Of all the things I do, I think being in the recording studio is my favorite. Of course, it’s also the most expensive thing I do, so I don’t get to do it as often as I’d like. One of the things that has most surprised me about being a grown-up professional musician is how little of your time is actually spent making music. But when I DO get to sit at a piano and play — either into a microphone or for an audience or just for the pleasure of playing — it’s the best part.
Several months ago this musical theater friend of mine, Robert Creighton (who goes by Bobby, so I’ll now start calling him Bobby), asked me if I might like to help him make his first solo album. Bobby has been in six Broadway shows (currently ANYTHING GOES) and he’s written a show about Jimmy Cagney (called CAGNEY) that’s getting a lot of attention. Bobby felt like if he made a record of old-fashioned songs, people would buy it. Only he didn’t want the album to feel old fashioned. He wanted fresh, new arrangements of the songs that were suited to the kind of singing he most enjoys. Bobby knew that that kind of arranging is exactly what I did on my musical HELLO! MY BABY, so he asked if I’d like to do it for him, as well.
I’ve recorded my own debut album, and I’ve played on and written for a lot of other people’s albums, but Bobby and I were starting from scratch. He’d say, “What if we recorded ‘You Are My Sunshine?” and I’d say, “How do you hear it? Is it a ballad? Is it an uptempo? Is it a solo? A duet? Is it guitar-driven, piano-driven, rhythmic, lyrical? Is it happy? Are you singing all of the verses? What’s the right key for you? Do you like the intro or should we skip it?” We did this over and over again until we had a master list of songs we liked and a template for how each of the songs might go so that the album was diverse and interesting but still felt like it all came from the same source.
It’s interesting to consider that people don’t really listen to records the way they used to. In 2007 when I released “This Ordinary Thursday” my record producer told me that I was the first album on their label (PSClassics) that sold more song downloads than physical copies. It used to be that you could have a hit single on one side of the vinyl and then you could put some less-good “filler” song on the B-side knowing that people would buy it just to get the hit. Nowadays, people can sample the 30-second preview of the song on iTunes, and if it’s not as good as the rest of the album, they’ll just skip it.
As we’ve been recording, I’ve asked Bobby to consider the order of these songs. I remember putting on a record in my room and listening to it from top to bottom. But now we listen to music in our cars, on our iPods, while we work out, and there are many more things to consider. Your first track still has to be fantastic, or people don’t listen to the second track. But people who listen in their cars often get four or five songs in and then they’ve arrived at their destination. They might not ever get to the end of the album. And so many people just pick their favorite tunes and put them in shuffle play, so maybe it doesn’t matter at all, anyway.
Unless it does. Sometimes a person will still put on a record and listen to the whole thing consecutively. Maybe they just want to sit and experience your music, top to bottom, in the order you intended. And for those people, we try to keep in mind that the best albums have flow. They have balance. The tempo, energy, key, and style of one song will lead you appropriately into the next. Great albums are conceived as great albums.
So, back in January Bobby and I recorded five songs. And last week, in late May, we recorded seven more. I flew to New York on Sunday. On Monday, we rehearsed all day, making sure we had communicated about all the ideas for the arrangements, making sure we’d thought through the performances. We talked about how singing on mic is so different from singing on stage. On the microphone, I can hear whether or not the singer is smiling. Joy can be captured in an audio performance. We rehearsed Bobby’s guest singers. (They are unbelievable… but I won’t spoil the announcement for him.) On Tuesday, we recorded the rhythm section – piano (me), bass, drums, and guitar. We recorded most of these things to click track (metronome) so the time would be unwavering. On Wednesday, we brought in a horn section (trumpet, trombone, sax) and recorded them as overdubs to the rhtyhm tracks we’d already recorded. On Thursday Bobby did most of his solo vocals as overdubs over the rhythm and horn charts. And on Friday, we brought in the guest vocalists and recorded them in duets (and in one case, in a barbershop quartet) with Bobby. We spent a lot of time on Thursday and Friday doing rough edits, comping together what we call a “rough mix,” which means all of the layers are there, but they are not yet balanced against themselves.
So what we have now is like raw footage for a film, and now the editing begins. Next week we start mixing, or balancing the sounds. After that, there’s mastering, which is the final post-production step that evens out the levels and keeps you from having to turn the volume up for one track and down for the next. And then Bobby will have photos made and a cover and a CD jacket designed. And then we’ll have made a record. Simple as that.
(photo l to r is Eric Davis (guitar), Bobby Creighton, me, Larry Lelli (drums) and Randy Landau (bass))