Lessons and Training
Composing for an Album
An album is a collection of smaller things. Those things might be related or just the last dozen or so pieces of music that an artist or band have been working on. Many bands get together and lock themselves in a studio until they’ve made an album. Discipline by King Crimson was made that way it seems. They’d sweat through ideas and directions until they’d moulded a sound and some songs. Sometimes bands work with a producer and some engineers who help knock whatever they’re playing into shape. If you’re a strong improviser you might use this as a starting point for recording an album. Pat Metheny’s Quartet album was made in a very short period by getting the band into the studio with just a few ideas and working upward from there. I like this approach as it means you can’t over analyse your ideas and potentially you get something very vital. Alternatively, in the wrong hands you get something rushed and messy. Of course, it helps if you’re a world-class group of jazz players.
Sometimes a band that does a lot of live work will have formulated ideas in rehearsal and have been playing lots of their new material live for a while. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for example, was largely made that way. When they came off tour and went into the studio most of it already existed. We do the same thing on a much smaller scale in Mary Lovett’s band, we’re working on new material at the moment and we play bits of it live as a way of developing things. When it comes to recording we’ll know exactly what we want. This happens less these days with big, successful bands, as bootlegging technology has gotten smaller and more ubiquitous so a band could easily end up giving away all their new album before its even been made.
Alternatively, it might be somewhere in-between, Joe Satriani’s Joe Satriani album was made by bringing some ideas to the studio and then creating some more once the band got moving. He worked with Glyn Johns, the Who’s producer, on that record. There’s a great making-of video that’s really worth tracking down, I have it on VHS, but it must all be on You Tube by now. In fact, Joe’s work is quite rare amongst guitarists in that he usually works with a producer – a more traditional band type approach. Most guitarists are hold up in their little studios working on their own, but you can really hear Glyn Johns’ stamp on Joe Satriani, or Andy John’s stamp on The Extremist, or Eric Caudieux on Engines of Creation. I’d certainly recommend getting someone else involved in your project at some point just to give you a fresh perspective. Don’t just ask anybody and everybody, I often work with my brother, for example, and don’t let anyone else hear it until it’s done. It depends on what you need help with. I know I’m quite impatient with getting a recording sound and Matt’s very good at saying ‘that could sound better, let’s get it right first’. You might need assistance in some other area, like what order the songs should come in.
An album is also a single entity; it has a beginning, middle and end. The type of music you’re making and the purpose of your album help to determine what order you put things in. I try to arrange the songs in an album such that it helps the listener focus equally on each one. This is more a rock approach. Indeed, the term ‘album oriented rock’ (AOR) is based on the idea that you’re making something that will be heard in one go rather than as separate singles. For me this has tended to mean having four or five up-beat tracks followed by some slower ones in the middle and then more energetic ones at the end. My album Regent is certainly laid out this way, as are all the others.
Sometimes producers think of this as an energy curve, going up and down. This is what separates an album from ‘a collection of songs’; you’re trying to make something that makes sense as a whole and takes you through a series of emotions or possibilities- you can decide how it’s going to begin and end. Lyle Lovett’s great country album Pontiac is interesting in that it goes up and down quite a lot. The penultimate two songs, Simple Song and Pontiac, are really dark, gorgeous pieces, but then he finishes with a very silly shuffle called She’s Hot to Go. It’s really great and says a lot about your outlook on life to arrange things that way around, and its perhaps more American than English to do it this way.
If you listen to Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head you’ll notice they put all the singles at the front and after that it sort of meanders off into other territory. There’s nothing wrong with this, but is does impact on how you listen to the songs because it starts with five songs you know inside out just from hearing them on radio and TV and then some you’ve never heard in your life. Putting the single or singles first is very much the traditional pop approach.
