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Producing a Music Album with Play-Along CD

To celebrate 20 years of music together, Ilse Harris and Johanna de Groot recorded a CD to present as a gift to friends and family. After many requests for the album's sheet music, the idea came to create a play-along CD so that other zither players could enjoy playing along with a backing band. In this article, Ilse Harris shares her recording experience, from idea to reality.



THE IDEA

To produce an album with play-along CD for zither players of simple but tuneful melodies.

As a clarinet and saxophone teacher I find play-along CDs very helpful to make lessons more fun and to have a different strand to the formal teaching of scales, technical exercises and classical pieces. Beginners especially enjoy playing along with a backing CD, if their part is easy to play, sounds good and they have something to perform for family and friends. Having a good backing band on the CD lets you enjoy playing with others.

There is a great choice of good play-along publications available for all the band instruments, guitar and piano but I found nothing much for the zither. I chose folk songs, because most people know at least a few and playing a familiar tune makes learning so much easier. My zither friend Johanna was of great help as she had been a professional performer traveling all over Australia as part of a duo singing and playing the zither.

I became familiar with audio recording when my sons still lived at home. They had a recording studio in the house and produced numerous CDs. I helped by catering for the band musicians.

Budget Estimate: 5 to 7 Thousand AU$

Time Frame: 1 year

DECIDING WHAT TO RECORD

I made a list of my fifty favourite folk songs (German/Austrian/American/ Italian etc) and sent the list to APRA/AMCOS the Australian Copyright Agency to find out whether songs were in the public domain (free of copyright) or who to approach for print permission. A license has to be obtained for each song to legally print music/and or lyrics, and a fee has to be paid to the composers (if still alive) or their copyright holders. Traditional folk songs are usually free of copyright.

PRINT PERMISSION

Print permission is the permission to reproduce the song on paper. This involved a lot of letter writing to publishers. Australian music publishers were the easiest and cheapest: they had a low minimum fee for small runs. I paid $230 for six songs. “Natsu Na Omoide” from Japan was $75. “Flower of Scotland” Corries Scotland, asked for a minimum fee of 50 Pounds ($148).

Other songs proved too expensive and it became too complicated if copyrights were held by two or three overseas companies or the songs had restrictions on world wide distribution. So my short list of fifty songs got whittled down to thirty-nine songs, for a fee of about $500.

PREPARING PRINT MUSIC

Once I had established which songs to publish I took to the computer (Sibelius Software). Until then I only had handwritten exercise books for my songs, just words, chords above for strumming along with the guitar or zither. Now I had to LEARN the software program to create printed music, write out each song on the computer: melody, harmony, accompaniment, lyrics - two verses; write a four bar introduction and a meaningful ending; decide on a metronome speed; create an easy to read uniform layout which avoids page turns; arrange the order of songs (by countries).


Zitherists Johanna de Groot and Ilse Harris

CREATE AN ARRANGEMENT

Next came the first print copy. Johanna and I would sing and play through it and thoroughly check for musical and typing errors, with always a full waste paper basket at the end.
Last: I asked my musician sons to proof read them (not all at once, just a few each week ). PRINT final copy = Zero mistakes!

TIME: 3 months.

FIRST ZITHER RECORDING (Rough)

The first step in the actual recording was taken at home on our own without the pressure of a studio or an audience. This was done with a digital video camera on a tripod about 30 cm above our two zithers. We put the metronome on loud, announced title of piece, counted a two bar count in and recorded. We met two or three times a week for recording after we had practiced a few selected songs intensely.

TIME: ~ 1 month

RECORDING BACKING TRACK (Studio)

My son transferred the rough digital audio track from the video camera to the studio computer and prepared it for the mammoth recording session ahead. He hired a professional backing band (bass, guitar, drums) at a flat rate of $500 each (Mate’s rates!) for the whole album to record when they weren’t busy with gigs. Total $1500.

RECORDING DAY

Meticulous preparation of studio e.g. microphones ready and tested; music stand for each musician with a book of neatly printed charts; guide track through headphones with metronome click and rough zither melodies to give some idea what the finished style would be. I was present to answer possible queries and provide all important catering which kept the musicians focused on the job.

My son had his work cut out for him that day, for as well as being the engineer for the session, making sure all the technical aspects of recording a live trio were seen to, he also had to make sure the musicianship and adherence to the sheet music was honoured and a solid performance was preserved on tape.

TIME: 2 days (15 hours actual recording time) plus time for food.

EDITING

Next the recording was cleaned up meaning all the starts and ends were trimmed neatly and the few mistakes that had slipped through were edited out. The original zither guide track was discarded permanently at this point A quick mix of this edited recording was then saved to use later, recording the zithers over the top.

TIME: 1 day

FINAL ZITHER RECORDING

After editing and creating a rough mix backing track, my son brought the studio computer, two microphones and head phones home and left them permanently set up in my lounge room. Johanna would come two or three times a week and my son would record us over the backing track which we were able to hear using head phones.

His role as a producer was paramount at this stage, as he was able to guide us to achieve the best possible performance, and in some cases tell us to go away and come back when we had practiced more. Some songs were easy, took one take, other times we made mistakes and had to do it several times, or come back and do it another day.

