Yellowgold

The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Filtering by Category: Planning

In Detail: This Road

"This Road" finished Pro Tools project

Sup. Today I’m writing about the fifth track on the Fever Dreamer album, the song called This Road.

This song dates back to before Control My Gravity. In other words, it was an idea that began well after Ever One, and before I committed to writing a new album.  So when I finally decided to focus my efforts on a new album, it was an early contender which (in my experience) often means that it never actually ends up on the album.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 10.07.30 AM.png

Often, when I decide that I want to write a new album, I create a note in Evernote with some track ideas to see if I have enough to get started with. The image to the left is the early tracklist for what ended up being Fever Dreamer. The note had a completely different album name. Something Like That is a phrase I say often at the end of recording my ideas into Ever Note. It's a crutch, so it made sense to name the album after it for lack of anything better! Out of that early track list, only two songs made it to the album: Savannah Dream Song (Beautiful Day for Life) and This Road.

Anyway, long story short, This Road began as an idea that I decided to take one step beyond Ever Note. I loaded up Pro Tools in January of 2015 and laid out a very basic groundwork for the sound of the track. It’s MUCH slower than the final cut on the album.

Flash forward two years and Fever Dreamer is already well under way. By this point, I had already established that I wanted a focused and consistent sound with the tracks on the album. As such, I decided to take another stab at This Road with a more fitting, ethereal and effects driven vocal chain. I was really trying to see which direction the song SHOULD go.

I played around with a number of different tempos and over the course of 2-3 advanced attempts, landed on the faster tempo that made it to the album. By this point I figured the majority of the album was a bit drifty and slower moving, so I wanted a track to kind of break it up and move things forward a but more. I knew I wanted this track somewhere in the middle of the album to help lift up the listen so the entirety of the album wasn’t too heavy on all sides.

Its also worth noting that I started work on this track in March of 2017. This Road was the last track that I created for the album. My original intention was to release the Kickstarter for Fever Dreamer in the Summer of 2017, but for a number of reasons (this track VERY MUCH SO included), it got pushed back toward Q4. This Road took a LOT of work to get it to the point where I felt comfortable enough with it to release on the album. I stuck with it, but I almost bailed a few times.

Here's the final product from the album:

Lyrics:

You and I tonight
As restless as the night sky
Dance by fire's light
One chance to get it right
It stings our lips with selfless pride
Persist and multiply
This road
Don't forget we've been here before
This road
Here we go
Never will forget
Those knee high boots when we first met
I got no regrets
This road
Never forget we've been here before
This road
We've been here before
This road
We've been here
This road
Here we go
Always understand
Through it all we'll be best friends
And nothing ever ends
This road
Don't you know we've been here before
This road
We've been here before
This road
We've been here
This road
Don't you know we've been here before
This road
Let it go

Balancing between listening environments

The Neverending to-do list!

I had my Evernote to-do list down to one measely item on one single track before listening to the entire album this morning at the gym. And now, it looks like this!

I listen to these songs in a number of different ways. And each environment offers a different take on what I have to do. The tricky part is balancing these tasks between those environments. It's a challenge for sure.

  • I listen through my studio Mackie HR824's (but quite honestly, my current studio setup isn't the best for mixing situations, so I tend to do this less than I'd like.)
  • I listen through my AKG K-240 MKII (which tend to be a bit soft on the high end.)
  • I listen through my Sony MDR-7509's (which tend to reveal upper mid harshness VERY well. If it's harsh while wearing these, trust me, it's harsh. These are great for determining vocal parts that require De-Essing attention.)
  • I listen in my Prius stock stereo (exaggerated low end, flat on the highs.)
  • I listen in my Subaru Outback stock stereo (pretty decent imaging, actually, plus I've listened to SO MUCH MUSIC in this environment that it's second nature to know how it might translate.)
  • And today, I listened through my Bose MIE2i in-ear headphones at the gym, a noisy environment.

Each different location is a new opportunity to see what might need adjusting. In a perfect world, I'd be mixing and mastering in a perfectly tuned studio with adequately treated walls, sound paneling, while sitting in the perfect position centered between the speakers and out away from the desk, with no reflections yadda yadda yadda. But let's face it. I don't have the time nor the dough to throw at doing all of that to my little office space that acts as my studio. So what I'm left with is a number of different listening environments. And if I can strike a balance between the things that need to change within a track, and how those changes will sound in each environment, then I'm on to something. After a long enough time, I can get to a point where a track simply sounds good in all locations. THAT'S what I want.

