From time to time I am going to pass the gauntlet on my blog to friends who are pursing their dreams. Here is one of them. If music is your thing you will certainly appreciate the passion and dedication of Alan!
Planning for retirement? Record an album!
When I worked in training & development, I organised my first pre-retirement course at the age of twenty-seven, so I’ve had plenty of time to figure out what to do when it eventually happens for me (which will probably be in a couple of years or so)!
I’ve been incredibly lucky in that my lifelong pastime of playing and writing music will hopefully now provide plenty of projects for the future – on piano my style is kind of a cross between Randy Newman and Bruce Hornsby and I can fortunately also do reasonable guitar, bass, drums and vocals.
So, having played a lot of other people’s songs in bands, about ten years ago I invested in some decent recording equipment and set about recording my own back-catalogue of songs. Since then I’ve given up bands (too much artistic angst at times!) and concentrated on playing solo, with keyboard, 12-string and vocals (more nerve-wracking but at least you’re in control of things!).
On to my new album, ‘Storyteller’ – how did I actually set about making it? Well, you have to play every role – songwriter, artist, recording engineer, designer, producer and marketing agent – so it helps to be mildly schizophrenic for a start!
A mad dash down the A34 muttering the words so as not to forget them and on to the piano – shut your eyes and see what comes out. If I start with words, I can usually form a concept of the song in my mind – ballad, up-tempo, rhetorical etc. In this case a kind of ‘piano Dire Straits’ came to mind and off I went. As an aside, I once wrote a song called ‘Leaving the South Behind’ as I was driving up the M42. On that occasion I phoned the sung chorus into my work voicemail as a backup.. good job my PA was on holiday!!
But usually I never record anything straight away, the idea is that you should sleep on what you’ve written and if you can remember it the next day, then it’s worth following up. I say ‘written’; for me that usually means a few scribbled words and guitar chords. It’s a bit like having brief notes when doing a presentation - a guide, and what comes out on the day just kind of follows the structure.
Anyway, the verses often follow a few days later (I sometimes cheat and do a bit of research on the Internet first, if the song is about a place, for instance) and the next acid test is playing it live. The occasional gigs I do are somewhat long (3 hours plus is not uncommon) so there is plenty of time to pop in a few new songs here and there and see how they go down. Depending on reaction, I modify things – you haven’t got to be too precious about what you’ve originally written (that’s the ‘producer’ bit!).Onwards to the studio. I usually start with a piano or guitar, then start adding other parts – bass, drums, vocals etc. Some of my earlier efforts suffered a little from not knowing when to stop adding
instruments, which a) caused a nightmare when mixing down and b) caused audiences to comment that they weren’t buying the sound that I was playing live.
So ‘Storyteller’ is very much a live sound – one piano or guitar, vocals, some bass and maybe a few background synthesizer strings added, but not straying too far from what you can produce live – just enough to give the sound a bit of body. Now, my recording studio is not perhaps what you would envisage. Unlike recording ‘All You Need is Love’, there are no hoards of head-banded, pot-smoking, ‘hey man’ people – just me and all this equipment! So, off we go…..
Recording the first track on, say, piano is often a challenge. Especially with fewer instruments, you need to maximise the playing and expression, but with no-one there to perform to (perhaps I do need the hippies!). I don’t go in for lots of computer editing afterwards – you can lose too much of the ambience of the song – so for me, what goes in is broadly what comes out, so it has to be right. My usual routine is to keep playing the whole piece until I’m happy – which can often be a few hours and many cups of tea later - it used to be wine, but for some strange reason the playing got worse when I thought it was getting better! Putting second, third instruments on then becomes a bit easier as you have something to work with, listening to your first recording through headphones as you play along.
After the instruments come the vocals and it’s best for me to do those a couple of days after a live performance – my voice is a bit more relaxed then. That is the only part where a microphone is used and any background noise should be avoided…all the instruments are wired directly into the recorder, so it doesn’t matter if a 32-ton juggernaut drives past!
Now you have your recorded song and the technical bit now kicks in big-time, adding a few effects like reverb and compression to brighten the instruments, getting the balance right between all the instruments and the vocals, and making sure you have deleted any extraneous noises.
This part can often take as long as the recording, but what you end up with is the first cd of your new album, recorded directly from the recording desk. It is a truly wonderful feeling when a message pops up on the screen of the desk asking if you have copyright permission to make this cd and I always grin widely (now with the aforementioned wine) when I click ‘yes’!
I recorded ‘Storyteller’ at my house in France, so the next part of the album journey was to bring it back to the UK for ‘mastering’. This is the only part of the process I don’t do myself as it requires some expert equipment and personnel. The album sound is filtered through various electronic gadgets that boost certain frequencies etc, which has a similar effect to polishing a brass candlestick! The whole sound comes out as fresher, as if you are playing it in the same room. This is then called a ‘Red Book’ album and is of the technical quality to be pressed and played on radio stations. Also, there is a type of electronic bar coding added so that if the song is played on the radio, it is identified and the royalties roll straight into your bank account! So, my idea of retirement is……..
The last piece of the jig-saw is the album cover. I tend to design my own and I like to put the words in, so I usually end up with at least an 8-page booklet. I like a clean look and there are a number of critical issues, not least of which are the title, colour, typeface, pictures etc. For ‘Storyteller’, I chose one of the songs as the title, mainly as all my songs usually tell little stories and went for a typeface called HANA, which gave the right sort of ambience. For pictures, I used a couple of my collection of gig’ photos, but also Googled ‘Storyteller’ and found an interesting original print from a Norwegian professional storyteller. A few e-mails later and I had his permission to use this on the front cover!
So that’s about it. I currently have the final proofs for the album and am awaiting delivery of the first batch. Like most printing things, it becomes cheaper the more you order, but some self-control is needed otherwise you end up with a house full of unsold cds (cough)! Lots of this first batch will be sent out to radio stations in the hope that the royalties come flooding in…
What next, well I have thoughts of revisiting some of my earlier material – the ones I currently play live – maybe ‘Another time around’ or something a title. Also, I have another interesting project on the go, writing music for a one-hour musical/narration tribute for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016. With a bit of luck, that might coincide with my retirement - watch this space….
3 March 2014
Alan Garmonsway has spent much of his career in biosciences companies in Human Resources and Change Management. His first gig was at the age of 15, to a bunch of skinheads in a church hall near Sunderland. He survived that and went on to play in both folk and rock bands before recording the first of his eight albums in 2001. His songs are regularly played on Internet radio stations and he has a webpage at www.unsigned.com/alangarmonsway . If you are interested in purchasing the Storyteller album, just e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .