Notes on 'Is It Too Much to Ask'

Jan 20 2022 Album Diary

I just released my second singer-songwriter EP called “Is it too much to ask?", 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?

From the last EP, I mostly learned that I … still have a lot to learn. As such, creating a big album right now is just too daunting, which is why I wanted to keep it as small as possible. This led to this EP having “only” 5 songs.

I also learned that people focus a lot on the first and last songs of an album, and prefer them to be a bit more “fast” or “uptempo”. They should grab you quickly, allowing you to slide into the rest of the album without problems :p Any softer songs, or more experimental work, should be placed somewhere in the middle. At least, that’s my experience so far.

And lastly, I found out I really like vocal harmonies and want to practice them more.

Those three things informed my selection of songs. The 5 tracks I chose, and the order in which I put them, hopefully provides a strong initial pull (to a new listener), enough variety to keep it interesting, and plenty opportunities for harmonies.

Additionally, I learned how important vocals are. Like, they are more important to get right than anything else. I therefore decided to record all the vocals first, using REAPER. Why? Because it has the built-in ReaTune plugin that is awesome for both showing me if the pitch is correct and slightly tuning things without making it sound robotic.

Once that was done, and I was satisfied with the quality of the vocals, I would export these (possibly tuned) vocals to Studio One (my main DAW). To do more edits, add guitars, and do the actual mixing.

That was the idea.

The name of the EP comes from the third track (with the same title). I didn’t necessarily choose it because I think it’s the best track from the album (although I really like it, otherwise I wouldn’t have put it on there), but because it’s the most emotional one, closest to my heart. It’s one of those songs that just bursts out of you, at 2 PM, in the dark, when you’re down about yourself and life and everything.

Vocals: what I learned

Because vocals are important, and because I have health issues that affect my singing, I am training nearly every day to get better recordings. However, that does make me a bit nitpicky and “perfectionist” at times, so the things I say here might not apply at all to you and your songs.

Lesson 1: Use your morning voice

In the morning, just after waking up, everyone’s voice is usually a bit lower and “croaky”. Normally, that’s terrible for singing, which is also why most professionals say things like “oh I never record vocals in the morning, never ever”.

But … it does allow me to reach low notes that I would never reach otherwise! Additionally, it lends a bit of fragility and “natural saturation” to the voice.

As such, I recorded all the low harmonies and more soft parts of the main voice in the morning. I did NOT do any vocal warm-up, or wait too long between takes, as that would remove the whole effect.

This allowed me to get some really nice, full, low harmonies on all the tracks. (Singing notes so low - for me - that I cannot reproduce them an hour later.)

Lesson 2: You can tune your background vocals wildly

I want to be as good a singer as possible, which is why I try to get perfect takes without any plugins or editing.

But I’ve learned more and more that this is a waste of time on background vocals. The reason? You’ll only hear them vaguely in the background, which means they are not SUPPOSED to sound pretty and amazing on their own. They are supposed to simply support the main voice.

As such, all background vocals for the album were done in 1 or 2 takes, and sung a bit more “laid-back” to prevent interfering with the main vocal. Then I autotuned them, not heavily, but also not subtly.

If I don’t tune them, it sounds fine, a bit more “natural” or “big” even. But this is a digital recording that’s going on Spotify and such, which means I want it to sound perfect. As someone explained to me: if you want people to listen to your songs on repeat, you can’t leave even a single flat background note in there, as it will start to really annoy them over time.

Now, of course, if you just throw on a default autotune plugin it will sound bad. It will pick the wrong notes and sound too robotic, even for a background vocal. That’s why I tried to find a middle ground, and redid the take if one or two notes were just too far off.

Lesson 3: Beware of “energy”

This might sound vague. But it’s the best way I can describe it (using “energy”).

You can sing a phrase in many different ways. You can sing it softly, like a whisper, or on the verge of breaking. You can sing it loudly, like you’re aggressive or trying to convince someone. This is what I mean with the “energy” of a vocal.

Because I recorded the vocals first, without a nicely mixed backing track, my energy was a bit off at times.

For example, the first song starts with a quick uptempo guitar pattern, and then immediately flows into the vocal. Well … because I recorded the vocal first, I just sang the first words on ‘medium’ energy, quite softly and subtly. Combining that with the energetic guitar was just very odd and off-putting. It didn’t fit together.

