Thursday, October 30, 2008

Making Believe

People have been asking about the process involved in making the CD Believe, so I thought I’d give a little background on what goes on behind the scenes of making an album.

On my first couple CDs, I went to the recording studio with all the songs ready. I had played them over and over again, they were thought out, organized, and rehearsed. Lately, particularly on “You Will Soar” and “Believe”, the process was much different.

When I record an album, it is emotionally, physically, and musically taxing. After it is done, I usually don’t write music again for many, many months. There is the rare exception where I’ll be playing the piano and a piece of a song will come to me that seems to click. But even when that happens, it’s always only a small piece of a song. Maybe just a simple melody. At that point, I pull out a little hand-held tape recorder, record that little section, and then I usually just let it sit for a few weeks or even a few months.

For the last couple albums, the different approach I took was to let the songs be less constructed, and more of playing what comes to me in the moment. For “Believe”, I knew which songs I wanted to record, but not how each song was going to be styled. During recording sessions, I work with a song from many directions. I try different keys, and different chords, and different rhythms, and variations on low notes, and variations on high notes. It ends up being a time consuming and challenging experience to see which direction a song will take.

I don’t record the song until I hear something special. I may play a song ten different ways, and then on the eleventh way something clicks. Sometimes the song gives me goose bumps. Sometimes I’ll hear something and say “Where did that come from?” That’s when I know the song is ready to record. It’s kind of like my mind has been storing up creative energy over the many months I take to not do anything, and it all comes spilling out as I prepare the new CD.

The amount of time needed to complete the fourteen songs on Believe was around two months. Once all the piano music was recorded and sounded how I wanted, I sent a CD of the music to Steven Sharp Nelson who has played cello on my last two CDs.

A few weeks later we got together to record his cello parts for each song. I asked him what kind of preparation he goes through to do something like this. I was surprised to hear his response. He said that he like to listen to each song a few times so he is familiar with them. But, he doesn’t like to have every single note planned out. He wants there to be an element of improvisation, identifying where the song is going, and playing what comes to him in the moment. I think that’s why I feel that his playing is such an excellent match for my style of music – we both get a sense of where the music is going and play what comes to our hearts.

This isn’t the end of the process though. Following this, the music goes through phases called mixing and mastering where sound levels are adjusted to make sure that you can hear each instrument, and things like equalization, reverb, loudness, limiters, gates, normalization, balance, compression, delay, and fades are modified. It’s a music nerd’s paradise. These things can easily take a few hours per song. Graphic design is completed, and the whole package is sent to a duplicator who makes the CDs.

During each step of this process, I have one constant thought in the back of my head: I pray that this music touches listeners the way it has touched me.

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