virtue.

Now, in order to record ¬†an album, you need more than songs and ideas; you need musicians as well. Through my contacts in Nashville, I had secured several great players for my recordings… or so I thought. Through a series of events, it came to be the week before my sessions and the friend-of-a-friend I had enlisted to play one instrument (trying to save the money of hiring a pro player) stopped responding to my texts and calls. After several days of no contact, I accepted that he was not going to be playing on my album, and hired a professional. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I made on the whole album, because what he added to the album really helps to define the whole sound! Through another series of unfortunate events, it came to be the night before my recording session, and the friend I had enlisted to play a different instrument called me to back out. I understood his reasons, but was suddenly in a huge bind. Another friend stepped in, but unfortunately, since it was so last minute, he just wasn’t achieving the sound I was looking for. After the first day recording, I felt like there were no cohesive sounds coming from the quickly-assembled backing band I had put together, and I was again feeling discouraged. When our first day of tracking was over and everyone else had left, I sat down with my producer, and we decided that he would handle the rest of instrumental parts that were just not working with my current players. We also hired another pro player to come play some additional string parts, and with his help, I feel like we achieved exactly the sound I was hoping for on this project.

Lesson learned: Sometimes it’s better to not be such a cheapskate. Pay your musicians, and hire pros. Don’t be afraid to know exactly what you want, and if somebody isn’t exactly right to fill the position or play the part, say so (nicely… it’s also good to keep your friends!). Also, allow more time for planning ahead of time.

Now it’s time to reveal a secret. One of the songs on the album was finished right before recording began. I was so excited that it was done and thought it was such a strong song, that I really wanted to include it on the album. (No, I’m not going to tell you which one). Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love this song, and I still think it is a great song and am so proud to have it included on this project, but one of the things I have learned since is that when it comes to songwriting, sometimes you have to give a song time to really… marinate, for lack of a better term. In the last year, I’ve learned that living with a song, letting it breath, and taking the time to re-write, re-work or even just tweak it can make all the difference between a really good song, and one that is off the charts. My only wish is that I had saved the song for a later project so it could have grown into something even more than it is now. (No, I’m still not going to tell you which song it is!)

Lesson learned: Patience is a virtue. (How come this one keeps popping up?) Re-writes and re-works are key to the success of a song.

Once the album is done, there’s all sorts of post production stuff that needs to get done. Mixing, mastering, duplicating. Photo shoots, album artwork, and liner notes. The same type of lesson here applies as from a few paragraphs before…. I’ve found that it’s always better to set very clear expectations for the people you are working with. It doesn’t make you mean, it just means that you know what you want, and it will help everyone have more realistic expectations. Most of these tasks are completely out of my hands (as they should be… my visual artistry skills are on par with those of a 2nd grader!) but I should have done a little more research ahead of time to get a more realistic idea of how long each step would take, and probably have caused less anxiety for myself just by being more in the loop of what was going on.

Some final thoughts and lessons learned: Producers are your friend, even when it’s scary to put your songs, your heart and soul into somebody else’s hands. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone, but stay true to who you are. Don’t be afraid to speak up or say you don’t like something. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Make the hard decisions, they will be worth it in the end.

I really do love my first attempt at an independent studio release, and I am so thankful to have gotten to work with the small and talented group that brought it to life. I can’t wait to get another chance at recording, hopefully in the next year!

For anyone who might be looking for the right person to producer their project, check out Patrick Himes at Reel Love Recording Company!