Blog posts from my first attempt at recorded music

Originally published on December 14, 2013

From Zero to EP in 60 Days, Part 1: Inception

What a day. No, what a year.

Thank you for joining me on this happy occasion—today has been a dream come true. The Every Mile Made Yours EP is officially out and it is easily the biggest artistic achievement of my life. I call it “a lonesome production” for many reasons, but mostly because it was a solo effort, from album artwork to songwriting to composing to performing to mixing to mastering to distributing. Phew!

It’s available for streaming on SoundCloud, and you can even download high quality MP3s for free until 2014 rolls around! Merry Christmas! It’ll also be available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Playin the coming days, and I will be sure to update the links once I know them. Even though I have no intentions of becoming a real musician, for some reason, having my EP up at these major distribution channels makes me feel very legitimate! If you’ve heard the phrase “democratization of music” before, then let me be the latest case in point!

Still, the individuals that can achieve studio-quality sound on their own are rare indeed. Although I made a serious attempt, I must conclude that 60 days was not enough to develop all the skills I wish I had. You’ll see what I mean shortly. For now, here’s the embedded SoundCloud stream and back cover as well:

FYI: You are now officially behind the scenes.

Our story begins on a Sunday evening in late September in our nation’s capital. I was visiting my friend Lisa in her finely located downtown apartment for the weekend, and we were sending off our last day together in style—by sitting aimlessly on the couch, dressed in PJs, each tending to our own laptops in silence.

Lisa still doesn’t know it, but it was then that the idea and subsequently first draft for “Mountaineers and Sailors” (track 4 on the album) flowed out of me in one fell swoop. I rushed to write it down in TextEdit, the Mac version of Notepad. What was interesting about this “channeling” of sorts was that it was not the first that I had experienced in recent times. No, just three days earlier, the words, melody, and chords for “The Ocean Spins Backwards” (track 2) emerged with similar completeness in one pass.

Combined, these two tracks that came out of me as nearly fully baked songs in quick succession convinced me that the impossible might be possible after all: what if I could record an EP?

My oh my, what a loaded question. We’ll have to go back nearly 10 years to learn why.

~~*vortex sounds*~~

We’re now sitting, you and I, in the front row of the Hillsborough High School auditorium. It is December, 2004. On the stage is a 16-year-old me, with a black curtain of hair propped up by a headband. I’m wearing too-large jeans and a size-L shirt (just like in the photo below). It’s not a pretty sight, and I can still feel a twinge of unresolved trauma when I revisit this flashback. I still can’t wear a large shirt to this day. Even medium is aspirational.

This was almost exactly 10 years ago, in February 2004 when I first got a guitar. The keyboard is indeed the one I used on the EP. Also, let this photo be an inspiration to awkward Asian guys everywhere: it does get better.

But what we are about to witness is the Battle of the Bands audition for my two-month old band, A Moment’s Peace. There are four of us: Dave on the guitar, Sunit on bass, and Mike on the drums. I am manning the keyboard, a nearly decade-old Casio CTK-601, and on a stand nearby is my trusty Agave Blue Stratocaster. It still looks new.

You might have noticed that our equipment is pretty paltry. I have the largest amp and it’s a 15-watt Marshall MG15CDR. It’s a Marshall in name only, because no real musician would be caught on stage with this thing. Even worse, Dave and Sunit are on 10-watters. God knows if we’ll even be able to hear them. Behind us are huge cabs and pristine drum kits; these belong to the other bands that are auditioning. Rumor has it that a few of them have already released EPs. They have tons of MySpace fans.

Mike counts us in, and straight chords on the downbeat start. It’s a 4/4 song with a vanilla progression. It’s called “If You Leave.” I would love to tell you that it had more cliches than a Katy Perry song, but alas no, it is not that bad, thankfully. I’ve never accepted lyrical cliches into my songwriting, even at 16 years of age. Cliched chord progressions are another thing altogether, however. But things appear to be going fine—that is, until I open my mouth. Then—ah. I can’t take it. I’m sorry. We’re leaving this flashback. NOW.

~~*vortex sounds*~~

I’m sorry. I couldn’t let you watch—or rather, listen to—what was about to happen. It’s too embarrassing. I can only say this: for the next ten years of my life, I would never try to sing in front of people again, with four singular exceptions that I can think of.

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Back in DC, I am on my laptop writing an email. It is to Jessica Renfro Ling of hillsboroughvoicelessons.com [2019: now defunct]. I found her readily on Google and her website said that she offered a free trial lesson for those interested in finding out whether voice lessons are good investment. As luck would have it, she also happens to live five minutes away from me. I had nothing to lose, so I reached out to her.

