Notes on 'A Ship to Something'

Jan 24 2022 Album Diary

I just released my fourth singer-songwriter EP called “A Ship to Something”, which means it’s time for an album diary!

In this article, I’ll explain the process behind the development of this EP, focusing mostly on what I did, the mistakes I made, and the lessons I learned from that.

What’s the idea?

My last EP I got a bit carried away with adding all sorts of instruments, multiple voices, etcetera. The songs started to sound more like a full band version, than the simple (small) singer-songwriter stuff I was aiming for. Additionally, this took very long to make, especially to a beginner like me (who probably made many mistakes along the way, and in the final album).

So I vowed that the next EP (or two) should be smaller and go back to my roots: just a voice and a guitar.

This was hard. Now that I knew how powerful specific instruments sounded, which cool harmonies you could produce with multiple voices, it was hard to scale back (and make the songs sound interesting nevertheless).

But it’s what I aimed for, and it was a good challenge, so I went through with it. (I still added other instruments, or doubles, at many places. But the main recording you hear, which is 99% of the song, is a single recording of me singing and playing at the same time.)

This EP received 5 songs I liked enough, which would sound good with just a guitar and a voice, and were already quite “done” (or simple to finish) to save some time.

Lessons Learned

Some of these lessons come from this album specifically, others are just an ongoing struggle that finally reached a resolution with this project.

1. Still too loud!

Last album, I was so proud of myself of recording stuff at a lower volume. And yes, it was a good step forward, saving me loads of headaches and leading to better results. But still … once all the other instruments were added, once the vocals were added, I started clipping again and had to fight the volume faders for a few days.

Not great.

Vocals are just, like, really loud. And when the vocal isn’t present (such as a guitar solo), something else should take over the attention and be at roughly the same volume (such as that electric guitar playing the solo). In other words, when recording the supporting instruments, I should keep in mind that at least twice their volume will be added later with the vocals.

This helped to keep all volumes in check and reach a final mix without fighting clipping all the time. (Which also made it easier to master the song later, as it was mostly a matter of just raising the global volume, no extra edits needed.)

2. About loud and consistent vocals, again

When recording vocals, I used to just sing it naturally, listen quickly if it sounds okay, and continue doing all the takes. Only once everything was done, would I actually start mixing the song and bringing the vocals to an adequate volume.

Well, that was a bad idea. Soft vocals make the whole song sound bad (immediately) and the vocals itself … weird and off key. I’ve learned, with each album, just how crucial vocals and their loudness are.

So, with this album I already added (pretty strong) compression and gain to the vocal tracks before recording my singing. This way I’d clearly hear myself all the time, at a somewhat correct loudness (compared to the backing track), even if I moved away slightly or sung a bit differently on different days.

3. Natural performances are always better

Last album, I experimented with singing while (very softly) plucking the correct notes on my guitar. I also forbid myself from singing in the morning and did all the takes in the evening. The result? Way more natural vocals that needed less editing afterwards.

That’s not such a surprise, of course, as I’m used to playing and singing at the same time (being a singer-songwriter and all) and it’s not natural to sing with headphones on over some dull backing track.

But the difference was staggering to me. The vocals were just on a whole ‘nother level by default, and editing time was cut in half.

So I decided to go one step further. I recorded all the vocals for this album while playing the guitar (at full volume, the actual chords and rhythm). Yes, this meant a lot of guitar bleed into the vocals. But it made vocals sound even better by default, and instead of dully editing vocals for hours, the editing time was mostly spent removing some of the bleed and getting it to mesh well with the other support sounds.

I don’t know how well this would work for more complicated songs (with many other instruments and/or voices). Maybe it works even better, as the bleed is masked more. Don’t know, will have to see.

The point, though, is that I was very scared for all sorts of “bleed” and “noise” when I first started recording. That’s why I did all previous albums with everything separated. (I’d even start a new take between a verse and a chorus, 90% of the time.)

But you can just feel it. You can hear it, when the takes are just a little different, when the voice isn’t comfortable or is afraid to get too loud. (Because, to remind you, without playing guitar at the same time, I’m literally singing into dead silence in my tiny bedroom studio in the attic of our house. Even if you’re confident, even if you don’t care, you’re not going to sing as loudly and freely then.)

