It’s ready !!!

Kevin was off to Costa Rica, all artwork was done, the CD master was off to the manufacturer for printing,… now what? We needed to set a release date – ok, time for another Spanish coffee. Another fine Saturday afternoon with Steve and Cathi Behrens in Hubers and we had our release plan set – it would be in Mahers on Sunday March 2nd, we would need posters, web sites, emails, table tents … and agreement from Mahers that this was ok. Gabrielle Maher immediately agreed and couldn’t do enough to help, she recommended the marketing place down from the pub (www.gisimarketing.com) for the posters and table tents as they already did all the Mahers printing work.

Great – we had a plan… but no material. My kelticbill.com website was obsolete  Apple had abandoned iWeb (which I used ggrrrr).  I would have to redo the website – so decided to use the theme and colors from my CD. All I needed was a web publishing package… shouldn’t be hard to get –  there were quite a few out there and several web services. Aaaargh … after going cross-eyed looking through them all and trying evaluation copies for a day, I still couldn’t decide which one to use…  they all did much the same as iWeb had done… but all had restrictions of some kind or other… off to bed dazed and befuddled by technology.

My (lovely) daughter ( 🙂 ) had given me Adobe creative suite as a present a few years ago (I love Adobe photoshop) – so I had the bright idea to investigate Dreamweaver – the professional web design tool included in creative suite. Boy it looked complicated, but after following a couple of tutorials and youtube videos I had built a small test site and could see that this would take much longer to do that the other packages… but I could do whatever I wanted with my site as I would have total control (evil laughter!!!).

I got absolutely hooked… I spent days deep in the bowels of web-site design and html… and loved it! My inner geek had fully re-emerged and after a couple of weeks hard slog I had put together what I still think is a pretty nice web site ( www.bill-mullen.com) and learned a lot in the process.

On-line CD sales – you can’t go wrong with CD Baby, I signed up and put in all the details they needed to do digital music distribution. I loved their sign-up process – their 1st question was “how do you want to be paid?”… at last a website that doesn’t just take your money! I linked the services (iTunes etc) which CD Baby arranged for me to my website and set the release date to be the day before my release party – so I could be sure it was all available on the day.

The CD artwork was all I needed to put together my release poster and table tent notices, after some wrestling with Photoshop files it all looked good – working with Tyler at Gisi was great – he really knew his stuff and did a great job of the posters and table tents… at a good price!

A few late nights to complete the final touches and I was ready – 67 Music (Steve & skOt)  Mahers, Posters & table tents, new web site, new email were all ready, the music was all set to be ready on 1st March on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, Google and Shazam, the royalties were all paid and registered with Harry Fox Agency and the boxes of CDs had arrived… we were all set for the release.

bill proof

In the Studio – the final stretch

We (well, Kevin with me listening intently) mixed and mastered the whole CD over two separate sessions. Mixing is sort of done as you add tracks, but when you sweep through every song when its finished, you need to make sure the instruments are all balanced off against each other and you are hearing what you want to hear. Mastering is after you have finished mixing you then listen to the album as a whole, bringing volume levels etc on the different tracks up to match / compliment each other. The key to all this was finish recording before mixing, finish mixing before mastering as you listen for different things during each of these phases.

I had also given my outline ideas for the CD cover to Kevin and he had sent on to his artwork person. This came back wonderfully, he had added Celtic patterns, used great fonts and within a few iterations, the artwork was good, we had a final draft of the mastered CD, Kevin was due to fly to Costa Rica at the weekend – I had to give it a final, final listen and then we would print the CDs.

Then disaster… (well it felt like that) … The more I listened, the more tormented I got, all tracks were good, apart from the one I really wanted to be spot-on, the 1st track, “Scots Wha Hae”. I had played the bodhran through the song… but I had put too much expression / intonation in my playing, which was jumbling the rest of the instruments … if you listened carefully standing on one leg. Ok, maybe not the standing on one leg bit – Dorothy was having trouble hearing what I was hearing… but I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t fix it… why hadn’t I heard this earlier … well I had, but I thought it would be ok – I now know that was wishful thinking… I couldn’t listen to the track without hearing the slight jumble the bodhran was causing. Decision made, I called Kevin… I needed an hour. I knew this was a blow for Kevin as he was sure we were done (mainly because I had told him …. ooops! – just as well he wanted a final, final written ok before going further). Also, in his haste to get everything else he was doing done before leaving on 2-weeks vacation he had tripped and had wrenched his back… despite all that, he agreed to slot me in.