You see, I had attempted to perform “The Ocean Spins Backwards” for Lisa earlier that day, and it did not go well. I was nervous because I knew I still couldn’t sing, and this was that fourth time I tried in front of anyone since high school. The two songs that had fallen so effortlessly into my hands said that I could totally do a four-to-six track EP with a bit of effort; but the sounds that came out of my mouth were essentially registered weapons against cochleas everywhere, making me second guess everything. Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to let the dilemma take over because Jessica wrote back almost immediately.

She must have been on email at the same time I was. And as I would learn over the next 60 days, the way that everything worked out so smoothly between us from the first contact was extremely lucky happenstance. All of it suggests to me that maybe I was meant to find her as a teacher. In any case, after a few quick messages, we agreed to meet later that week on Wednesday for a trial lesson. She told me to bring my guitar since that would be important for posture. Ah, my guitar.

In every track, you’ll notice a very bright-sounding acoustic guitar, whether at the forefront or somewhere in the mix. That’s my Taylor 114 that I bought just days before heading down to DC to visit Lisa. I’ve literally had it for just over 60 days. I might as well tell you a bit about it since it’s instrumental (ha! get it?) to the birth of this EP.

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I came back home after nine-months on the road around the world; I spent time living and working on organic farms via the WWOOF program. Along with me were mostly young people of the hippie persuasion, and a lot of them were musically talented. In particular, on Maui, there was hardly a day without music at camp. Never did I think back then that I’d be here today writing about releasing an EP, since I never partook in those particular musical activities on the road.

But back at home, I picked up my old Yamaha FD01 acoustic guitar (now discontinued, also pictured above) and started playing. My Stratocaster was still in its case, and I was too lazy to get it out. My mind was filled with mostly mellow acoustic sounds of journeys and travel, and not crazy distorted electric rock. Yet something about my Yamaha felt very different this time: for the first time ever, I felt that this guitar wasn’t just bad, which I had always known it to be, but rather, completely unplayable.

For the guitarists out there, I was trying to do the sweeping hammer-on and pull-off riff that caps the end of the chorus phrases in John Mayer’s “Who Says” and it just wasn’t happening for me. Usually, I blame myself, but in this particular case, it felt like the instrument was just never going to do it no matter how hard I tried—even half-speed attempts weren’t working, so I knew something was wrong. I managed to convince myself that I needed a better guitar, so I went online and, after a couple of hours, identified the Seagull S6 as a good option.

I was about to buy it sight unseen for ~$350 when I had the last-second notion to search for a guitar outlet nearby to see if I could get my hands on it and play it first. The nearest place was the Guitar Center on Route 18 in East Brunswick. That was 40 minutes away. Dang. Should I just buy the Seagull? Everyone in the reviews said it’s unbelievably great!

But since I had nothing to do during the day due to being, you know, unemployed, I decided that it might be worth the adventure to go to the seedy underbelly of Central Jersey. So the next morning, I headed out to Guitar Center.

Forty minutes of driving later, I pretty much had the store to myself since apparently no one goes shopping for guitars at 11am on Wednesdays. I walked into their moisture-controlled acoustic guitar room and immediately found the Seagull S6 hanging on the wall. Nice. I pulled it off the hanger and sat down.

And then I played it. Yuck. It felt so… dead. It was better than my Yamaha FD01 for sure, but it was hard to tell if it was worth $350, or even half that. Then Hal walked into the showroom asking me if everything was all right. Hal, for lack of a more nuanced expression, looked like your stereotypical Guitar Center employee: skater-like attire, shoulder-length hair, piercings, tattoos. Luckily, he was very opinionated about acoustic guitars, which was great for someone as overwhelmed as I was just then, in this room with what must have been a hundred acoustic guitars.

I mentioned that the Seagull felt “fat” in my hands, and that I was used to the smaller neck radius of my beater Yamaha. He suggested that I try a Taylor Big Baby, which is in the same price range as the Seagull. Except he proceeded to not be able to find it. He thought that it might be in the back, so he left me there ogling the $2000 Taylors and Martins while he went to search for it.

Well, I wasn’t about to just stare at these babies. I picked up a $2000 Taylor guitar, neglecting to look at the model name. The model numbers meant nothing to me that day because I knew that $2000 was not leaving my pocket anytime soon in exchange for a guitar. But damn, then I started playing that guitar and the sound that came out was ridiculous. For the first time in my life, I played an acoustic guitar that I did not feel worthy of in any sense of the word. The tone was so good: every strum was a thousand chariots charging out of the Coliseum.

Hal’s voice snapped me out of my amphitheater rock concert fantasy. “I couldn’t find it. It’s weird because the computer says there’s one somewhere in this store. Maybe it’s still in a box or something.”

I asked him if there was anything similar that I might try just to understand the hand-feel of the guitar. He pointed out a 114 hanging on the wall, saying that it would sound better than a Big Baby Taylor, but that it would still be representative of what the Taylor brand could offer. He excused himself while I sat down to play around with the Taylor 114.

