The Jacksons were right. It really IS as easy as 1-2-3 (or A-B-C, if you’re more at home in a English Lit. course). Recording is costly and time-consuming, so I thought I’d put together a little 3-step roadmap and/or recipe for you, which owes itself to 1/2 Jackson 5, and 1/2 Isaac Asimov. OK, some may disagree with me, but this is Rock N’ Roll we’re talking about, not rocket appliances.
But hey, enough of my yakkin’. Let’s boogie:
- The Songs
Collect the ingredients, mix that batter.
This may seem like an obvious notion: truly, why wouldn’t the most important aspect of a record be the songs? You see, I’m not just talking about “Songs”, a plural noun to group the tunes that appear on any given record, but the genesis of songs, the quality of songs, the quantitiy, the honesty, the love, time, and patience you give them, even though they may just end up in a drawer, locked away for another go-round, possibly on the next record (they won’t be).
A good rule for writing a record: “For every song that makes it into the studio, there should be AT LEAST 5-6 that fail. Of those songs written, HALF should go through AT LEAST 5-6 different versions/drafts.” You want good songs? Well, good songs cost, and right here is where you start paying.
When and how a song comes into being considered is important to remember. Songs may come in fully formed, or just from a riff, a chorus, a lyric, a progression, etc. The songs that form our latest EP were all brought in under different circumstances, sometimes a riff, sometimes a chorus. They really didn’t seem to fit together at all, or wouldn’t have, if we had been thinking that way. The element that DID link them all was that each one, upon the FIRST time being presented, connected very strongly with all band members, the moments where we’d go, “Now THAT’S something.” These “somethings” came about every 6-8 songs, if you average. Sometimes quickly, sometimes not. Yes, there were false “somethings”, songs we really thought were great (at the time), but no matter what we tried, they would fail. That’s how you learn what a “something” really is.
If you find enough REAL “somethings”, and work them to the BONE, now you have the beginning of a record. Now you’ve got something! (I couldn’t resist.)
- The Band
Bake that cake.
(No, not “The Band”. There’s been enough written about Big Pink and The Bronze Strat to last a lunchtime. No, I mean YOUR band…or OUR band…or WHATEVER band.)
Ok, one down! You got your perfect songs written. Now what?
You play ’em. My GOD, you play ’em.
You wrote them, now you just need to make them YOURS. Not just play them, but feel them. Be them. Own them. You just keep playin’ em and playin’ em, until your muscles in your arms and legs and throat develop grooves, until you can play them in your sleep, until they play themselves, until you’d go crazy if you had to play ’em one more time.
Then you play ’em again.
Then you got it. It’s like making a joke your own (thanks, QT).
This step gives way to a whole lot of important elements that come under the microscope in the final step. Groove, swing, and the overall tightness of the band are deconsturcted, rebuilt and cemented, guitar harmonies can be made to sing instead of picked, and tones, performance levels, and tempos can dialed or tossed. MOST importantly, the songs, however different they may be, change from individual songs written seperately, to one linking body of music, being played by one band. Sure, this secton probably requires the least amount of sharp focus and concentration, but it is wildly displaced in the need for clear thought, relaxation, and soul. The atmosphere where the final songs are worked and played demands a welcoming and brotherly/sisterly air, however still very goal-oriented. This is also the only part where no one outside the artist can make the jump to the next step. When your songs are ready, YOU’LL know.
- The Recording
Ice that cake.
The home stretch…or is it?
This is where the magic can happen, or where the storm can start. This might be coming in as the final of three parts, but if there was one place where determination, resilience, and sharpness come in handy, it’s here.
Always remember what you band is, what your songs are, and what both of those mean to you. Also as important, work with a production/engineering team that understands and recognizes that as much as you do. You trust them enough that you won’t feel paranoid they’d try to change it, and also they’d be more adept and helpful to get you back on track when you get overwhelmed (which, trust me, WILL happen). The line that curves towards muddled confusion is based in the frame of mind that the studio can feel like a blank canvas, and it gives you the big box of crayons. Yea, the one that even has a sharpener on the side. You start to lean towards experimentation, different tones, and the like. It seems freeing, and it’s good to get some fresh sounds when you’ve been hammering away on the same batch of tunes for hours on end, trying to get arrangements complete, but remind yourself those hours really weren’t spent hammering, but sculpting.
Now, as much as I seem to be a champion against recording, this is also a place for trying certain ideas that may never have come into your head, or couldn’t have, that don’t change the song, but lift it to another level. We know what our band sounds like, and that’s what we want, but…what if there was some organ on this part right here? What if we laid down a 12-string here? Egg shakers here? On one song, the idea came up that we should try one of the guitar solos as a backwards solo, ala “Taxman”, and it fit in so perfectly, that the song seemed very pedestrian with just a conventional one. Variety is the spice of life, and should be explored. As long as it doesn’t handicap the song or the performance (Asimnov here), minds should be kept open.
Everyone’s a cook.
Bring in your own ideas. Listen to others’ ideas. Love them all like family, but be prepared to cast them off like scraps. Choose (objectively) the best, no matter WHOSE they are. A good idea is a good idea, and everything should be tried at least twice.
Yea, that’s pretty much it. Just good songs, performed passionately and capablely, and recorded with honesty and atmosphere. No “what mic should I use?” No “What’s the over-arching theme of the liner notes?” When those become your priority questions, it’s easy to get lost and frustrated, and that’s when a growing record can suffer.
Admire the landscapes, be inspired by them, just keep yourself between the lines. It’s easy if you try.
As easy as 1-2-3.