Recording an Album is Tough!

I’ve thought about writing this article for a while to explain just how tough it is to record an album and partialy, maybe even an axcuse, as to why I didn’t record my own music perviously.

I’ve been in the studio and recorded a few times with a friend of mine and the very first experience was just as most people have had. You take a deal from a local studio as a package recording session and make a demo or short album. We did it about thrity years ago and it was fun, but rushed, and far from perfect. At that time, I was basically just playing guitar for my friend Jon on his songs and didn’t really have a lot of my own music. I had some nascent songs and a few instrumentals then but those would all blossom into some of the songs I recently recorded for Metal for Morgan. Back then, I never had time to focus on writing due to working and other parts of life that just seemed to get in the way.

In 2007 I had a motorcycle wreck that induced some changes in my life that were positive towards my music in the long run, and some negative. I had spent years playing other people’s music and covers and had a lot of ‘pent up’ creativity just waiting to be let out and that it did. Once my wrists healed from the wreck, I couldn’t hold a guitar pick without pain so I started playing entirely with my fingers and wouldn’t go back to the pick until just recently to record this album. I bought some acoustic guitars and started listening to some of the great acoustic virtuosos like Andy McKee and Tommy Emmanuel. I began writing instrumentals and they just came to me like pouring water from a pitcher. I had so many new pieces of music, so fast, that I struggled with remembering them that I decided I would have to name them to do so and everyone who had touched my life (family) and even my cats got a piece of music. It wasn’t long after that when I started to actually finish some of the songs like Mother Nature and You Know Me, that I wanted to record.

I then did was most of us do, I leaned on my network of friends from the music community in San Franciso and went with one of the people I had met that I knew produced and recorded. My friend Jordan had a space in the city and we fleshed out and recorded one song, Mother Nature, just so I could get an idea of what I wanted to do and see how well we worked together. Jordan is great and has an awesome band and I really liked the first recording, but it wasn’t exactly what I felt it should be inside of me, but I also didn’t really know what that feeling was and how to bring it out. I had only played my songs acoustically at that point and didn’t really have a larger vision for them. I was working for the video game developer Double Fine Productions at the time and we brought on a new audio intern who just happened to play drums. I had a Roland TD20 kit and invited him to jam with me and so the bigger picture became a little clearer. The drummer, Brian, had a more metal background than even I did and loved playing double-bass. We had a lot of fun experimenting with my songs and improvising on new material but we never made it to the studio and only played a few gigs together that were little more than the feature at the Hotel Utah open mic and a few small house concerts at my apartment that were poorly attended.

A few years later, I was just starting to work on an album when I met my son’s mother and that took over my whole life and I put recording on a shelf and became a dad. I figured I would eventually get back to recording with my friend Scott, who is a great producer and engineer and really helped me realize that I could sing, and sing harmonies with little effort. We fleshed out a few songs but again, between working a new job and a baby on the way, I had to stop. The stuff we did was great and I honestly wish we could have worked on more material together but now it’s been so long that I’m a different musician and person and would want to start completely over.

The years ticked away and it took being laid off to really pull me back into the music enough to even think about recording again. I was working far too much before that and trying to be a dad two weekends a month which takes a lot of work and makes it difficult to focus for me. However being a dad is what made me want to really tighten my focus and get back in the studio so that I could capture my songs and music and leave something behind for my son to have to hopefully inspire him and to also leave some solid memories. Not that I plan on leaving this world anytime soon — I just wanted to set that stuff in stone and record some stuff I wrote specifically for him. In fact, that became the entire theme for the album and title ‘Metal for Morgan’. My son, Morgan, fell in love with Crazy Train by Ozzy and mostly because he loves trains and the song mentions them, but it’s also melodic and has a great vocal hook. When I picked him up for our weekends, I would already have the song queued and waiting for him and as we drove off from his mother’s house, we would jam to it.

Morgan likes music with energy, although he equates it with being angry and not just energetic, the fast beat of drums and distorted guitars make him dance and thrash around and that’s where the title of the album came from. I would play guitar for him and he would ask me to play metal. Once I was laid off and started working on the album, the title for it came almost immediately.

To circle back to how I was able to find the time to record, I was laid off from my previous job, and to me, that usually means I do something big in my life to improve it and me, and grow as a person. The previous time I was laid off was in 2013 from Double Fine Productions, my self-improvement was to go back to college and take a full semester of music theory classes. That in itself was an achievement as I crushed my foot in a motorcycle mishap during the first month but fortunately got some help and was able to stay in school and only miss one day. I finished the semester at the same time I found another job so the timing was perfect and I was back to work at just the right time.

