Wednesday, July 10, 2024

What I learned from making an album

 In my announcement post, I explained why I chose to make an album this year. Since then, I've finished mixing and mastering, finalized the album title and art, and the album has been released! This isn't the first time I've made an album, but I've never done it quite like this so I wanted to take some time to write down my thoughts about what I've learned from the process, what went well, and what I'm going to do differently next time. 

Almost none of the songs on Radio Rachel were written to be on an album together. "Tele Gang" and "Interlude" are the two exceptions, but the vision for the album was to bring together my best preexisting songs and make an album out of them. Two songs were written for past albums, but the remaining eight were all written as standalone songs for my YouTube channel. They weren't written with a coherent creative vision, which seems unhelpful at first, but it actually helped develop Radio Rachel's greatest strength- variety. 

The most intimate song on the album has a very sparse texture. "Optimism: Take Two" has one guitar, bass, drumset, and one saxophone for the majority of its runtime. In contrast, "Tele Gang" boasts three lead guitar parts, two rhythm guitars, synths playing chords, bass, drums, and a full saxophone section consisting of two altos and two tenors. All of these instruments are playing at once. The range of this album, just in terms of texture, is staggering. And yet, the core instrumentation of guitars + saxophones stays pretty consistent throughout, so there's a line of continuity despite the dramatic changes in ensemble size.

Stylistically, this album is also very diverse. I've pulled from all my influences, including jazz, rock, pop, metal, hip hop, and even classical composition techniques. The fact that these songs were all written at different times in my musical journey also adds to the diversity. I know I couldn't have written "The Katocaster" five years ago, but I also haven't written anything like "Autumn" in the ten years since I wrote that song. The contrast between my 2010s and 2020s compositions only make the album stronger.

The recording process went exceptionally well for Radio Rachel. I made a spreadsheet with a row for every track and a column for every instrument, and for the most part I picked up each instrument and played through the entire album in about a day, give or take. Rhythm guitar took the longest, because there are usually multiple rhythm guitar parts for each song, somewhere between one and five but typically three or so. Woodwinds, on the other hand, took almost no time to record everything. Every song has at least one alto sax part and at least one tenor sax part, and many have a second part for each.

My process for recording each instrument was more or less the same: I pulled up the sheet music on one half of my screen, Reaper on the other half, and played the album down from start to finish. Sometimes I'd record songs out of order for variety. I started out with MIDI stems for every track in the album, and each time I recorded an instrument I found that MIDI track and deleted it. That way, I was hearing the entire arrangement while recording each part, with the parts I hadn't yet recorded being represented by the midi imitations. After each placeholder had been replaced, I was ready to mix.

My recording order was bass first, then clean rhythm guitars, distorted rhythm guitars, lead guitars, and then woodwinds. Throughout that entire process I would take breaks to work on the programmed drums and synth parts. I didn't actually play any keyboards on this album, it's all sequenced MIDI running through VSTs. But keyboards aren't the focus of this album, so I didn't think it was worth the time and effort to learn and play every keys part when I already had the MIDI ready to import directly from the score. It's not like anyone would listen to a Rachel Hoots album to hear keys, after all.

Mixing and mastering the album took quite a while, and I still feel like it wasn't completely perfect. I learned a few new tricks, and made use of pretty much every mixing technique I know. It was very difficult to get such a diverse selection of songs sounding coherent together, but I think I did an alright job. I made extensive use of busses in the mixing process- I grouped my tracks into lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, keys, and woodwinds. Once I got all of the parts within each section relatively balanced to each other, I focused on finding the right balance between the larger sections. I still feel like I could have done a better job, but I had to finish at some point, so I called it done when I got sick of listening to it.

The mastering chain was pretty simple. I used a compressor, a saturator, and a limiter- all stock plugins in reaper. I aimed for about -9 LUFS but let's be honest, every streaming service these days normalizes the volume of every song so I'd imagine this isn't as big of a deal as it used to be. But of course, because I've got some very sparse jazz and some very dense metal both on the same album (and sometimes on the same track!) I let the LUFS vary from song to song so that hopefully the big songs would sound bigger and the soft songs would sound softer.

All in all, I'm very proud of this album project. However, there are things I would do differently. I think I could have done a better job mixing, and I think it would be nice for my next album to have a coherent creative vision from the start instead of trying to organize pre-existing songs into a tracklist. It's easy for me to think about all the things I could have done on Radio Rachel, but I need to keep reminding myself that Radio Rachel wasn't meant to show off everything I am capable of- it's just a little showcase of some of my best work, and I'm very much operating in my musical comfort zone. That's okay. Maybe next time I'll push myself a bit more. Next time, I'd like to make the fast songs faster and more technical, the slow songs slower and more expressive, and the middle tempos more rock solid. But that's for next time.