One of the luxuries of doing it all at home with a flexible time frame was that if things were not going so well for whatever reason, it was not financially crippling (as with commercial studio time) to just admit it and reconvene in a few days time, by which time the creative blockage would usually have passed.

TIME : ~ 1 month.

RECORDING OTHER INSTRUMENTS

Once our zither tracks were recorded, we were left with thirty-nine songs that all sort of sounded the same, so it was time to add other instruments to the songs to create an authentic feel for the style of music of the different countries.

My sons then added accordion, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and Irish whistle, and we hired session musicians to add mandolin to Italian songs, fiddle to American tunes, ukulele to Island songs. A friend added harmonica.

A major hitch were the bagpipes in “Flower of Scotland”. A friend offered to do it, but then said her bagpipes could only play in the key of F. My arrangement was in C Major. I really wanted the Pipes in my song, so it proved quite a technical challenge for my son to blend in the bagpipes to the otherwise finished track, made possible only by his state of the art computer and 21st century technology.

TIME: ~ 1 month

EDITING/ MIXING/ MASTERING

The computer returned to the studio.

Editing: Is the tedious task of removing all the count-ins, extraneous noises, making sure everything is in sync and that any overdubs or drop-ins are not easily detected. Also fixing up any wrong notes that had missed detection earlier.

Mixing: Mixing is bringing together all the recorded tracks and blending them into a stereo format so that everything sounds natural, e.g. so the trumpet doesn’t overpower the zither, but each instrument can be heard clearly. Adding reverb and EQ(tone) helps to make the recording sound natural and NOT as if it was recorded on different days in different locations. The studio time involved can often be six to eight times the recording time.

Mastering: Is taking all the thirty-nine tracks and preparing them for the one CD so that the overall sound and the levels of each song match all others on the album, preparing the gaps between tracks (usually five to seven seconds). One thing I learned with my teaching practice is many CDs have too small a gap between tracks, whereby you can’t get back to the instrument in time after pressing PLAY. These little details were important for me to get right .

The master CD was then listened to critically and repetitively to make sure it was perfect before it was sent to make five hundred copies.

TIME: ~ 12 hours

ARTWORK

My son Joern is a keen photographer and took pictures of Johanna and me and our zither fingers. A cousin is a retired commercial artist and he designed the album cover, CD cover and prepared the master sheets for printing (almost for free).

I’m glad I had the help of a commercial artist at this stage because there was no shortage of issues with layout, ink, fonts, bleed and many other printer’s issues presenting themselves as stumbling blocks along the way to finally getting the finished artwork on a CD ready for printing.


Zitherists Ilse Harris and Johanna de Groot

FINAL PRODUCTION
Now I had two precious CDs in my hand, one was the finished audio master CD, the other the finished print and image master CD. It was time to source out prices for duplicating and printing.

My sons recommended "pressed" CDs over burned CDs because of their superior sound quality, longevity and better artwork. But the minimum order was five hundred CDs. Burnt CDs are cheaper to produce, small runs of one hundred duplications are possible. Glossy book covers from commercial printers also have a minimum order. I opted for professional CD replication and album print.

TIME: ~ 2 months

FINISHING OFF

Register all the songs on the audio CD with APRA/AMCOS (Australian Copyright Agency) $49
Send free samples of album with play-along CD to copyright owners and publishers.

CD LAUNCH

I organized a CD launch at the local Austrian club on a midweek evening. We invited all our friends and provided tea, coffee and finger food. Friends also brought plates of food and drinks could be bought at the bar.

Johanna and I, my sons, and a number of our musician friends played a selection of songs from the album, the bagpipe played and some one danced a Greek dance to “Never on Sunday”. A GREAT PARTY.

MARKETING

Now I had five boxes of CDs and more boxes of books than I knew what to do with, it was time to create a web site and learn about on-line selling and payment options (PayPal). My idea was that in this way I could advertise and sell world wide, as there are few zither players in Australia.

That did not really happen, probably because there are not really that many zither players about and many of the mature age group might not have a computer or surf the internet. I attended the “Deutsche Zithermusiktage 2007” in Germany exhibiting at the trade fair and then taking part in a five day seminar. I sold quiet a few albums. I also sell some albums to my clarinet students with a transposed CD.

Advertising in the German Zitherbund Magazine “Andere Saiten” was effective, but too expensive, as there is only a small profit margin. Working out of Australia, expensive airmail is unavoidable. So learning more about marketing will be my next goal.

CONCLUSION

A very challenging but enjoyable experience and a final product to be proud of. Considering most albums are released with four to twelve tracks, creating this album was a mammoth task and at times overwhelming dealing with the logistics of producing thirty-nine tracks, even for my sons who run a small commercial studio.

Meticulous planning, a clear schedule with room for flexibility, careful choice of musicians, paying musicians an agreed fee as soon as a job was completed (cash on the day) all ensured the project stayed sweet and everyone involved stayed happy and positive and the project was actually completed! And in a reasonable time frame and on budget.

It would not have been possible without the help of my zither friend Johanna and the encouragement of my two sons, their expert help technically, musically and also arranging "mates rates", favourable quotes, free studio time etc.

Final Budget: AU $7200



For more information on Ilse Harris and Johanna de Groot, and to learn more about their available music albums and play-along CDs, visit www.zither.com.au.

Are you a zither player? Would you like to share your experiences? If so, contact us.