To my surprise, I was immediately re-immersed in my imaginary world of open-air stardom. As far as my minimally trained ear could tell, the 114 sounded just as good as the $2k Taylor I played moments ago, which probably means it was just the right level for me. I looked at the price tag: $650. My mind started racing—that’s two Seagulls. But no, I would not make an impulse purchase. I would go home and think about it.

Before walking out of the door, Hal told me about a trade-in event they were having for the next three days: trade-in any piece of gear that they can resell, and get 15% off your purchase of one item. Whoa. 15% off $650? Now we’re getting into Benjamin territory. “Thanks Hal. I’ll keep that in mind.”

That night, all I could think about was how good that guitar sounded. I talked myself into accepting that I would not regret any purchase that would so consistently be able to put a smile on my face. I knew what I had to do in the morning.

But not so fast. It turns out that I had nothing that I wanted to trade in, so what would I do? I did have a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal that they would take, and given that it’s retail value was $20, I developed a brilliant plan: I would bring the item in for the trade-in, get ~$10 for it, then immediately buy it back for their used price, perhaps $17 or so, take the ~$7 hit but then keep my pedal and relish in the accompanying 15% off on the $650 acoustic guitar. Nice.

Back at GC, when I explained this idea to the guy at the counter, he looked at me suspiciously and then went to get the assistant manager on duty. It took me a few minutes to explain to her what I was trying to do, but she just gave me the biggest “are you serious?” look and then told the cashier to just give me 15% off without a trade-in. Well, that was easy.

So that’s how my relationship with a certain Taylor started. And yes, she’s truly as beautiful as she sounds.

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In the next part of this series, Part 2, I’ll dive into the toolkit that was required to record and produce an EP by myself in my room. In Part 3, I’ll talk about how my voice developed over 60 days, and finally, in Part 4, I’ll go into the financials of this 60-day experiment. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did going through it all!

From Zero to EP in 60 Days, Part 2: Lonesome Indeed

In this week’s behind-the-scenes look, we’ll talk a bit about the toolkit I had to assemble for the EP, both as far as physical objects are concerned and the various skills I had to sharpen or develop from scratch.

I’ve already mentioned the biggest hole in my EP arsenal, which is of course my lack of vocal ability. I’m saving that for Part 3, however, because I’d like to really go in-depth and give you a sense of the 8-week journey from barely being able to sing a steady octave past a whisper to belting that high note at the end of “Proof That Journeys Never End.” For now, let’s “just” talk about home recording, music production, instruments, songwriting, and artwork.

Artwork

Let’s begin with the artwork, which is really the first thing you’re presented with when you see this album.

As is hopefully apparent through my website, I have experience with graphic design and art. Putting together the album artwork front and back only took a weekend, which is a relief. I already had some great photos to choose from from my travels, and the one that ultimately came to grace the cover was a photosphere shot of a Macetown trail in the Otago Goldfields near Arrowtown, NZ. If you were on my mailing list during my travels, then you may find that photo quite familiar!

I then had to do some stock photography of myself in my travel uniform in several different poses, which I then superimposed on the photo. Several tweaks in Photoshop and some typesetting in Illustrator then gave me the finished product. I’m really happy with how it all turned out. Note that I never actually made any official physical CDs, so the back cover probably won’t be seen too often.

Instruments

In the last part, you read about how I fell in love with my Taylor 114; you might have also followed the links to read about my Stratocaster upgrade. Additionally, you might have caught the reference to the Casio keyboard in the flashback—these are actually the only instruments I have and those that I recorded with.

On the EP, you also hear various drum kits, a bass, an electric piano, a grand piano, and a string section. I obviously own none of these (especially not a Steinway Grand Piano!), but with the magic of sampled instruments and MIDI, I was able to perform on these instruments via my old Casio keyboard, now positively ancient, despite having found new life recently on the EP. But figuring all of this out was definitely part of the learning curve.

A sampled virtual instrument is one where professionals have recorded other professionals playing said instrument, and then mapped these sounds to notes that you can access digitally. MIDI is like a score for a musician, except in this case, the musician is your computer and always performs flawlessly. The virtual instrument is only limited by the range of samples and the competence of the MIDI programmer (that’s me!).

So that’s one huge leg-up for this EP: I played piano from about age 9 to 16, and then goofed around on the guitar ever since. For the purposes of this EP, I fortunately did not need to be technically advanced in either of these instruments. Playing notes on a keyboard isn’t rocket science, nor are strumming a few chords. The guitar techniques I did have to learn/internalize on the fly were the time-keeping strum techniques (i.e. the smacks) you hear in The Ocean Spins Backwards and Mountaineers and Sailors, and some fingerpicking competency for Brackish Water. I also had to get wise on some super basic bluegrass and country sounds for Six Kilometers to Edoras. I was never really great at any of these things before this album; now I’d say that I’ve internalized these skills to a reasonable extent due to the insane repetition these past 60 days.

