Recording an EP – What it Takes to Make an Ukulele Album

I recently struck out on a journey to create my first real recording. Nothing fancy – no big studio, no big budget, no record company to promote it afterwards, but “real” in the sense that it would become a physical CD and be available on iTunes.

It’s a five song EP called Point A. I thought the name aptly described my location in the grand game of music and, better yet, I couldn’t find anybody else who had an album with that title.

Getting Set Up

I plastered the walls of my bedroom with blankets and propped up old mattresses in the form of a makeshift semi-isolation room. Even with chickens on one side, wind and rain on another, and people living upstairs, I was happy with how it sounded, provided I could find a “quiet” time of day or night to track the songs. Since I didn’t really know much about acoustic treatment – or want to spend money transforming my awkward basement room – I went with the “more blankets = less room echo” school of thought (you can always add reverb later).

So I bought a USB interface (a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4) to get the signal into Cubase 7 LE on my iMac and two good quality microphones – a Neumann KM184 and a Shure SM87A. The mics were recommended to me and since I couldn’t find any bad reviews I figured they’d work fine for my purposes. At this point the microphone choice mattered a lot less than me learning how to use them correctly.

Several days passed in frustration as I criticized the sound of my room, mics, and ukulele before I realized I was actually getting pretty decent recordings (funny how you hear what you think you will hear). I spent hours with the “tape” rolling, moving the mic around, announcing its location, playing, and then listening back.

When you change the relation of the microphone to the instrument and room you are sculpting the tone. No brilliant post-recording EQ can redeem bad mic placement and very little EQ is necessary if you put the mic in just the right spot. After testing the mic in tens of different locations, distances, and angles, I found that for my purposes the Neumann placed about two level feet from the ukulele, swept 15 degrees toward the headstock and pointed at the 12th fret gave me the best sound. With that said, every time I broke the equipment down and set it back up I got a slightly different mic sound because of small variations in placement. In addition to the mic, I also recorded a DI ukulele track in most cases to fill out the sound.

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Recording the Songs

The tracking commenced. I played take after take, determined not to edit if I could help it. I wanted recordings that represented the real me at my best. With the wonders of technology you can stretch and paste together a perfect take, no problem. However, I want to be able to play these songs live without worrying that people will buy the CD and then think, “Well, when we saw him live he wasn’t this good…”

I watched Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary somewhere around this time and was really touched by his message of real musicians playing real music in a room together. The difference was that I was recording all by myself for 95% of the tracks, but I still took the part about the rawness of live music to heart.

If you are recording take after take by yourself in a room and your computer is elsewhere, I highly recommend getting an external controller for your digital audio workstation. I was able to get a simple app on my iPad that controlled transport actions in Cubase while I stayed in the booth until I got a good take. It would have been miserable to do this project without that simple tool.

Three of the songs were played solo. They were straightforward – play a good take and save it. That’s pretty much what I did. No click track, no headphone monitoring, nothing but capturing the best music I could play.

I think I punched-in only one botched chord in all three songs (only because it was in the middle of my favorite take). The rest lay as the mic heard them, a testament to a moment that happened sometime in Brad Bordessa’s bedroom mattress-cave during the months of January or February, 2014.

The two “band” songs were put together in very different ways.

For Carve I had my friend Isaac Wang come up and lend a hand playing rhythm guitar. (Rhythm ukulele is fine, but I liked the sound of Isaac’s playing that had developed from performing the song together a bunch of times.) We set up both mics (one of the rare cases I used the SM87 on this project) and played our rhythm track together live, without a click.

It took us a while to get a take we were happy with because of inconsistencies in our rhythms, magnified by the microphones. If I had to do it again I’d probably record the rhythm tracks separately, but the camaraderie shared by playing live felt important at the time. Of course, after all that work, I only really used the guitar in the mix!

From there, I started the process of layering lead parts. I quickly realized that doing one whole take for each lead track was overkill. Since the melody on Carve is being pushed along by highly distinct lead parts I had the option of working section by section. I would loop one part until I got a take I liked and then move onto the next. That way I got a feel for the section with each pass and could really hone into exactly how I wanted to play it.

For Aerial I recorded a rough ukulele rhythm track to a click. Then, after adding some rough leads to mark the way, I sat down and recorded a “keeper” rhythm track front to back, without any cuts. After I had my foundation I started reworking the leads. Too soon it became obvious I needed to do more work on the rhythm so I went back and rerecorded. With that finally in place, I put down my leads in the same fashion as Carve.

Guitar is not my forte, but I have a couple of Strats laying around that I love to bang on just for fun, so I pulled them out and added a couple of electric parts. They helped differentiate the verse from the chorus and build up the energy at the end of the song.

Around this time I realized the song was lacking something. The guitar and bass just weren’t enough to push it along and the melody called for a bit more of a rock feel. As if on cue during a listening party, my friend, Ryan Higgins, offered his skills as a drummer for the project and after very little consideration I accepted his offer. It was just the ticket. I had no doubts the song was a keeper once I heard what he had done to it in his own little studio.

Now, for the first time ever, I got to mix real drums! I was excited to put them into the context of my song and see how I could make it sound. I got the basic tracks from Ryan and went to work tuning them up.

Whenever you need to “fly” tracks into your project, always record them from zero or record a bit of blank space at the very beginning of the recording to hold time so that you don’t have to manually line them up when they are brought into your project. Just drag them to the beginning and you are set.

Ryan was quick to give me permission to edit the timing on his tracks to fit better with the click. There wasn’t much to be done since he played most of the song very well, but were a few places I made adjustments by dragging his snare hits around. After the editing, my first task was to create a group channel and route all the drum tracks so I could have a single “drum” fader. This would allow me to balance the drum tracks to each other and then, without changing my drum mix, move the volume of the whole kit up or down.

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