When I arrived, Kevin was looking awful, his complexion was grey, eyes were dull, I could see he was in great pain – and here was me wanting to change something that possibly only I would hear. He set up the mics, got his system set back to where it needed to be, I did one recording of simple basic bodhran on my 20″ drum – which was deeper and more solid that the one I had used on the previous version. We listened, I gave a sigh of relief, it was perfect – just what I wanted. Kevin adjusted the master, burned a new one and I headed off to give it all the final final listen at home again (I just loved the way he would not shortcut the process, no matter how much we wanted it to be done), Kevin wanted me to be absolutely sure that I was happy with the music .

Driving home, I had tears in my eyes when I listened to the CD – I was so happy, I knew it was was good – the final listen at home, it also had to get the Dorothy seal of approval. She loved it – even the banjo (which, as I mentioned before,  she “disnae like”) – I sent the final go ahead email to Kevin, felt the weight lift off me. A nice Glenfarclas 21 year old single malt whisky proved to be just the very thing to relax with!!

The process was now in the hands of Kevin and his CD manufacturers.

 

In the Studio Week 1

You need to write up a matrix of songs and the instruments / tracks you want in them said Kevin. Oh my – and here’s me, king of the Excel model – that’s has been the answer to many things in my life… and getting my act together for recording was going to need a plan. I spent a good morning planning out each song … and when I counted up the tracks I would need to record (and get right) I opted for a more contained approach – I really didn’t need (and couldn’t afford)  a “wall of sound” on each song.

Image

The picture above is the finished result, I used color coding to let me know which instruments were ready to record and which needed more practice… and blue meant done! I practiced and recorded each piece on my own on my iPad using a USB recording interface once I could play a part fluently all the way through, I would record it then mark the cell on my excel model green = ready for the studio. I could of course play all the instruments, but you can never underestimate the pressure of recording, how your lips tense and your fingers stiffen when you stand in from of a microphone with a whistle… how your voice changes as your vocal chords contract as you’re about to sing. You know that whatever you are about to do will be printed to CD, downloaded and listened to intently by people who paid money for it – that’s realization can (and does) freak you out – you want to be your absolute best… and like most things, the harder you try, the more mistakes you make and worse it gets.

Relax. That’s the key. Deep breaths, loosen up, shake out those arms, warm up that voice, hear the song in your head and make it come out your fingers or vocal chords just as you imagine it should sound, put your heart into it and be confident, you’ve played these so many times in front of critical audiences and always leave people smiling and happy… you just need to do that … alone in the studio.

Day 1, Tuesday 10th December 2013, we would start recording at 10am, so I got up early packed up all my instruments into the car, had breakfast with Dorothy then headed of to Nettleingham audio with my “Broons” carrier bag (it’s a scottish thing) with soup, sandwiches and a flask of throat-coat tea which Dorothy had made up for me. It was a bit weird, I don’t know why, but I felt like a kid going to 1st day at school. I was nervous.

At 10am my instruments were in the band room and Kevin and I reviewed the excel model. Years ago when I was recording with Feargal, we would do all tracks on a song and finish that song, then move on to the next. Kevin’s technique was to get me to play 12-string guitar on all songs which had 12-string guitar, then do all songs which needed 6-string guitar, layering each sound on each song and building them all up – but not finishing any of them until the very last track was recorded. This was incredibly effective. The consistency of sound and the balance of the finished product was spot-on. I told you before, Kevin is a craftsman – and he was ensuring quality from the very start.

When it was time to eat my soup, we had a click-track (tempo to keep me on the beat), 12-string guitar and a rough vocal on 5 songs, we were ploughing through them.