Remark: yes, this also meant that there’s no fixed tempo or metronome. I’d play the song completely (guitar + vocal) a few times, pick the best part, and that become the blueprint for other instruments or effects to follow. It made some things a bit harder, as I couldn’t just grid align (“quantize”) stuff, or had to guess when exactly I’d switch to the verse again. So I’m not sure if this is the way to go forward: maybe I should add a metronome in my ears.

4. Guitar doesn’t need much, but beware the high frequencies and sameness

Guitars are awesome. You can get all sorts of sounds out of them, the strumming automatically adds rhythm and higher frequencies, they sound well when doubled — even if done sloppily.

But … they are still guitars. All guitars have the same frequency range, a sound that’s roughly the same, etcetera.

These (singer-songwriter, stripped) songs would sound pretty okay with just:

It’s much harder to then make the step from okay to great. And most often, the answer was high frequencies and different fingerpicking. So most songs received this:

And if you think about it, this seems logical. A standard chord on the guitar is low on the neck, with lots of open strings, creating only low sustained frequencies. To fill the space, you’d need to add those higher frequencies somehow, and you need some pattern to fill the silences between strumming.

If that doesn’t work, I’ve found that piano is great if you just play extremely low or extremely high chords. In fact, you can make the piano so soft that most won’t even notice it’s there, but it will still have a great impact on the sound.

Besides that, any sustained instrument (strings, wind, brass, synth) helps fill the remaining frequencies and smooth over transitions. (For example, when changing chords from chorus back to verse, it’s often a bit abrupt. Put a soft violin that simply sustains the same note and doesn’t switch in the background, and it’s like glue.)

5. Composition is the real deal, then compression and reverb/delay are often enough

Notice what I didn’t mention? That’s right: all sorts of effects to make guitars sound better and give them more (high) frequencies.

I’ve noticed it’s more powerful (and easier, once you do it a few times) to create a good sound by just adding other instruments that play sensible things. My last two albums had literally no EQ work done and only one or two plugins applied besides the basics.

Vocal seems to dip in/out of volume? Compress it more.

Vocal is loud and clear now, but guitar falls away? Compress the guitar, bring it up.

The strums of the guitar are too loud and in my face? Compress the guitar.

It’s all a bit harsh and flat? Add very subtle reverb to guitar and vocal separately, then an even subtler one to the whole mix to put them in a space.

Really, that’s all you need.

In my first album, I tried all sorts of EQ all over the place. If I couldn’t hear the guitar over the vocal? Find which frequencies the guitar was playing, remove those from the vocal, or vice versa. Couldn’t hear that high guitar part over the low strumming? Boost high frequencies there, cut high frequencies on the strumming!

But it’s not about that. It’s all about volume! That’s why I think compression is by far the most useful and most powerful tool at your disposal. You can make anything sound good (if not acceptable) just by getting the volumes of each section correct. So I purposely try to do that now, and leave any other effects for later, if I think they’re needed.

And I’m sure that, over time, I’ll develop my ears and find ways to apply crazy plugins to make things sound even better. But I honestly can’t say this or my last album sounds bad at any point, and all I did was choose some instruments, compress, and add very subtle reverb.

(You might also phrase this lesson as: make your dry mix sound great first Whenever I watched mixing engineers on YouTube show their “dry mix” before doing their actual mixing and effect additions … it would always sound great and much better than my finished songs. That’s how they do it. They try to get it right at the source, pick the correct instruments and correct parts, so even an unmixed song already sounds publishable. And well, yeah, if you can do that, the mixing part becomes way easier :p)

6. Starts & Endings

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this. Songs, like any other piece of art that you want to attract people towards, need to start and end well.

Think about it. What makes you buy a book? You read the first chapter and get hooked. You don’t randomly start somewhere in the middle and decide the book’s quality based on that.

The same is true with songs. My song starts were never really strong in the previous albums, because I saw them as an afterthought. Just some quick intro to go through before the song can really start. When, instead, they should perhaps get the most focus! You have three seconds to convince someone to keep listening, so do your best convincing.

So, during pre-production (writing the songs) I purposefully tried out different intros and tried to compose one that sounded the best and most “attention-grabbing” (in the good way, not the bad way). And I think that made a huge difference.

