The Intangibles of Recording an Album

In life nothing is ever black and white. Even the keys on a piano can break this color scheme. If you’re in the key of C major, the rule is to stick to the white keys. But every once in a while, a black key will sneak it’s way in. In theory the note is wrong – but why give an F about theory when you can give an F#?

When it comes to the recording side of things you might as well chuck your rulebook right out the window and learn to use the force. Instead of dishing out boring old rules (which you’ll inevitably break anyway), I’m going to discuss some of the intangibles of working on an album. I’ve compiled 4 of the most important elements of the recording process:

Feel:

Feel encompasses so many different aspects of a record. Each song has it’s own “feel”. Musicians play their instruments with their own personal “feel”. And sometimes when you’re tracking, things just “feel” right.

Let me give you an example. I once recorded an artist who was building vocal harmonies for a climactic ending to her song (think along the lines of The Beach Boys.) As she built her harmonies, I suggested she flat the 5th, then croon her way into the natural 5th. Her father (a musician himself) discarded the idea as the flat note was out of key. However, my mentality was to use that flat note to create dissonance – tension before the big resolve. After a few listens, the part began to grow on them and they really started to “feel” it. Then they started to love it. My biggest advice when it comes to feel is to let your intuition be your guide.

Momentum:

It’s important to make plans and set goals for your recording days. However, Murphy and his law will always find their way into your sessions. Have you ever seen a football game where one team scores a touchdown, and then they lock into a groove where they seem unstoppable? (Most likely any team playing against the Jets) Well, the same thing happens with sessions.

When a session takes a turn for the worst, it’s contagious. The drummer can’t remember his transitions correctly, so it takes him an hour longer to track his drums. Then the bass player forgets what key he’s playing in and everything starts to unravel. In these cases, your best bet is to take a breather and come in fresh the next day.

Momentum always resets itself back to zero when you start again with fresh ears. And sometimes you’ll find that momentum can just as easily swing in your favor. When everything is falling into place – ride that momentum until you can feel it start to falter.

Tone:

Tone can refer to many different things. When I think of tone, I think of the way a band can differentiate themselves. Take Green Day for example. You can turn on the radio and instantly identify one of their songs. But when you break down their albums, Warning has a completely different tone than Dookie. And when it comes to individual songs – Longview has a completely different tone than Basket Case.

When taking tone into account, break down these 3 factors:

– Does this tone capture the mood of the song? (If you’re writing a heartfelt breakup song, poppy melodies and major chords simply won’t do)

– Does the tone of the song mesh well with the record? (Think of the album as a whole and make sure the songs all vibe with one another)

– Does the tone of the record match the overall style of the band? (Make sure the band has a distinct sound that defines them. Their music can’t sound like it came from 10 different bands)

Chemistry:

Band chemistry is incredibly important in the studio. You’ll find that certain musicians are so in sync with one another that it makes for an amazing sounding record. But equally as important is the chemistry an engineer and producer has with the band.

If the band is constantly squabbling with the engineer – then the engineer can lose focus on the bigger picture. And if the producer is forcing ideas on a band that the band doesn’t agree with, it will absolutely translate through the final product. Finding that perfect balance of personalities in the studio is crucial to creating an amazing product. It doesn’t mean that everyone needs to love each other, but everyone has to keep their eyes on the prize and work in simpatico.

So next time you’re in the studio, keep an open mind about rules, and keep an ear out for those intangibles. What other factors have you come across while tracking? I’d love to hear what you’ve experienced, so please feel free to leave me a comment below.

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1 thought on “The Intangibles of Recording an Album

  1. Great article. Regarding your opinion on ‘feel’… I recently made the switch from programming drums for my music, to using a live drummer. I had always made the effort to humanize MIDI drums anyways, but even though humanizing can still sound good, there’s really no substitute for the feel of a live drummer, especially if you know that you have the chemistry to work together.

    I love reading your tips… Nicely done!

    Ian K

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