What I Learned from Recording Myself

As many of my friends and colleagues already know, I recently released my first solo recording called Strohman Says. I wanted to devote this month’s blog to all my experiences with this project from start to finish. Many of us have come to accept audio recording as fairly trivial and routine endeavor in this age of rapid technological growth. After all, the fundamentals of the recording process itself have not changed much since the middle of the 20th century. However, I want to share with everyone just how much time and careful consideration goes into many of the audio recordings we all consume so nonchalantly on a daily basis. For me, it was an incredible learning experience!

I first had the idea for this recording project as I was finishing up my DMA at Temple University in late 2013. As I was preparing for my final degree recital, I imagined what it might be like to accompany myself. It would certainly make rehearsals easier to schedule! One day after an extensive discussion my father challenged me to record an album where I did just that. I knew there would be challenges, but I was confident I would be able to do it. Little did I know just how complicated things were about to get!

I knew a great deal of preparation would be necessary. Not only did I need to practice the parts, I needed to practice recording them. I began by composing a short melody for trombone with a two piano accompaniment and tried to record all the parts myself at home. My goal was to explore all the potential difficulties of this recording before going into the recording studio and wasting lots of time. I quickly learned just how difficult it was rhythmically to line everything up. Most chamber ensembles use lots of visual cues and everyone listens and adjusts to line things up. When recording individual parts one at a time, this is unfortunately not possible. In order to solve this problem, many recording artists use click tracks. For those unfamiliar, a click track is essentially a metronome that clicks in your headphones while you record for the purposes of lining things up. Unfortunately, my simple melody for trombone and two pianos had an abundance of tempo changes and fermatas. A simple click track would not suffice.

Instead, I had to create something a bit more involved. I eventually ended up created a narrated dynamic click track. Essentially, it was a metronome with all the fermatas and tempo changed programmed into it — including subdivisions when they were most helpful. I also spoke over it to warn myself of upcoming changes, to cue re-entrances, and help pace dynamics and other musical moments as a conductor would do visually. With the capabilities of such a click track, I decided to expand upon the simple melody until it eventually became a composition I called “Sentimental Lullaby.” It is now track 7 on the album. Taking advantage of these narrated click tracks, I was able to compose music I knew would be able to be recorded this way. I was able to practice with the click track until everything felt comfortable and natural. Unfortunately, there were also limitations to this approach. I could not record extended rubato passages this way. It was far too tedious to program every push and pull into a click track (not too mention how contrived it felt to record rubato that way).

After some experimenting, I devised a different method for recording very rubato music. I would first record the piano part and then lay down the trombone part over top of it. When I recorded the piano part I did not play all of the notes. I simply outlined the harmonies to give myself a pitch reference and general phrase structure. I then recorded the trombone over the piano part only listening for pitch and phrasing. I allowed myself to pace everything however it felt most natural to me. Then I went back and re-recorded the piano part trying to follow the trombone part rhythmically and dynamically as well as I could. I then went back and re-recorded the trombone part over the newer piano part trying to follow it a bit more closely than before. After that I re-recorded the piano part again too. I kept iterating this process until everything eventually lined up as well as it was going to line up. Amazingly, this process resulted in a very convincing multi-tracked rubato performance. However, there were drawbacks too. It made most types of editing or splicing within a take extremely obvious since they likely would not be perfect aligned with the other part. If I made a small mistake near the end I had to go back and redo the entire take. If I redid the trombone part, I usually had to redo the piano part as well.

Unfortunately, lining up the parts rhythmically was not the only challenge I faced with this project. There are lots of issues with intonation that arise with multi-tracking that are not present when playing in a chamber ensemble. Pianos slowly drift flat in pitch as they are played. Most of us usually do not notice this in live performance, but when multi-tracking two pianos together it is extremely noticeable. One part may have been recorded an hour after the other, creating noticeable beating between unisons. This meant I needed to have a technician constantly touching up the piano during the recording process.