7. Peak-First Mixing

This is another continuation on the idea of “things get louder and louder over time, leading to problems”. Before, I’d mix a song in chronological order: go through the intro, verse 1, chorus 1, etc. until done.

But really what we want is a song with a “climax” (usually last chorus or the bridge/solo), which represents the point with the most “power” and “excitement” (and thus volume and instruments). Everything else should simply lead us to that point.

So what do you do? Mix the chorus first, then simply take away stuff for all the other parts

Sounds really simple, is a bit more difficult in practice. (You still need to create a great chorus that cannot be topped, and have enough wiggle room to remove instruments/change parts and still make the rest of the song sound good and interesting.)

But it’s way better than what I used to do, as I’d always run out of space before the climax happened, leading to songs (or rather “mixes”) without any clear peaks at all.

About the songs

If I have something special to say about a song, this is where I’ll do it!

1. You never will, I never won’t

Really strong lyrics. Very personal as well, was not expecting it to go that way, but it just poured out. (The recurring phrase of “you never -A-, I never -opposite of A-” ties it all together so well and makes for a strong flow.)

But I only had a first verse and chorus. So I played through the song a few times, trying to find my way to a bridge, or a solo, or something else to add.

Then the bridge just came to me. I guess the verse/chorus were already really uptempo and pushing it, that’s why I actually wanted the bridge to shift to a different key and take a step back. Especially because the lyrics are really honest here and talk about the fact that I hated my life for so long (when I was still forced to go to school) that I considered suicide a lot.

But when the bridge ends, I saw no way to get back to where I was before. And that felt fitting as well, given the theme. So I didn’t go back.

I added another section, this one clearly inspired by some Neutral Milk Hotel songs I’d been listening recently. But I gave it my own spin, it’s different, and it fits the song well.

And now I could finally come home to the chorus (albeit in a different key).

This being such a personal song and having a really strong drive through the guitar and quick melody, it felt wrong to make it more than that. To add more voices, instruments, a grand ending, etcetera.

I mean, you can just hear it, can’t you? Adding a higher voice to the chorus to harmonize, adding a lower voice during the “Oeh” of the second bridge. Clear choices, musical choices, good choices.

But no, it just needed to be me and my guitar, singing it out. It fits better. I kept the editing, extra voices or instruments, to an absolute minimum required to make the sound balanced and professional.

Remark: being my first try with 3 microphones and live takes, I made some mistakes. All takes for this song have way too much of the voice in one of the guitar mics, and they are very out-of-phase with each other. I ended up fixing some of this in the editing, mostly by inverting the phase of the other guitar mic, and EQ-ing the vocals out of the guitar mics.

Tip/Trick: when recording a guitar with 2 mics, use a phase meter to see if they are canceling/fighting each other. If the meter goes into the negative regularly, or even stays there the whole time, you have a problem. You want it to be near zero or slightly positive.

You can hear this as well. Put on a (good) headphone. Play the recordings in stereo, it probably sounds awesome. Now play it in mono. Suddenly the volume drops immensely and you lose all lower frequencies. In other words, your song will sound wildly different on different speakers, which is surely not what you want.

But, seeing I only learned this after recording most takes, I ended up doing the other trick: just invert one of the channels afterwards. If they were -0.5 first, they’ll be 0.5 now. So they are still “50% different”: they create a small stereo field and don’t cancel each other.

2. The Way You

The verse of this song is really … different and has a lot of silences. I was afraid just playing guitar here wouldn’t be enough, but at the same time I didn’t see what else I could add that wouldn’t sound out of place.

So I ended up just going for the guitar only + some very light atmospheric instruments.

In this song — as opposed to the previous one — the tone and melody are much more … light, so it didn’t feel wrong to add more instruments and voices to the bridge (and ending).

The lyrics had me walking a fine line. Due to reasons (I won’t go into here), I’ve dreamt of being together with someone and starting a family since I was literally a little boy … but have never actually been together with someone. So the song is written in a sort of dual way: things I’d love to see in someone, but could also be interpreted as things I love about the someone I’m currently with.

The bridge ties it together with a more general theme. Again, perhaps the moment of greatest honesty from me. Also the moment with the most power, so this did receive doubled vocals (done after the live take) and some extra instruments.