One last thing I’ll say about the drums is that I had to learn how to program realistic drum loops, which kind of involves being able to play drums in your head. For instance, you have to know which hand a drummer is likely to use to hit which kit piece, because of a slight timing difference in their dominant hand vs their secondary hand. Another obvious-in-retrospect thing would be that you can’t hit more than four pieces at once, since you wouldn’t have that many limbs. But in my case, less was definitely more for the percussion section, and I tried to avoid doing anything overly fancy.

Songwriting

If I may be confident about just one thing on this album, it is that the writing is solid. If you’ll allow me a self-congratulatory moment, I honestly think it’s the best creative writing I’ve ever done. There are so many connections between the pieces woven together in a complex and textured fabric, that even if you weren’t familiar with my person at all, a careful listener could reliably uncover several layers of nuance therein. And I hope you do! There are even plenty of easter eggs for those who care to hunt.

As I mentioned in Part 1, “The Ocean Spins Backwards” pretty much came out as-is: most of the work was invested in shortening and streamlining the piece as opposed to composing it. The concept for “Brackish Water” also presented itself without much conscious effort on my part.

“Mountaineers and Sailors” was also an early concept, but it had to go through five different recorded iterations before it became the version that you hear today. But each of those iterations was totally worth it because I think the end-result turned out great.

“Six Kilometers to Edoras” and “Proof That Journeys Never End” were both songs that I wrote from a concept, meaning that I wrote down a couple of sentences of what I wanted the effect of the song to be, and then set out to realize that effect. In both cases, I think I succeeded.

I also owe thanks to Pat Pattison of Berklee College of Music for his online Coursera.org class, Introduction to Songwriting. Unfortunately, due to the timing of the class, which started on October 14th—two weeks into my 60-day allowance—I wasn’t able to use any of the techniques to write the songs, but I certainly used all that knowledge as a lens through which to think critically about my writing and edit it. I believe that this class really helped me iron out the rough spots to take the writing from “pretty good” to “worthy,” at least as far as the lyrical content is concerned. By the time the more musical lectures rolled around (e.g. about setting, melody, harmony), it was already too late, but I will certainly use this knowledge for any future work, possibly a bonus song now that I have all this equipment on hand!

Relatedly, as far as melody and chord progressions are concerned, I pretty much did it all intuitively. I don’t have formal training in music theory, but with my experience playing piano, I was able to learn most of what I needed to on the fly. I also seem to have a good intuition about where I want a melody to go as it fits with the musicality of the language, and for this I suppose I can thank my multilingual background, as well as formal training in linguistics. Speaking of which, something super random that came up as an unexpected benefit was the Speech Synthesis class I took with Sue Hertz at Cornell: editing vocals ended up being a rather fluid exercise since I could already “read” waveforms of speech pretty fluently.

Finally, I should mention the obvious: none of this songwriting could have been possible (let alone in the span of a couple of weeks) without the sights and sounds and emotions of a transformative year on the road. In that sense, it’s a bit unfair to say that the EP happened in 60 days: the inspiration came slowly over the course of 225 days, through thick and thin.

Home Recording

This was definitely the slipperiest slope of them all. I started out thinking I could spend about $200 for the results I wanted, but building a makeshift home recording studio quickly devolved into a thousand-dollar affair. It’s a good thing my travels this year came in way under budget! (Although, one would argue successfully that the EP itself is really part of the journey as well!)

My setup is based around my trusty 2010 MacBook Pro outfitted with a SSD. It’s the same computer I’ve had for three years, and it hasn’t let me down yet. From there, the sound goes in and out via a USB sound-card: the Behringer UCA-202, which can be had for just $30.

As a tangent, this sound card is the only piece of equipment that I’m still using that’s made by Behringer. I originally had a mixer, condenser microphone, and direct box, but all three of these were way below my quality expectations. I’ve learned (but should have known from the start) that you get what you pay for.

So anyway, past the sound card, the signal comes from a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer. From there, my main microphone is the Audio Technica AT2035, a super adequate condenser microphone. I also use a Nady SP-5 ($6-8!!) that I have as a relic from my high-school attempt at rock stardom. I thought it’d be poetic to have that play a part in my recording, even if I do just use it as a secondary mic on the acoustic guitar (but it’s saved me more than a couple of times during mix-down!). It behaves a lot like a Shure SM57 for my purposes, but lacks responsiveness in the high-end. That’s totally fine though, because the AT2035 more than makes up for it. Also, the Taylor 114 is naturally very bright, especially with Elixir 80/20 Phosphor Bronze strings, so blending the two in the mix worked out very well for me.

