So You Want To Make an Album-It’s so Easy these days….NOT!

These days when you’re buying a computer or an iPad or anything like that you have a choice of a lot of music programs. From real-life serious programs like Logic and ProTools, a little less more serious like Garage Band and then there is instant music by many different applications that just makes it so easy to put together tracks. What we are finding however or at least I am is that there is way too much music out there these days and much of it deserves to be just flushed down the toilet bowl immediately, because it is done by amateurs who now view themselves as professionals because they have the ability to sit in their bedroom and create music right on the spot with programs like Ableton live; where you can instantly use recorded clips to build a song without ever playing a note. Every day there are 40,000 songs that go up on Spotify. 39,900 you will probably never ever hear from again.
Now go back in the music, all the way back to the 60s and before, and making an album or single was: just go into the studio with some musicians and in one day or two you have songs done and completed. How long did it take the Beatles to make I Want to Hold Your Hand? Maybe just a few hours. But now let’s skip in time and go all the way into the 1970s when Studios really start embracing multi-track recording, with a lot more time being spent creating sounds to record and the expansion to 24 track recordings. That is where your humble author picks up the story.
Some of the greatest engineers and producers emerged during the 1970s, as well as, musicians who understood about crafting music to fit the song and to create a real listening experience to the quality afforded by the equipment that was being used. The real geniuses really understood that the studio was an unlimited tool, that if you spent the time, you could truly come out with a very special piece of music. Sometimes making an album could take anywhere between a month and a year. I know I was part of both scenarios. So let’s go back and go through what it really took to make a great album and no matter how things have changed the formula is still the same. It takes talent, skill, and patience to make it all happen.
My day would start with seeing all of my road cases and racks into the studio that had to be set up for the session. This would take me easily a solid hour because everything needed to be connected. What I was basically bringing was a synthesizer studio into a recording studio and blending the two together. Once I got everything working and believe me, back then all the equipment was very cutting edge for its time and in many cases, reliability was a factor. In the case of my Prophet V in 1979, I had to have two of them so in case one broke I would have another one. Believe me, that was a very helpful scenario.
I used a hardware-based digital sequencer, which is a piece of hardware, using what at that point was a new technology called midi, you can record music into. Before that, it was all play-it-by-hand and go right to tape. Now we had the ability to play keyboards into this piece of gear like an MPC 60 and before that a Linn 9000, and before that a DSX by Oberheim which was very basic, but early technology that worked.
Recording the music into the sequencer was not a very difficult proposition. When you finished your part you could then go back and correct notes and fix various nuances about them. Like velocity and the length of the note and sustain and a bunch of other functions. Once you had that all together you could then record it onto the 24 track multi-track tape machine.
That sounds easy, right? Easier said than done back in the day. Many of these machines had a digital code that would spit out of one of the outputs that you would record onto tape to playback later through the synthesizer. The early problems were, if you didn’t record it at the right level then the sequencer may not read it correctly and you would have problems recording it. It was a real science and was not for the faint of heart.
After a few years of aggravation with that, midi manufacturers decided that they needed a universal code that worked with all of these machines. SMPTE Time code was a standard code used in the film industry to sync sound and film together, so a couple of companies invented their own machines that would read SMPTE time code that could sync the sequencer with all the instruments attached to it through midi cables and sync it perfectly onto tape. There was no doubt about it, it worked. It was a huge accomplishment to get to that place; because now we had something very accurate that would accurately sync all the instruments together during multiple takes so they all were perfectly in sync and you could start adding other instruments. This was a really big deal because it changed the whole paradigm of how you could record using electronic instruments and make them all work together.
The one thing I didn’t mention was using these sync boxes like the Roland SBX 80 or one of them from Yamaha or another one called the Master Beat required essentially a Ph.D. from MIT because it was so freaking complicated to get these things to initially start to work. I use the old saying of “Want to know how to make this work? Ask your friends!” Well, I knew a couple of very smart people that really did show me how to use the SBX 80. That made my life easier and to many of the artists that I work with, it made me look like a genius because everything was working together perfectly. Oh, there were blips in the graph all right, but when it worked it worked perfectly!
Well, I did leave one important aspect out. There was a technique to understanding how to program a drum machine and how to record it into a sequencer. You just couldn’t jump behind it and think you were going to make some great music because now you had this. There were no pre-recorded loops and you really had to learn how to program a synthesizer if you really wanted to reach the status of originality which was my goal. And I am proud to say a goal that I accomplished many times on many important projects.
Like anything else, that requires a tremendous amount of time, because all of these instruments were all different from each other. It started off with all analog synthesizers and then slowly morphed over to many digital instruments, that were now easily affordable because the technology got cheaper and more affordable. Somebody might ask me to come up with a great keyboard sound and to get that sound I might have needed three or four synthesizers to work together to create it. A knowledge of how to make that happen was essential.
I didn’t also mention that many of the people that I worked with were incredibly gifted songwriters and artists so I was really able to be very creative with what I did with my synthesizers because they were very creative with their songs and musical approach.
So this whole thing started with why am I saying that to make an album for real is a very difficult proposition. I’m saying that because there were a lot of layers involved. When you went into the studio you were working with people like the producer, the engineer, the assistant engineer, and the artist of coarse. All different personalities. I understood early on what my purpose was and I was working for them so I kept myself very low-key when it came time to get into the production. I wouldn’t say anything or criticize anything because that wasn’t my job and they didn’t need me for that. Once I established that in my own mind, it made the whole thing a lot easier because ideas weren’t clashing. And if they were, I didn’t want to be a part of the clash. But the most important thing to take away from it was that it truly was a collaborative effort, made by a group of people that were highly skilled at their craft and augmented by others and at various times who were also very highly skilled musicians and engineers. So many great musical parts were crafted right in the studio and you felt inspiration in the room.
Now we will go and zoom to today when so many songs are created without anybody having to even play a note because there are so many pre-recorded clips and loops and so many pre-programmed sounds you really don’t have to know that much.
In the next column, we will really start getting in deep about how some of these albums I was involved with were made and the real great moments of inspiration that happened because the talent was feeding off of each other from all being in the same place. I can leave you with; today mostly the way that I make recordings is by having people send me WAV files of multiple takes which I have got to go through to find out which ones I should use and then have the ability to edit it all together. There is no solid flow of inspiration the way it used to be. Till the next time, I highly recommend you listen to the new Abby Road remixes because if you want to see the difficulty in making an amazing album it’s right in front of you with that.

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Jason Miles

From his synth programming on Miles Davis’ 80s masterpieces to his current album Kind of New with Ingrid Jensen-dubbed by one insightful veteran journalist as the “Quincy Jones of Contemporary Music”—has not only helped shape the landscape of contemporary jazz, but also brought his rich sonic textures as a keyboardist, arranger and producer to artists in a multitude of genres.


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