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.

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