After a bunch of bad record company deals and people in NYC not hiring me because they still thought I was on tour, my friend Sam said I needed to do a new record. I told him I didn’t have the money to record another record. I wasn’t going to ask my friends to let me use their studio for free again and I had little idea what to do with a record in the event I found myself in a position to record one. Sam had a small project studio in his basement in Queens. He said, “Here’s the keys to my house, go make a record”.
The Power of Friendship
Up until that point I had really only been on the playing side of the glass, except for a few moments with 4 track cassette recorders. I made my way down to Sam’s house every day. I’m fortunate that I have some amazing friends in the recording business that are world class; very successful engineers and producers, mixers and mastering engineers. These friends were very kind to me. They stopped whatever they were doing to take my phone calls and give me advise on everything from mic’ing to EQ, compression, and recording in general. Some put major artists on hold to help me.
I also got help with some great players that would come down to this basement in Queens, NY to play on the record. And in the end, I made a bad electric guitar album. I wrote bad songs. While trying to fix it another friend asked, “Why don’t you record some of those acoustic songs you’ve written lately?”
I was living in a tiny apartment in Manhattan. Most of my electric gear was in storage. I had an electric or two, a nylon string acoustic guitar and a little Yamaha QY20 sequencer. I had been learning how to sequence on it and had written and sequenced some cool sounding song tracks to go along with the acoustic guitar parts. I started recording those songs, laying down the sequenced parts first, then trying to record acoustic parts.
Key words of wisdom my friends gave.
- Don’t overly EQ anything. If It doesn’t sound good, move the mic.
- If it still doesn’t sound good, change the mic. Try another one.
- If it still is not good, change the guitar.
There were a few guitars in the basement:12 strings, steel strings, etc.
I followed that advise and things went smoothly. I still follow that advice to this day.
After about two weeks I had ten acoustic songs and ten electric songs. A friend of mine who mixed records for a living asked how the recording was going. I played him the electric record because that’s what I was supposed to be working on. He said, “Okay… what else do you have?” So I played him the acoustic stuff and he started to really like it. He asked if I would let him mix it. I was thrilled at his offer.
He made his way down to the basement in Queens and mixed the record in 9 hours with one blown tweeter in the right speaker. Hmm… not sure how that happened. Ha!
Afterwards I still had a bad electric record, but I also had a really great sounding and fun to listen to acoustic record. Now up to this point I was known as Mr. Rock n’ Roll… screaming, soaring rock guitars with a bit of a groove. Certainly not acoustic mellow relaxing music. I had no Idea what I was going to do with this recording and I still needed to fix or start over with the electric record.
The Unexpected Review
I went for a walk to try and figure all of this out. I stopped at a guitar magazine’s place of business that was home to a number of people I knew. My friend there Rob asked how the recording was going and if he could listen to it. I played him a cassette (that’s what we had back then) of the acoustic recording. He liked it and asked for a copy. That was on a Friday. Monday Rob called and asked if I had art work for the record. I replied that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that recording yet. He said well it got a great review and they wanted to put the review in the next issue of the magazine. I was always under the impression that magazines worked on a 3 month lead time but this was going to be in the next issue. Rob told me I had until the end of the week to get him art work if I wanted a review along with a small ad. This pushed me to figure out if I was really going to go through with this and release a mellow acoustic record on my own that I had recorded in a basement. The review was a glowing one but I was unsure of what to do. This was back in the days that very few people were releasing their own records without a record company and certainly not with distribution. And I really didn’t have any of the relevant resources. I didn’t really know how to get the record mastered, the art work done and the distribution covered. This was before online sales, internet download purchases, streaming or anything else we know and take for granted these days.
Synchronicity 1: Night time artwork in the daytime
While walking in Manhattan I ran into a friend of mine that I had only ever seen at night in clubs. Never in the daytime. I let her know that I had been working on some new (acoustic!) music and might release it but I needed artwork done. By chance she was a graphic artist, something I was not aware of. I sent her the liner notes and some photos another friend happened to have that suited the vibe of the album perfectly. I had my artwork, a glowing review and a small ad in the back of a magazine. But I also needed to press CDs. So, I borrowed some money from family (my God Mother Faye and cousin Mark) and got a thousand CDs pressed. (That’s what we did in those days.)
Synchronicity 2: Hold onto Birthday cards.
