Day 319 of Practice: The CD... What's taking so long?

We've been talking about this Lindsays studio CD for some time. Since October, to be exact. Seems like a long time, doesn't it? Several people have asked: What is taking so long? Here's what goes into the making of a CD.

As soon as our first CD came out, we started thinking about this one. After deciding on what material to record (which took us about a year!), we book studio time at Sounds Interesting Studios and follow what has become standard practice. Some folks record their whole CD live, all at the same time, in the same room. Our first CD was live. But this time around, we wanted a different feel, one closer to the "perfect" sounding CD that people have come to expect. Live, one can get away with a few wrong notes, an out of tune instrument, a mixed up vocal line. But a recording must stand up to repeated listening, and those little mix-ups can become like the proverbial pea for the princess...

So, to take care of all us audio princesses out there, here's how we've been doing it:

Guitar tracks: It took the equivalent of about three days to do all 12 songs. Some of the time gets sucked into just getting a good sound. Then, there's finalizing the arrangement, tuning between every take, deciding on a good tempo (that can take a while!) and then playing with a click track to get the rhythm rock solid... and then the take and retake and retake, because it's not easy to play perfectly when you HAVE to.

Scratch tracks: Once we have solid guitar tracks, we spend time recording "scratch tracks" of vocals and sax/flute. Scratch tracks are not final; they are just placeholders for all other instrumentalists to work with when they do their own tracks. Steve sings all his songs with the guitar track, and I play all my flute and sax parts, but none of these are considered final because the idea is that once the full band is present on the recording, the feel will be different, and thus the way we sing or play with also be different, and theoretically more impassioned.

Then, we bring in all our friends, most of whom we paid either directly or with barter time:

Percussion: Most tracks have percussion, and that has meant studio time with a variety of percussionists, including Salil Sachdev on water drums, dumbek, and cajon; Brian Haley on conga/dumbek; Peter Smith on bodhran; Rob Rudin on bones and washboard. Several hours per drummer, per track.

Lead guitar: Tom Rohde joined us to put gorgeous background lines on "This Is the Day."

Bass: Sean Farias came along to put upright bass on most tracks. One full day.

Accordion: Evan Harlan appears on several tracks. Half a day.

Fiddle: Nikki Engstrom on several tracks. Half a day.

Piano: Ian Hudson, a former student of mine at Bridgewater, came in for a few hours to record piano on one track.

That brought us from October up to last week.

Sue's stuff: Final sax and flute, the equivalent of about a day and a half. These are now final tracks, so the time comes in simply getting the playing just right, creating solos and lines that work.

Between each studio date, we take copies of the tracks home, decide what we like and what we don't, what the track needs, what we want to fix. Fixes happen on the next studio date, which for us can be weeks apart from each other, because we have to coordinate our own schedules with the studio's available time. In a perfect world, we would have just scheduled a week solid in the studio but that wasn't possible, so we just do it little bits at a time...

Next up:

Next up: Chris Barret is coming in on Thursday to put some keyboard tracks on one song, and I'm also going to re-record one set of reels that so far just hasn't gelled for us, despite the fact that I've been playing it almost daily now for a year. No explanation... it just hasn't worked yet.

THEN, finally, Steve will go in, and hopefully in one night, do all the vocals. Then, I go back in to put harmony parts in. We do these separately, mostly so that we can adjust tuning. It's easy for me, as an untrained singer, to go out of tune... recording separately allows me to fix those spots that are a little out.

So, it looks like about two more full days of recording and we're done. But next is all the production work. Our engineer Rob Pemberton will spend about one full day mixing EACH track, which is about 12 days of work. After mixing is mastering, which means the engineer listens to each track and ensures consistency in volume and sound between each track so that the overall record sounds smooth. That's usually another full day. On major productions, mastering is often done by a dedicated "mastering house," but I think Rob does it all, in our case.

In the meantime, Soul Mama writes the liner notes, then we work with a photographer and designer on the CD design, which is also several days of work and lots of back and forth. Then, finally, we take the final graphics and the fully mastered CD to a duplication house. Lots of people use Disk Makers these days, and we most likely will, too.

How much will all this cost? Please don't ask. Suffice it to say, a lot less than it would've in the '70s and '80s, when studio time was running up to $300 an hour... Nowadays, a pro audio engineer alone costs from $50 to $75 an hour. Thanks to digital recording, however, lots of folks are recording at home. Prices AND costs have come down, and for the professional audio engineer, supply and demand has made a major dent in what used to be a lucrative career. Still, a great professional audio engineer can still make a living.

...If, of course, people keep making CDs, which relies on other people to keep buying CDs. This is why it's so hard for music professionals these days to make a living. Most of us think nothing of just "making a copy" of a CD and sharing it with friends. So, fewer and fewer people are actually buying music, making all this effort and expense feel ALMOST futile... except that it's not. Everyone expects pro musicians to have great recordings, and a top-notch recording is a calling card for any professional.

These days, musicians are trying to find ways to spend less on their recordings, and many are recording themselves at home. And lots of these CDs sound great. But the reality is that quality costs money and you just can't compare the skills of engineers like Rob Pemberton, who have spent their entire lives refining their professional skills, to Joe Schmoe (or Joe Lindsay), who bought professional recording software and are just learning to use it. Not to mention that the pro audio engineer has all the finest microphones, some of which are worth far more than my car (which isn't saying much), and the quality of the sound is really the next best thing to being there.

Buying a paint brush doesn't make you an artist. At the same time, an expensive canvas doesn't make a better painting. But for the artists who want a great painting AND great materials that will stand the test of time, some expenses are just worth it.

And hopefully you'll agree when you hear the result. Coming this summer.... please buy it for yourself and all your friends, and even a few enemies. The baby's gotta eat.


Anonymous said…
How do you decide on track order?
Soul Mama said…
Any chance you could ask an easy question????? ?;)