MY RECORDING EVOLUTION - A TIMELINE
I thought I’d relate a timeline of my own music production journey, by approximate age, from 5 years old to present.
Piano lessons. I did okay. At 11 I was playing Rhapsody in Blue in the finale slot at the recital, and I won a couple of awards at a contest one time (though thinking back on it I bet everybody won something). But… I didn’t really like it, and rarely practiced unless forced.
Soon after that recital we moved out of state and I didn’t care for my new teacher, so I stopped taking lessons. And that was that.
Until a couple of years later (maybe 13 years old?), when I got a cheesy little Casio keyboard for Christmas. I’m fairly certain it was the Casiotone MT-500. The yellow hexagon drum pads look extremely familiar, though I think mine had fewer controls. In any case, this was a key turning point in my songwriting career.
Prior to the keyboard, I had just learned to play notes on a page. The Casio had something I hadn’t been exposed to yet - you could set a drumbeat with various rhythms, but you could also set a mode where the first octave of notes could be set to play chords. You pressed a C, and the whole major C chord played. If you played different combinations of keys, a minor or seventh or some other variation of the root note played.
I was fascinated by this, and spent hours setting up some beat and then playing different combinations of chords. I learned that if I played various combinations of C, F, and G major chords it sounded good and happy. I learned that if I interspersed Am and Em and Dm I could get more complex patterns, and seventh chords added yet another flavor. And of course to give my right hand something to do, I started making up melodies.
I realized for years that I had learned to play complicated songs without understanding how they were conceived. When I learned about how chords can make a foundation for melodies. And I started writing songs - lots of them. Really, really bad ones. What fun!
My first guitar! Not mine, actually. We got a nylon stringed Takamine for the house, and I sat down and learned the bloody thing. I’m usually an impatient person, but somehow I got through the arduous process of teaching my left hand to consistently produce the chords I wanted to produce. The popular music around this time was not great (yes, that's arguable, but I present Exhibit A for evidence), so I listened to my parents’ music and learned how to strum and fingerpick from the likes of Paul Simon and Cat Stevens.
I got pretty good at it, so started writing more on guitar, lots of slightly less bad songs.
Somewhere along the line around about here I lost the ability to read music off of the page. But I slowly gained the ability to hear a song on the radio and just sit down and play it.
I started learning to record. In the late 80s, personal computers were still way off from being able to do this, but we did have cassette tapes. My first recordings were made into a red Panasonic RQ44 tape recorder. But I very quickly learned the limitations of the on-board mic. It had an ⅛” input, though - so I went out and got my first microphone: a Radio Shack unidirectional that came with its own cable.
Also, the single track was limiting as well. So I would lay down a track, grab another tape deck (probably my sister’s), and hit play on the first while performing with it into the other tape deck. Pretty awesome! Since the motors had slightly different speeds, after a few tracks I started sounding like a chipmunk. In this way I learned about harmonies and arrangements of multiple instruments.
College years! By this time I had procured a Yamaha MT4X cassette tape 4 track, and was doing better mixing, and learning to bounce three tracks on the fourth to make room for 3 more tracks. I was still armed with my Radio Shack mic at first, until a friend of mine and frequent songwriting collaborator said that he’d heard a Shure SM58 would sound a lot better. I didn’t believe it - a mic is a mic, I said. But he talked me into it and I bought one. And yes, it sounded much better. I had just bought my first professional microphone, and learned that to a great extent you get what you pay for.
I wrote or co-wrote a lot of songs in college, but the production quality remained quite low because of the recording medium. The songs started to get a little better than they were, however.
My co-writer from college and I tried somewhat to make a go of it playing music in Seattle. It never quite came together, because we didn’t play a lot of cover songs, couldn’t keep a drummer, and generally weren’t top quality musicians. During this time we overspent on recording gear, replacing the Yamaha with an ADAT, buying a Mackie VLZ1604, a Digitech VTP1 preamp, and a few more microphones. I remember we got a Crown CM700 for recording the guitar and an AKG C3000 for vocals, moving up to the condenser mic world. The recording quality got better and the songs got better too.
Unfortunately, the time started becoming scarce, and we were getting older. The music never went anywhere commercially. We kept playing music, but I moved out with my future wife and we became busy with other things, like getting married and settling into a career. I played with other musicians less and less frequently. Eventually, my wife and I decided to move out of the Seattle area. I divided up the equipment, took my share, and we headed out to the next phase of our lives - raising a family in Portland.
Age @26 - @36
I didn’t do much musically. I had some of my old equipment, and did get an M-Audio PCI card and Cubase so I could record when I had a chance. Our house was small so I built a tiny studio in the garage. And even during this period I got better at playing, writing, and producing. One notable thing I did during this time was to buy a decent ukulele.
Fortunately for me, also during this time the music industry was changing in fundamental ways. I was soon to find that many doors were now open for me that had never existed before.
Age @37 - Present
Something happened that thrust me back into music as a very serious hobby. I came across some web sites that were selling royalty free music online. I discovered that anybody who could produce an instrumental could submit their songs, and maybe somebody would buy them. I thought that was pretty neat, so I started recording one minute acoustic based loops backed by simple drum lines. I titled these “Acoustic Loop - [n]” and started uploading them to AudioMicro, the first site I had come across.
My songs were accepted, and then a few days later a strange thing happened - somebody bought them! It was only a few dollars at first, but it was thrilling to think that somebody I didn’t know thought my songs were good enough to actually pay real dollars for.
I soon found other sites willing to sell my music, and over the next few years the trickle started turning into real serious side income. I felt it was important to put a percentage back into music production, so I began to fill out my studio, replacing cheaper components with more expensive ones (for better or worse), loading up my box with music software and plugins, and generally trying to put together the best two golden channels I could afford. And because I was now bringing in money with music, I started playing and recording at least a few times a week, making time whenever possible.
The process of building out my project studio involves much more gear and research than I can list here, and I made tons of mistakes along the way, some very expensive.
Now, my studio consists of several high quality microphones and 500 series preamps, dedicated A/D and D/A converters, excellent nearfield monitors and a slew of different headphones, professional software, and all the gear I would have drooled over back in the day.
For myself, I’m still learning, and every year I can look back to the year before and feel that while I'm certainly not the best songwriter in the world, the songs have gotten, on the whole, better than they were.
What is the point of all this? Really it’s just a very wordy way to point out that if you are a songwriter and want to record, and all you have is your janky old smartphone, use your janky old smartphone! If nothing else, the technology behind that phone is worlds apart from the Panasonic tape deck I had when I was a kid.
The point is to lay down tracks and start building yourself a portfolio that you can look back to. To paraphrase a famous saying, making something perfect is not as important as making something complete, and learning as much as you can so that the next complete thing you make improves on the last. If you find that you have a passion for writing and recording music, better things will come your way - simply because you will make better things come.
This is a wonderful time to be making music. It’s the wild west out there to be sure, and there are plenty of pitfalls, but the opportunities are seemingly endless.