I had just picked up my Greenfield acoustic guitar in the fall or 2014 and that had inspired me to record again and it was to be acoustic focused to capitalize on the guitar’s amazing sound. I just want to add and not really get into the details, but my Greenfield is the most amazing sounding acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard or played and just about everything Michael makes will probably qualify that statement but I’ve only played Andy McKee’s guitars for reference and they’re amazing as well!

I kind of got out of order in the sequence of events for this article but I think the explanation works better this way. After picking up my Greenfield and then working with Scott to record a few songs, I met my son’s mother and now we’re back on track as far as the timeline goes!

Shortly after being laid off in 2021, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a place to record, hang out, and work on my music. I didn’t really care about the order but I do wish I would have had more time to practice and develop my tones as well as practice with a pick before recording, but we don’t always get a choice in the random nature of events that lead us to where we are at any given place in time. A friend of mine messaged me about recording with her husband who was also a good friend of mine. They’re super lucky to both be musicians and awesome people, and it just clicked for all of us. I went to visit them and we jammed and it was good.

We had our first jam and discussion about my project and set a rough date to start working as well as some parameters, and made some basic recordings for a scratch pad to work from. Now, I didn’t know that my friend Ryan, had a love of metal music and really had forgotten my own love and still don’t listen to it on a regular basis. I took my Bogner Uberschall and the guitar I used to test it when I bought in 2004, and there was a little bit of magic going on when we fired it up for the first time. We both clicked immediately and the first few jams were as good as anyone could hope for and some of the base tracks for the songs on the album were pulled from those sessions. We played together well and we were both just in great spirits, eating good food, and drinking good beer, and enjoying the company of each other, and I’m sure that helped set the tone (har har) for us to click and make some great music.

The change to play a more metal based album wasn’t something I was expecting but became obvious quite fast as the combination of the Bogner and my green ESP is a killer match and have quite an amazing sound together. Ryan loved them from the beginning and seemed quite blown away from the pair. I watched him smile from ear-to-ear and swing his drum sticks around like we were playing live in front of 10,000 people. It was pure energy and magic and some of the best first jams I’ve ever had in my life. Like I said, we just clicked and new parts to old songs were improvised on the spot and kept as though they were always there. The song ‘Rule the World’ was an old riff with a new chorus that had never really been fleshed out but the first time we played the song, I came up with the new parts and fit everything together on the spot. That song is my favorite on the album and was the impetus to play heavier and make the album more ‘metal’, even taking songs that I never intended to be played with distortion and make them what you can hear on MfM.

I returned home after our first jam saying and thinking “I’m making a metal album” and even though it’s not heavy metal and only really has three truly metal instrumentals on the album, the synergy and inertia was there and only got stronger when we started really working on it.

When I decided I was going to make this album, I had it all laid out and as anyone who has done this before knows, that changed as we started to work on the music and some songs were dropped and a few added. Again, I intended to make a more rock and roll but lighter album with just my acoustic style songs and didn’t even think about playing more electric guitar than acoustic. Some of the pieces I dropped were three really strong acoustic instrumentals and we did record two of them but ultimately decided to save them for either singles or for the next album. I made a spreadsheet with all the songs, what guitars, amps, and effects I would use, and all my ideas and then used it to track progress and changed it as we evolved the ideas. The spreadsheet was a great idea and I will use the same format for the next album but I also think with the next one, I’ll have a much better idea as to what and how it will be. After the first album, I got a little more in touch with what I wanted to do and what I like. I think I was just sidetracked with the acoustic guitar music and that really, deep inside, I’m still and will always be a rocker. Now, that’s not to say that I wont record a full-length acoustic album, and that is on the list to do but this album went to my roots and I’m glad it did. Time will ultimately tell me how that works out and I completely expect for me to change my mind a few times, because that’s just how it works.

To record the album, I would go to a private studio that’s really just a soundproofed space with drums and a small recording rig, but it has some very nice, professional details that make it great, and the overall product is just about what I expected and wanted. I was fully prepared to painfully record each song to a click track and do it as clean and neat as possible, but I despise click tracks and honestly, my budget didn’t allow for me to spend that much money and time. I divided the budget between recording, food, and art. I could have spent a lot less on the artwork, but I wanted the album cover to be something that my son would love and always cherish and I got that. Of course I wanted the recordings to be as good as I could possibly make them, but there’s a balance when you have a budget and that’s the biggest variable that comes to play when you start to figure out the algorithm for the process. I know that even more seasoned recording artists don’t know for certain what exactly the outcome of the recording process will be and keep their minds open to that. Ideas come to us when we’re feeling really good and happy and although I was unemployed and missing my son, I had some really good times that brought out the best ideas.

