I can write and record an entire song in three days. I mean, melody, lyrics, play every instrumental part, vocals, EVERYthing. Three days.
I can mix and fidget with it for the rest of my damn life.
Turn this instrument up juUUUUUUuust a hair…. this down… oOO, piano’s too strong on this part, go in and play the piano chords softer… ride cymbal is too loud on this part… guitar effect doesn’t cut through on this part, try another…. no try another…. wait the first one was the best… etc, etc, etc.
I can do this forEVER.
There does come a point when listening to a project when nothing truly bothers me and it’s ready to finally be released. This is usually about 2 hours before the moment i promised to release it.
The Room Beneath New Albion is due out tomorrow. It was finished early. Early meaning last night, about 40 hours before the actual release. That’s a record. Not that i didn’t think of something i could fiddle with this morning, but i have also learned there is a limit to how much you SHOULD fiddle. You can fiddle until you have completely new album. You can fiddle until you have redone everything, then redone THAT to change it back to the way it was in the first place. Do not do this. Be decisive. When it no longer bothers you STOP questioning it, let it be, and finish the thing.
Still, getting every detail just right can be excruciating. It’s difficult to go into the process in any more details because the mix and the sound is so subjective. I like it like this, so i mix it the way i like it.
When i first started making albums i was in high school. My buddy Jeff Miller and i would go to this music store every year and rent a 4 track. We’d write an entire album worth of material, get friends of ours who played bass and drums to play the songs, record it and make an album.
I heard the first of these albums just last XMas for the first time in many years. Dear God, it was excruciatingly bad. Although to be fair, Jeff’s end held up pretty nicely. As did the other musicians. My end of things was by far the weak link.
This exact pattern would play out over the next several years. Every year we’d rent a 4 track (then 8 track) and record and album. After high school, i went to college for a year and a half, dropped out, moved up to Penn State, formed a band with ol’ Jeff and continued to make our yearly album. For another 2 years at least.
By the end of this cycle, we were just about hitting 21 ( i think we made the last one at 20) and we actually recorded in a real studio in this college town. And here’s the thing: each album did get better and the very last one, Justacorp, was actually, for first time, an actual decent album, all things considered. I mean, not professional by any industry standards, but for that moment in time, it was a level up. The cycle had completed and an education of sorts had been gained. We had brought ourselves from adolescence into young adulthood, or whatever you call that age that 21 is.
Interestingly, as usual the worst parts of the album are on my shoulders. I know this sounds a lot like over the top modesty, but it’s not and here’s why: First of all, it’s true. Secondly, for those of you reading this who aren’t adults yet, who are full of ambition and this whole hurdle of just NOT SUCKING for 5 FRIGGIN MINUTES is an issue…. my brothers and sisters, i hear your pain. I understand. I have been there.
As a youngin’ i had lots of potential. Truly. And a WHOLE lot of artistic ambition. LOTS of that. I wanted to make concept albums and tell musical stories on an EPIC level. Oh yes i did.
But i made poor and immature artistic decisions (art does reflect life). My abilities did not match my ambition. I had neither the skills nor the…. taste and maturity to do what i wanted and instead of aiming at a target i could actually hit, i aimed WAAAAAAAAY the fuck out of reach. And honestly, the reach WAS impressive. Where i was trying to hit was truly noteworthy (unless of course you’re most of the world and think musicals and concept albums are utter shite to begin with). But i couldn’t hit it. I tried. I kept trying. I still couldn’t quit hit it. And oh how i tried. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. Years and years and years passed. I had some good times and i had some reeeeeal lean times. Everyone i knew got decent jobs and started to actually… make it in life. I worked shitty jobs that i hated, refused to get any type of job which could become a career (because like a moron i wouldn’t give up the dream), and slaved away broke as fuck making albums absolutely nobody heard or gave the slightest shit about.
But. I did get good. I did develop the skill level i needed. I did grow up and gain vastly better artistic decision making abilities. And i did go and make exactly the kind of shit i wanted to make from the beginning: fucking epic musical stories.
And this is how i learned how to mix. Advice on mixing: that’s kind of it. You do it a billion times until your ears get half decent.
AH! Hang on, i remember why i got sidetracked on a bunch of personal mush. Right… so, back in the 4 and 8 track days, i used to mix the old fashioned way. You put your fingers on the faders and you move the faders very suddenly to new positions whenever you needed the mix to change. You’d put masking tape next to each fader and you’d draw like… 8 different lines with numbers like V1 for Verse 1, C2 for 2nd chorus and when the at part would come you’d have to move the faders REALLY fast to the new spot. See, the 4 track would play into another tape player (or a DAT deck. Anyone remember those? Ah the beginning of the digital era). You’d press record on the DAT deck, then play on the 4/8 tracks and then you’d have to mix live on the spot as the DAT recorded. Screw up and you’d have to stop the whole thing, rewind all the decks and start again.
I loved that shit. Seriously. I actually miss that. Don’t get me wrong, when i FINally got a computer and figured out how to do music on a computer instead of using a keyboard with a 16 track sequencer which fed out into a 4 track (2 tracks, left and right) which i then added vocals to (on the 2 free tracks)… when i finally got a computer my whole music making ability JUMPED up several notches. And automated mixing… you’d have to be moron to go back. But still. I miss live mixing. It was… so in the moment. It was living in record.
Well. Wasn’t that a meandering post on mixing. Let’s sum it up: play a bunch of tracks. Mix those tracks together so that it sounds good to you. Rinse. Repeat. One day quit your day job.
And with that our series is over. I have tried to give as open and transparent a look into my process as i can actually put into words.
Tomorrow you can tune in to hear the bonus New Albion story, which obviously i hope you enjoy. It is, truly, a love note from me to you. All of you listening and buying and writing about these albums online, i do not take you for granted. In fact, i LOVE YOU. So i’m sending you a love note tomorrow. Until then, my pretties.