All of this is of course happening inside a tiny walk-in closet (I barely had room to stand with all the gear in place), pictured below. I apologize for the weird picture, but I tried doing a Photosphere shot (this is around Day 30—the closet has been returned to my little brother), which of course doesn’t work well when taken close up and flattened. It obviously works better for landscape shots!

I even had to take a detour into woodworking so that I could build a custom piece of furniture to wheel all that recording gear around!

I did most of my recording and early mixing on a pair of Superlux HD 668B Studio Reference headphones, which are actually under $50, but deliver pretty darn good sound. Towards the end, however, I started using old-school iPod earphones for tracking (recording) because of the weird EQ on those earbuds. From what I can tell, they over-emphasize the 2k-6k range which is the “presence” range of frequencies for the human voice. This ended up being remarkably handy when monitoring myself during vocal recording because it allowed me to stay on pitch way better. If you’ve seen people on YouTube doing covers with similar earbuds, this might actually be the reason, even though they clearly can afford better equipment (such as the studio condenser mics they are singing into!).

Those were the main pieces that I used for recording, but I’ll do an official cost analysis in Part 4, so you can see exactly what something like this will cost, in case you are having a quarter- or mid-life crisis and are considering a career-change to rockstar :) It’s cheaper than you think!

More seriously, most of the time in this department was spent getting up to speed quickly on the cost-benefit tradeoffs, and understanding what people actually meant in their reviews. For instance, if you go to the amazon.com page for the Behringer C1 condenser mic, you’ll see that it’s pretty highly rated despite being a $50 microphone. But having tried both, I can tell you flat out that it can’t compete with the AT2035, which is nearly a hundred bucks more. If I had to sum up my 60 days in this department, it’s that you get what you pay for!

Music Production

I saved the trickiest subject for last. If home recording was a slippery slope, then music production was a huge can of worms.

The main piece in this department is the Digital Audio Workstation, or simply DAW for short. You may have heard of Logic, Ableton, Cakewalk, etc. In fact, in high school I goofed around with Sonar a bit, so that kind of gave me an intuitive feel for what a DAW could do in this go-round. But DAWs have come a really long way in the last decade.

I originally evaluated Cockos Reaper and Presonus Studio One, but ended up going with Reaper because of its insane value. For $60 (if you are an individual), you can get a DAW just as powerful as anything over $300. That was easily the best $60 I spent these 60 days. And it even comes with a 30-day trial, so I didn’t even have to spend that money until recently. But suppose I somehow lost access to Reaper and had to buy it again—I’d buy it again for $200 if I had to. Maybe even more—it’s just that awesome.

Most of what I know about music production comes from two places: Loudon Stearns’ Coursera.org course, Introduction to Music Production (which runs the same time as the Songwriting course, also from Berklee Online), and Sound on Sound magazine. I pretty much dug through the SOS archives and found anything I could on Reaper and mixing and home recording. YouTube also filled in some gaps when written explanations weren’t making sense to me.

Regardless of the vast array of resources available on the Internet for free, I’ll just say this—60 days was not enough to get a good handle on music production. Of course, there is a tradeoff between performance talent and music production: if you are a talented performer, then you need less production. The opposite is also true: if you are a mediocre performer, then you need more post-production. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, I fall squarely into this latter category.

Now, since this is a 100% solo project, I don’t have the benefit of a mix engineer with 20 years of experience in a professional studio, nor can I count on a professional mastering engineer to take me to the next level. I am wearing both these hats, and simply put, these are some heavy hats.

But not all was lost. Because I found myself in a situation where I am a mediocre performer and an even worse mix engineer, I had to go to the one strength I had: I could become a better writer/composer.

Loudon Stearns (recall that he is the teacher of the online class on Music Production) said something in an early lecture that stuck with me: nothing beats a good arrangement. So I took a critical look at my compositions and tried to work the instruments so that none were fighting for musical space to begin with. That insight alone made the mixing process much easier, and you’ll see an example of that towards the end of “Proof That Journeys Never End.” But here we are only talking about the instruments; vocals would prove much more difficult to “do right.”

Let’s be clear about something: even though I made a heroic improvement in my vocals in 60 days, I am no where close to being a “production voice.” If after you listen to this album and you rate my vocal performance as a 7 out of 10 rising at times to 7.5 or even 8, I would be ecstatic beyond my wildest dreams, because I probably started at a 2 or 3 out of 10. But, again, more on this in Part 3.

