Recording You’re My Girl

As promised, I want to run through my process of recording my latest song, You’re My Girl, which is posted to my Patreon. You can access it as well as 15 more songs, several stories, poems, and other exclusive content for as little as $1 a month.

First, the setup. To call it a home recording studio would be…aggressive. I have a decent microphone, crappy speakers, good headphones, an amp, a bunch of instruments, and GarageBand. But I get decent enough sounds from this and have some good plugins for GB that help me make the sounds even better. It’s not complicated, but it serves my purpose. I’ve made one improvement that hasn’t arrived yet but I’m excited to start using: a MIDI keyboard. Any synths, keys, or other electronic sounds I’ve added to songs have all been entered using the mouse or the computer keyboard. It’s going to open up a lot of possibilities once I can play parts on an actual piano keyboard.

The first thing I usually do when I begin recording a new song is almost a proof of concept. I record acoustic guitar for a verse or two and then record voice over it. Then I listen and decide if the song needs more tweaking before I record it for real. On You’re My Girl, I decided I was on the right track. I worked on the melody some because I knew I was going to use rising pitch along with volume and intensity to build the song toward the bridge/chorus. When I felt good about my voice, I went back to the start and thought about what I wanted for backing tracks.

I started with guitar, which is to be expected, as I am a guitar player. The amp I use for recording is a digital amp that models a bunch of amp types and effects; it doesn’t have the esact feel and depth of tone of actually playing through those amps, but it’s a lot more cost and space efficient than trying to get all those different amps. I wanted an old rock or soul feel, so I dialed up a heavy vibrato on a 70’s amp. I tapped in the tempo of the vibrato to match my 108 beats per minute click track. A friend has his guitars stored at my house, and for this song, instead of my usual Stratocaster, I played one of his hollow bodies. I already had the chord procession figured out, but once I had the tone I liked, I still had to decide how to play the chords. There were tons of options and I settled on one of the simplest: four note arpeggios. It fit with my plan of starting slow and ramping up throughout the opening six verses.

First pass went well. After a few verses, I opened up the arpeggios a bit, never getting to strumming or playing the notes faster, simply extending the slow arpeggios over the whole bar instead of playing the first four notes and letting them ring. It didn’t build much, but I didn’t need it to; I planned to build a little with each instrument and to support the big build in the vocals.

When I get to the bridge/chorus, I keep playing, though I suspect I might take this guitar out when I get to the final mix. For the solo, I play roughly middle of the verse style with some additional filigrees as things progress. I plan on fading the song out during the solo, so I play for a long time, giving myself plenty of space for fading.

Next comes a little studio secret to creating big, lush arrangements without cluttering up the aural space: I doubled the guitar. That I means I recorded it again, the same part on the same guitar. Then on playback, I pan one of the two tracks wide right and the other wide left, giving me a natural chorus effect and wide stereo pan of guitar. It both makes the mix fat and wide while also getting the basic tracks out of the way of things I’m going to put front and center like the vocals and lead guitar.

I’m playing this all to a click track and recording to digital, so it’s easy to move stuff around. I move at least one bar so that the tracks match better. Then I lay down the bass.

Like the guitars, I start very simply then ramp up the complexity as the song progresses. I’m not going to double this track (deep bass tones get muddy when doubled, they’re largely non-directional, and occupy a tonal space far below the stuff I’m going to be featuring in the center; they won’t interfere much), so to build, I start improvising more and more elaborately. I am not actually a bass player, so I have to do a lot more takes and patch them together.

Happy with the bass part, I lay down a pair of distorted, doubled guitars that come in at the bridge and play out through the end. Entering nice and loud and crunchy at the bridge helps bring that section to the fever pitch I desire.

That’s the basic tracks done. It’s time for vocals. I lay down one full track in the same way I did the bass, stopping and punching in a new track then melding them and moving on. Once I have that, I do a bunch of other takes, experimenting with style and tone etc. but also doing some just like the first take; there’s always something that bothers me after repeat listening so I like to have some takes I can pull a replacement from.

With vocals done, I have the meat of the song in place. Now, I get down to the detail work that is frustrating to my family, as it involves a whole lot of repeat listening. I do a lot of it with headphones, but I also have to listen through the open air.

I solo up every track and listen to it independently. I apply EQ and compression and reverb and any other effects I deem necessary. The aim at this point is to make the individual track sound good. Later I will be fiddling with these settings a bit to make them fit with every other track. But a lot of the time making the track sound good on its own makes it sound good within the track. Not always, however. Sometimes you have to make a track sound worse to make room for other tracks. If you do this with EQ, it’s called bracketing and is a fascinating technique for subtly getting tracks to not get in each others’ way.

However, I didn’t anticipate too much of that in this song as I was keeping the instrumentation pretty spare. Four guitars at this point is pretty much an all-time low for me.

So, I tweak all the tracks. Listening to them all alone let’s me hear some mistakes I’d missed, so I replace a few sections. One of the parts I had to get rid of was a high note in the bridge. I haven’t been singing much lately—quarantine and all that—so after I hit it on one track, I blew my voice out a touch and couldn’t get back to it on any of the others. I didn’t hit it well on the one track so had to use one of the takes where I sang a lower note. I miss it, but I’d have had to wait for days to sing it again, so I decided to move on. No matter how much work you put into a project, on some level, it is always going to be merely a snapshot of where you were as an artist at that moment in time.

Everything’s sounding good, so it’s time for what is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorite things:

Lead guitar!

Sometimes I’ll play little lead bits throughout a song, but in this case, I just wanted it in the very last section. So I dial that up and lay down approximately 1 million takes to mess around with.

Good times.

After Frankensteining my lead together and applying assorted EQ and effects to it, I still feel like the song is missing a couple things. I put in a couple note organ track (which will be much easier now as I just got my MIDI keyboard in the mail), which helps. I create a full cut in the middle of the line “A catch—in the rye” by deleting a portion of every track. This used to involve complicated moves and several hands on the mixing board back in the analog days; it’s easy now that everything’s digital.

For final steps, I apply compression and a touch of EQ to the master track—the stereo track I’m mixing all the tracks down to; the mix you actually get to listen to—create a long fade out, and upload it to Patreon!