Confessions of a recording artist: I love making CDs, but I hate post-processing

by Michael Smith

Post-production takes all the fun out of the process, and most bands can’t afford to hire Phil Spector like The Beatles did.

As I write this, I’m sitting at my computer and thinking about working more on finishing my band’s new album. Unfortunately, for the last couple of months “thinking about it” is all I seem to be capable of doing.

If I were to break down the workload in terms of percentage, we’re probably about 80% done. It’s been a long road to get here. In the last two years, the band and its immediate family has endured a writer’s block, a couple of job changes, added a new member, celebrated a fantastic wedding, and dealt with a successful breast cancer treatment. Business has been far from usual.

And through all of that, the songwriting is done. I’m happy to say that we came up with around 20 songs this time out, and they all have something to say. Most of the tracking is done for the 15 or so songs that we narrowed it down to. Even if not all 15 make the final cut, there are the obligatory extras – songs that in decades past would have been called b-sides, but are now reserved for compilation appearances and other unforeseen opportunities. Really, all that remains is to chase down a handful of vocal tracks and maybe re-track a guitar or two. Oh, and the post-production.

I hate post-production. It’s cleaning up all of the almost perfect takes. It’s processing the various sounds so they sit better in the mix. It’s adding all of the myriad production effects that make a song sizzle. It’s rendering out the “final” mix after you’ve listened to the song 30 or 40 times, burning a disc of the recordings to listen in the car, and then returning to the studio the next night to tweak that one sound that was just a half decibel too loud or too shrill. Most song files end with “…final1.wav” or “…final7.wav.”

And don’t try to pin the “perfectionist” affliction on me. This is the status quo. Even supermodels get extensive Photoshopping these days. The bedroom computer-based studio of today is capable of much better recording fidelity than some “pro” studios 40 years ago. Software hasn’t made the process easier, only better. Just like high fructose corn syrup, everybody’s doing it, and just like high fructose corn syrup, we’ve been addicted to it for so long that its absence makes the final product seem unpalatable.

In the past, the post-production didn’t get to me too badly. If I was 80% of the way to the end of the race, it was easier to push myself to the finish line. There was the lure of “don’t you want to hear the final product?” … though, in truth, every time out I end up so sick of hearing every song that I never sit down and listen to the finished album after it’s done. In fact, once I even let the wrong mix of one song end up on a CD because I couldn’t bear to sit through the finished product. I didn’t notice it until months later when the song ended up on a compilation disc. Art is never finished, only abandoned, right?

I was also able to push myself to finish with the lure of “hey, punch this out and then make a little money – or at least recoup what you’ve put into it.” But the truth is that our last album barely broke even. Russian sites had pirated it and released it before we could. Would we have turned a profit had they not? I’m not so sure. Music pirating is a boogeyman that bands and labels have trotted out for decades. I have to believe that most people will pay what they can if they feel like it’s worth the money.

Besides, if trying to recoup the investment were really such a sticking point, I suppose we could do what a lot of bands do these days and put together a Kickstarter, right? It seems like a lot of bands hold their albums for ransom now. I can’t say I blame them.

But it was never about the money, right?

So the point I have to come back to is the point that many of my friends and colleagues have reached before me. Do it for the right reason: do it for the fun of it. Do it because you still love it and because you enjoy it.

I do enjoy writing and recording songs. And I am one of those crazy songwriters who views his songs as his children. I guess I just can’t justify the college tuition anymore. I can’t suffer the post-production. It takes all the fun out of the process. I’m reminded of The Beatles, who walked away from Let it Be for the same reason. They had a luxury I don’t, though. They had the money to pay Glyn Johns, and then Phil Spector, to hunker down in the control room with the master tapes, and take successive runs at compiling the album.

So, do I walk away from the album; an album that we have teased fans with on our Facebook page for over a year? Do we release it in its current unfinished form? Maybe give it away to fans for free since there’s no financial incentive left anyway? Could I handle looking back on it years later and thinking “why didn’t I just roll up my sleeves and finish it properly?” Do I just abandon it and go back to the fun part and write some new songs? Why? So we can end up with two half-finished albums?

I keep waiting for the right answer to present itself. Or maybe the desire and energy to muscle through the last part of the process. I don’t know.

Michael Smith is the founder of Fiction 8. Click here to follow the band on Facebook.

2 replies »

  1. I hear your pain. I’ve done enough artistic things in life to understand that we’re often driven by the creative impulse, and that’s not the same as the demand for craftsmanship. And craftsmanship isn’t always fun. I have written things where the first draft took me a few minutes and the rest of the drafts took me months. The first pass is about getting in touch with what you want to say. But communication is a complex thing, and in order for it to be effective you have to then whip your intent into something the audience will understand and connect with. That can be painstaking, frustrating, boring and infuriating. All at once.

    All that said, get your ass back in the studio. I’ve been waiting on this disc for quite awhile.

    And hey, give the California pen a ring. You might be able to afford Phil Spector, given his current situation.

  2. I know what you mean, Mike. And I work with a partner who’s of the “let’s leave it like it’s live” school. I can’t, can’t CAN’T do that – too much of the revising/polishing monster inside me – maybe from writing, maybe from – neuroses I don’t want to discuss here.

    Hell, we have two complete albums that are 70-80% finished and never will be. Good enough is not “folky power pop perfection” which is what I expect.

    Trevor has told me that it’s the most agonizing part of completing albums with Doco, too. And Jeffrey Dean Foster has. And – well, just about every musician I know.

    It’ll come. I liken it to childbirth. The kid will arrive when the kid is ready – not before….