making an album

Some things I wish I’d known before making an album

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In life, and when making an album, things happen. The more you understand about the process, the less pressure you put on yourself, and the more detail-focused you are, the better your chances for success.

We live in pretty miraculous times for musicians. Yes, you can still find musicians whining about how hard things are, how streaming is stealing, and how much easier things would be if the old system of record labels and distribution of physical product were still in place. But there are so many things that are pretty simple to achieve these days that just weren’t simple – or even possible – just a few years ago.

For instance, the means of music production, for better or for worse, are within reach of anyone who picked up a guitar yesterday and learned an E chord. Sophisticated recording capabilities are not just the province of the connected and the wealthy. Even the person singing in the shower with no instruments can record a professional-sounding record, sell physical product from a website, and sell downloads on iTunes.

Some might take for granted that this is commonplace, but there was a time that it wasn’t. The independent artists of the ’80s blazed a trail for all of us to follow, often learning the business from scratch as they went along. When I began making records in the ’90s – my first record was a 7” vinyl single, pre-Internet – there were some DIY resources available, but even most books found in the bookstore focused on distributing and marketing a record as opposed to the actual production process.

So here are some things I wish I had been told before I started putting together an album’s worth of material to be pressed and distributed to as many people as I could reach. Full disclosure: I happened to work for a prominent CD replicator for three years (AKA Disc Makers, the company whose blog you are reading) which was a master’s level education in what to do and what not to do (especially what not to do) in the production stages of record making.

Take your time and go for great

What’s the rush, buddy? Granted, some people have deadlines. Maybe you just got a gig opening for Radiohead and you need something to sell. Maybe you have industry types paying for the project and expecting it by a certain date. It’s good to have internal deadlines, too; all the studies show that those having specific goals with specific deadlines get more accomplished than those without.

But, with all the other music and entertainment distractions out there competing with your record, rushing it is usually not in your best interest. Slow and steady wins the race, as the fable goes. Take the time to write, edit, and polish your songs with care. Take the time to record them well, mix them well (VERY important), and have them mastered. [To learn more about mastering, check out The SoundLab at Disc Makers.]

If you’re well-rehearsed and choose to record live, the recording part won’t take as long as you think. Take the time to come up with an interesting cover concept, and to execute it with a capable artist. Take the time to plan out who you’re going to try to sell it to when you’re finished; research promoters and PR firms, online and off, and create a solid, executable marketing plan.

At every step of the way, try to resist the internal pressure to rush to the conclusion and focus that energy instead on answering the question, “Is this the best I/we can do at this stage?” If the answer is yes, then move forward. If not, take the time to make the answer yes.

Don’t plan your release date or release event until you have the physical product in hand

If there’s anything I’ve learned about manufacturing, it’s that shit happens. When a major company like Sony runs 100,000 CDs, they do a test run of 1,000 or 2,000 to ensure there are no errors. When your order is for 1,000 units, test runs for accuracy are simply not a viable option. Any kind of mass production has the potential for errors and/or delays, and many of them aren’t even the manufacturer’s fault (that is, your audio and/or art files may have had errors). Partnering with a reliable CD manufacturer [we happen to know one] is extremely important as they will work super hard to correct any snags that you might encounter.

The important thing is know is that there will be snags. I’ve self-produced three records and been involved in the production of many more. I’m not pointing fingers at the manufacturing process; my second album got hung up for almost three months in the mastering stage because the mastering house couldn’t find the four previously mastered tracks on their old computer (a long, sad story). And how many artists have less-than-perfect product because they didn’t check their artwork for typos? What a drag to spend all that money to press up all those CDs and find out you spelled your mother’s name wrong – and she paid for the project! Oops. Plan for time in the production process to double check all the proofs and pore over every line of text before approving.

The, once you receive the finished product, check three or four samples from a couple of boxes to make sure that there are no errors. Play them and inspect the packaging carefully. Then, and only then, begin to finalize your plans for release. Mainly you are saving yourself a ton of unnecessary stress. It is no fun to be waiting for your CDs to arrive for your party scheduled for tomorrow.

A little knowledge about the printing process saves heartache later

Album artwork is printed using the CMYK (four color) printing process. What you are seeing on your computer screen is RGB (three color). Anything in print is not going to look exactly like it did on you or your designer’s computer screen. If the exact color of your cover is truly important to you (i.e. the blue has to be the exact blue of your deceased lover’s eyes, may he/she rest in peace), you’ll want to request a hard copy proof before printing so that you can see the color as it will be printed.