In the week since the album came out, I've been very happy with the positive reception that Radio Rachel has had. I think I met my goal of creating an album I can be proud of, and it makes me very happy to see people enjoying it.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Radio Rachel is out now!


My album, Radio Rachel, is now out on all the big streaming platforms! I'll have more to say soon, but for now, go check it out on your streaming service of choice!

Friday, June 28, 2024

Album Review: AFTERTASTE by Hey Violet


It's been a few years since I last did an album review, but I've been thinking about bringing them back. Today's release of AFTERTASTE by Hey Violet gives me a perfect excuse to bring this format back to my blog.

Previously, I reviewed Hey Violet's first album under that name, From the Outside. That album is one of my favorites of all time, so of course I had been waiting for a follow up album ever since. What I didn't know at the time was that it would be a seven year wait for Hey Violet's follow up album.

Hey Violet released a few EPs and plenty of singles in that time, but I am an album lover. It's not like those releases were bad or anything, but an album has some extra weight to it. There's a prestige to an album that an EP or single doesn't have. AFTERTASTE being an album puts it on a pedestal along with From the Outside and The Edge of Control in a way that those other releases won't be. Leading up to the release, I was a little bit worried that AFTERTASTE wouldn't stack up. And with this being release day as I'm writing this, I've only heard the album a couple times. My opinion could change in the years to come. But on day one, I think this is a fitting final album for Hey Violet. Yeah, I found out this would be Hey Violet's final album shortly before it came out. That sucks a bit as a big fan of the band but I'm happy we at least get one final album after all this time.

Musically, AFTERTASTE is much more mature than either of the previous two albums by the band. From the Outside was a dramatic departure from the style of The Edge of Control, but AFTERTASTE seems to bridge the earlier two albums' styles nicely. It's clearly a pop album first and foremost, but there's plenty of rock bite that was missing from From the Outside. If From the Outside was pure pop and The Edge of Control was pure rock, Aftertaste feels like a mix of both but with its own flair. Maturity is the word that comes to mind first when listening to Aftertaste, especially in contrast to the previous albums, which I would characterize as playfully immature and unapologetic of that decision. Aftertaste is an album made by adults. The song "Hazy", the album's closer, spells out the thesis of this album. Hey Violet is a successful band that made it in the music industry, but they've grown up now.

AFTERTASTE perfectly captures the feeling of early 2020s discontent. It's defiant, sarcastic, at times hopeless, and at other times rises above the hopelessness. It feels both deeply personal and also kinda universal in a way that the best pop music does. I feel like I can connect with this album today just like I connected with From the Outside all those years ago.

Hey Violet means a lot to me. I have the day I first discovered their music marked in my calendar as my Hey Violet Fanniversary - November 24, 2018, by the way. They're one of the few artists where I would preorder a new album as quickly as possible before even hearing it. Unfortunately for me, though, Hey Violet did not release AFTERTASTE on CD anywhere I could find it, so I had to settle for a digital download. That does bother me a little bit because I have the other two albums on CD, but I can't really blame them. Both CDs and Hey Violet are past their respective heydays. It still makes me a bit sad, though.

If you can relate to feeling the dread of the 2020s lately, you might enjoy this album. If you've ever been a fan of Hey Violet or their previous incarnation as Cherri Bomb, you probably owe it to yourself to hear their final word as a band. I'm not exactly expecting AFTERTASTE to be a massive hit or widespread success, but for the community of fans who love this band, it's something special and I am thankful we have it.

My favorite track from AFTERTASTE is Uncomplicated.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Why I'm making an album


I've been writing music since I started playing music. It's a key part of my identity as a musician that I write, record, and share music on a regular basis. For years, my creativity has been poured into my YouTube channel, and for a while I uploaded a song every week. I used to frequently have a queue of videos ready to go for months in advance. Recently, however, I've slowed down. Eventually that long queue of videos ran out, and my uploads dropped in frequency. I just haven't had the drive to write new music lately. But that doesn't mean I don't have a drive to create and a drive to make music. So, I decided it was time to distill my years of composition into an album. Here's why. 

