Hey party people!
Today, I’d like to talk about the behind-the-scenes of CAMES, my first album. It was released on October 31, 2020. You can listen here or there if you don’t have any streaming app.
What’s unique about this album, you might ask?
Okay, there are thousands of albums coming out every year. But this album is an odd one because it was completely solo recorded and mixed in less than a month, all of that in my room. Only the stem mastering was entrusted to a sound engineer from my network, the talented 3ee.
However, my idea was not to have an amateur sound… it’s all the opposite actually! The goal was to have a sound as professional as in the studio without bleeding on the budget. At a time when self-production is exploding, it’s easy to divide the production costs with a bit of trickery, a lot of patience and most of all, 10 metric tons of work.
So I’ve crafted for you a little top 5 ranking of the points that helped my album sound professional, compared to the semi-pro songs I produced when I was a student. Let’s go!
1. Murdering other albums before recording CAMES
Yes, I didn’t wake up one morning with a super power allowing me to record 86 clean tracks at once. I’ve been learning CAM (Computer Assisted Music) for 11 years now. My releases have sounded awful for years, but I kept on learning, collecting tips, reading books, butchering other compositions… until I got to make CAMES.
I couldn’t list everything that was wrong on my previous releases, it would take me 400 pages. But in summary, I would say that the biggest problems were:
- Arrangement. Too many tracks & too many notes on each track. I wasn’t thinking about how this tracks complemented each other. Does an instrument already fill the bass register? Do I really need 5 different guitar parts that play 600 notes/second?
- Technique. By technique, I don’t mean being a virtuoso. For me, having a good technique means being able to play along a metronome, to control the accuracy of one’s voice, to identify and correct unwanted dissonances. The problem was very visible on my voice, I was trying to hit too high notes without having a solid core in my singing. So the result was sometimes… original, haha! 5 years of singing later, everything sounds better.
- Mixing, ouch, ouch! Out-of-control bass, aggressive vocals, bad spatialization, hazardous use of compression, no staging gain at all, acoustics totally ignored when recording. Even if I could hear my songs the way I wanted, there were so many problems that most listeners heard nothing but a shapeless mush!
If you too are struggling with the problems mentioned above, please feel free to check my lessons and arrangement pages. I am sure I can help.
2. Taking care of vocal takes to the extreme
The voice, or the instrument you have chosen as your lead instrument, must be the center of all attention. I mean it! The voice will be in the center, audible at all times. People will listen to it carefully, try to hear nuances and maybe the lyrics, who knows! So prepare it properly.
Without going into too much detail, I rehearsed the songs a lot beforehand (several months), sitting on each phrase, repeating it to make sure I got the right emotion and to stay right all the time. Then I made several drafts and adjusted the result until I liked it. Then I did a lot of takes for each song (from 10 to 15) and chose the best parts of each take to create my perfect studio take.
You don’t need to go that far, some artists are satisfied with 2 to 3 takes. And it’s true that in retrospect, 10 to 15 is too much haha! But for all that, rehearse your solo instrument thoroughly, do several takes, and everything will be fine.
If you are struggling with your singing, don’t hesitate to consult this page.
3. Working on the acoustics of my studio
Well, this part won’t be sexy, but it is necessary. Kind of like German grammar, but that’s another debate.
We’ll do a simple experiment. You see when monks sing in a church (or any equivalent in any other religion), there is a nice “diffuse echo” that follows them and gives a feeling of power, right? That’s reverberation, and it’s very cool. Except when you’re recording in a studio.
Because usually in a home studio, you don’t have a 15-meter arched ceiling that allows you to channel all sounds to heaven. Instead you typically have a white wall poorly insulated with some glue and unknown food stains. If you record a voice in there, it will bounce against the walls several times and be recorded the same number of times.
As a result, instead of your crystalline and beautiful Dua Lipa grip, you’ll have an infamous mush that will never be clearly heard in your song. The voice needs to be clear and intelligible and therefore needs to be recorded “dry”.
So I did a lot of work on acoustic physics, built some panels to reduce these harmful echoes and after a month of struggling to place them in my studio, I finally “solved” the problem.
Without wanting to go into too much detail, the same problem occurs when listening. If your songs sound great when you mix them at home, but sound like crap when you listen to them on a device other than your speakers or elsewhere… you will have to think about treating your studio acoustically.
To have speakers at 2000 euros is good, to have acoustic panels at 40 euros well placed, it’s better!
4. Accepting the help of others
I’ve been bragging about it since a while, but if this album sounds finally pro compared to my previous projects, it’s also thanks to the help of another person. Once the mixing was done, I was able to get a sound engineer named 3ee to do the mastering (by stems).
If the concepts of mixing and mastering don’t speak to you, just check the two paragraphs below.
Mixing consists in making all the tracks coexist together so that the track sounds harmonious. Maybe the voice is beautiful on its own but needs a bit of reverb to soften it and blend it with the other instruments? Maybe the guitar steals from the bass with some frequencies that are too low, that the listener won’t hear anyway? Mixing is the correction of all these problems.
Mastering is the icing on the cake. Once the mixing is finished, we export a global file (the song!) and the sound engineer who is in charge of the mastering will make small changes to the final file. The goal is not to make up for a bad mix, but to make small adjustments on the sound engineer’s work to make it perfect. Maybe the song sounds a bit too aggressive at times? Maybe it’s not strong enough in front of what’s coming out on the radio? The master sound engineer will influence these parameters.
In my case, 3ee provided me with a second pair of ears. After recording and mixing my entire album, I clearly lacked the objectivity to finalize the whole thing. So he made the final touches with objectivity to make the album sound unified and consistent with the other albums that were coming out. Thanks you 3ee!
5. Set myself a deadline
Certainly, the most effective measure of this top 5.
Certainly, it made the work uncomfortable at times. Admittedly, I worked from 6am to 10pm at the end of the project (please don’t be as stupid as me). But in the end, this deadline allowed me to move forward at a good pace and not get lost in the details as before. My main problem from 2013 to 2018, was to never manage to finish my songs. When I got to the stage where I should have “let go of the baby” and moved on, I kept coming back to change insignificant details (hello the 76th electric piano at 5min40 that no one heard) to mostly damage the song in the end.
By giving myself a month to record and mix the album, I was sure I wouldn’t fall back into my old ways. For example, the backing vocals (about 15 tracks per song, for a total of 75 tracks on the EP so) were all recorded in one afternoon at the end of the sessions. Most of them are first takes, I was running the recording at full speed trying to capture as much material as possible. I was lucky, and it all came together on the first shot. Which is usually quite rare in the studio! And it gave them a loose “street choir” sound that contrasts well with the main voice (which is much more surgical).
There has been a lot of work, fatigue and questioning to finally “deliver” CAMES, but the result was worth it. For the first time in my life, I am fully satisfied and proud of the work accomplished! The methods acquired on this album have given me the way forward to polish the next ones to come (and they will be there soon, trust me #teasing).
So if you ever need advice on how to get started and make your own album, don’t hesitate! Contact me here.
See you soon my beauties,