Notes on Dawn

Jun 11 2021 Album Diary

Welcome to the “Album Diary” for my album “Dawn”!

It is my second instrumental EP (following after “Dusk”), finally created and published after promising its arrival more than two years ago.

What took so long? What did I learn? Well, let me explain.

The problem

I had just created my first instrumental EP (Dusk). Four songs - two guitar, two piano - which I thought sounded nice, but were simple enough for an absolute beginner like me (when it comes to recording and mixing). Just four songs, one instrument, simple compositions, that should be doable, right?

Yes, this was the best decision I could’ve made at the time. Because the album was so small and simple, I actually finished it, and was able to experiment with different setups and techniques for each song.

On the other hand, this revealed a glaring issue: my equipment was … well, either horrible or non-existent. I had one shitty microphone, one shitty laptop, one shitty small keyboard, and one shitty small guitar.

I tried and tried, but never got anything close to the sound I wanted.

The piano tracks are … fine, but you can clearly hear it’s a digital piano, and the notes are almost all the same velocity (I couldn’t add much “feeling” to these plastic keys). Besides that, I think the quality is quite good.

The guitar tracks are … certainly not great. Way too much noise, way too much low-end rumble, mistakes galore, too much reverb (added in hopes of getting a nicer guitar sound and covering up mistakes)

What to do? Buy better equipment!

I took all the money I could spare and bought the minimum setup needed to properly record and mix something.

And then it turned out that you need skill to handle the equipment. You can’t just place a microphone anywhere and expect it to deliver beautiful results.

At the time, I (unexpectedly) entered a treatment for health issues that took me out of the running for months. Then I went back to university to finish my degree, which destroyed all my time and energy.

And that’s why it took two years to make the follow-up album. I bought equipment, then life happened, then had to learn how to use the equipment, then life happened, and then I recorded it.

My equipment

All tracks were recorded with:

1. We wake somehow

Guitar track. Short and loose.

The first EP was recorded on an old, second-hand, small teaching guitar that I still had from when I was young.

Since then, I had bought a proper Spanish guitar. It sounds way nicer. But the most important difference was the ease of use

The first EP required many hours of practice and then at least 5-10 takes to get something “okay”. This track was laid down in one take.

Not because it’s that simple, or because I’ve improved drastically as a player. (At least, I don’t think so.) Simply because I could be way more comfortable in this setup.

How was it recorded? Using a “spaced pair”. I placed one mic to my left, and one to my right, about 1.5 meters from the guitar. Both point somewhere towards the 12th fret.

Then I recorded some samples, and checked if there were phase issues. (If the same signal hits two sources at the same time, there’s a risk they start cancelling each other out.) Because of space limitations, and my inexperience with mixing, I’m not sure if I entirely eliminated these issues. But once it sounded fine to me, I thought it was fine.

How was the track written? Honestly, the main pattern was something I came up with a loooong time ago. Then I sat down and just … improvised. This track was not composed beforehand, it was basically a jam session with myself, using some existing ideas as the base.

What do I think of it? I think these microphones, the way the guitar is recorded, that overall sound is great. I also think the subtle reverb effects and tricks to make the sound “wider” or “bigger” are nice. Not perfect, of course, but a vast improvement over the previous EP. And something I’m not embarrassed to send to other people. (In other words: with this equipment, my guitar actually sounds like my guitar.)

The composition itself is … fine. Playful, some nice bits, some key changes, well executed, but nothing special.

The biggest issue I have are the noises. You can clearly hear me breathe at several moments, and I don’t know how to get rid of it. I tried facing away from the mics, I tried breathing exercises beforehand to calm it, but a few “hmhmhmspf” always slip in.

Similarly, at a few points you hear a large truck drive by in the background. Where I live, it’s absurdly noisy, because truck drivers have decided that our rusty town road is a shortcut and should be used at all times. (Our whole house shakes 24/7 from the assholes racing by.) As such … not much I can do there.

Yes, you can place the mics closer to the guitar. But guess what happens? It stops sounding like a guitar, and starts sounding more and more like what I did for my first EP.

In the end, it’s about finding a balance. If I ever record an instrumental Spanish track again, I would probably place the mics way closer anyway, and do everything I can to remove the breathing noises. I think those are worth sacrificing some tone and clarity in the recording.

2. And I’ll be right here

Piano track. Actually two different ideas, which I combined. (Because they were too short/simple to stand on their own, I thought.)

I really like both melodies, although I don’t think they are my best. They can be a bit repetitive or “harsh” at times, because I lack some finesse when it comes to playing the piano :p (Working on it!)

How was it recorded? Live! On an acoustic piano! Would ya believe it!

The choice was obvious, once I’d done some tests. I had recorded this track in full, with mixing and effects and all on my plastic keyboard.

And it just sounded awful.

Like, not even “okay”, or “a bit computer-y”, it just sounded … wrong on all levels?

As it turns out, I rely a lot on the acoustical/physical properties of a piano for my compositions and playing. Probably because I’ve always played on an acoustic piano and only use the plastic keyboard for emergencies. So what sounds great when I play it live, just couldn’t be translated to the computer.

So I used my two microphones to record a stereo image of a (very) vintage upright piano.

I used another “spaced pair”. One to my left, one to my right, both pointed at the piano from the top, slightly inward (towards the middle strings).

At first, I had used more distance. The microphones were a good meter from the piano, and were on my ear-level, pointing right at the front.

But this resulted in way too much reverb. (In the recording, the piano sounded really far away, and it was muddy.) Additionally, you could (again) hear me breath or make other noises.

So I popped open the top of the piano and brought the mics as close as possible to the strings. Then I made sure that:

How was the track written? A mash-up of two ideas I had somewhere in the last two years.

