Tone Tips: You Have Everything You Need
Before chasing down the latest and greatest gear, take inventory of what you already have. You might be surprised where it can take you.
Greetings! Last February, I started making an album with Holly Henderson, a very talented singer/songwriter/guitarist from the U.K. that I first became aware of through Instagram in late 2015. I was impressed by her raw musicality and instincts after watching videos she posted of her songs and guitar playing. We struck up a friendship and she began sending me demos she produced at home. Fast-forward to today and we almost have a 10-song album completed. This is the story of Holly's journey from making demos in her room at home to recording a debut album that we're very proud of. I'm relating this story to make a specific point: We already have what we need.
Holly's demos. Initially, Holly's demos were not really completed songs. They were more like stream-of-consciousness musical sketches, often 6 or 7 minutes in length. They also weren't technically well recorded, but they were incredibly interesting. She'd program the drums, add some keys, layer multiple guitar tones, stack vocal harmonies, and use gobs of reverb on everything. Her ideas were quite sophisticated and compelling, and her creativity far trumped both her limited production skills and lack of awareness of traditional song structure.
When I discovered what her studio setup consisted of, I was shocked. All she had was a couple of guitars, a little Vox practice amp, a few pedals, and an aging Mac laptop running GarageBand. She played the bass parts on her guitar and pitch shifted them down using a GarageBand plug-in. When I asked her what she was using for a microphone or recording interface, she said, “I don't have one. I just sing and play into the mic on the computer." Okay then! She was simply using what she had and as best as she could to get work done.
Growth. I'd listen to Holly's demos and make suggestions, but I really wanted to help her advance her songwriting skills without tainting her raw, creative instincts. When I was passing through London in December 2016, we met up at a pub. While there, she pulled out her iPhone and earbuds and played me two of her latest demos. They sounded like completed songs, but with all her charm and uniqueness intact. Her production skills were improving.
The following month, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one night and a video popped up that Holly had posted of her singing a David Bowie song. (He had just passed away.) It was so damn good, and I thought to myself that's it; I need to make this happen. We are making an album together. I got online, found her a plane ticket to L.A., and bought it on the spot! I figured I'd work out the details later.
Let's do this. I blocked off a few weeks in February and hoped I had made a good decision. It seemed crazy to my friends, but then I'd play them the demos. A producer friend made an important observation upon listening that I would later use as a mantra while recording the album. He said, “The hardest thing about this will be to not screw it up." The goal was to help Holly make the best album possible without sanitizing or editing her uniqueness too much. She arrived in February, essentially with just the clothes on her back.
I enlisted my friends Jon Button (the Who, Sheryl Crow) on bass and Blair Sinta (Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox, Josh Groban) on drums. Jebin Bruni and Dennis Martin contributed keys, and Holly played almost all the guitars along with additional keys. The way she lays down keyboard parts is fascinating. She uses the keyboard on her Mac to trigger soft synth sounds. (Yes, she plays keys on a computer keyboard.) I laughed out loud the first time I saw it, and yet, it totally made sense. Some of her GarageBand keyboard parts from the demos have even made the album!
If it ain't broke. One of her song demos featured a solo I thought was magnificent. It had a quirky, ratty-but-cool tone, and was played so well that I thought it would be hard to capture again. So I decided to fly the demo solo into the album version. Yes, Holly had cut the solo using her little amp perched on a chair in front of her laptop and used the computer's mic, but it's actually one of my favorite things on the album. I've said it before: If it sounds good, it is good.
The moral of the story? All too often we let our preconceived ideas about the “right way" to do things hinder our creativity. Most of us carry around a phone that has multitrack recording and mixing capabilities via simple apps. Our computers come with incredibly powerful DAW software. So use what you've already got and use it to the maximum. And then put it out in the world. If you do, you might find yourself on the other side of the world with a whole new group of friends and recording an album. Until next month, I wish you great tone!