My first solo album, Stepping Stones for Bass Trombone, Vol. 1, was released on the Potenza Music label a little over a year ago. Some readers will know how stressful the project became for me, as its release was delayed for nearly two years by the illness and passing of the recording engineer and producer Rich Mays (himself a very fine bass trombonist during the first part of his career), yet its completion was a necessary component of my application for promotion and tenure at the University of Mississippi. Thankfully, all turned out well. I was very pleased with the final result and the album has received good reviews. More importantly, I was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure (for the second time, since I successfully went through the same process at the University of Louisiana at Monroe before moving to my present position). I’d like to offer a few reflections on this process, both for the benefit of any readers who might be considering making a solo recording and also as I gather my thoughts in preparation for possibly making another album in the next year or two.
1. Secure as much funding as possible. Making a recording is an expensive venture, with costs easily exceeding $10,000. The greatest expense is usually hiring a skilled recording engineer, as few performers possess the skills, equipment, and software needed to record, mix, and edit a professional-quality recording. Recording brass instruments well is particularly tricky, requiring precise placement of a particular type of microphone to do well. Usually a separate mastering engineer must be engaged to give the sound a final polish. Depending on how well your engineer knows your instrument and its repertoire, a separate producer might need to be hired, and in any case someone to offer general assistance in the booth will be needed (this is a great role for advanced students). Additional costs include mechanical licensing fees paid to the publishers of the works recorded, hiring an accompanist and probably a piano tuner, rental fees for the space in which the recording will be made, travel and lodging for the engineer if necessary, and any fees required by the record label which will carry and market the album. And this is not a comprehensive list! Unless you are independently wealthy, funding through fellowships, grants, and similar sources will be necessary to meet all of these expenses, so apply for everything you can!
2. Expect to make zero net profit. (Actually, you will lose money.) There was a time when even classical musicians recording solo albums could expect to recoup at least a substantial portion of the cost of doing so through selling physical albums, most recently on CD. Sadly, it seems that few consumers are interested in buying physical copies of recordings anymore, and the music streaming services that make millions of tracks available to listeners at little or no cost pay very low royalties to the musicians who recorded the content. These days a solo album functions largely as an expensive business card, meaning that those who record such albums really need to have motivations other than profit for doing so. (You know, like your university basically requiring it as part of your tenure application!) That there is no hope of profit in making a recording also makes the securing of outside funding even more important.
3. Expect delays. While it is a good idea to plan a timeline of how the album should progress from initial planning through release, you should take it for granted that this timeline will have to be revised repeatedly throughout the process. Why? Because “stuff” happens! Perhaps the availability of the recording space or engineer or pianist will change due to illness or unexpected obligations, or perhaps you will be the one with an unexpected life event. Maybe your funding will be held up or canceled somehow and additional money will have to be found someplace. While the unhappy circumstances that led to the long delay of my own album are particularly unusual, any project that requires the contributions of multiple human beings with their own individual desires, motivations, and obligations will be subject to the various postponements that inevitably accompany “real life.” Still, beginning with a plan will almost certainly minimize the number and impact of such delays.
4. Practice a lot and mark “everything.” The 3-4 days during which recording takes place can be particularly taxing physically, so building stamina by undertaking lengthy practice sessions in the weeks and months leading up to the recording itself is a good idea. These practice sessions need not consist entirely of the material that is on the album (in fact, review of playing fundamentals is very helpful), but do make sure that the material on the album is thoroughly mastered, as this will minimize the number of takes needed to record the various materials. Mark places where mistakes occur or might be anticipated in the music so that these are avoided both in practice and while recording. Remember that fewer takes means not only saving chops, but also saving money due to less time spent both recording and editing. After all, you’re the only one working on this thing for free!
5. Provide detailed notes for editing. If I could pick one thing that I could have done better to speed up the editing process, it would be to mark in greater detail the precise locations (as in minutes and seconds on the timer) in each take from which certain measures in each piece should be taken. I had a bad habit of indicating this more generally (“take these measures from the second time through on this take”), which led to Rich spending unnecessary time “fishing” for the location of a given passage. That sounds so obvious to me now that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it at the time, but I didn’t. Also, let me remind you again that the better prepared you are and the better your playing is, the less editing that will be necessary, leading to a more seamless final product that will be produced more inexpensively.
6. Purchase high-quality headphones. When listening to unedited tracks and particularly when evaluating the final sound quality, using the best headphones you can obtain will be of great help in assessing how things are sounding and what further adjustments will be necessary. Happily, Rich loaned me a very fine set of headphones for this purpose; next time around I will purchase some for myself. Listening on headphones is much better for detailed evaluation than on even high-quality speakers, and the headphones used should have the fullest dynamic and tonal range possible. Needless to say, earbuds do not fit the bill!
7. Defer to the knowledge of others. When making a recording for the first time, take for granted that there is much that you do not know, and be ready to adjust your expectations in various areas according to the advice of your engineer, your accompanist, and anyone else that might have more experience than you. This is another area in which I have some regrets, as I became quite frustrated during recording when my unreasonable expectations for how quickly things should proceed were not met. “Experience is the best teacher,” as they say, and while I’m happy that I will have a bit of experience to offer next time, I should have more readily deferred to the knowledge and experience of those working with me the first time.
8. Pursue a “perfect” final product, but accept that you’ll never get there. Despite the positive reviews and comments that I have received regarding my recording, I can still name particular spots that I wish could have been better, or edits that are obvious to me because I know about them, even though no one else listening can tell. (Rich was a great engineer!) Happily, my recollection of these things is fading with time, and I can listen to the finished album with more satisfaction now than I could a year ago. The pursuit of perfection ensures a quality product, but as with everything in this fallen world, we all must accept that absolute perfection will not be achieved in any human endeavor.
But again, the pursuit of perfection is valuable despite knowing that it is an impossible goal. I look forward to pursuing it again in the recording studio in the coming months and years, God willing.