What Goes into Making a Piano Album… And an Official Release Announcement!

With my first year of grad school behind me, and six months since my last post, you can say there’s a lot to catch up on—both on this blog and in life, I suppose.  But I’m going to cut to the chase with what’s going on right now:

I’m recording my second solo piano album, Hematite!  It will be released on July 26th.

I know I’ve had six years to do this (my first one Airborne came out in 2013), but to be honest, I’m somehow scrambling to finish this by the deadline.  How can this be?

I’ve worked on this second album off and on since 2014, but I got sidetracked with other composition and engineering projects for college.  You can’t just write for solo piano if you want a degree in composition—nor can you just engineer your own single album if you want an audio degree.  You have to branch out and get out of your comfort zone.

Audio school and music school were “distracting” in the best way

Since releasing Airborne at the end of high school, those four and a half years of college have made me a better composer, pianist, and audio engineer.  Obviously, this is a good thing, but there’s an unintended consequence: when I went back recently to listen to the pieces I’d already recorded for Hematite, I realized they were no longer representative of my abilities.

By getting better at what I do (and being a perfectionist), I unwittingly made more work for myself, prolonged the album process, and have put myself into a bind to try to meet this July 26th release.

Before I say any more, I’m going to back up because you may be wondering what hematite is.  And why did I call my album that?  Well, hematite is a mineral that’s an iridescent dark gray with streaks of red—hence the “-hema,” which means blood.  It carries a lot of symbolic meanings in folklore, such as strength, courage, and healing.

Actual hematite stones

I don’t want to say too much else right now, but I’ll just say that the obscure title is a subtle acknowledgment of a turning point in my life and an invitation for listeners to assign their own meanings—everyone has their own difficulties and could use those things that hematite can symbolize.

Okay, this all sounds nice, but if you’re still reading this, then perhaps some of you are still wondering:

What exactly goes into making an album and why am I so concerned about finishing or not?

What does it take to go from a musical idea, to a finished composition, to a recorded track, to a cohesive collection?  What does it take to make a professional quality product?

For a more classical-type album like this, the process is a little different than, say, a pop record where you’d want a team of musicians, songwriters, engineers, a producer, and a marketing group if you’re a big enough artist.  You’d also usually have a pre-production phase before getting to the studio where you work with a producer to iron out any kinks, but that doesn’t apply for me.  I could still have assembled a team in my genre if time and budget allowed, but…

No, I’m the entire team for this project—I’m doing all of my own composing, performing, producing, marketing, and even graphic design.  I’m entirely responsible for every single aspect of the process from writing strong pieces, to making recordings that sound good, to managing everything that has to do with the business side.

If it sounds like a lot, well—it is.  And frankly, I’m overwhelmed and wondering if I can really finish in this timeframe.  I’ve only recorded four of the nine or ten tracks, and four tracks are still in various parts of the composing phase.  I haven’t even started the tenth track, so as much as I’d like to have an even ten, it may not happen.

  1. So first, I have to get the remaining tracks recorded within a few days of the piano getting tuned.  This way, I can avoid slight pitch problems.  I’m very picky about my recordings being in-tune. 🤷‍♀️ I now have just under two weeks to finish composing those four or five tracks to stay on schedule because tuning is on June 10th.  I’ll give myself until the end of the week to finish tracking, but hopefully I’ll finish sooner.If the composing isn’t good, the whole album won’t be good.

  2. Next, I have to edit everything because recording is just the beginning.  I try to get my pieces recorded in one take, but often there are one or two (or ten) spots that bother me enough that I want to cut them out and then replace them with a different take.  Of course, it’s always a fine line between making a “perfect” performance and a natural-sounding one with emotion.
    One likes to hope they won’t need this much editing for one track…

  3. Once I’ve recorded all of my tracks and pieced together the best performances,  I still won’t be done.  Next, I’ll have to master the album.  This is where you add EQ and gentle compression (in the case of classical piano) to smooth out the sound and bring up the volume of the tracks to a level comparable to other commercial recordings.  Mastering is also the stage where you set how long of a break there is between each track and encode metadata for a CD.  June 30th is the latest I can submit the final master to the disc manufacturer to get the CDs printed in time for the July 26th album release concert.
    Sometimes letting go and uploading the project is the hardest part…

  4. Lastly, I have to drive up to the plant in New Jersey (actually, I’m tagging along with family to see relatives conveniently near the company) to pick up the disks in-person to cut out shipping costs and avoid using more-expensive expedited production time.  It’s $400 versus $800, so with my almost non-existent budget that’s well worth it—and it’s great to see family while I’m at it.
    What a feeling when the album is done and you can hold it in your hands!

So can you see why finishing this second album in less than two months is a bit overwhelming?

Nevertheless, I’m confident I can pull it off.  If I can do it as a high-schooler in 2013 with almost no formal training, than I can do it now with six more years of experience, two degrees behind me, and half of a master’s… Right?  It won’t be easy to meet the deadlines, but somehow, someway, I’m going to show up to my album release party with something in hand.

