Made It! (Whew!)

Last August 1st, I announced my intention to record and release a pop album by the end of the first half of 2016. I’ll get to more of the story in a minute, but, without further ado, here it is (playable in its entirety courtesy of CD Baby and YouTube):

At the time, I’d begun production of one new recording I intended to include on the album, picked a title song for the album from among tracks I’d already finished, had one other track finished and ready to go, and had a number of other possibilities in mind, both among tracks that were at least part of the way finished and among songs I’d need to record from scratch. I had not yet even begun writing the newest song that would ultimately be included on the album. In short, though I was thinking I at least had a shot at finishing an album in the amount of elapsed time I’d allotted, perhaps even more quickly, I didn’t really have a whole lot of confidence in that.  However, I thought that, by putting a stake in the ground, in a semi-public way, it might help me keep my feet to the fire during a time when the time and energy drains of my day job might otherwise make it easy to slack off.

After finishing the first new recording, a co-written song that I hoped to be able to license, but which took a number of months to actually clear with one of the co-writers, I focused first on “low-hanging fruit”.  That is, I looked at the recordings that fit my thematic concept (basically love songs and love lost songs — the album’s title would be In and Out of Love Again) and that had recordings that were at least somewhere in the ballpark of “ready to go”. There was at least one case of a track’s only needing remastering, but most tracks needed some level of remixing, some with additional parts, such as background vocals, needing to be added.

As you might expect, Murphy stuck his head in the door from time to time. For example, some of the recordings reached back more than a decade, and the original software instruments were no longer available. This meant trying to find replacements that were either close to the original sounds or at least fit the recording in some compatible way. In some of those songs, all instruments needed to be replaced.

I can’t honestly say even one of those early recordings took less time to complete than I’d expected.  Nevertheless, by the time the three-month mark rolled around, I was somehow ahead of where I’d expected to be at that point. I had the two completed tracks I’d started with, the one brand new track, and five songs that were remixed and/or remastered, for a total of eight tracks out of a planned dozen tracks. If I was able to license the one track that was in question, that meant I was at the two-thirds mark in less than half the time I’d allotted for the project.

Of course, I also expected that the remainder of the tracks would need to be recorded from scratch, or at least extensively reworked in the event I had some starter tracks for a few.  Thus, I could not expect my rate of progress to that point to be representative of my pace for the overall project.  In fact, five months later, I’d only completed one new recording and gotten close to completing a second, which would bring the grand total on the number of tracks to 9 or 10 songs, depending on whether I could license the first new recording I’d completed months earlier (and I still hadn’t heard back from one of the co-writers on that song by that point).  This left just under three months to go on the project, with either two or three songs to go.

I’m not terribly quick on the recording front, and, between the day job and a week-long road trip I’d be making in June scheduled around my daughter’s Stanford graduate school graduation, I was starting to get nervous about the odds of completing the album in time.  In fact, I was already thinking about perhaps needing to delay my intended release date by a month since I didn’t want to compromise on the number of songs or the production quality just to make an arbitrary self-imposed deadline. (This notion of the “arbitrary self-imposed deadline”, though valid, likely arose as a defensive mechanism as time got tighter and tighter.)

At the same time, I was pretty jazzed about the progress I had made on the album, not only in terms of the number of tracks I’d managed to accumulate to that point, but about my view of the album’s quality after having listened to what was there at any given point along the way many times in the course of reviewing the latest addition. This album would be very different from my first album of original songs (2009’s Love Holds On), in a number of ways. That album was largely built around what I might refer to as “greatest hits” from my song catalog.  Its theme (basically holding onto love in various forms) mostly arose from the initial anchor songs.  The musical arrangements, while varying considerably from song to song, were largely fairly traditional for their genres, though there were at least two songs that were a bit more experimental. The lyrics were mostly of the storytelling variety, though there were a few exceptions.

By contrast, this album was planned based on a pop genre and compatible recording styles. There would be a lyrical theme, which was chosen based on having a title song that just seemed to fit a number of the songs that would be candidates for the album (not to mention the story of my life the last few years, even if most of the songs were written prior to that period).  However, I didn’t view the title song as being an anchor song, nor did I have very firm ideas about anchor songs when I started the album.  Rather, I had a long list of possible fits for the theme and style, some portion of which had recordings I thought were at least in the ballpark, and others of which I really wanted to record. In fact, the notion of recordings in the ballpark was a significant practical consideration given my fairly aggressive schedule.