3. Dreamboats to Share

The most upbeat, hopeful, fun song of the bunch. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to strum the chords and sing over it. This needed loads of guitars, some extra instruments, hooks/melodies to fill the silences that are left everywhere.

The verse and chorus practically wrote itself, once the melody and general lyrics popped into my head.

The bridge was different. It was the last thing I wrote for the album. It has some weird chords, sounds a bit different from the rest of the song, but it felt like I just had to pursue it. (Instead of leaving out a bridge, which would make the song go nowhere, or write a more generic bridge, bringing down the song with dullness.)

So I struggled a lot with both playing and singing the bridge, but hopefully I ended up making it work.

The song is quite long (a lot of verses and choruses). Yes, the melody is quite interesting and diverse, but the last thing I want to do is annoy people with repetition (or being grating to the ears). So I changed up some of the melody, the supporting guitar, the transitions, later on in the song.

The most “pop” or “produced” song of them all.

4. Pebbles to Rivers

This song came into existence when I thought “what if I play this beautiful chord with a CAPO … but left the high E string of the guitar open?” That’s how you get the sound you hear.

When I heard that, I immediately started improvising and experimenting, until I got the chords in this song. And with some chord progression laid down, I wanted to record it (so I didn’t forget). Usually, I just play it, or hum something over it. But this time, I just started singing an actual melody, and guess what? That’s the melody in the final song.

The transition between verse and chorus was a hard one to nail (both chords, lyrics and singing). It just does something odd with chords and melody. But by this point, it was ingrained in my brain and I didn’t want to change it, so I did my best to make it work well. I saw it as a challenge!

And then, to finish it off, I needed a small bridge. Just something simple, some transition, to make the song complete. (As you might’ve noticed by now: verse and chorus come easily and aplenty … but bridges/solos/outros always need to be written by me after the fact.)

After some plucking I found a melody that sounded awesome (and fit the rhythm/weird CAPO placement). So awesome, in fact, that I made the bridge way longer. It’s now a main feature of the song. It has more instruments and voices to support it.

And even though the song is a bit cynical and harsh, the melody really isn’t, and it also has strong hopeful bits in it. It’s not like the first song, and it felt okay to put some more power behind the choruses here. (In fact, without it, the song felt a bit hollow.)

When preparing for recording, I realized the bridge had a really weird key. Not high, not low, somewhere in the middle, and I had to practice for 30 minutes before I could consistently make the transition and sing the right note from the start.

This did mean, though, that I could go one octave higher for the second time the bridge comes around. I tried that on the spot, and it actually lead to a very powerful vocal performance in that part, definitely the high moment of the song.

(There’s even a very fast vibrato or crunch that comes on one of the words. It almost sounds like an effect, but it was just the effect of my voice being tired after many takes, trying to improvise these really high melodies. I liked it, so I kept it.)

5. Old is the Love

This was always planned as the simplest, smallest, shortest song. In fact, I considered making it some hidden “bonus track” or something, but thought the better of it.

So? Just a voice and a (Spanish) guitar, the whole way through. No bridge, no solo, nothing of the sort. Just a few verses and choruses, and then a musical intermezzo until the song ends.

And because I wanted one guitar the whole way through, even the musical intermezzo was written so I could play both chords/bass notes and some melody/solo at the same time, on the same guitar, in one take. It just fit way better than if I’d recorded a separate support guitar and then a solo on top. That would feel wrong for this song.

But … the instrumental part was too hard to play in one go. I couldn’t risk ruining a very good live take by completely botching that ending. So the “live take” just contains the song itself and then supporting chords for a minute or so. Later I recorded the actual outro on top of it with a seperate recording.


A new way of recording, that lead to new ways of mixing and approaching problems. I temporarily made it harder for myself, but hopefully it made me grow enough to compensate that.

I think the songs are strong, the performances are starting to match it, and each album moves closer and closer to a professional sound. (And my “real” sound that I aim for. As now albums seem to flipflop between intimate acoustic songs, big songs with almost a full band, and everything in between.)

The songs for this album were already mostly done when I started my challenge of “one EP per month”. So it went relatively smoothly and gave me a lot of confidence.

But now we’re getting into territory with more uncertainty. More songs with just a verse, or a chorus, or just tiny bits of text. Albums without a coherent plan yet.

So, with some confidence and some doubts, onward to more music!