I write music almost on a daily basis, but most of it has lyrics and is supposed to be sung (like, 95% of it). Therefore, I only had a handful of actual instrumental demos to choose from, and I chose these two because they were more fleshed-out than the others.

What do I think of it? Recording a live piano makes a huge difference. What sounded completely wrong with a keyboard, sounds nice again when recorded this way. Also, I’m more used to playing like this, which means I made almost no mistakes and could express myself better. (I only had to do a second take for a few wrong notes here and there, where “wrong” can mean anything that ends up sounding wrong.)

However, it’s still too “echo-y” to me. Sure, the piano itself isn’t tuned and wasn’t great to begin with, but I still think a better sound could be achieved. So next time, I’ll pop open the front as well, and experiment more with mic positioning there.

And you probably guessed it: the composition is fine, the recording is fine, the mixing (which was nothing more than fixing some mistakes and adding extra reverb where it seemed needed) is fine. I think I’m still some distance away from delivering professional, amazing songs … but at least we’re making progress.

You said you’d talk about the pedals? Yes. It’s an old piano with a squeaky, half-broken pedal. I did what I could to eliminate this during recording, and I thought I succeeded quite well.

Until I mastered the track. When the soft parts were brought to a louder volume, and I listened on my “good speakers”, I could hear the pedal click again and again throughout the track.

The thing is … it didn’t bother me before. I didn’t even register it. I only found it by actively looking for it and intently listening to the track on a loud volume.

So is it a problem? I don’t know. Is it something that can be improved? Probably, yeah, and I’ll try to do so. (I could point the mics away from the bottom. I could add a pillow or towel around it, to soften any impacts. Stuff like that)

3. To find a way

Guitar track. Longer, actually composed beforehand (as opposed to the other one).

When I made up the few melodies/patterns in this track, I liked them so much that I played it over and over. This was a problem. Why? Because when I searched through my demo recordings (to determine what I wanted on this album), I thought I’d already recorded this one!

I spent a long time in confusement, trying to find another guitar track, realizing I didn’t have any, and then realizing I was doing all this for nothing!

I had already planned the album a long time ago. I just needed to trust my old notes!

How was it recorded? Same setup as the other guitar track. I played three takes for this one, but ended up using only one take, and swapping a small chunk with another (because that one sounded cleaner).

How was it written? The song has a CAPO on the 2nd fret, but with the high E-string left open. I also used this technique for a song on the first EP.

I love this sound, because it creates these dreamlike harmonies and overtones, and I don’t have to work harder for it!

As expected, this was written as the result of some improvisations with that CAPO position.

What do I think of it? Again, nice composition, nice recording, good guitar sound, nice reverb. The guitar sounds full and big, and certainly stereo, but still up-close and personal.

However, the breathing and background noises are ever prevalent.

Additionally, some parts were accidentally played a bit faster/slower than the others, or have some muted notes. I try to be lenient here: I don’t want a stiff recording thats quantized and perfectly fits the grid. I play on feeling, changing volume and tempo as I see fit.

If you take that too far, though, it just becomes a messy recording full of mistakes. That’s why I swapped out some parts of this take: because the original had many muted notes (where I played a note, but accidentally muted it when I went to the next one, removing those beautiful harmonies I wanted!)

The final recording is not “perfect”, but it’s also way better than anything I made before. As I said: it’s about the progress. In a few years time, I hope to get to a professional level with this. But as long as I must record in an attic next to a busy road, the current quality is what you’ll get :p

4. Release the light

Piano track. Powerful, complex, near the same level as my “Composition in F Minor” which I like so much.

This track is wonderful when played live. I think it sounds good, and the final parts feel like an actual “release” of something, of some built-up tension.

I’m afraid this didn’t fully come through in the recording. Yes, the release is still there, and the final part is majestic. But I had to add extra recordings (of extremely low and high notes, supporting the main part), mess with volumes and effects, to finally realize that it still sounded like a vintage piano being played too aggressively.

Hopefully that’s just my perfectionism talking, and others think it sounds great :p

How was it recorded? Identical setup to the other piano track. Because the song is a bit harder to play, and has many different sections/tempos/chord changes, I made more mistakes and had to do more takes. In the end, however, it’s still 90% one take, and 10% from two others.

I think this makes the whole process just much easier, and the end result better, to try and get everything in a single take. Even if it means doing something unexpected and just rolling with it, because you’re recording!

How was it written? This is becoming a pattern. It started with a few separate musical ideas. (You’ll probably know which ones I talk about when you hear the song. There are a few distinct melodies/sections that keep reoccuring.) I thought: “hey, can I combine those?” So I did. And then I thought: “hey, can I add some transitions and filler and niceties?” So I did.

In the end, this was another case of “I’ve played it so many times during creation, I can play it blindly now”. I’ve never written down the actual chords, or sheet music, or the order of the sections. It just flowed naturally and resulted in this track.

What do I think of it? As I said, the piano sound could be better, and I could learn more about dynamics and directing the listener’s attention.

There was a huge difference between the soft and loud parts, which required me to use some form of compression, which brought out many noises again. At the same time, the “release” at the end has almost the same aggressiveness as many other parts of the song, causing all of it to feel a bit “samey”.

You know what? I think I just need to learn to be less aggressive when playing an instrument, and actually be more subtle and soft :p


So that’s all I can tell you about this album!

It’s a great improvement over the previous work, in all aspects. But it’s not amazing and I know there is much to learn.

I mostly wanted to finish this album because:

And finish it I did. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s finished, and it’s online, and it’s done.

For an artist, a perfectionist, a musician that rarely put anything online … that’s the greatest achievement there is, really.

Until the next time, El Troubadour (Tiamo)