When is it time to record?

May10

Everyone wants to have an album out. It’s a status symbol for every musician who wants to make it big. You meet people who ask what you do for a living and you answer: I’m a musician. And I have an album out. It’s certainly good on the ego. But should you make an album?

In this day and age, where making an album can cost less than $3,000, just about anyone can make an album. The problem is that just about anyone does…

Every week I receive CDs for review from around the world. These CDs are from the independent industry, so they’re people doing the music they like rather than the music a label tells them to do. This is a plus as, generally, these albums are much better than what comes out of the major labels. If you haven’t read my reviews, I suggest you do; there is a lot of undiscovered talent out there.

However, as I don’t like writing negative reviews, I receive a lot more than what graces our pages. The thing is one quickly realizes that not everybody should be making albums.

I know how this sounds, so let me explain what I mean by this. I’m not saying that the albums I don’t review are made by untalented people; it’s just that, generally, they are made by people who should have waited a while before making an album. They do have evident talent, but they should have developed their abilities a little more before making an album.

For a band

If you’re in a band and playing a lot of gigs, when should you make an album? Some will tell you that you need one to get gigs out of your normal circuit, that is, other towns and markets. That is not exactly so. If you have a good buzz going, your reputation will precede you. What you can do is simply rent a good recording system and the services of a sound engineer and record a show. Put your best received three or four songs together on a CD and you can use this to try and get other markets.

Overall, this whole operation will be quicker and will cost a lot less. You can do this for under $500. I suggest doing this early on as it will allow you to hear how good you sound and where you need to improve (no-one sounds perfect live, not even the seasoned professionals). Also, you never know who will be at your show, so keep a few copies with you in case someone from the industry shows up and asks for something. Just remember to put a contact name, address, telephone numbers, e-mail address printed directly onto the CD. These are more important than the band name and the song titles.

Remember that making an album suggests that you have at least 50 minutes of good music to present. If your band has only ten original songs, now might not be the best time to record an album. You should probably write more songs. Introduce a new one instead of one that the audience doesn’t seem to like as much. Check out the reaction. When you have around 50 minutes of orginal music that is all well received, then you should look into making an album.

A sure sign, also, is when people come up to you after a show and ask you if you have an album to sell. I don’t mean your aunt who’s come out to see how good you are, I’m talking about people you don’t know, people you’ve never met before. When they come up to see you and ask for an album, then you should consider making one.

Also, it’s important to remember that a studio album will not sound like a live show. The reason is fairly obvious; in the studio, you have endless tracks to play with and you can record a track as many times as you like before getting it right.

Unfortunately, as most live albums are not really live: tracks are redone in the studio, tracks are added, you don’t realize this when listening to the Rolling Stones live.

The best example of this I have seen, and I’m sure it’s not the only one, is Asia. After their second album, Alpha, which was recorded in Morin Heights on a 48-track system, before the days of digital recording, they did a show in Japan which was filmed for MTV. The show is called Asia in Asia. If you listen to this recording and compare the songs to the studio versions, you realize that there is a lot missing.

So, when recording an album, remember that you won’t sound like that live unless you want to inundate your live show with recordings and MIDIs.

Another thing you have to remember is that your stage presence also affects your sound. Sometimes you’ve been hearing a band on the radio for months and you can’t stand them. Then, because their opening for another band you want to see, or because a woman twisted your arm, you’re seeing them live and you realize that they’re great. Mind, you, the opposite can also happen. This is because their stage presence is so good, that you’re not just hearing the music, you’re getting an experience for each of your five senses.

Remember that your studio recording will not deliver your stage presence. Another reason for making sure your material is strong before going into the studio.

The solo artist

When you’re solo and not gigging, and there can be many legitimate reasons for not gigging: your first gigs bring in no money, yet a lot of the musicians who would be willing to play for you will require payment, or you may simply live in a market which is not into the style of music you’re playing. There can be many more legitimate reasons why you’re not gigging.

So when is it time to start recording?

First, you should have a fairly large amount of songs. Over the years, the ones that sound best to you will be obvious, these are the ones you’ll be playing the most often. Once you have fifteen or more of these songs which you keep playing over and over, that’s when you should consider recording an album.

And that’s when things start getting complicated.

Once you’ve made the conscious decision of cutting an album, there will be songs you haven’t played in years which will start haunting your every waking moment. Some will even be in your dreams (and that’s not just a manner of speaking).

Because, as you’re now focused on recording rather than just playing a song on a single instrument for yourself, the older songs start taking a new life and you start seeing them in a new light.

The best advice I can give you at this point is make demos. If you have access to MIDI software, this is the cheapest way to go. Soon (I have been saying this for a while, but it is a monumental task) I will be showing you how to do it using Guitar Pro 4. You don’t need to wait for me though.

Demo even those older songs which you hardly remember unless you really don’t like them anymore. Sometimes just adding drums can make a huge difference. The demos don’t have to be perfect; just have more tracks than just a guitar and a voice. You’ll also start getting all sorts of ideas as to how to improve the material.

Then, the worst part. Choose the ten or so tracks that will be going on the album. You’ll probably need input from other people for this. It gets so complicated at some point that you can’t see your way clearly out of it. That’s why I strongly recommend you don’t wait until you have a hundred good songs before making that first album.

That’s what I did, and let me tell you that selecting the songs was a nightmare. I called upon professionals in the industry to help me out, such as Warren Buttler, Jeff Sherman and Robert Berry. I hope you don’t have to through that ordeal. It took me about 8 months just to make the appropriate selections and I’m still uncertain as to some of the tracks.

Once you have your demos and have made the selections, then and only then, is it time to cut the album.

Overall

Remember that your first album will follow you all your life; like it or not. Suppose you sell 500 copies and that’s about it. Then, five or ten years down the road, you sign up with an important label. They’ll want to hear that album. If they like it, they’ll re-edit it. If they don’t, they won’t.

Suppose your worst critic finds out about that first album and, in retrospect, you realize it really isn’t good, what do you think it will do to your career? You can’t undo the past.

So, overall, before making that first album, make sure it’s the right time and that you are really ready for it.

About A-J Charron

Between 2000 to 2005 A-J wrote over 300 articles and reviews for Guitar Noise. Many of them have been translated into other languages. A-J is a singer and songwriter from Montréal, Québec. In 2005, A-J left to begin his own music media website.

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