So yeah. That list will likely empty and fill quite a few times over the next phase of the project, as I'm really trying to get to the finish line of production, and dive head first into the official mastering stage. Each adjustment takes time, too. Hell, just loading each project takes time, making the adjustments, bouncing the tracks, moving them over to dropbox, etc.

Also, think of it this way. At this point, I'm also really searching for the proper sequence of the tracks. Something that flows and doesn't jump around, both stylistically and harmonically. That's another entry in and of itself, but playing with the sequence gives me many opportunities to continue to find things to fix and add to the list.

Now, next I PROMISE to deliver on my promise from yesterday's post to talk about programming drums to source material that never had a click track to begin with. Look for that on Monday (unless a baby comes. Any day!!!)

Keeping track of to-do items

When you are planning out time to write your music to jive with your busy schedule, sometimes its important to know exactly what you wish to accomplish during that small chunk of time you have.

Evernote is my friend yet again in this regard, but really any way of taking notes will work. I have a note right now that contains every song I anticipate for the upcoming release. Under each song is a checkbox list that I add to anytime I'm out and about, listening to my rough copy bounces of those tracks. The second something pops in my mind in regards to a change or addition that might need attention, I get into Evernote, and add a line item next to that song describing the action, as well some rough estimation as to when in the song this correction needs to occur (if necessary.)

This sets me up beautifully for those times when I have studio time in my calendar, and I'm not sure where to begin. I scan through the list, pick out an item that works for that moment, and do it. There's nothing like enhancing that track with a new element, AND also removing it from the to-do list. I don't know about you, but removing anything from a to-do list is always gratifying.

To Do list in Evernote

I use Evernote in this way every day. Its how I make sure that those spur of the moment thoughts actually find themselves into the finished product. I get a ton of random ideas, and in reality, some of them don't end up working out. But a lot of them do. And when I go back and listen to the songs later, often its those line-item elements that make them even more detailed and structured.

In the mastering stage, I continue this process. "Oooh, that track is just a tad too harsh on upper-mid frequencies." That gives me something specific to address the next time I sit down with the song to work on it next time, instead of stabbing in the dark TRYING to find some busy work to do.

I'm not finished with the album until those lists are clean. Period. If I have a correction that needs to be made on a track, it goes in the list and doesn't get removed from that list until I've either tried it and passed on it after executing it, or I've instilled it into the finished song. For me, this all goes back to the fact that I will hear that idea every time I listen to that track, if I don't at least test it out.

3924873764-1.png

So Cold, the first track on The Mellower, is one case where I rushed it and have forever regretted it. And I admit, it's likely something that only I will ever notice, but its a thought in my mind EVERY SINGLE TIME I hear that track. The main guitar chug that starts at the very top and lasts all the way through the song has a slight reverb tail on it that never quite sat well for me. Sounded a bit too digital, not organic enough, and definitely mixed too high. I couldn't tell you at this point why I never corrected that before mastering, but I didn't, and I KNOW it was on a list or corrections.

Don't make that mistake. Trust your gut. If you listen to something and say to yourself "Man, that word was a little harsh on the ears", chances are, it actually was, and will continue to be, until you address it. BOOM. Put that sucker in the list. Then follow through with action when the time is right.

A quick note on Oblique Strategies

My last post briefly touched on the utility of the powerful creative tool called Oblique Strategies. After some thought, I felt it was important to quickly follow up on the tool to offer a few pieces of advice.

First, a brief overview. Oblique Strategies is a series of cards designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. The purpose of the deck is to offer up statements, questions, or pose dilemmas in a very esoteric way about the creative work at hand.

If you find yourself stuck in a particular creative endeavor, the thought is that the cards would be a way to remind yourself that there is no single right way to do things. Pull a card out of the deck and allow for it to guide you in the next direction of your project.

The answers posed within are often somewhat obscure, but that's kind of the point. They are open to interpretation, because no two creative endeavors are the same. Part of the beauty of the cards is that they don't only apply to music production. It's an invaluable tool for anyone dabbling in creative arts.

And truth be told, there is no real right way to us the deck. But my experience with the deck has told me that the best way to use it is to take the suggestion it gives you upon first draw, and run with it.

It's tempting to pull a card, read it, not quite understand what it means or how it applies to your project, only to then put it back in the deck and pull another. I've done this and all it resulted in was more confusion over what to do followed by abandonment of the deck. It's almost like playing a board game by yourself, all the while looking up the answers as you go. Not satisfying at all, and in this case, not helpful either.