So, I re-recorded that part to be more energetic. I didn’t change the pitch, or the volume, or the timing. Simply by adding the guitars and singing over them, you naturally try to match their feel, and get a more energetic vocal (in this case).

This was a recurring problem for the start of a track. I record vocals in order, so the first vocal is always, you know, the first verse. Looking at my “notes” I saw that I was always unsure about the vocals on the first verse of a song. I wrote down things like “first few words need more pronunciation” or “first phrase could be more convincing”.

In the end, I added a third step my plan. First record vocals (REAPER), then add guitars (Studio One), then redo any vocals that don’t fit well (in Studio One as well, using the guitars as accompaniment).

Hopefully, you don’t hear the edits/differences between an old and new take in the final version. But believe me, it’s much better with the “overdubs” than using the weird energy-mismatching takes.

Remark This does, again, highlight the importance of simply doing many takes (preferably with some time between them). Usually, I only realize that my current vocal is quite “dull” or “lifeless”, once I record my 10th take that suddenly sounds so much better. Simply because I had a good day, and was warmed-up properly, and felt good, and the microphone was positioned perfectly, etcetera. Stitching together all these “perfect takes” not only gives a more professional result, it also gives people the impression that you’re this worldclass singer :p

Lesson 4: Yes, harmonies are cool, but also difficult

My first album used doubles (99% of the time), which meant I simply sang the same part 2 or 3 times and played them together. This is fine, but I was never sure it fit too well with my songs (in terms of songwriting and instruments/voice).

When I tried a few harmonies, I was immediately sold. All I had to do was:

It sounded much bigger, and fuller, and more varied and interesting.

This EP, therefore, has harmonies all over the place. (It’s reversed: 99% are harmonies, 1% is simply doubled.)

Lesson 5: Don’t judge vocals on their own

Because I recorded all vocals first, I was constantly disappointed. I was like: “when I was singing, it sounded great! But listening back to it all … it just sounds meh”

Remember: a microphone doesn’t listen to sound like our ears. It only captures the dry voice, which rarely sounds great. Add some reverb/delay, some compression, get your volume balance right, perhaps some De-Essing or Gating against noise, and voila: that vocal that disappointed you has probably turned into something great!

Not always, of course. If it’s simply off-pitch, or has that wrong energy (remember?), or the timing is off by an annoying amount, you can’t fix it that way.

But this is another reason why I changed my plan to the 3-step-plan. You just can’t know how the voice + guitar will sound in the final mix, when you only have one of them. Completely unedited, even. So simply record something, give it your best shot, but always reserve some time to re-record many parts when you have all the elements put together.

Guitar: what I learned

I’ve been recording guitar for much longer than vocals, so this list will be shorter. (Additionally, a guitar that’s off-pitch is MUCH easier to solve than a voice that just can’t hit the right notes :p)

Lesson 1: No need to play whole chords

In my older recordings, each guitar layer played its own “full part”. You had a regular guitar (playing the regular chords), an alternative guitar (playing the same chords, simply higher), maybe an arpeggio (playing the same chords, but one string at a time, with a pattern).

Each of them sounded interesting on their own. This, however, also made the recordings very FULL and MESSY at times. The guitar drew all the attention away from the voice. And, if I wasn’t very careful, the song became very heavy with low frequencies (because I kept playing the same notes on all the different guitar parts).

Well, I’m a wiser man now. I don’t need each individual part to be interesting! They just need to work together!

With this EP, I always tried to do the following:

I think this makes the background guitar much nicer and fuller, without becoming muddy or overwhelming. However, this also has something to do with the next lesson …

Lesson 2: Buildup and storytelling

With my previous EP, the accompaniment for a song stayed mostly the same throughout. Yes, some layers were always added during the chorus (or removed during the verse). Some layers changed halfway. Some things got louder, or faster, or whatever.

But these were subtle changes. “The bare minimum” when trying to tell a story with a song, trying to build tension and releasing it.

With this EP, I tried to make the contrast much bigger.

With every change (from verse to chorus, for example) I always try to change at least 1-2 things about the background guitar. As the song progresses, more stuff is added, and older sounds might be changed, building to a “climax” somewhere in the song.

