Long before I went to the Musicians Institute (and actually studied composition and the harmonic structure of things), I was writing music.
As young as 13 yrs old, I used to spend hours making up songs in my parent's basement (my jam area). And, when friends would come over, or when I would go to somebody else's house and jam, I always tried to get my buddies to play my songs. Luckily, more often not, my friends actually liked those tunes and sometimes we'd play them for weeks and months on end, (some for years).
Unfortunately, in my generation, there were no home recording set-ups. For us, home recording was crude and mainly consisted of using something like a "Boom-Box." The terrible microphones within those units sure didn't produce very good recordings, but it worked well enough to start documenting our ideas.
The studio environment was certainly out of reach to teenagers like me and my friends. And, it would be many years before I would ever had the chance to step into a "real" recording studio and lay down professional tracks with great mics and an experienced engineer.
THE EARLY DAYS OF HOME RECORDING
It wasn't until 1990 that I was able to finally save up my money and purchase a Tascam "Porta-Studio 424." Along with the Tascam, I purchased a "Roland R8" drum-machine. It was at this point where I began to finally have the very "basic" home studio environment I always wanted for recording. Since I wanted to constantly create rehearsal tracks and document my ideas, the simple set-up of that Tascam and the drum-machine became my "Dream-Team."
Since nice microphones were still very expensive, I used to rent good mic's when I was able to have enough material together to actually do some recording. For general use, I purchased a cheap $20.00 mic from Radio Shack to get my demo work organized. It surprisingly worked not all that bad. And, it was during this period where my writing really began to grow and develop.
As you can gather, in my era, dedication was the key factor to writing and organizing music. It wasn't difficult to be a dedicated young musician. I liked composing. Jamming two or three nights a week wasn't difficult. Nor, was booking and heading off to a gig. But, when it came to being able to actually start recording the songs - so they sounded decent, there were certainly financial restrictions that got in the way of doing things professionally.
One of the first serious original bar-bands I played in took up a very determined long-term commitment to doing some studio recording. We opened a "band bank account." We saved the money from all of our gigs. We sold t-shirts and worked our butts off to fund a recording project. After months of saving, we went to a local studio and met with a producer /engineer. His studio was really nice. He seemed like a great guy and his gear was outstanding. Then, he handed us his "basic project" fees for doing our six song demo! Yikes.
Instead of going the pro-studio direction, we paid a local soundman we used often and he recorded our demo on 1/4" tape. As you could imagine, it was pretty uninspiring. So much so, that the band fell apart shortly after the, 'make-shift' recording project.
THE PROFESSIONAL RECORDING PROJECT
After spending the 1990's working with other bands, singer /soloists, and songwriters on their original recording projects, I decided I wanted to write an albums worth of material and start recording it professionally. Starting in 2003, I went into the studio to record the first songs.
Taking on a self-funded solo project was a huge commitment of both time and finances. It didn't take long to blow through thousands of dollars in the studio. And, the whole experience taught me a lot about being highly dedicated and organized for the studio dates.
I made detailed charts for the guys in the sessions and I created audio recordings for them explaining the structure on the song, along with rough demos of each songs' feel. My goal was to save time and costs in the studio by being able to get in and get out in good time.
After three years of recording, mixing and all the rest of the details - I finally had my first professional CD in hand in the year 2006.
The experience taught me a lot about the ways of the recording studio, being organized, using mics, using effects and tracking instruments. Most of all, it helped me to better understand 'how' to take the songs that I composed in my home music room and get them to sound 'better than I ever imagined' through the magic of the recording process.
Unfortunately, the entire procedure cost me a ton of money and made me fully aware of how important it would be for me to be able to eventually do all of that in my own home studio.
BUILDING A HOME STUDIO
For me, I could tell that the future of recording was definitely in having my own studio /facility. The best way I could see this happening was to invest in building my own place from the ground up. I did a lot of research and met with dozens of people. Headed off to the bank, re-did my mortgage and over the next 3 years built a dedicated building on my property to act as my own private studio. Some people thought it was a crazy pipe-dream, but in the end, I was able to pull it off, I built it and in six years from now it'll be paid off as well.
Some people have asked me why I took to the effort of building my own place. And, the reasons may not be reasons that relate to everyone, but they certainly relate to me. My idea was based upon the fact that I love writing music and I write a ton of music. However to me, (personally), writing without recording the song, is like completing half a job. The composing (to me) is only the beginning. Notating a composition on sheet music is only the "blueprint." But, taking that composition and setting it to a beat, with backing parts, bass and keyboard... now that is really getting it somewhere.
THE MAGIC OF RECORDING
There's a certain magic that happens when a song goes from a series of loose ideas, to a chart in sheet music, to finally being recorded - parts layered, mixed and mastered. For me, hearing my piece recorded 'finished' as a song, is probably a lot like an architect actually touching a building that was sketched out on paper years prior. Finishing the recording process completes the song for me - finally making it, "real."
Recording a song, documents it - etching it in stone forever. Jamming a piece in a rehearsal won't do this. Playing a song live doesn't do it either. Even recording a piece live off of the stage can't do it for me. There's just something magical about the studio.
Maybe it's all of the time dedicated. Perhaps it's all of the care taken to perfect the ideas, the layering and the mix. Whatever "it" is, for me composing just isn't complete until I can hear the "final product" polished and perfected from the studio.
So, in wrapping up this weeks blog, I want to offer the suggestion of not stopping your songwriting process at dreaming up a riff. Don't stop at a verse and a chorus. Carry on to shaping the piece from start to finish. Then, jam it with your band-mates. Organize the form and eventually take it to the studio and record it. Layer parts, organize the arrangement and make it real. Sure, it can be a lot of work, but the end result is well worth all the effort. And, the best part is... even if you never sell the song and take it to the bank... at least you can listen to it in your car!
- Andrew Wasson