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Album Creation, Start-to-Finish

Updated: Sep 14

So, as many of you know (or 10s of you who actually follow me on social media haha), I discussed wanting to do write an article demonstrating a step-by-step guide to how I created my album (technically EP) “Divergence.” So, that’s what I’m going to do.


Divergence by Michael Andrew Newell

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, I should explain: this was not a short process. From start to finish, it took about nine months, and that’s just to release the album, this is not including all the follow-on social media marketing I am currently doing to drive people platforms in which people will actually listen (more on this later).


Most importantly, I also feel like I should explain THE why. My plan for releasing this album, or even successive albums, is not to make money. It is to create AND to get my music out there. IF I get any money from streaming (HA), it’ll only go to fund additional productions. I’m doing this because I love doing it. That’s why.


Gear:


Firstly, I needed gear. I have been producing music with Marine Corps Bands for over 14 years now, and I had plenty of access to recording and post-production gear there, but I needed to buy my own gear to start producing my stuff. Because I’m a HUGE fan of PreSonus products, I started looking for cost-efficient home studio gear, and luckily, they had a package deal where I got an interface (AudioBox USB 96), two studio monitors (Eris 3.5s), and a set of relatively flat mixing headphones (HD7). That was all I really needed! Now we’re in business…


Writing:


Obviously prior to gear acquisition, I had already been composing music professionally for over 15 years, so it was easy to start re-arranging my original music to “fit” the genre of music I wanted to emulate (honestly, the jury is still out about what exactly that genre is after release the first album haha). Using Avid Sibelius (www.avid.com), my music notation software of choice, I started re-categorizing music and modifying compositions to basically consist of the following parts: melody, countermelody, chords, bass line, and four-part drum set containing kick, snare, cymbals, and toms. This was a bit of a process because I had to disconnect myself from what the “original” version of my composition was. After I was content about form and the parts I wanted in the tune, I would export a MIDI from Sibelius and drop it into my digital audio workstation: PreSonus Studio One 5 Professional (www.presonus.com).


Mixing:


Fair warning, this section will likely be the longest because it took the most amount of time. So, after importing my MIDI files into Studio One, I assigned basic synths and drum pads to the existing tracks just to get a feel for the new platform. I then started analyzing the different sounds one-by-one. This process will be a little convoluted because I was also discovering what capabilities I had while manipulating these digital instruments. A little backstory: I have never manipulated these types of sounds before; my audio engineering experience, up to this point has only been with audio. So once I started thinking about what I COULD do instead of what I was LIMITED TO, it was a game-changer. With Sibelius, I obviously learned to edit digital instruments (very limited reverbs/choruses/EQs), but because the program’s function is music notation, all the fancy post-production modifications you can make to those instruments is not its design, so it was not a thing I was used to doing. Anywho, as I began to dive into the sounds, I started the normal mixing procedures, such as:


  • Organization - I routed each set of instruments to their own bus (in Studio One 5 it makes it really easy to organize folders into bus channels, which makes your workstation very easy to navigate, especially with electronic stuff). For example, if I had two melody channels, both would be routed to the “melody bus.” This allowed me to establish and maintain control of the individual channels and other similar channels.


  • Gain - which is generated from the MIDI instrument; this would change as I mapped different instruments in, so this was an on-going process until I decided which instruments were THE instruments that would make the album.


  • Panning - this wouldn’t really change once I got it set unless I was using panning effects like reversing sides or something. I would later copy channels to use different sounds for chords that would sound in the exact same panning scheme to denote different sections.


  • Fader Balance - this would also be a process that changed drastically depending on what instruments I was using and how I set the gain for said instruments. For the most part I mixed to unity and would, at most go plus or minus 3 decibels, depending on what the final mix yielded and how the mix sounded on different speaker sources.


  • Light Compression - because some of those instruments are pretty unruly sometimes, especially when frequencies and other effects start competing with each other. I believe I did no more than plus or minus 3-6 decibels of parallel compression on the individual channel as well as the already-established busses for each group.


  • Main Fader Limiter - because this was my first time really diving into digital instruments, I learned quickly that there are many “safeguards” in place to get control of the instruments, but for the time being, having a limiter on the main fader allowed me to see how much I needed to adjust my mix at the faders to have a nice, balanced sound at the main. I would later take that off when I got control of all the individual channels from the mix.

This definitely took longer because of my inexperience with digital instruments but building this process a little slower helped me establish my own workflow in this medium. It was challenging, of course, but definitely grew me as an audio engineer to the point where I am comfortable blending real and MIDI instruments together.