In general, these are tools for “building” or “growing” a song:

This also means that many songs start off really “barebones”. Of course, I had the urge to add more stuff, because it sounded too small.

But that’s the whole point! By starting small, we can grow bigger, we can grow to … something. If the song starts out all guns blazing, there’s nowhere to go, and it starts to sound repetitive after a minute.

Doing this for each song, I’ve slowly build an appreciation for the effect, and think the results are much better. Still not perfect (obviously), but certainly an improvement.

Lesson 3: New strings and constant tuning

Just a reminder that the best way to get a good guitar sound, is simply by changing the strings, and retuning after every take. (Buying the best microphone or whatever won’t help if you don’t do this.)

I did that, the day before I started recording. And the difference is simply staggering: playing a certain song just sounds so much more clean and full with new strings, than when I recorded the demo a few months ago on old ones.

Before, I tuned the guitar before each session. But I noticed this wasn’t enough and would often end up with specific strings being out of tune on the last takes I did. So I changed this: my phone is right by my side, with a tuner active, and I check it after every take. (I usually record full verses or choruses in one go, but not the full song or anything.)

This also was a bigger improvement than any fancier stuff I tried, simply because it’s hard for us to hear that “the G-string is 5 cents out of tune”, but we can hear “hmm, the guitar on this track doesn’t sound amazing”

Remark: Additional reminder that Spanish guitars with new strungs detune extremely quickly, at least the first few days. Like, you just tuned it, pluck it once, and it’s 10 cents off again. You can “rush” through this phenomenon by pulling hard on your strings, retuning, pulling hard, retuning again, etc. (for a solid 10-15 minutes) until they stop going out of tune. But I don’t mind waiting a few days for it to settle, and I think that’s fine for anybody.

About the songs

And as usual, here I’ll say something about how I recorded each song, mistakes I made (or stuff I had trouble with), and what I ended up with.

#1: Where the flowers still bloom

Right from the start, I knew I wanted this cool pingpong effect for the guitar. (Any time you transition to a new part, the guitar quickly strums the same chord 4 times … but it alternates between your left and right ear.)

This was great! But, as I stated above, it’s something with very high “energy”, and the vocal I had recorded didn’t match it. So I had to re-record some vocals, especially right after transitions, to match what the guitar was doing.

Additionally, I knew I wanted that pattern “where the flowers still bloom” to reappear throughout the song. But just repeating it endlessly would be boring (and annoying, probably), which is why I wrote the song to shift this pattern up and down, and to change it slightly evertime. (In the chorus, it’s a half note higher. The second chorus, a full note. Each time, it changes the lyric, for example to “there the flowers still bloom”.)

Adding the harmonies was great fun (and immediately made it sound big and interesting), although I might have overdone it here.

The biggest issues came when mixing and finalizing this track. It has a … weird structure. The “chorus” is actually the softest, least intense bit of the song. It also doesn’t have a bridge, or solo, or third chorus to close it off (that is typical in most mainstream music). It’s just 2 verses -> chorus -> 2 verse -> chorus -> outro verse.

I had a hard time bringing it all together into a single track that draws you in and tells a story.

When coming back to it (months later), I made the following tweaks:

#2: What are we doing?

I’ve written quite some articles about my troubles singing with headphones and how I was consistently flat.

Well, this is the reason why I recorded the vocals without any backing track. Because without it, I can usually sing the melodies perfectly fine. But after all this time … my voice (or ears?) is starting to compensate.

Almost all takes for this song were sharp. This became a common theme when recording this album. I thought I was compensating correctly and was perfectly on pitch, but it turned out I was singing anywere from 5 to 40 cents above the note. (Which is quite extraordinary, as this caused me to accidentally sing reaaaally high notes. And instead of being proud of nailing that note, I had to re-do the take :/)

The only way to bring it down again, was by putting the headphones on! In the end, I settled on a middle ground again. Some parts were recorded many times until I got it right, others were tuned (down) after the fact.

That being said, this song was a difficult one in general.

It, again, has a weird structure. But I also think it has a really beautiful guitar part and amazing melodies, so I wanted to highlight those. I ended up splitting the guitar part in multiple parts, so it was easier for me to play them (multiple times, almost identically). This was a surprisingly good decision: it made the part sound even better to me, and it only took a few takes to record it! A lesson for later.