Regent: A case study in pooling ideas
In my own case, ‘composing for an album’ is a bit of a misnomer; rather I write whenever I feel the urge and then sort whatever I have into little groups of ideas that I think fit together. Eventually these groups become album-shaped. For example, between 1997 and 2009 I wrote the music that became the Regent album. At one point in early 2007 I wrote demos for maybe four or five songs in a couple of days. These were all made from little tiny ideas that I’d had floating around for different lengths of time. These were Greasy and the Tube Monkeys, The Projectionist, Delicatessen and Chocopocalypse Now. I already knew I wanted to call a project Regent so I made a play list with these tunes and then found a few older ideas that sat well with the new ones. I had a nine minute jam called Portals that I’d recorded when I was making Curious Liquid in 2004, this seemed to feel right so I edited it down to five minutes and stuck that in the list. I had an idea called Purple Circles that I’d been working on since about 1997 and the general momentum of working towards the possibility of an album helped me get it finished, so that when in too. Also, I had two pieces, called Lo’s Orchard and Let’s Work in Retail, both written five or six years earlier, that were just sitting around on their own, so I put them in to form the slower, moody bits. Whilst all this was going on I was constantly rerecording little bits and starting to make things gel together better. At this point I stopped for a while, partly because I got a new job that diverted most of my attention for about six months. Then in December 2007 I wrote nine songs in a few weeks for a different project that had started to form in my head. This was more fusion based and deliberately complicated in places. The last two pieces, Fuchsia and The Knot Garden, were the strongest and a month or so later it occurred to me that they sat pretty well with the existing material for Regent and added a further dimension. This gave me eleven tracks and at this point it came to life again and I finished it. So, all in all, it took me about twelve years to make Regent and I never specifically wrote anything for it really, just pooled together the right ideas from whatever I had around me. There are plenty of other ideas knocking around that just didn’t quite fit, but they’ll maybe fit a different setting later on. I think my point here is that you should be writing constantly and hoarding your ideas and demos. It’s easier to conceptualise an album if you have fifty ideas you can pick from, even if you still have to do lots to them.
Something that allows music on an album to sound like its all part of the same project is the recording itself. This is often as much about limitations as it is about choices. If you’re working at home on a computer and you’ve acquired a few different plug-ins and maybe a Pod or similar, you’ve got access to lots of different sounds and possibilities. However, it’s quite useful to say to yourself that you’re only going to use a limited set of sounds for the basic tracks. You might also say that you’re only going to use at most a couple of different reverb sounds, rather than something totally different on every track. This all helps to knot things together. Also, if you’ve made a set of demos that you’re going to rerecord from scratch you might think about doing, for example, all the rhythm guitars for all the songs in one session, and then all the bass parts, all the vocals in one go and so forth. Again, this helps to develop a common thread across everything. Steve Vai’s albums are good for hearing this kind of quality. Fire Garden, for example, has its very own kind of sound, quite dry and crisp, The Ultra Zone or Passion and Warfare have different but equally unique sounds.
The album is a dead format?
With the advent of downloading individual tracks and so forth, various pundits have suggested that making albums is pointless and just releasing a series of singles directly onto the Internet makes more sense. In the case of some pop acts this might be absolutely true. Why waste time on a twelve-track album when you’re always going to be making short appearances playing your three or four singles? However, this hasn’t quite happened and some artists have fought to ensure their work stays ‘whole’. Pink Floyd recently won a court case again EMI in which the band argued that their music shouldn’t be sold as individual download tracks but only as albums, the point being that The Wall, Wish You Were Here and so forth were written as single entities and should stay that way. Here’s the story:
Of course, when you’re Pink Floyd you can do what you like from the top of your hill of money, but the artistic point is a good one.
Historically the media available for disseminating an album has determined its length. When albums were released on vinyl they were quite a bit shorter than they are now on CD. We’ve reached a point now where albums could be huge. You could sell albums on pen drives and they could have hours of material on them. I don’t know if that’s been tried yet? However, the opposite has occurred, we now deal more often in short, single songs.