I needed more artwork done and film output to press the actual CD. I remember that a woman that used to come to my shows at the China Club in NYC had given me a handmade Birthday card with a promise of free artwork. She had just started her company when she gave me that card. I dug deep in my closet, found that card with her number on it and called her up. It’s been years since she gave me that card and her business has grown into 45 employees. They supplied the film from the artwork I had.
Synchronicity 3 and 4 – It Pays To Have Fans of Your Music in the Right Places
Walking around Manhattan I passed the now closed Tower Records on Broadway and West 4th. One of the managers was outside and greeted me. There were a few people who worked there that used to come to my shows in the city. He asked If I had any new music coming out so I told him about the acoustic record. He asked what label I was putting it out on so he could order some and proposed an in-store performance to help sell it. I told him it’s not on a label and I have no distribution. They had to go through a distributor to get it in the store. He said hold on and went back inside the store, after a few minutes he came back out with a number. He told me to call a local company that can distribute all over. Distribution often means dealing with some of the sleaziest people on the planet but this time it was helpful.
The distributer listened to the record and agreed to take 25 copies of the record and try to sell them. Tower ordered 75. After a similar run in with one of the managers at J&R music world ordered a bunch as well. The contact at the distributor called me to let me know they really wanted to work on this record. They had sold a lot and wanted 300 copies. I said, “OK”, but told them the copies were already sold when they agreed to take on the record. The horrors of distribution are another long story for another day.
Synchronicity 4 – Timing Is Key
Meanwhile, a gentleman from Japan was in NYC on business. He bought a copy of the guitar magazine and after he read the review he got in touch with me through the magazine. He told me he owned a small record company in Japan and wanted to license my record for that territory. At that time I was not familiar with world rights and territory licensing but I did remember meeting a woman earlier that year at the winter NAMM show who knew what it was about. Angela introduced herself to me as a music lawyer and gave me her card. Her specialty was negotiating music licensing deals. She worked the whole thing out and I now had a record in Japan and the most money (the only money really) I had received from a record company.
Knowledge Gained, Lessons Learned
All of this taught me:
- How to record from the other side of the glass.
- I had amazing friends. I knew that already, but they really came through for me big-time.
- To trust my faith and get out of my own way and let things flow.
- Sometimes there are outside forces making things happen
- I could do this.
I didn’t need to ever sign another record company deal again. I could make my own records and sell them myself if I wanted to–even out of the trunk of a car if need be (I didn’t even drive at this point in life). And all I really wanted to do was to make music, connect with people that like it and play and travel the world touching people’s lives in a positive way. This experience proved I could do just that.
This whole experience kept me in the music business and helped me realize my dream as an artist. And it gave me a second career, one that would bring me joy as I helped others follow their passion all the while bringing me some of my most rewarding moments in music: winning a Grammy Award and 24 New Mexico Music Awards for production and engineering, teaching a recording techniques class at the college of Santa Fe for a year (I never went to college so it was challenging and rewarding to do that), speaking at and holding master classes in recording and production, and the occasional tech support phone for my friends working on their own projects.
Gear and the Love of Gear
I soon purchased some recording gear of my own and proceeded to try and redo that electric record I had done so badly back in that basement. While living in San Diego several local artists approached me about recording a song or two of theirs. They needed help with arranging and production. That was the start of my love affair with tones, techniques, mics, EQ, compression, strings, drums sounds and drum micing,
Home Studio Tracking at 3am in your PJ’s
I don’t think heavy recording is for everyone but in my eyes, light recording is a must for all songwriters. It’s a great time to play and record music. It’s not the easiest time to sell music but I have a 16-track recorder and multiple sequences on my iPhone and a 48-track recorder, soft synths, lots of different sequencers and a full guitar rig simulator on my iPad. Not to mention my computers. It’s a great way to do music. I tell all of the artist that I produce that they should be able to get their songs down when needed. And for some, the next step is to get their parts down in a way that someone else can take those tracks to another producer and/or band and have great tracks built around it. Sometimes you get tracks in search of a great vibe at 3am in your PJ’s when demoing a song and you have to go with that. You can try to recreate that vibe in the studio for the “real” thing but most times you just can’t beat the demo. It’s good to be able to capture that first demo in a way that lets you use the original demo tracks along with new finely record tracks done in a professional environment.
Thank you for reading a bit of my story. What’s yours?