However, once the piano is perfectly in tune with itself another issue arises: phasing. Two perfectly tuned unisons played at the same time will often end up canceling each other out due to phasing between the waveforms. In many instances I had to rewrite parts to avoid unisons as much as possible. We also took advantage of sound imaging, putting certain frequencies from one piano more on the right speaker and certain ones from the other more on the left. There were also intonation issues with the trombone, a highly flexible instrument in terms of pitch. Trombonists typically place pitch by listening and matching to other instruments in an ensemble. However, when recording parts one at a time it is only possible to match to what was already recorded. For trombone and piano pieces, this meant it was necessary to record the piano parts first. However, I also wanted to record a trombone quartet where all four parts were often not all playing at the same time. I solved this by creating a MIDI drone that played in the background along with my narrated click track. By listening to the drone I could keep the pitch constant enough throughout the track.

At first all of these recording methods felt very unnatural and awkward. However, as I practiced with them things began to settle and feel more normal over time. Amazingly, when I listened to what I eventually recorded it did not seem particularly contrived at all. I was determined to not begin recording until everything was as good as I could get it on the cheap recording equipment I had at home. However, despite my best efforts I still ended up spending a lot of time in the studio. Sometimes things never quite work out in reality the way you plan for them.

At first I did not want to record in a studio at all. I detested the sound of recording studios from my past experience. They tended to be horribly dry and artificial environments. I really wanted a more natural acoustic. However, my recording engineer explained all of the complications inherent with trying to multi-track in a recital hall. That beautiful natural room reverberation will be multiplied every time I add a new track. Instead of sounding warm, it would end up sounding extremely noisy. Rather than record in a hall, we used recordings of impulse responses from a hall to create an artificial convolution reverb that we could superimpose over a studio recording. It was far from perfect, but it was mostly convincing. With all the craziness already inherent in this project, I decided that creating reverb in this way seemed as reasonable as anything else.

I also was under the false impression that once everything was recorded and mixed that we would mostly be finished. I could not have been more wrong. The mastering process was far more involved than I had ever imagined. For those unfamiliar, mastering involves setting the right equalization, compression, imaging, loudness, and a whole host of other final tweaks on each track of the recording such that they all sound like part of the same album. A poorly mastered track can sound embarrassing, while a well mastered one can really make the recording come alive. Because my project was so far outside the realm of what is normally the goal of a studio recording, the mastering process was far more involved as well.

I learned many very valuable lessons from this project. First of all, I believe that every serious artist should spend a significant amount of time recording themselves and take ownership over the entire process. We too often complain when a recording engineer does not capture the sound we hear in our minds, but we do not know enough about the process itself to help work with them to create that sound. We should take the time to learn the basics about various microphone designs and ideal microphone placements, learn what equalization and multi-band compression are able to do and not do, be constantly willing to experiment, and always ask questions and heed the advice of those with more experience than us.

We all eventually reach a point when we must accept something with which we are not completely happy. As the producer and/or artist, you will always be aware of all the tricks which were used in the studio to make something sound a particular way. It will be impossible for your ears to ever be completely won over by something you recorded. There will always be things you know you would do very differently in the future. However, in the end you either choose to move forward with it or you choose to trash it.

By the time the recording was completely finished I could not bring myself to listen to it anymore. It was like hearing yourself speak on tape for the very first time. I thought it was so obvious how I “cheated” to make multi-tracking sound like I had performed with another person. I let it sit on the shelf for about a month without listening to it at all. After a month I listened to it again to see if I could hear any evidence of our “tricks.” I also had a few of my close friends and colleagues listen to see if anything sounded funny to them. To my complete surprise, it sounded completely organic and natural to everyone — including me. One person even thought I cheated by hiring a real life accompanist!

It serves to prove that musicians have a very artificial way of hearing music while we are making it. Sometimes it is difficult to get out of our own heads and just enjoy what we have created. Considering what I originally set out to do, I am very happy with the final result of this recording. I decided to go through with publishing it through the tgNotes, Inc. label, and so far all the reviews have been very positive. It is difficult to put something of yourself out there to get criticized, but I feel like a completely different person for having done it and am looking forward to many more projects like this to come in the future.

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