13 September 2011

Idea to MP3: An Amateur Musician's Process

I'm sure a lot of people are wondering how exactly an idea turns into an amateurific home recording on an MP3 website. So, I'll take a moment out of my busy (ahem) schedule to discuss the process.

It all begins with the Idea, or sometimes not even the Idea but just the Desire. For reasons that no one can probably explain, I just have to write a song. The songs I've written thus far usually start with the lyrics. When I've got them jotted down in a notebook, I start strumming on a guitar, trying out various chord progression, while humming bits of the lyrics. It's hard to explain what exactly happens, but somehow the melody slowly begins to take shape. This process from Idea to relatively finished song usually doesn't take all that long for me. Each song is unique, of course, but most have been finished during the space of one afternoon (of course my songs tend to be structurally and melodically fairly simple). Over the next few days I'll play the song lots of times, fine tuning bits of it, and simultaneously committing to memory.

The recording process for me usually starts with creating the percussion parts. On my last couple releases I've used a software drum machine called Hydrogen for this. I tend to keep the percussion tracks fairly simple, mostly because I don't have the patience (or skills) to tinker with them all that much. Little tricks like changing the pitch of certain drum samples can make the drum loops sound more interesting.

For the actual recording part I've usually used Ardour, software of the type known as a 'digital audio workstation' (or 'DAW'). Ardour is probably one of the most advanced pieces of such software available in the Free Software world. First of all I'll import the finished percussion tracks, which form the basis for future work.

There's no particular order I record the rest of the instruments in. I like to record several guitar and keyboard parts in order to give the song a strong 'body'. The Game Master was a fairly guitar heavy work, so I started with recording the guitar parts. (I may have started with keyboard parts on Sleeping Birds Lie, but I don't recall for certain any more...) In any case, I'll start with a fairly simple part, laying out the basic chord progressions so that other parts will be easier to play. Solos and other gimmicky bits will generally be one of the last things, alongside vocals. I'll be working on all the songs in a project simultaneously, recording, for example, guitars for each song before moving on to other instruments.

This is the most time consuming part of the process, of course, and can frequently be frustrating. Recording is very different from playing live to a small group of friends. The stuff I do live just doesn't seem to translate well into recordings. Finding out what does, in fact, work, is mostly a process of trial and error. (I know some of my friends would like to hear versions of the songs more like my acoustic performances, but I honestly think recording such would be even more difficult than producing a multi-instrument rock track...)

Once I've got the various parts of a song recorded to the best of my ability, or, more likely, the best of what my limited patience will allow, mixing follows. This is about getting the balance between the various instruments right, and ensuring the total volume is as high as possible without being high enough to cause 'clipping'.

The final phase is mastering. This is mainly about getting the overall volume level suitable for release. On The Game Master I did this by routing the sound from Ardour to a mastering application called JAMin, in which I could adjust volume levels, while it applies effects like compression in order to keep the sound from clipping. The final version is then exported into a lossless wave file, which in turn is encoded into an MP3, uploaded, and voilà.

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