Recording a CD is a lot of hard work - but also great fun. After deciding what tune I'm going to do, I spend a few days 'playing' it through in my mind (usually while I'm trying to get to sleep at night) and also experimenting with different chord sequences (or 'voicings') on the keyboard, until I've got some sort of arrangement in my head. Having done that, it's down to the studio and on with the headphones.
The first thing is to record some kind of rhythm track - even if the finished track won't actually use drums - to keep everything I record later at the right speed and in the right place. I use an application called 'Protools'. Here's a screenshot of Protools when I was working on 'Home Loving Man'.
I play the drum sounds on the keyboard and record the MIDI signals (not the sounds) onto the first track of Protools. After I set the tempo and start the recorder, it produces an audible 'click' on the first beat of each bar, and - while running the track through in my head - I record the drum sounds onto the computer in time with the click.
A shot of the old Atari computer on which I used to record my CDs, showing one of the tracks of MIDI (in this case a drum track). Unlike in normal musical notation, the vertical position of each note against the little keyboard on the left is the pitch of that note; the length of the note's hornizontal bar is the duration of the note; and the length of the stem is the note's volume. I used the Atari for years, and it took me a long time to get to grips with the different ways of doing things that Protools has. But now that I know Protools well, it's so much better.
When that's done, I usually put a bass line on next. This may be the organ pedals - which I record directly into the computer - or it may be a bass guitar, in which case it'll be a sound in a sampler running in a separate application named 'Reason'. If it's a bass guitar, it will probably just be a guide, as most tracks use the organ bass eventually. I record this onto the second track of Protools. While I'm playing the bass in, the drums I recorded earlier are playing along.
Next, I'll add some rhythm accompaniament - often some guitars - putting those on a separate track, and then possibly some strings, building up the piece track by track, and keeping all the different instruments on separate MIDI tracks.
Eventually, what I'll have is a piece which is complete except for the organ parts. Some of the tracks - such as the bass - will just be guide tracks, to be replaced eventually by the organ, others will be fine as they are, and some will need adjusting or, often, completely re-doing. One of the problems is that as I'm building up the piece, other ideas will occur to me, and if I want to use them I'll often have to re-think entire passages (or sometimes even the whole piece, which means starting again from scratch).
A screenshot of Reason:
Finally, I have a 'backing track' - ie everything as it should be except for the organ parts. This is all still in MIDI form. The next thing to do is to add the organ parts - and it's at this point that I start recording actual sounds as opposed to MIDI signals. To do this, I connect the organ into the studio mixer, and then practise the organ parts like mad until I have them note-perfect. Unlike recording MIDI, the 'notes' of which can be edited and corrected on the computer, when recording the sound from the organ, very little post-editing is possible, so it's got to be right. I start the Mac playing the the backing track into my headphones, and record the first organ part onto a separate stereo audio track.
When I've got that right, I have the backing trackon the Mac - along with the stereo organ pair. I set those to play, and record the next organ part onto the next pair of unused tracks. And so it goes on, adding organ parts to the arrangement track by track until the piece is done.
Once all that is recorded onto the Mac, it's time to listen to it, and mix it - adjusting the level of everything individually until it sounds right. To me, this is often the most difficult part of the whole thing. I listen to a mix on the Tannoy studio speakers; I listen to it on headphones; I put it onto cassette and listen to it in the bathroom, and also in the car - because it sounds different on each sound system and in each of these places. If it's not right (and it invariably isn't), I'll mix it again and listen to it again. Perhaps there's too much reverb, or not enough. The bass is too heavy. One organ chord is too loud... It's very easy to get to the point where I "can't see the woods for the trees" - I'm so close to the piece that I can no longer listen to it objectively - and so at this point I often put it away and leave it for a week or so before listening to it again. When I do that I often hear it 'fresh', and can make more constructive changes.
Eventually it's done, and the levels are all set. All that's left to do then is to 'bounce' all the separate tracks (there can be 20 tracks or more on a complex arrangement) down to one stereo pair. This is done directly in Protools.
When the final bounce is done, I save it onto CD in both audio and data forms, and put it away safely until the rest of the tracks are completed. Then it's just a case of putting all the tunes in order, and creating a master file, from which I can burn the CDs.
That would seem to be the end of it - but I also have to design and print the covers and labels, assemble them all together in the cases, and do the paperwork. The details of every track have to be sent to the MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society), and a license obtained (the cost is quite high). Finally, after all that, I can sell them! The main trouble with being your own arranger, recording engineer and critic is that you have to do everything yourself - and from start to finish, a single track can take me anything up to three months.
Puttin' on the Ritz - Making the CD
I'm usually known as a Hammond organist, but a while ago I thought it would be fun to make a recording on a theatre organ. I wanted it to be more than I could do just playing the organ alone, so I decided to try sampling a pipe organ and recording the CD here in my studio, where I have access to lots of other instruments, and MIDI. So - which organ was it to be? The nearest theatre organ to me was, at the time, in the Ritz in Brighouse - a beautiful 3/10 Wurlitzer. That organ and I are old friends as I first played it when it was in Hampsthwaite, and also when it moved to Pudsey. It's a gorgeous organ, and - I think - never sounded better than when it was at the Ritz, so I decided that was the organ.
My friend Simon and I set up an iMac computer and a mixing desk in the ballroom one Saturday afternoon and, with the help of the great COS people there, began to record the samples. LOTS of samples. The routine was: choose a registration, decide what to call it, start the recorder, and play about 5 seconds of each note in a diminished chord separately (eg A - C - Eflat - Gflat - A etc) all the way up the keyboard form the bottom to the top, then save the recording as an AIFF file. That had to be done for each keyboard, and the pedals. We ended up with loads of recordings of individual notes.
Back at my studio, the recordings of each note had to be prepared for use in the samplers. This entailed looping each note - a long and tedious process of adjusting parameters and doing cross-fades on the computer screen. Because each note had only been recorded for about 5 seconds, if I needed to play a note that was longer than that, the note would stop playing too soon - and so it had to be looped. Sounds easy, but with the tremulants on it's not. Some notes took 20 minutes to get right, so that the loop start/end was unnoticeable. Occasionally a note just would not loop successfully - and in that case I had to remember when I was arranging the tunes not to call for a long note of that registration!
The looping took a couple of months of solid work, but finally it was done. I could then load the individual looped note recordings into the samplers on the big Macintosh computer, switch on my MIDI keyboard, and 'play' the Wurlitzer from it. At thist stage I still had no idea if the process would be successful, and if it would sound like the organ when I played it here. I remember vividly - when I'd completed the looping of the first registration, and tried it out. I played a large chord on the keyboard and the sound of the Brighouse Wurli came through my studio speakers. It sounded wonderful!
So, next I had to decide what tunes to record, then arrange each one, and record the MIDI. I generally started off with the drum track, then added the bass pedals (sometimes augmented with a bass guitar), the lower keyboard, the great, the solo, and finally any other orchestral instruments I needed. The first track I completed was 'Teddy Bears' Picnic', which uses only the Wurlitzer, without any other instruments at all. It sounded good, so I decided to go for it and do a whole CD.
Some of the tracks are fairly complex - a separate sampler is required for each organ sound, plus one for every other instrument, drums etc. - so on the tracks where I use a lot of different registrations, the computer screen soon filled up with samplers. The prizewinner in that respect is easily "The Hebrides" - it used 21 samplers, 2 reverb units, 8 digital delay lines, 4 unisons, and 3 synthesizers.
All in all, it was great fun to do, and I'm very pleased with the way it turned out.
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