Behind The Scenes Of “If I Were A Girl”

If I Were A Girl cover by Phil Johnson and Roadside AttractionOr maybe, “behind the board” would be a better title for this post.  Awhile back, while I was working on the recording of “If I Were A Girl”, I took the fans on my email list on a ride through the different versions of the song and how it changes over the course of the recording process.

Now that’s it’s out, I’d like to do the same thing here.  Check it out…

Stage 1: Working it out live
I generally write songs to go into my live show.  So before recording I like to make sure they really work in front of a live audience.  It’s all about fixing any of the jokes that don’t get a laugh, nailing down the exact guitar rhythms I’m going to use, and cleaning up any dead spots in the arrangement. Hit the play button below to hear the original live version.

 

Stage 2: Basic tracks
Once I’ve got a basic arrangement I like and the jokes are working, I go into my studio and lay down scratch acoustic guitar and vocal tracks (which will be replaced later) and the drums.

You’ll hear lots of mistakes in this version.  All I’m doing here is laying out a basic groove that I can build upon later.

Here’s a cool tech thing… The drums you hear on this track are me playing, but that’s not what my drums sound like.  My drums are a trashy kit that I inherited from one of my past drummers that ended up in jail (I’ll have to tell you that story sometime…) and I don’t think I’ve ever changed the drum heads.

So once I play the drum parts, I send them through a program called Trigger that takes my exact hits and resamples them with drum sounds recorded in world class studios.  Better sound than I could ever get in my place.  And then they sound awesome. 🙂

 

Stage 3: Building the basic keeper tracks
Then the real fun begins, where I start layering on all the other instruments.  For me, this is the fun, creative part of recording because it’s stuff I haven’t played before and I’m really creating it all on the spot and experimenting with different sounds.

In this version, the acoustic guitar and scratch vocals are cut out and replaced with 4 tracks of my 1979 Les Paul (later turning into 7 tracks of guitar parts). Plus I drop in a bass line and some tambourine on the chorus.

 

Stage 4: Filling in the cracks
Now, that’s a cool kind of stripped down rock band version, but I was looking for something a little bigger and polished on this one.  So I fired up my Roland XP80 synth and started hunting up sounds to fill in the cracks and crevices with some cool stuff.  There are 6 different synth tracks on this version.  Some of them are obvious, some very subtle.  Can you pick out all 6?

 

Stage 5:  Well….
Ok, now we take a huge jump… Why?  Because I forgot to upload incremental mixes and I’m writing this in a hotel 2000 miles away from my studio. 🙂

So here’s what happens… I put a vocal track on, which involves me singing about 1200 takes to get it right.  A lot of times artists will “comp” together a vocal track.  That means they’ll sing a couple takes and then cut and paste the best parts from each.  I try to nail as much in a complete take as I can.  Then comp a bit when my voice gives out.  And autotune is out of the question. 🙂

The the backing vocals go on, including the stuff on the choruses and the 4 part harmony for the intro.  Here’s a secret about me: I’m a crappy harmony singer.  So I record each of the harmony parts with my guitar, sing along with those, then strip the guitar tracks out.

Then comes mixing.  I hate mixing.  I don’t have tin ears, but they’re certainly not golden either.  So mixing tracks is a long and arduous process for me.  It’s not just about balancing levels, but adding reverb and compression in the right places.  I also ran a few tracks through a tape emulator for some warmth and fatness.  Getting the EQ just right so you can hear each of the instruments in the right proportion, but still have that “glued together” band sound.

While I was mixing, Tah Phrum Duh Bush was working on his vocal recording for the guest spot.  Through the wonders of technology, he was able to record his part in his studio in Brooklyn and send it to me in California to be dropped into the track.

It takes me a long time to mix because I learn new stuff every time I do it.  I get a mix and then go listen to it on a bunch of different speakers.  My big stereo in the living room, my crummy laptop speakers, my girlfriends better computer speakers, my car speakers, her car speakers, etc.  Then back to the drawing board to fix whatever isn’t right yet.

Once I “thought” I had a final mix, I ended up remixing and tweaking an additional 10 times to clean it up.  I also use a reference track of some sort to compare my mix against a good one.  I used some song from Fallout Boy’s first album to compare this one against.

So then I drop Tah’s vocal in and get it settled and give it one last listen on all the speakers.  Then I let my girlfriend listen to it because she’s got fresh ears that haven’t heard the song a billion times.  She pointed out a few things that could be improved and then back in for one more mix.

Once that was ready, it was time for mastering.  Mastering is a mysterious process even to many musicians.  But basically it’s using compressors, limiters, and EQ to further accent the punchiness of the sound and pump up the volume.  Previously I was sending my tracks to a mastering engineer who did a great job with my previous singles.  But this time I decided to take a crack at it myself with some mastering tools I bought from Slate Audio.  They both make it easier for morons like myself to master projects and also use new and superior algorithms to do so without killing the articulations in the music and making it sound “squashed”.  Don’t ask how they do it.  I don’t get it either. 🙂

And that, my friends, create the finished product you hear below.  I literally finished mastering the track 5 minutes before leaving for the airport for this current tour that I’m on.  And of course, that’s not the end of the road.  Then comes doing the album cover, the video, getting the song up on all the relevant sites, announcing it to you, sending it to all the podcasts and internet stations that play my stuff, getting it on the sites for film licensing, and all the other promotion and marketing that goes along with a new release.

Now you know why I take two months to release a new song. 🙂  Give the finished version a listen below and make sure to click that download button and get a copy to keep for yourself. 🙂

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