When coming back to it (months later), I made the following tweaks:

#3: Is it too much to ask?

The simplest composition of them all: just a plucked guitar and a voice. This means the first draft was laid down very quickly. (I just played through the whole song twice, selected the best parts as backing, then sung over it.)

However, there were three issues:

At the time, I just left it there. When coming back to it, I made these tweaks:

#4: Move on

A bit of a neutral song, if I say so myself. Nothing special, also not bad by any means.

It does mean that recording it was … not eventful. Afterwards, I think it might’ve sounded better with a different type of guitar, but I didn’t want to delay the album any longer, so I didn’t change it.

The falsetto parts also sound very … odd, when listening to them in solo. I tried three days straight, but my “good” falsetto just wasn’t coming :p Luckily, with the other supporting voices added, it doesn’t sound odd anymore and it actually sounds great.

When giving the song to others, they said something along the same lines: a neutral song, a bit of everything, it’s fine.

In order to add at least some excitement back to it, I made these tweaks (when coming back months later):

Still a neutral song, just better and more professional now.

#5: In the meadow

I really like this song, even though it’s (by far) the simplest of them all. It just has a nice constant flow or tempo to it, a nice ending, and a chorus that is easy to sing yet gets stuck in your head.

That’s why I actually recorded/mixed this song before many of the others, even though it’s the last one on the album. I had a clear “vision” of what the song was supposed to be, which obviously helps a lot. (Because I’m still a beginner at mixing, I often have no clue what I’m actually aiming for.)

Unfortunately, mistakes were made. When recording the vocal (without backing track, still!) I did something funny. In the chorus … I sped up. Even though a metronome was playing in my ear at a steady beat, I completely ignored that and sung a little faster in the chorus, purely by instinct.

I really liked those vocals. I think it’s the right choice and ended up making all choruses 10 BPM faster. But … because I hadn’t planned this from the start, quite some cutting/editing/extra takes were necessary to fix the timing issues.

But why did I like the vocals so much? Well, because I had a good day (my voice was rested, I had slept well, my health issues kept to the background), which made the vocals sound both effortless and, you know, on pitch. Most of the vocal you hear in the final song is not tuned in any way, not even the harmonies, and were simply the first take I did. (I think this shows especially in the outro, giving it just the right amount of energy.)

The things I did that day — the vocal warm-up, the microphone placement, the time of day — apparently work well for me. So now I try to do those same things, if possible, for each vocal session.

The other lesson I learned here? “Double time”! In the background of each (pre-)chorus, there is a rhythm guitar, to give the song some momentum and body (even in silent moments). The rhythm is steady, but quite slow, for the majority of the song. But after the solo, when the final chorus and outro kicks in, it doubles in tempo. It’s not even something you will notice or consciously hear when listening, but it gives the ending so much more energy than the beginning, and I think it’s really nice.

Once I realized this, I applied this to some other parts of this album as well. For example, some plucking patterns in other songs start out at “normal speed”. But at the end of the song, once more instruments have come on, the same pattern just goes twice as fast. (If possible. If that’s too hard to play, or too messy, I might alter it a bit.)

When coming back (after a few months), I made the following tweaks:


Another album made! Another 5 songs (hopefully) professionally brought into the world!

Because of all the experience gained from the previous album, this one went much smoother and much quicker. (As in, I didn’t have to re-do everything twice or thrice, and recording itself was already much more painless.)

Still, that meant I was just making different mistakes, and learning other things, and trying to get the sound even more “professional”. (With each thing they make, an artist raises the bar for himself :p)

The choice to keep the album length to only 5 songs was the right one. It meant I always had a clear path forward, without getting lost in the middle of a huge project (with too many things going wrong or sounding bad, which leads to lack of motivation).

Of course, I still don’t think it’s living up to its potential (aka a better engineer could make these songs sound way prettier) and has some way to go before sounding “radio ready” (or something like that). But we’re getting closer. I have new things I want to try out, new instruments to add, new techniques to employ for the next album. And I have confidence that it will be slightly better again.

Until then,
Tiamo El Troubadour