The day continued well , it was intense as you have to start right – whatever comes after the 1st track is building on what you have already done, so it needs a strong foundation. I did not use sheet music, I had made up a script for each song, this told me how many bars of introduction I would play, how many bars before the chorus, when was the solo, which instruments would start and stop – and when. When you’re on your own and playing a different instrument (e.g. fingerpicked 6-string guitar) over what you’ve already recorded on strummed 12-string guitar, you need to have the same “feel” of the song that you had when you did the 1st track. This was strange at first, but after a few tracks, which I now know Kevin was never intending to use, I settled down and got right into the music – Kevin heard this and the recordings really started to work. Having that independent musical brain paying attention and matching with what you have done before was invaluable – and Kevin was the master of tact, when I was off the beat he would say (innocently) “can you hear the click track?” or ” you need to get this one right in the pocket” – I knew we meant “that was sloppy… do it again” I would play the piece again paying more attention to the beat and hey presto – it worked!

We stopped at 5pm, I was exhausted, drove home on a high, told Dorothy everything about what we’d done (it’s that 1st day of school thing again), ate my dinner, drifted off in a nap (boy I was tired), woke up with a “I can’t be napping, I’ve things to do!” sort of panic, then headed up to my music room to practice and record on my iPad again, getting ready for the next day and working on my weaker (less played) instruments.

By the end of Thursday, I was really tired – but we were pretty much half way through and where we planned to be. I had a gig in Mahers, Lake Oswego on Friday evening – and it felt good to just play, me, my guitar and a happy crowd singing along with me – let rip and relax… a nice end to the week.

Beginning of “The Beginning”

So, A wee while ago I mentioned that Steve and Cathi and Dorothy (and a few Spanish coffees) convinced me that I needed to make an album. Knowing how bad (read “Pernickety or even Persnickety”)  I am when I do my own recording, I knew I needed to get help. Steve Behrens (67 Music) had given me a list of potential studios, so I checked out their websites then called the one I liked best which was also closest to my house in Washington, Nettleingham Audio

I drove the 15 mins to Kevin Nettleingham’s studio – which was an add-on to his house, It was a “Doctor-Who” type of experience, from the outside it was a fairly normal looking house and garage. You enter the garage and it turns into this large expansive music-zen wood and acoustic tile lined area that somehow managed to fit behind that humble garage frontage. Entering along the woody-smelling corridor with guitar on stand, sofa, nice coffee machine, nice pictures leading to massive space shuttle-worthy soundproof doors leading to a large control room or the vocal room which in turn (through another wonderful  sealed door) leads to a large band recording room. Nice, Nice, Nice.

tardis

The next question was Kevin… would I like him, would he like me, did I think we could “make sweet music together”. After he had shown me round his audio palace, he fired up his computer system and let me hear some of the things we was working on with other artists. I heard maybe four different snippets of songs – enough to tell me that Kevin is a craftsman who believes in high quality and no messing! I loved what I heard – knowing that if mine turned out half as good, it would still be 1000 times better than anything I could do on my own. We got on very well, he was easy to work with and we felt comfortable with each other. We agreed prices, agreed to spend 2 x 3days recording with an extra day for mixing and mastering –  we shook hands, set the dates in December and off I went to get ready.

 

Recording… from humble beginnings

Everyone records themselves – unless you are the truly gifted 1%, it starts with the enthusiastic “I’m going to really show people what I can do” start and ends with the “… is that really what I sound like ?…” anticlimax.

anticlimax

Sessions in my bedroom at my mums house with my dad’s Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder were great times (once I got used to what I did sound like). No multi-track then, we (me and my pals) would all cluster round the microphone and play and sing our hearts out! No-one liked the sound of their own voice… but remember, our voices were breaking and unintentional yodels were frequent!

blog3

Several years later, I thought I had hit the big-time, I got a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder, the world of multi-tracking opened up before me! On my own I could record and record until I sounded like a full band with a choir, as long as you didn’t mind uncorrected mistakes and the decrease in sound quality when you bounced 3 tracks onto the 4th track to free the 3 tracks up for more recording delight 🙂

Time marches on again – living in the Netherlands now and working for Apple, Feargal and I (Keltic Fire) got serious about making a CD. Feargal had a pretty cool soundproofed room, mixer, digital sound board and a powerful Mac with recording software! By this time we both had money to spend – the equipment wasn’t the problem… our problem was time. We had started to record our CD, spending time we couldn’t afford to spend in his home studio mostly failing to produce anything we were happy with – the working title of the CD was “Stolen Minutes” We did have a lot of fun (mostly un-productive) and his wife Marjolijn made us a ton of ham and cheese toasties (with ketchup) – we we happy – but had no CD.