Like I said, a lot of the base tracks for the album came from our first two jam sessions and contain some improvised parts. I have never liked clicks and the sound drives me nuts, and even against the advice of Ryan and many conversations about how to proceed, we did the majority of the album live — or to say we just jammed for hours and recorded it and then picked out the best stuff. I actually like the feel of a live album done this way more than a perfectly timed, and to me, more rigid process. Yes, I do agree that we could have made the album tighter and cleaner, but I also could have practiced for a full month with a pick in a cabin in the woods and made it overall better as well. I wanted to do that intially but the reality of time and money were a factor and I wanted to also take a big trip back east to visit family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years, post pandemic restrictions. So we set a time frame and worked out the best way to complete the project which involved a lot of base of tracks being just jams with some improvisation which actually worked out quite well, if you ask me.

Postmortem to the process and the overall project left me with new ideas for the next project and process but I may approach it in entirely the same manner which starts with some jamming and recording and then listening to the material and making decisions based on how it sounds and how I feel. I’ll talk a little bit about anything that I would do differently another time and maybe it’s not that important because there’s little that I would change other than the time of year we worked because it was hot and during fire season so we had smokey air to deal with on top of all that. I really can’t think of anything else that I’d change beyond what I mentioned other than more budget for recording and yes, maybe do more tracks with the dreaded click.

The whole process was a learning experience and one that all my previous experience barely helped. I think the biggest takeaway is that you just can’t expect much to be the same at the end of the project as you expect it to be in the beginning. There are just too many variables that come into play and as we all know, nothing works out as expected unless you’re lucky, and no one is lucky every time. I used to fear recording and would get nervous and it took me time to ease my tension and loosen up. I think I grew a lot in that regard and the next time in the studio is something that I am eagerly waiting for and excited to get back to. My time management during the whole process was a pretty solid and despite the smoke from the fires in California causing some changes, it worked out almost exactly as I expected for the budget. In fact, the budget worked out and the artwork only cost a little more than anticipated however I did make a miscalculation on timing the art and should have set the schedule a little more forward. My expectation was that it would take longer for the mixing and mastering but that was super smooth and the mixes were really good up front and didn’t require a lot of back and forth to get them where I wanted. The masters came really fast after that and I was super impressed with them and how good they sounded. So I could say that again, expect the unexpected and the timing was better than what I feel it was.

The only real hiccup was with my publisher accepting my tax information so that I could accept royalty payments and that took over a month for them to sort out. As a software developer, I’m going to guess that they had a bug somewhere and it took them identifying it, verifying it, then getting it bugged in a ticket for a developer to sort out, then submit the fix to QA for testing and verification, then off to production where my issue was solved. I won’t get into the details but trust me because I’ve worked in software development with web based applications for a long time and it was all too familiar. The information that was eventually accepted was the same as the first time I submitted it.

For this release, I had planned all along to go digital at first and just get business cards with the album cover on one side and a QR code on the back that will take you to a listing of places where you can listen to or maybe even buy my album. I have the cards now and they’re okay — not perfect and I might just get new ones made but I’ll probably still hand them out and go on with it. I may get CDs and vinyl copies made and have kept that in mind during the whole process. I just need to get back to work before I can justify the spend because being a musician doesn’t really pay much and frankly I’d rather be a producer of music than a touring artist, but I will say that I love playing live and if I can work that out, I’ll do it.

I used to think that writing songs was the hardest part of the whole thing but now I think it’s the post recording process of releasing and all the other pieces that need to be put in place where the hardest work resides. I have yet to do a lot of the post production parts but I’ve been busy looking for a new job and visiting family and friends and just taking a break. My son has listened to the album and loves it and that was the biggest goal and well met although I still want to be a full-time musician, I understand how difficult it is to get established and actually make enough money to keep going. For now, I’ll find another job and get back to work and keep planning out the next few albums. I’ll get back to California and back to visiting with my son every other weekend and we’ll have our album to listen to as we play with trains and trucks and have fun. Once I get the groove of life back, I’ll get a schedule in place and I’ll start recording again but probably at a slower pace than the last one, but again, you never know and I’ll take it as it comes.

Autonomous Trucking and the Future

Trucks resting at Bonneville

I recently applied to a few positions in the autonomous trucking industry and I have a few impressions that I think need to be explored and tackled by the industry.

If I apply for a job outside the normal industries or markets where I would usually work, I will do a lot of research so that I one, fully understand the sector in which I could possibly work, and two, make sure it impresses me with stability, growth, and will provide me a path to retirement as I get older. For the autonomous trucking industry, I did just that and what I discovered from the perimeter is that the existing trucking industry has very mixed emotions about the introduction of autonomous technology. The business side loves the idea because it will increase productivity, decrease fuel costs, and especially, decrease accidents. The truck drivers, in general seems to be a mixture of people who think it’s going to replace them, those that just don’t think it’s not viable due to myriad reasons, and that small segment that seems to embrace it.