I realise I haven’t really said anything about the music itself. That is, which notes should go with which other ones and how to actually make the songs themselves. This is because it’s far to broad a question to tackle in one small article. All I can really do here is talk about the next level up, which is how to go about presenting your ideas in a way that will do them justice and hopefully suggested that there can be more to it than just unthinkingly putting ten or eleven tracks in a line.
I’ve not found much on the process of making albums, its more the sort of information you’d find in interviews with producers that guitarist. It is, however, a really important part of the creative process.
Composing for an Album (Part 2)
Completing a Project
Once you’ve made something that you like, I’d suggest living with it for a bit. The problem with working alone, as most guitarists with home studios are doing, is that you rather lose perspective on what you’re listening to. Here are some thoughts on what to do when you get near the end:
1. If you’re struggling to get a good mix then I’d suggest putting a reference track into your mix and just trying to get it to sound like that. Add a stereo track in the song session, import something you know is good by a successful artist, bring it down a few notches to compensate for the mastering process, and just copy its levels. My memory for how things sound is not good and I find that if I A/B test something I’ve mixed against what I wanted it to sound like it can be miles out. If its there in the session to reference all the time I’ll have a better chance of getting it close.
2. I don’t play it to lots of people. I did this in the early days but found all I got was lots of people’s opinions, which is great but you can end up going round in circles trying to please everybody. I’d say play it to a few key people whose opinions you trust or who have a bit more experience that you.
3. Sometimes I’ve found that if you sit with people whilst they’re listening to it you can hear what you’ve done anew just by virtue of their being there. This happens to me sometimes if I’ve made a section a bit too long – too many choruses or something. I realise I’m getting uncomfortable and want the next bit to arrive. This can be quite instructive.
4. Remember: You are the artist. If you like something keep it, even if everyone else hates it. There are thousands of guitar players out there who can play really tastefully and please most of the people most of the time, You Tube is full of them, but the best ones have a bit more imagination and conviction. If you believe its cool you might find a few others start to believe it too.
5. Usually I’ll take an album mix out with me on a CD and play it the car, on my mp3 player and wherever I can without too many interruptions. If I find I always want to skip something then there’s probably something wrong with it. Potentially its not good enough music. Remember, regardless of how much time you’ve committed to something doesn’t means it’s actually up to the quality of everything else. Be prepared to drop something, even at the last minute if you’re not comfortable with it. Its hard but can be quite liberating to say ‘No, I want my quality threshold to be higher than that…’ Save it for another project, by which time you might have reworked into something better.
6. Some people suggest trying things out on different speakers. This can be useful but it’s more important that you know your own speakers and know the room you’re listening in. Sometimes you might want to do a bass-heavy mix if you expect you music will be played more on mobile phones and such like just to make up for their lack of bottom end.
7. Understand that you’ll probably never be 100% happy, but if you want to move on you’ll need to call it a day at some point. Because you made it you’ll always hear the imperfections more clearly than anyone else. The listener’s experience is not quite the same as yours and they hear it more holistically than the artist.
Once you’ve completed the actual music and recording and you’re happy, then comes the part where you actually have to start spending money. At this point you need to ask yourself some important questions.
1. Why have you made this album? If its really just for your pleasure then I’d try to find a way of making a really small run so you can have a few copies and then give a few away to friends. If it’s for a commercial purpose then you have other things to think about…
2. Are you going to put time into promoting it? You might be surprised how much Internet coverage doesn’t translate to CD sales. I’ve found this out the hard way. However good you are, simply having a CD available on the Internet isn’t going to bring you a return on your initial outlay. Look at the top players, or even biggish names in the UK, like Guthrie, Andy James, they’re all doing loads of other things to make a living. General exposure through teaching, videos, other bands, trade show appearances and such like help push their solo projects. Ultimately, its all part of you career.
3. Can you play live? Playing live is the best way to develop a fan base and promote your music. Guitar music is as much about performance as anything else. Even if it’s just with backing tracks, I think it’s important to do. You might struggle with audience numbers initially (or always), but who cares? Struggle and enjoy it!
There are a few things to keep you going whilst I write part three.
July 24th, 2010