Video:


In addition to the audio, I also wanted to generate “music videos” to accompany the music. Nothing complicated, but some cool stuff that would be great to complement the audio, but you don’t need to actively watch the video. My original inspiration for this was YouTube channels like ChillHop or ChilledCow or similar morning coffee/easy listening channels. But I wanted it to be my own thing…which is still developing. For now, I kinda went with a comic book vibe. I’m still relatively new to video editing, but I’m slowly figuring out Final Cut Pro X. I would shoot general b-roll to be used for these videos such as a mixing session, or of one of my tunes playing back in Studio One, or a rainstorm. I would then filter them to my content, and layer the mastered audio over the top (until the master is complete I just used an MP3 of the music). I’m not trying to make these videos overly complicated, at least for now. I do plan on doing more involved videos, especially when it’s me physically performing in the videos, but for now, b-roll video works for what I need it to. After the video is complete I export it per Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube standards for video uploads without degradation.


Mastering:

After all of the mixing was done, it was ready for mastery. In this stage, I’ve done all the hard work, but then I would make it a more industry-standard volume, without running the risk of the audio being squashed (which I’m still figuring out the Facebook thing; Instagram doesn’t compress it, but Facebook does even if it’s the same company now). According to Mystery Room Mastering (https://www.mysteryroommastering.com/white-papers/what-format-should-i-use/), 44.1K and 24 bits at about -3 dB at your main for wave file export is the best “universal” audio file to mitigate 3rd-party compression. Their recommendation was to control as much in the master as possible so that Spotify, YouTube, Apple, Instagram, etc. do not compress further and destroy the audio quality.


Graphic Design:


Somewhere along the lines before distribution, I thought to myself, "Gasp! I need an album cover!" And then I also thought, "I need to change my logo too!" My previous logo was supposed to be temporary, so I wanted to "re-brand" before or around the time I released my album. So, what did I do? I went over to Canva (www.canva.com). I designed a bunch of potential album covers, and I liked all of them, so it was hard to choose, so I offered it up to my friends, family, and associates on Facebook and Instagram, and based on their feedback, I chose my album cover. Which, at the end of the day, I love. So, thank you to everyone out there who helped! I also designed my logo with Canva (I really LOVE that platform). I took the "rockstar" signature I've been using since the days I was really into drawing comic book art (middle school timeframe I believe?) and I used that as the focal part of my logo since that is TRULY mine. And then I juxtaposed that with some sweet headphone clip art from Canva. And BOOM! New Logo! I really love it.


Distribution:


After all the production pieces were completed, then it was time to distribute! I did research on what the best avenue of approach was for distribution, and I believe the best bang for the buck seems to be DistroKid. I looked into TuneCore and a couple of others, but the best distribution seems to be with this platform. I have seen some negativity about DistroKid, but so far, I am quite pleased AND it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg AND I’m now on all major music streaming platforms such as Apple Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, and Amazon…and then a bunch of minor platforms as well. Because there were only five songs on the album, most distributors qualify it as an EP. All said and done, I released the album on 29 August 2020.


Marketing:


So, this is the truly difficult part of this process…letting people know that the album has been released, and THEN, with all the chaos that is social media, trying to drive people to their preferred streaming service to actually take a listen. I learned an important lesson here: don’t put the full audio/video on social media. People will only watch a small portion of it. Understand: his wasn’t NEW information going into this, but now it is certainly confirmed. The only place this MIGHT be the case is YouTube because people are there to do one of two things: watch videos or listen to music. But this is an important point because people gravitate toward other social media platforms to get their fill of other people’s lives through photos, very short videos, funny memes, cat videos, cooking recipes, networking, catching up friends, and motivational posts. Long-form videos are not the place for that. To test this, I uploaded one of my full “music videos”…needless to say, it essentially flopped. Cool, noted. The next night, I uploaded a less than 1-minute sample of my music video, and it did much better. Anywho, as part of my social media scheme, I’m making one post a day with a little blurb to go check out my music. I want to be consistent by posting and plugging my album frequently, but at the same time, I want to avoid annoying people into submission.


Curated vs Algorithmic Playlists:


Something I either didn’t know was an option before release, or I assume, wasn’t available to me at the time of release was submitting my music-specific platform curated playlists to get more spins of the music. The next step is to figure out how to submit my stuff to those playlists and hopefully, that will lead to “official” platform playlists. I have currently submitted my stuff to a could human-curated playlists to see what happens.


Conclusion:

As always, feedback is welcome. Please keep it civil. The production part of it I have a pretty good handle on (obviously there's always something new to learn), but my biggest deficiency at the moment is distribution and marketing. Through research and feedback, I think I can figure it out. In fact, what processes has everyone else used out there that can help me refine mine?

  • Spotify
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • SoundCloud
  • YouTube

© 2020 Michael Andrew Newell