Albums are important to me. If you've read my blog for a long time, you may remember my series of album reviews where I discussed how some of my favorite albums impacted me. Ever since I became interested in music, I have thought of albums as one of the pillars of musical expression. I love albums as a medium. I love how an album is both a collection of individual songs and a single work of long form art. Nearly every album tells some kind of story, and I love looking for that story even if it's just an indistinct feeling. Albums are an important part of music as an art form, and especially in the genres of music that I love. So it was only a matter of time before I took a crack at making an album again. 

This isn't exactly my first album rodeo. Way back in 2014, when I had only played guitar for about a year and some change, I wrote and recorded an album with some help from my friends. And in 2019, I wrote and recorded instrumentals for an album that was a collaborative project with one of those same friends. That album was never completed, but a handful of songs have seen the light of day. Those two albums were five years apart, and another five years has passed now. I guess that's just my album making cycle. 

For a while now, I've held on to the incorrect impression that if I were to create an album, I'd need to write an album's worth of new material. I found that prospect to be very intimidating, so it took until I realized it wasn't true for me to start making real progress on a 2024 album. At some point in the last month, I realized that I already had a back catalogue of songs I'd written for YouTube that would be perfect for an album. What if I just picked the best ten or so songs from my YouTube channel and recorded them the best way I knew how? That became the vision for this album. 

Almost all of the songs on the album have been heard on my YouTube channel before, but not all. Every song has been completely re-recorded, though. There are also new songs, completely new arrangements of songs, and one song so old it predates my YouTube channel entirely. This album features tracks written in 2014, 2018, 2019, and each year from 2021 to 2024. There are a couple of tracks that were made specifically for this album and have not yet appeared on YouTube, and a couple of songs so completely reimagined that they bear little resemblance to their original versions. 

I've written a lot of music that I like, but just uploading those songs to YouTube isn't really enough. I want to put the best music I've written since 2014 on an album. I want to do something bigger with these songs, and I want to have something to represent me that I can be proud of for years to come. I've already written music that I'm proud of, some of which I've been lucky enough to perform live. Now it's time to make a collection of recordings at the highest level I know how. It's an opportunity to push my limits and discover what I'm capable of. And it has also been five years. 

Right now, I'm nearly done laying down tracks. Mixing the record is about to begin, and I'm going to be extra thoughtful about this release process. I haven't settled on a name for the album yet, but I've got one that I'm probably going to use: Radio Rachel, coming July 2024. 

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Techbobabble Acoustic


I am currently in the process of recording an album. I'm not going to say much about that right now because it's pretty early in the process and my plans might change as the work goes on. One thing I knew I wanted to do, however, was include bonus tracks. The idea of playing Techbobabble on acoustic guitar had also been floating around in my head for a while, and it felt like a perfect fit. And of course, because it's a bonus track and not part of the album proper, I felt like it would be okay to post it to YouTube.

This recording went very quickly- it took just a couple of hours. I have been playing this song as part of my guitar practice ever since my 2024 re-recording, so the lead part was under my fingers already, but I also had just recently recorded the bass and rhythm guitar parts for my album. The sax parts were easy enough to transpose over to acoustic, and the drum part worked surprisingly well too. 

For the drum loop, I recorded the kick drum by hitting the soundboard of my guitar with the palm of my hand and the snare by hitting the upper bout with my fingers- classic 2010s acoustic flair. The clap sounds in the original were changed to snaps and layered up to fill out the sound, and for the outro I added a muted strumming sound as a hi-hat. With the exception of that hi-hat part, all of the percussion was recorded as a two bar loop that repeated for the length of the song. 

Also new in this recording is the addition of an outro solo which I felt was needed to add interest to the outro. Normally, the outro features heavy use of modulation effects such as phasers or flangers to provide movement and keep the repetitive riff from feeling too static. On acoustic guitar, I didn't have that option, so I instead chose to layer another part on top. Besides, the outro changes modes from natural minor to phrygian so I had a different tonal palette to play with which kept the solo interesting. 

That's really all there is to it. Most of the parts were played pretty much exactly the same on acoustic as they would be on woodwinds or electric guitar. The bass part didn't even have to be moved up an octave or anything. I did also bump the bpm up to 210 from the original 208 just to inject a tiny bit more energy into this recording to make up for the thinner texture, but the affect is hardly noticable unless you listen to both back to back. 

As mentioned, this recording of Techbobabble is intended to be a bonus track on an upcoming album of mine, which will also feature a rendition of the song that is more true to the original but with changes informed by my recent re-recording projects. The ethos of this album is to take existing songs that I've written and polish them up to the point where they're worth publishing more widely than just on YouTube. There's a couple of brand new songs, as well. No release date or title have been decided yet.