I see the cards as a last resort, but an essential tool. Particularly when you produce by yourself, there is nobody else to bounce ideas off of, collaborate with, or share the burden of your creative work. Having the cards to fall back on takes a bit of the conceptual pressure off of you by allowing to you relinquish control to the suggestion of the deck.

Pull a card. Evaluate the answer. (This could take some time cause, as I said, some of the answers are VERY esoteric.) Figure out how it applies to your project. Act on it.

Even if it's the smallest change, it gives you a distraction to focus on. You might not like where it takes you, so makes sure and save your progress beforehand so you can revert if needed.

Finding time to write music

I'll tell you one thing. Being an independent musician with a few other significant full time jobs (father, husband, podcast producer), finding time to sit down and focus on writing music can be a big BIG challenge. I'm certain you know what I'm talking about.

When I've gone too long, it becomes that thing that I have to do, and not necessarily in a good way. "I must sit down and try to work on new music tonight, cause I haven't for so long, I'm afraid I might not know how to do it anymore. And if music is so important to me, then it should be easy, right?"

My experience has told me that writing because I feel like I have to is a recipe for certain disaster. It's like taking that thing you love, and setting a 200lb weight on the top of it, saying "ok, lift for two hours. Go." Doesn't sound like much fun. And creativity is rarely sparked by rules and schedules. You either have something, or you don't. Or you don't, but your mindset is such that you're into the thought of experimentation until you DO in fact have something. In other words, you don't, but you know how to get there.

When I embark on a new album, I consider it a project with an end point. I don't look at it as "oh, I'll wait until the new year and then start a diet and see how it goes" or "I'll quit smoking next week.... Or maybe the week after that, cause I'm going to the bar next weekend." 

If I'm writing material for an album, I've made a decision that the next X amount of time will be full of a lot of time spent doing the things I normally do (father, husband, job), as well as SOMEHOW making time to write, and staying devoted with that effort. Life can get crazy, but if you let yourself slide, who knows when or if anything you write will even see the light of day.

So, I set a goal. I might not know the date on a calendar when this album will see its release, but I know roughly a time at which I'd like to see it happen. Six months from now? A year from now? Doesn't really matter what I pick as long as it's realistic. Make it too short and you set yourself up for certain disaster. And in light of my other jobs in life, I still have to actually find the time in my schedule to allow all of this creative stuff to happen. Nothing wrong with setting a date far out in advance, and then finishing before then.

This next part is what makes setting a lofty goal like this a possibility with everything else I have going on in my life:

Evaluate the times during which you are alone, and the times during which you are in a house full of people. This can guide you in how you plan your sessions. Here's what I mean.

Alone time is tracking time. If I have a song with lyrics that I've finished, and a scratch track foundation for the song in Pro Tools, and I know that Wednesday afternoon from 3-5pm, I'm home alone before my family arrives, this is perfect tracking time. So I set it. And that's all I do during that time, unless I'm incredibly efficient and am suddenly left with extra time to devote to something else. But basically, if it's time by myself at home in the studio, it's the time I get to do the really loud things that are sure to disrupt the other bodies in the house. Or maybe they aren't disrupt-able, necessarily, and don't care when you turn your guitar amp up to 11 to get that nice feedback effect in the song your working on. It's still a distraction to me to think about anyone else around when I'm doing loud things. I consider this the time I do things like track vocals (lot's of layers and multiple takes of each), amped and acoustic guitar, live percussion, and much later in the process, mixing.

Occupied time is editing time. About 3-4 nights a week, I work in my studio from 9-Midnight, late hours that don't constitute my ability to scream a layer of vocals, or record that acoustic guitar track. This time is purely dedicated to arrangement, refinement of already tracked elements (like with vocals, I do a lot of alignment during this time), synth parts, and pretty much anything programmed like drums. All of that can take place without compromise inside headphone land.

Now, if I've played my cards right, I've tracked to my hearts content during those two hours in the afternoon, more than I actually need. (Hence why I recommend you track every vocal part 2-3 times and keep all of those takes) Then, when I get to my evening session, I have an overabundance of options for each part to pick from, based on whatever it is I'm working through. I don't want to think "dang, I didn't get this part today" and then have to wait until my next open slot during the day time to record it. I mean, I will if I have to, but I'm an instant gratification kinda guy. So I want those parts there when I've blocked out time for editing them.

It's all about plotting your open time efficiently to the material you are working with. Boy, this sounds like something you should keep track of to make sure you have stuff to do when you've blocked time for it! Let's talk about that next.