So that left me with a lot of work in post-production. Getting my voice to sound decent involved learning some of the EQ techniques that pros use (which mostly just involves sweeping for offending frequencies and dipping those, and then using a quality EQ plug-in to boost “presence”). My other major discovery was automatic pitch correction, or more colloquially known as Auto-Tune (I happened to use Reaper’s built-in ReaTune). Now, before I say any more, let me just be clear that I drew the line very early on that I would not auto-tune my lead vocal. While I believe auto-tune can be used musically (and I hope I did!), I felt like I had something to prove to myself on this album as far as my vocals are concerned.

But for my background vocals, I used auto-tune with reckless abandon. And this is mostly because I sing as low and high as I can for the backing vocals, and at the edges of my range, I tend to be very pitchy. I understand that this gets better with time as I settle into my full range, but 60 days ain’t settlin’. Nonetheless, I still really like hearing my voice supported by a smooth auto-tuned background vocal and think it adds lots of interesting dimensions to my voice stylistically as well, especially in some of my harmony arrangements. And as long as my lead vocal can stand up for itself without glorious amounts of pitch correction, I consider myself to have succeeded.

Finally, the last bit of the music production process came in the form of a proper mix-down. In my early drafts that I had some friends listen to, I mixed on my headphones, but as it turns out, this is a bad idea. This is because frequencies carry differently through air, and when the sound source is close as in headphones, you can be deceived into thinking that your bass frequencies are in much better shape than they actually are.

I couldn’t figure out why my mixes sounded terrible on speakers compared to headphones until I read a few articles online that set me straight. As a result, I ordered a pair of Equator D5 studio monitors ($400!) and set about jury-rigging some basic sound treatment (another can of worms) in my room and attempted to mix properly afterwards. Because I couldn’t tell if the sound treatment was doing anything, I ended up ditching it altogether. This is a Bad Idea for sure, but hey, I’m 100% certain I’m not getting on the radio anyway!

In any case, I think the final mixes came out better than the drafts ever did, but again, I have to conclude that a 60-day timeframe was definitely not enough to get to a reasonable level of competency in this area. On the plus side, I now enjoying listening to literally any professionally produced song even if I don’t particularly care for the music itself, just to appreciate the work of the sound engineer on the mix and recording. Being able to manipulate sound on good monitors is a transformative experience. I’ll never forget the first time I fired up those D5s and listened to Fireflies by Owl City. I’m sure it could have been any song, but WOW.

Mastering was another topic altogether, and while it’s not horribly expensive to get your tracks mastered online (expect to pay ~$50/track or more), I decided not to bother because I figured that my mixing skills would be the limiting factor. Indeed, a good master cannot fix a bad mix even though it can make a good mix exceptional.

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Phew. That was a lot of ground to cover in just 60 days! You can imagine now why I called this EP “a lonesome production”—I didn’t really do much else these past two months! But given how passionate I got around 20 days into the whole thing (that’s when I really started believing that I could eventually believe), there’s not much else that I would have rather done either. If you’re familiar with the concept of flow, then you’re going to be jealous, because I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so much flow in my life. Hours and hours flew by whether I was standing in front of the mic in the closet or in my room sitting in front of my monitors. I would routinely forget to eat as well and lost a chunk of weight as a result. Crazy stuff. The last time I felt so focused was when I was on the verge of landing my first vulcan, and those were glorious days indeed.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll write about the biggest 60-day challenge of all: learning how to sing, so stay tuned… but not auto-tuned (unless you’re in the background, of course ;)

From Zero to EP in 60 Days, Part 3: Finding My Voice

So you’ve heard the EP and you’ve made a mental judgment about my voice. Regardless of how you feel about it on an absolute scale, what I hope to show you in this post is that the end result completely blows away what I had just 60 days prior. Transitively, it also blows away what I’ve had for the first 25 years of my life, which makes me mad that I didn’t take voice lessons sooner!

If there is one possible exception to this EP having been a true “lonesome production,” then that exception comes in the form of Jessica Renfro Ling, voice teacher extraordinaire. If I may gush for a moment, Jessica is the kind of talent you don’t think should live five minutes away from you in the same suburban Central NJ town where you went to high school. The only reason she lives here is because her husband is a professor in the area; incidentally, her husband is also an alum at the same high school I went to.

For Jessica, it means that she has to regularly commute to NYC for her own work (I suppose she also flies around the country when she’s performing), but it’s a happy accident for someone like me that she teaches in her home studio during her spare time. I’m basically super lucky that she only had local things going on the past 60 days.

You can read about Jessica’s bona fides on her website and see the colorful prose and metaphors that critics use, but just take it from me: as a person, she is beautiful, talented, intelligent, funny, caring, perceptive—and exactly who I needed to help me discover that I did have a voice after all. I think the biggest compliment I could give her would be that from now on, every time I think about my voice as an instrument, I will inevitably think of her and all that she’s enabled for me: finding and identifying with my singing voice has been truly life changing.