CD cover

While we were struggling with “Stolen Minutes” Feargal moved to Orleans (South of Paris) for a new job, set up another studio and we set a date for us to spend a week there at his old fashioned creaky French country house. I drove down and we worked round the clock for a whole week and I drove back to NL exhausted at the end of the week with a shiny self-mastered CD which had become “Almost Traditional”. When I knew I would be moving to the USA in 2007, we put in another mammoth effort and produced our 2nd CD, “The Bottom of the Road” just before I left.

Looking back at those recording days, we really worked hard and totally ineffectively, spending hours wrestling with software and hardware glitches and playing songs which we had never done before just learning as we went… it was exhausting – but rewarding.

… ok, now what?…

Ok – now what? Ah yes – Spanish coffee… a professional musician (I still love that job title!) but what do you do? Hmmm… Become popular ? Learn more? play more ? perform more?  travel more? … At the age of 57 starting a new career…  Spanish coffee with Dorothy and our friends Steve and Cathi ( from 67 music) seemed like a great idea.hubers-irish-coffee Downtown Portland, Saturday, end November, 4pm, happy hour ( 2 hours actually… but American happy hours can stretch a whole weekend!) Hubers bar and restaurant (one of the oldest establishments in Portland) do an incredible Spanish coffee ( they are the biggest consumer of Kailua in the USA as a result) – this was the ideal location (and ingredient) for a “… now what… ” brainstorm. It was obvious and not a new idea – we concluded I needed a CD … as a priority. How else can people know what I sound like and be confident hiring me if they have never heard me. Groan… recording…. I’ve done it before, all that excitement and drive you have at a live performance, missing, the focus you have while playing live, missing, the forgiving crowd, missing… In my experience, recording was always a bit scary – you re conscious every second that what you play is captured  – for  ever…  and you will be judged! I had also come to the conclusion that I was the wrong person to also be the recording engineer. I have recording equipment and software but any time I use it, I seem to spend 80% of the time getting the equipment and recording set the way I want it and 20% of the time actually playing music or singing… and the constant voice in my head whispering “start again, you could do better”.

judging-you-anderson-cooper

Looking back, it seems like a small thing – but it was a big, grown-up, professional musician kind of step that took me from the fiddling around with music and equipment in my good, but clearly not state of the art, purpose-built home studio to the fully professional, you’re paying money, you’re serious, recording palace which is Nettleingham Audio!

It all started with a Party…

It all started with a party… and not just any party: Scottish Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) parties were a real highpoint for us. Most workers had a day off on 31st December (they didn’t get that at Christmas) and families would visit each other after midnight. That was called first-footing; it was lucky if the first foot over your door threshold belonged to a tall dark and handsome person, and they also needed to bring you a present: a lump of coal was a lucky present… a drink of whisky was also very acceptable!

For our part, we would end up in the Gibson’s house two houses down from us; they held the best parties by far! Mr and Mrs Gibson welcomed people from all over and insisted they did a “party-piece” where each person in the room would perform: a song, a joke, a story, a dance… there was no escape; everybody had to do something. The Gibson children, Danny and Hazel, were older than my brother Doug and I, and were very musical. Together with Hazel’s 1st boyfriend, John—a “beatnik” going to Dundee Art College (super cool, opinionated, beard, long hair, pipe smoking, corduroy trousers, tweed jacket with elbow patches)—Danny and Hazel would sing, play guitar, harmonize—they were brilliant—weaving spells around us all. I would have done anything to just join in and be a part of it.  At the age of 11, I made a new year’s resolution, desperate to surprise everyone at the next Hogmanay party: I would learn the guitar and be able to really join in. I spent many hours the following year in secret up in the bedroom I shared with my older brother Doug, holed up with his guitar and song books (my folks could only afford lessons for one of us… and it wisnae me!) My goal was to prepare myself for the party so I could surprise everyone by playing the guitar and singing songs.