If I were working in a strategic position in marketing or business development for an AV trucking company, I would want to win over as many of the drivers as I can and help ease fears amongst the ones that seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how AV can be a benefit and how they could potentially make more money driving autonomous trucks and be safer.

Articles about level 5, driverless trucks scare people the most, and this as I see it, is the origination of the majority of fears and misconceptions. We always see news articles and stories on TV about the most dramatic examples of everything, and showing a fully automated delivery truck without a driver is just not going to be a reality for a long, long time. There are so many challenges to overcome with the technology, legislation, and implementation that when you see where company X is going to have autonomous delivery, you have to understand that’s going to be like gig-speed broadband — do you have it in your town, county, or even state? Many regions of the country don’t even have cell phone service and a lot of these AV trucking systems rely on such things to communicate and monitor. If you don’t have cell-phone service at any level, don’t expect AV anything for some time.

The impression is that once company X implements the technology that it will be ubiquitous, instantaneous, and absolute and as with anything, that’s just not going to be the case. Please remember that we have many states that do not have the same laws and do not act or move in the same ways. Little to nothing happens at the federal scale gets implemented like this.

In AV trucking, the middle-mile is the main target for the majority of companies and level 3-4 autonomous driving is going to be the first, widely successful adaptation of the technology.

The first thing you have to understand is that AV is hard, super hard. When it comes to driving about a very dynamic and highly unpredictable environment like a city or town, the biggest challenges are to be found. In fact, think of it like this: If you go from Atlanta to Los Angeles, you’ll find a dozen different driving styles in between, as well as different road hazards, driving conditions due to weather, interaction with wildlife, to even the amount of bugs that are present — a truck in some parts of California will have to clean it’s sensors and cameras a lot less than one in the deep south because there’s just a huge difference in the amount of bugs.

Aside from those dynamic variables are numerous other challenging situations and factors that make AV for cars and especially big class 8 trucks, where everything is heavier, bigger, more expensive, and harder to control, even more difficult to develop and implement. So for now, what you should understand is that it’s not going to be an overnight change and it’s still a long way from fully level 5, class 8 trucks being the norm.

What truck drivers should try to embrace is the idea that you’re going to be able to drive way more miles with a level 4 system in a truck over a year and that can mean more money while saving money on fuel, and safer. For many years to come, there will be drivers in the cab actively watching over the AV system and making sure everything works correctly, and being there to handle the problems that can’t be solved automatically like damage to a sensor or camera, or even cleaning those hard to remove bug remains from them. We’ve all hit one of those bugs that the windshield wipers couldn’t easily remove and had to stop at a gas station so we could scrape away the remanents. That’s also not to mention that as the technology is, and will be in development perpetually, that having drivers on board will still be a required and if anything, it will create even more jobs as the industry expands and adoption grows.

Again, I want to stress that the biggest application for AV trucking is in class 8 semi trucks and the target segment is the middle-mile. When it comes to transporting difficult loads, we’re going to need a human at the wheel for a long time. There are also other areas where you’re going to encounter hard to automate segments and at best, level 3-4 will only be applicable. What that means is a more diverse and dynamic trucking industry where you just don’t drive from point A to B and then back home. The middle-mile segment only covers the easiest to transport portions of logistics. A human driver will be waiting at the end of the trip for the AV truck and again, for a long time to come, that AV truck will have a human riding along.

If you want an even more positive spin on this, one could say that being a truck driver will become even more interesting as the largest, most boring portion of the job will be handled by an AV system which will need human interaction in new, but still classic ways. As a truck driver, you’ll essentially be supporting a robotic machine which could have brand new avenues for you and your career. The industry is going to need people who not only know how to drive a truck but have knowledge of robotics and I understand that some people don’t want to learn new things to do old jobs, but to me, that’s fascinating and the future meeting reality, right before our eyes.

What you will begin to see is the trucking industry maturing and adapting and even more jobs being created. You won’t have to get a degree in engineering and robotics to work in because there will be many associated jobs that are created at end points and for the other, not automated segments. So don’t fear it but understand that this technology isn’t going to replace you, but augement and make your working environment better, safer, and more profitable for everyone, including the drivers. I’ve read posts and replies and seen videos where drivers ask “why not just pay us more per mile?” Well what if you could cover more miles in less time and use less fuel and be safer overall? Because that’s the real benefits to AV trucking and will be for a long time to come. Don’t feel fear when you see company X is implementing a driverless trucking system but understand that even if they are it won’t be everywhere and it won’t replace you; your jobs are going to be safer, and secure, for generations to come.