Given the disappointment that one aspect of my travels concluded with (in case it wasn’t apparent from the contents of the EP ;) I can only imagine that the greater purpose of this journey was for me to unlock the voice with which I could express that disappointment.

But let’s get back to the story.

Jessica knew exactly what to do with me from about five minutes in. I wish we had recorded that first trial lesson, but one of the first things she said to me was along the lines of, “so I noticed you’re a very cerebral person,” and ever since then, she’s tailored her approach to fit in exactly with my learning style. I think it’s one of the main reasons I make a huge leap every week, that she purposefully overloads me with just the right amount of information that I don’t yet understand, but that I can integrate on my own during the week while reviewing the recorded lesson. She obviously doesn’t teach her other 30 students in the same way, given that many are younger kids, so I take this to be a testament to her talent and versatility as a teacher. She once mentioned to me that she has students who only want to sing Miley Cyrus; I can only hope that it’s not because they’re trying to make a music video.

Ten lessons later, I’d like to share with you some sonic before-and-afters, including a bit of gratuitous commentary on my part. In these samples where I picked sections of the song that more or less stayed the same, the original plays first, followed by what it became in the final release. These recordings represent the absolute peak of my vocal, instrumental, and post-production abilities at each time of recording. And um, headphones are recommended for the safety of those your surrounding area due to the earlier material. I don’t want to be responsible for any more cochlear deaths here, ok? Those days are hopefully behind me now, but you never know.

So if you actually made it through any of that, the first thing you might have noticed in earlier versions is that it’s hard to tell whether I’m whispering or singing, whereas in the final version my voice is a lot more powerful (i.e. louder). That’s because in those early days, I literally could not go louder than what you heard without my voice starting to drift or crack. You’ll also notice that I barely go out of a single octave of range. This is what I mean when I say that my melodies in early compositions are constrained—I couldn’t have penned any melody for my songs that I also couldn’t produce. You might have also noticed that the mix is very unflattering, with bass peaks overloading your speakers every few seconds in “The Ocean Spins Backwards.” I can’t believe I didn’t catch that before—it’s like the first thing I notice now, so I guess my ear really did get better at picking out mix integrity during the last 20 days or so. Having the full studio monitor experience really helps in that regard. You can’t know what you’re missing out on until you’ve stopped missing out on it, right?

Beyond quality, there’s also the notion of effort, which is probably the one measure that’s changed the most for me. As time goes on, my vocal quality obviously hits a plateau (hopefully a temporary one) and up to that point, I start to experience diminishing returns; however, what won’t be apparent to a listener is the effort I am expending to get that result. Even if my recorded output is starting to sound similar, it may be the case that the effort required to produce output of the same quality and consistency has gone down drastically. Indeed, during the last few weeks, this has been the case.

I noticed that from about Day 45 onwards, I wasn’t really sounding much different between re-recordings; but what did change was the consistency and quality of the individual takes. Whereas initially I could get one good take out of 10-20, by the midway point that became about 1/5, and by the last vocal sessions, I was getting consistent results, and comping the takes became more an exercise of picking out the absolute best pieces of each take as opposed to trying to assemble a merely acceptable composition.

Now that the EP is out, I’m going to take a break from singing to let my body adjust and integrate all the changes—it’s been a fast-paced 60 days in the voice department for sure. I’ve apparently had a really tight jaw for all of my life without knowing it, and voice lessons have really made that apparent. I noticed my jaw starting to pop a lot more around Day 40 or so with TMJ-like symptoms starting to develop, so I think some rest is in order, and no more marathon recording sessions for a long while.

Beyond the EP, I’ve also gained tremendous joy from being able to belt out songs while driving (hooray for all future passengers! … ok, maybe not). During a recent drive, it was especially satisfying to go from singing along with Johnny Cash’s baritone voice on Ring of Fire to the tenor on Owl City’s Fireflies to the vibrato on Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah to the falsetto on John Mayer’s Stop This Train to the upper-register abuse on Career Day by The Format, one after the other after the other. I’m not claiming proficiency on these songs by any means, but at least I’m not dropping out on parts that I used think were unimaginably hard to sing! … Well, until Someone Like You by Adele comes on. Then I just shut up and listen. Maybe I cry a little bit too, I don’t know. It’s beautiful, ok?

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In the series finale, I’ll break down the financials of this 60-day experiment, so hang on for Part 4, coming soon!

From Zero to EP in 60 Days, Part 4: Cost and Benefit

I think some acknowledgements are due, now that we are in the fourth and final part of this series. I claim that this has been a lonesome production in the sense that I wrote, composed, performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered my own album, but it would be unfair to claim that it would have turned out this good without the advice and feedback of a few trusted friends.