And even that may not be 100% accurate; in commercial printing, colors can and will shift, especially if the predominant color on the printed piece is a neutral tone like a brown or a grey. Outside of the neutral tones, the shifts shouldn’t be over dramatic; you have every right to be upset if your cover comes out green when it’s supposed to be red. Whoever is doing your printing can offer suggestions to you on what to expect with your particular cover. Also, any images need be high resolution, at least 300 dpi or higher. You’re not going to want to print that great Facebook photo unless it exists in a high-res form because it will be pixelated and ugly. Low-res photos don’t look cool, edgy, or hip. They just look crappy.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

We are all human. At the end of the day, the most important part of any album is whether the music inside kicks ass. Maybe your package doesn’t sit or fold exactly like you envisioned. Maybe you did misspell a word or make a typo in the packaging, but it’s probably not worth getting upset about or spending large amounts of money to correct. Certainly, if there’s a fault on the part of the manufacturer or your disc doesn’t perform correctly, you’ll want to address that. But I’d advise that distinguishing between the details that matter and the details that don’t is an important part of maintaining sanity through the CD manufacturing process – and any process in life and art – and coming out the other side feeling satisfied and pleased with your accomplishment.

The world is not going to end because the drummer’s name is misspelled or you mistakenly included the picture where your hair is slightly to the left. And hell, if your band blows up and you have to go to press for additional runs, you can always fix those problems in subsequent pressings. Being able to zoom your personal lens out and see the bigger picture is an important tool in discerning what matters and what doesn’t in the grand scheme of things – both in life and in your recording projects.

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.

The 90-Day Album Release Planner

Chris Huff

About Chris Huff

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 25 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and his full-length album, 'bout Time is available on iTunes.

9 thoughts on “Some things I wish I’d known before making an album

  1. Great article! I have released 3 solo albums (working on a new at the moment) and 3 band projects and couldn’t agree more….ESPECIALLY about having product in hand before the CD release show…cut that one way too close once, whew. Regarding the misspelling of names…ya never know…could be a good thing…that’s how a guitarist named Rick became Rik Emmett 🙂

  2. Great article (amongst so very many useful ones on here!!) I waited for almost 2 years to get my debut lp right and ready to release – then rushed the release in some ways, without having all my content ready for the release plan. I suffered a few last minute let downs (mainly on the video/online content front) and didnt really have everything i needed but id already set the date and felt i needed to go ahead. A good lesson learned is to indeed wait til everything is in your hands before you start, even though the excitement is hard to bear! Really useful guide, thanks for posting.

  3. Great article. I love that you included the info on the artwork printing. Good design and well produced artwork is so important. Often an interesting cover is what makes people first notice you without ever hearing your music. I’ll often play a sample on iTunes or pick up a CD in a store just because the design gets my attention.

    As well as a musician I have been a Graphic Designer for 20 years and know all too well the problems of people grabbing a picture off the internet and expecting it to produce well in print. NO NO NO. My advice would be to always consult a professional designer if you care about the whole package. If you do only have access to a crappy lo-res image, incorporate that into a grungy or aged design concept. Don’t expect a glossy look from a poor quality image.

  4. Twenty years ago, my wife used to ask me (pleadingly), “Why do you have to spend forty minutes on the phone for every call that comes in? Why can’t you just book the session and record the client?”

    I explained to her that if I didn’t spend forty minutes on each inquiry, I might likely spend weeks or months cleaning up the mess. In short, I was covering my butt. Those were private thoughts and not meant to denigrate the client whose business was crucial.

    Over the course of 30 years behind the console and 500 projects in the archives, I gradually learned to be more efficient in my first-call client interviews. Also, based on that experience, I would have to say that the information presented here is flat-out, spot-on.

    The big catch is that these truths are only true to those who already know them to be true. But, we have to keep pressing for a better informed client base. The most clever music producer is the one who can teach these lessons in a way that the client believes he/she has discovered them by their own virtue and free volition. This is greatly facilitated when a client comes into the studio having first read an article like this one. Thanks!

  5. If you are relying on it being on on the release date, plan 2 release dates.
    One you set on CD baby and another a couple of weeks later that you use for everyone else.

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