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Music

From Composing to Recording - Producing an Album with a Band

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
Using Ambient Techniques For Composing
The Art of Songwriting

Have you ever wondered what it's like to record a demo or a full-length album with your band? This article is just what you're looking for. It's the story of my experiences writing and recording an album back in Los Angeles.

Every experience is unique and personal. So take what I say as just one way to reach your goal. Your experience doesn't have to be the same as mine, but hopefully I'll inspire you write and record your own album.


1. A Unique Experience

Two facts make my experience unusual. First, I grew up listening to hard rock, progressive music, and metal. When I moved to LA, I knew I was going to have a band that would play something heavy, really progressive, and not mainstream at all. Something like Between the Buried and Me, Tesseract, Animals as Leaders, and Protest the Hero, to give you an idea of the genre.

This made a huge difference in the whole writing/recording process, because whenever you hear a recording from the bands I mentioned, you immediately realize how accurate and precise they are. If you're going to put out an album like that, you have to make sure that every note is aligned to the click track, and perfectly pitched. Your drums should sound compressed enough to keep you heart beating, your guitar tone has to be credible, fat, and real—even if you don't have a $2,000 mic or a full rack of gear to record it all.

If you’re going to sound like a perfect machine, you need to write the track that way.

If you're going to sound like a perfect machine, you need to write the track that way. Everything has to be perfect, on the grid. There's no room for mistakes or improvisational attitudes.

The second fact is that while I was writing the songs, I was also enrolled at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, learning a bunch of new guitar tools, harmonic devices, and cool little licks that I wanted to have in my songs. That has pros and cons:

  • Pro: I constantly wanted to experiment with something new I just learned. So whenever I finished a song, I already had ideas to start a new one.
  • Con: As soon as I finished a song, I was already unsatisfied with what I wrote. It sounded outdated and unexciting because I just learned another ten cool chords and scales I wanted to insert into the song.
lenny-band-p1

2. My Writing Process

I'd love to talk about my writing process, starting with what I'd say are the key points for most bands and songwriters:

  • Not everyone in a band writes. Sure, all of the members contribute to the final product, but not everyone has the creativity or skills to write a whole song.
  • A new song doesn't appear whenever you want. Honestly, I found myself being inspired in the most inconvenient moments, like late at night, or when I had to go out, and I didn't have time to make a rough recording of my ideas, or even write them on a piece of paper.

My writing process with my band always started with a musical idea that popped into my mind. Maybe I was doing an exercise and a cool sound caught my attention, or maybe I was just walking down the street and a sweet scale melody came to my mind. Everything always started off with inspiration.

Music is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.

But I also believe in the maxim: "Music is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration." That's the way it worked for me and the band. Once we had the idea, we'd write it in a program like Guitar Pro, Tuxguitar, or something that allows you to listen to it and have it down, so we don't forget it. Then I'd take my guitar, play the part, and start composing.

Yes, it's really that simple. I would say that for most of the things you write, it's better to have it in your head first, or it will probably sound really unnatural. Although sometimes you can use your knowledge of music theory and rhythm to add something unexpected.

So, say I have four bars of music with a guitar riff, I might start writing the second guitar part: either a rhythmic complementary part, or just the same part up a third (sort of Iron Maiden signature). What plays a big role here is how well you know how you want to sound. Are those four bars the main riff? Is it the guitar part of the chorus? The verse? Is it going to be a slow ballad song or a heavy break down?

Since I'm a guitar player, I usually wrote both guitar parts, then I'd send the Guitar Pro file to our drummer, and he'd write his parts. We might change something in the meter map of the song, maybe not. In any case, I kept arranging the song, since I knew how I wanted it to sound.

Whenever you work with musicians you trust, you have to give them the freedom to write something they feel comfortable with. But at the same time, you need to communicate, and let them know what's on your mind.

In my experience, the sequence of events while writing has always been this:

  • Write the guitar part.
  • Have the drummer write his own part.
  • Start rehearsing the song, and the bass player gets the vibe and start writing his own part.
  • Finally, the singer will add the lyrics and vocal melody.
lenny-band-p2

3. Practice

You can do a good performance of your song in front of a thousand people, and completely screw it up in the studio.

As you can see, we didn't start rehearsing the song until it was completely finished. Just jamming would have made no sense, since we continuously changed the time signature, the very technical parts for every instruments were difficult to play on the spot, and also the structure of the song was not a common ABAB pop song form.

Once you're done with the whole song, you start practicing to see if it flows well, since even if you have done your job, you've only listened to it on MIDI software, which doesn't really tell you anything about music. That's the first thing I usually check. We used to rehearse a couple of songs for one month straight, even though we usually did it just to have a tighter live performance.

Pretend that you just have to write and record your song. Preparing a song for the studio has nothing to do with performing it live. You can do a good performance of your song in front of a thousand people, and completely screw it up in the studio.

The big surprise for me was how frustrating the studio can be if you're not prepared enough. Recording one guitar part usually took about two hours, but you weren't prepared enough, it could take up to six. This completely relates to the point I talked about in the first section: You want to sound flawless, no excuses.

lenny-band-p3

4. Recording

At this point, you might be wondering, "How do I record a full-length album? I can't afford a studio in Los Angeles." Well, true. As I said, we were really influenced by all those new bands who are able to produce a record in their bedrooms. So, the answer is: digital home recording.

What we did is record the dry output in a Logic session, and then had a producer reamp it, and mix and master everything.

What we did is record the dry output in a Logic session, and then had a producer reamp it, and mix and master everything. Luckily we could use the school studio to track decent quality drums, and then the producer would replace every sound with digital drums.  

I'd like to warn you about how to choose your producer. If you don't have any idea of who to choose, then start researching who produced the bands you like, and the albums you listen to. Of course, you can't choose the number one artist on the hot 100 of last week's billboard. Don't trust any "friend of a guy I know" who might be interested in mixing your stuff. Ask for the previous record he produced, and make sure you like the mixing he does to the first song you send him.

You need to be picky and patient during this process, since a well-played song that's badly mixed and mastered can sound terrible. At the same time, a so-so performance can be improved by someone who knows how to do his job. I'd say that for an eight to ten track album, you won't get anything worthwhile for less than $1,000-1,200. At least, that's my personal experience.


Conclusion

I hope this article has given you an idea of what it's like to write and record your own album. It's a wonderful and educational experience I recommend to anybody.

It takes a lot of sacrifice, and requires hard work from everyone in the band, but I assure you that when you hear the final product, you'll be really satisfied. You made it.

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