I spent all of Part 3 being grateful for my voice teacher Jessica, but in this installment, I need to thank the following people:

  • My brother Johan who took time out of his insane college/consulting schedule to listen to my early work with total enthusiasm.
  • Matt and Vikram for reviewing the absolute earliest draft and bestowing me with the title of “epic beast” even though the early stuff wasn’t that good. It really helped my confidence though!
  • Jennifer for being my best friend who I only get to see on gchat :( She also happens to have interned at a recording studio in the past and her refusal to use headphones for my early mixes made me try way harder at mixing properly; those early efforts despite a disadvantaged setting paid huge dividends once I finally got proper studio monitors. She also called out early versions of “Mountaineers and Sailors” as “weak,” which prompted me to rewrite it into the much better version that it is today. The list goes on…
  • Andrew for amazingly timely and accurate advice about physical and emotional posture. I still can’t believe how perceptive you are when it comes to these things. Thanks for providing me with the key observation that allowed me to make the final leap in ability these last two weeks.
  • Lisa for hosting me in DC, which led to my realization that I needed to do an EP. Also for listening to my terrible first attempt at The Ocean Spins Backwards with the amazing smile you always have! :)
  • Sam and Ari for getting super excited about my EP and demanding a performance! Unfortunately, that was only Day 28 or so and I was definitely not ready at the time (cf. Part 3). Your enthusiasm was definitely most welcome at the halfway point and beyond!
  • Sawyer of Brittsommar for sowing the seeds of inspiration that ultimately made me want to sing and Sing Low. Our time was short but I’m glad we met. I hope you find plenty of inspiration for your next album on your travels.
  • Finally, Monica for socializing me out of my blues and making me get out of the house while I still claimed to be an antisocial brooding musician badboy. I can’t believe how much we’ve laughed but believe me when I say that I’m laughing with you, not at you ;)

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But I know you’re only here reading because you’re a hard-numbers kind of person. No sentimental stuff, like thanking people. I mean, what the hell is the EP about anyway, if not a way to start raking in that royalty dough? You know what? You’re right.

Ok, maybe not, but here’s the itemized receipt for this 60-day experiment, which I think you’ll find quite revealing.

So that list is really freakin’ detailed, and that’s because it’s literally every expense I had during these 60 days that applied to the EP in some way or another. Assembling a home studio came out to just over a thousand dollars, and the rest were instruments of various kinds.

I’m distributing via DistroKid, which is an amazing service that publishes your stuff to all the major channels, and for $20 a year (if you don’t care about the label being “DistroKid.com”—I personally chose to pay $35 a year to be able to set my own label), you get unlimited uploads to all these channels AND you keep all the royalties. Nice!

However, I really do expect most of the benefits from this EP to be intangible, as opposed to financial. Realistically, at the rate I’m giving the music away, I’ll probably make like $10 from the two people that actually buy it. The total for the entire project was $3,000 if we round up generously; given the timeframe, that’s pretty much on par with my spend-rate while I was traveling, which means that this entire year only cost me around $13,000 all told. That’s pretty incredible for two dreams fulfilled, I think.

Of course, I am not factoring in the opportunity cost, since with software salaries being what they are these days, I’d be pretty deep in the hole with that analysis. I think it’s safe to say, however, that close accounting of that kind is no way to live life. I mention these numbers only because someone out there who is on the verge of their own adventure might start getting some ideas and perspective. You never know what will tip you. For me, it was when I learned about the WWOOF program from a really attractive girl: I was already starting to formulate an escape plan, but the existence of WWOOFing and this really beautiful girl telling me about it to my face made it all very real right away ;)

But coming back to the EP for a moment, the difference in this case is of course that the marginal cost of the next song is much lower since everything is already in place. Suppose I wanted to do a few more tracks—well, I’d probably just need some guitar strings for $12 at this point. I’ll obviously be interested in a better microphone (or microphones) in the future now that I’m starting to learn the limitations of the AT2035, and I’ll probably need to invest in more software, and some acoustic treatment, but all the main pieces are there and I know that my baseline is what the EP sounds like today. Assuming I also keep working on my abilities as a songwriter, performer, and sound engineer, my sophomore effort can only get better, I hope. Although, that will of course depend on the kind of inspiration I find in the future. I’m tempted to say that this year is as inspiring as it gets, but I heard somewhere that life is passion whether you’re flying high or falling low, so maybe the most passionate days are yet to come.

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I honestly don’t know how to wrap up this blog post series. I’ve been living the music that you hear in the EP day and night for over 60 days now and it’s all I know anymore. In fact, unless you’re still trying to swallow the vomit that just popped into your mouth, you’ll have noticed that I really did just quote my own lyrics in the last paragraph. It’s getting bad. I mean, this paragraph is totally setting up to conclude with some pseudo-wisdom about life followed by “our journeys never end,” which I know you can sense, but I promise you I’m not going to go there.

Instead, I’ll just say this: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 2013 was a year well lived :)