So friends, I hope you’ll buckle up and come along for the journey.  I could still fail fantastically, in which case you’ll have a good laugh, or I could pass with flying colors—or maybe it’ll be something in-between.

I’m going to be posting every week giving you an inside look at every step of this adventure.  Get ready for a wild ride…

Studio Life: Piano Recording for Film/TV

When you think about Christmas break in college, you might imagine sleeping in, spending time with family and old friends, and just doing nothing.  While it’s true that I did do all of the above a little bit, for me, going home is always a time for recording and composition.

This is what my "break" looked like
This is what my “break” looked like

Continue reading “Studio Life: Piano Recording for Film/TV”

My Best Worst Semester

These past three months in Nashville have been a whirlwind of a semester.  While this semester started off rough, I’ve finished it having done things I never dreamed I’d be doing so soon.  But it was a tough start…

When I went home for fall break in October, friends would ask me, “How is your first semester of college so far?”

“Awful,” I’d tell them. Continue reading “My Best Worst Semester”

Bright Idea or Playing With Fire? – Airborne Studio Diaries

As the lone audio engineer for my piano album Airborne, at this point, I’ve done way too much solo piano editing.  Am I that bad a pianist?  No, but I’m a perfectionist, so I strive to meet impossible standards—especially since I have such a strong idea of how my own compositions should sound.

Even so, editing is much more than finding flawless takes and putting in crossfades to piece them together—it’s about maximizing musicality through artistic and technical choices.  While I don’t purport that putting together twenty different segments into one track is as good as playing a perfect take straight through, I will go so far as to say that, when edited well, the difference between a composited track and a one-take track can be minute.  However, with any kind of solo instrument recording, making edits is playing with fire if you don’t know what you’re doing.  And with piano recordings, their many inherent challenges only pour on gasoline.  Even so, by following some simple rules, I’ve found one can safely edit a piano recording: Continue reading “Bright Idea or Playing With Fire? – Airborne Studio Diaries”

Studio Diaries – Airborne, Part 2: The Rubber Meets the Road

I didn’t want to do this, but I’m pushing back my Airborne album release to July 19.  I’ve changed my plans, but I haven’t changed my mind—I’m still making an album.  I’m going to push through these roadblocks and move forward. Continue reading “Studio Diaries – Airborne, Part 2: The Rubber Meets the Road”

Exceptions Are the Rule – “Airborne” Studio Diaries, Part 1

In The Studio

After five years of studio work, I somehow continue to hope that, maybe, my next recording session will be “normal”—no technical problems, no surprises, and no burnout.  But I’ve never had a “normal” session.  Apparently, in the studio, exceptions are the rule.  

Recently, as I’ve been recording my piano album Airborne, every day has been an exception:  five-hour experiments gone bad, poorly timed thunderstorms, and unexpected results.  Don’t believe me?  Read on. Continue reading “Exceptions Are the Rule – “Airborne” Studio Diaries, Part 1″

288 Hours

Oh, the doom of May 18!
Oh, the doom of May 18!

May 18.  The day is burned in my mind.  It ominously looms over me like a storm cloud, on the verge of raining havoc upon my world.  So what dreadful tribulation shall befall me on this date?

May 18 is my album’s tracking deadline.

No big deal, right?  Wrong—I still have to finish writing one of the pieces (which I’ll refer to as “F Minor” for now) on the album.  That’s a serious problem—really serious. Continue reading “288 Hours”

My First Solo Album: What’s REALLY Involved?

Recently, I’ve decided to release my first-ever solo piano album. In addition to composing and performing every piece on the album, I will be producing and engineering the project myself.  I’m also directing the marketing, promotion, and finances. In other words, I’m doing the whole thing on my own. (Hence, my lack of updates lately.)   I know there are significant advantages to pulling from others’ talents for a project, but at this stage in my career, I’m doing the album by myself to learn.  Am I crazy? Maybe. Am I a control freak? Not exactly. Let me explain… Continue reading “My First Solo Album: What’s REALLY Involved?”

Is This Piano Recording or a Physics Lesson?

I know, I know––It’s been a few weeks.  I’ve been in the studio a lot.

Since my music school audition is coming up, and since I’m applying as a composition major, I need to send in recordings of my work.  For better or for worse, I don’t separate my work as an engineer from my work as a composer, so the recording quality, as always, is of utmost importance to me.

Continue reading “Is This Piano Recording or a Physics Lesson?”

Why Piano Recording Is So Challenging

Piano miking
Previous piano session miking using a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I wrote a new piano composition. Well, now I’m getting ready to take it to the studio.  It’s called “Equinox,” and it’s eight minutes long, in the key of Db (also modulating to Ab and Gb/Ebm), has lots of tempo changes, uses nearly the entire keyboard, and requires all three pedals (yes, even the middle one).  Recording it, to say the least, is going to be challenging.

While one might think it would be easy to record one acoustic instrument, personally, I find it much harder to do well.  It’s so much more exposed; you can’t hide your problems.  There’s no covering up bad edits or poor tone-quality by burying it among other tracks.  With this kind of recording, you hear it all––the good and the bad.

Continue reading “Why Piano Recording Is So Challenging”