The next Hogmanay, when it was my turn to perform, I (casually) asked to borrow Danny’s guitar and—much to everyone’s surprise (including my mum & dad’s)—I played two songs and sang. Way-hay!!! All of a sudden I was in, an accepted part of the musical inner circle. From that time, at every opportunity there was, I would be there, soaking up songs and playing and singing along.

By the time I was 16, I could, and did, entertain at all sorts of parties on my own, no problem—I had developed a fine Celtic song repertoire by then. Meanwhile, the music scene in Dundee was moving fast in many directions: Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Leonard Cohen, Elvis, The Beatles, Creedence, the Rolling Stones. I was playing guitar and learning songs of every kind; I just loved how I could skip from one world to the next as a song, tempo, genre or mood would change. I kept my Celtic music going for my own consumption and for something different at my friends’ parties (who mainly played rock and pop music, but still liked a good sing-song thrown in). I also answered the call of rock and roll and formed a 5-piece band, “Badge”. We played rock and pop and were booked at dances, weddings, events, and discos, mostly in Dundee or Perth, but we would travel all over Scotland in the weekend for gigs when needed; the money was poor, the nights were long, but boy—we were on top of the world! We would slog through the week at college or work, but when the weekend came—Yahoo!—we were gigging again and loving it! When I was 31, I moved from Dundee to Aberdeen for work and left the band. After 15 years of solid playing, this was hard to do, but I felt it was time to see what else life had to offer.

My wife Dorothy and I lived in Aberdeen for a few years before we went to live in the Netherlands, where we had our family. I didn’t play for several years: not until I started playing with a musically gifted Irish colleague of mine, Feargal Maconuladh. I have never heard Feargal sing a duff note; he has an incredible voice. We started playing for fun at work and quickly realized we not only had the same taste in Celtic music—we were also pretty good! We started playing gigs in the Netherlands as the Duo “Keltic Fire”, and we had a great time establishing ourselves musically. We were a bit of a novelty as our audiences loved the idea of Celtic music, but had very little experience of it for the most part. Again, the emotional connections these old songs would make with our audience were wonderful to see: with no real folk singing tradition comparable with our Scottish and Irish ones, the Dutch audiences loved this new vibrant cultural exposure. Feargal and I played together for 6 years (including recording two albums), and after that, I moved (with the family) to the USA for work, and Feargal moved to Barcelona.

Late in 2008, David Maher heard me play with Feargal during one of Feargal’s visits from Barcelona, and he asked me to play in his new Irish pub, Maher’s, in Lake Oswego, Oregon. At first I was reluctant to play solo and I didn’t really want to play with anyone else—Feargal was a hard act to follow—but I gave it a try one evening and played around 8 songs just to see how it would go. The crowd loved it and so did I. Since then I have built up a large collection of Scottish, Irish, English, American, and other songs which allows me to tailor what I play to the audience I have in front of me. I was always aware when playing in pubs that the customers didn’t necessarily come to see me; they came to be entertained, which I could do pretty well. When I play in pubs now, I (mostly) have the best of both worlds in that the crowd wants to be entertained… AND the majority of them are there to see me…

In September 2013, at the age of 57, I took a big step and left a good job to follow my passion for music. I now have time, focus and the energy to take my musical career to wherever it is going. You only get one life: you’d better live it to the fullest—and I am certainly doing that. I love playing and seeing the impact I have on people in my audience. In the USA, I watch people as they are transported to places I create by singing them songs from their forefathers, places and experiences they have heard of from their parents or grandparents. They still have an emotional bond to the “old country” where they have never lived, and a piece of their spirit still wants to connect them there.

So… that sets the scene for what about to come, my next blog will talk about the joys and ins-and-outs (and ups and downs) of making my first album, “the Beginning” which I completed early 2014 with Nettleingham Audio of Vancouver Washington.