As I got further into the recording process, and also the song selection process, I noticed a few additional things.  First, there really were some songs I felt strongly about, even if I may not have originally considered them anchor songs. In the end, I felt that there were at least six anchor songs on the album.  Second, with most of these recordings, there was something that had originally been experimental about them. In some cases it was a recording technique — for example, two of the songs represented experiments with audio loop-based production, and the title song itself was an experiment in creating my own loops and doing loop-based production. In some other cases, I’d been trying out new software instruments or a MIDI wind controller. In still others, I was experimenting with a musical style that wasn’t all that familiar to me on the front end (e.g. there’s actually a fair amount of hip-hop influence on this album). Toward the end of the project, I also started using a 96 kHz sample rate, which I had only used in the mastering stage previously. While there is quite a range of pop styles on this album, it somehow holds together as a cohesive whole, which is all the more surprising when you consider parts of some of these recordings date back as much as fifteen years.

I ultimately did confirm the one track that had been in question (“Can’t Make Love With Your Memory”) somewhere around the time I finished another new track.  That other new track, “Here I Go Again”, is a good example of the experimental nature of this album.  That is a brand new song, written between August and September of 2015 as an up-tempo rock and roller. While the lyrics fit the album’s theme perfectly, the rock and roll style did not fit, so I didn’t know whether I’d be able to make the song work.  I thought I’d experiment with a hip-hop feel, or maybe something more like an electronic dance style. Ultimately, I went more in the hip-hop direction, albeit with a bit of an old school funk feel that somehow still fit the more modern pop flavor of the album.

By this point, I had under two months to go until my intended deadline, a week of which would be taken up by my road trip, plus some additional time for planning the trip.  I was starting to feel like I at least had a reasonable chance of finishing on time, and I redoubled my efforts to do that. I picked a final song, “Waiting for You”, that I really liked for the theme of the album, where a fair portion of a previous recording of the song could almost fit, though the styles and sounds definitely would have been out of place alongside the rest of the album. That production of the song was heavily brass and guitar oriented, despite having some synths.  I needed it to be more synth-oriented. I was also thinking about trying to go down a route closer to my original vision of the song — I’d had boy bands a la Backstreet Boys in mind, with lots of vocal harmonies.  However, that would have been a huge undertaking given my time pressures, and I wasn’t pleased with my first few attempts to test the idea, so I ultimately ended up experimenting again, using various software choirs.  I ultimately ended up with a recording that fits the musical style, and which I personally like very much.

With the tracks in hand, it was time to work on the formal licensing, artwork, and other aspects of the album that you just tend not to think so much about while working on the recordings.  I’d sent draft agreements off to my co-writers just prior to my road trip so they could review the agreements in parallel with my travels.  Time would be tight to finish everything up after my return, but I was now feeling pretty confident I could get the release out by the end of June. I set an official release date of June 30th, just to make sure I gave it as much time as I could in case of unforeseen delays. It did end up being quite tight in the end, especially trying to get artwork designed and implemented, but I’m happy to say the album did come out on time and was in most digital download stores on the June 30th release date.

As much as I breathed a big sigh of relief, having made my deadline, that wasn’t (and still isn’t at this point) the end of the work on this project. I spent the entire Independence Day weekend starting to chip away at the administrative side of things, for example finalizing the licenses with information that only became available at the time of the release, registering copyright updates (and new copyrights in some cases), putting together financial reports for co-writers, etc.  I also had to “hook the release” into my web site, for example in the pages of individual songs that are included on the album. I still have a lot of archival work to do with the recordings.

I figure it will take at least another few weeks, perhaps as much as a month, to button things up fully. Nevertheless, I have to say I feel a strong sense of accomplishment (and relief) in having not only gotten the album out on time, but also having gotten it out in a form I feel very positive about, and, in particular, which I really enjoy listening to.  As much as I’d love this album to sell a bunch of copies — did I mention you can buy it at most major digital download stores? — this project was never about the commercial side of things.  Rather, it was partly about getting back in the saddle on the music production front and partly about trying to make some music “for the love of it”. I feel like I managed to meet both goals.