How NOT to Write and Record a CD
This fall, my Ohio band, Rambler 454, released a new CD. It’s our fourth. Through the years, we’ve played with some of our favorite bands, toured to some fun towns, and been nominated (but never won) local awards.
It’s a terrific band and includes my favorite people in the world. I wish we’d find a way to play in Charleston. I think you’d like us.
While I’ve been in bands for over 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of bands rise and fall. And some haven’t fallen yet—they keep getting bigger and better. I’ve been a part of the writing, recording, and releasing of a couple dozen CDs (or tapes, way back when there were cassettes). Through all this time, I’ve accepted some rules as to what a band needs to do in order to successfully write, record, and release a CD.
With Rambler 454’s Wire and Wood, I don’t think we adhered to a single one of my rules.
Maintain a connection with, and build, your fan base so there is a market for what you will record and sell.
What we did: Haven’t updated our web presence in years, have played 1–2 shows a year, and do not maintain any online mail list.
Practice often to develop your sound and capture moments of inspiration that may become a next great song.
What we did: Yeah, we didn’t even practice for the couple of gigs we did play each year.
If you want a 10-song CD, you need to write and practice 30 songs. Only the top 10 will be good enough for a CD, if that.
What we did: In the spring of 2014, my singer, Dan, had to play a wedding in Charleston, so he traveled down here for a couple of extra days. He stayed in my studio, and the plan was that we’d get together frequently to write new songs. We worked on 10 songs. That’s all. And then we planned to record all of them.
When writing, avoid distractions.
What we did: Come on. My musical brother was in Charleston for a weekend. We drank. A lot. I tried to show him the sites, like our historical downtown and the oceanfront. However, the comment I remember him saying was, “Is there some law here that every girl here has to be hot and is required to wear yoga pants?” There were distractions.
Write. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Especially the lyrics.
What we did: Whatever sounded good the first time that we worked on the songs was what ended up on the record. No rewrites. However, we did have rules that we followed: Not one song could be about a girl. No relationship songs. In the end, as it turns out, nearly every song is either about a guitar or what has happened at one of our shows. We were writing a guitar record about a guitar.
When selecting a recording studio, many times you get what you pay for.
What we did: This is our fourth CD, and we have not spent a dime on the recoding of any of the first three. Not a penny. So our choice of studio was who would let us do it for free in the Cleveland area, where the other three members live.
Pre-production is important. The more the band practices the songs, the more polished the result will be. And new ideas can emerge.
What we did: Zero pre-production. Other than the fact that we sent rough iPhone-recorded versions of the songs to our drummer and guitarist, there was no pre-production. When we met in the studio to record, we had not been in the same room for almost a year, and that time one year prior was the last time our drummer had even played his kit. As a band, we learned the songs and played them together for the first time in the studio.
Avoid distractions in the studio.
What we did: Well, distractions are impossible to avoid. Especially when good friends had not seen each other in so long. But the bottles of whiskey, bourbon, and several cases of Pabst did not help matters.
Set aside as much time as possible to record. Expect perhaps eight hours per song.
What we did: The plan was that I’d arrive in town on Friday afternoon and be gone Sunday night. The drummer had an unexpected funeral to attend Friday afternoon. So we began recording about 9 p.m. Friday.
Play to a tempo track (also called a click track) as much as possible. This will help keep consistent tempo and allows the mixing engineer to have a clean, predictable tempo to utilize the best of their effects processors. When done well, it makes the whole band sound “tight” and professional.
What we did: Never used a click track before in Rambler 454. We weren’t going to start now.
Record more takes than you think you need. Especially drums. Play it over and over until you are more than sure you have enough to work with.
What we did: No more than three drum takes per song. Partly, this is because we believe in instinct. The less you force things, the more you are true to who you are. But also, as I mentioned, our drummer has not played in a year. You ask a drummer to do multiple takes of multiple songs and you’re likely to see his arms fall off.
Maintain separation of instruments to ensure no bleed. This allows the mixing engineer to effect everything separately later, and thus control the sound.
What we did: My favorite moment of the process came when Jerome, our mixing engineer, said on Sunday, “OK, I’m going to clear those scratch guitar tracks and let’s set up your amp in the studio.” To which we replied, “Sorry dude, guitars are done. Those weren’t scratch tracks.” When Jerome stopped smiling (because he thought we were joking), I thought he might start to cry. The bass amp and two guitar amps had been in the mixing booth with all of us for the whole recording process. Each guitar part had bled into the mic for the other guitar amp. The drums coming through the mixing board speaker were also bleeding into those mics. The engineer thought we were going to just use those for reference so the drummer could play along with the band. Then he thought we’d wipe those clean and start fresh. That’s the way it is usually done. Not with us. We were OK with keeping it how it sounded live and live with it. Other than extra guitar parts, solos, and some other fun, the guitars were done. Jerome really did not know what to say.
We started on Friday about 9 p.m. Ended about 12:30 a.m. Saturday so we could close out a local bar. Saturday’s session began in the afternoon, broke for dinner, then we returned for a couple of hours before closing another bar. Sunday afternoon, we finished what we could do, including all guitar solos, and I got in my car for the long drive back to Charleston.
A few weeks later, Dan had finished adding his lead vocals and had recruited a couple of our friends to add some parts. That was it. One weekend in Ohio to record a CD with Rambler 454. Great friends. Lots of laughs. And a CD I love listening to at high volumes.
We didn’t follow any of my rules for writing and recording. We then continued to not follow any tried-and-true rules about promotion or sales. That’s fine by me.
We have no false aspirations about monetary success with this record or this band. We’ve been at this too long to lie to ourselves. We know who we are.
What we have is a weekend that was more fun for us than we could have expected. We have a CD that each of us enjoy. And we have some friends (hard to call people fans when you know them by name) who appreciate getting new music from us.
It’s hard to pick my favorite song off the CD. So, I'll just give you a link to listen to all of our songs for free on YouTube. If you feel like buying a copy to keep from me, at CDBaby.com, iTunes, or anywhere else, that would be cool, too.