How long could it take?
The path from getting things going with song-writing to actually releasing something was about 2 years, which for can feel like a literal eternity. Many times it seemed like maybe nothing would happen. Starting something new is hard, but the most difficult challenges are often the most rewarding.
The original plan, which did not work, was to pitch the music team about what we would do. We were going to write songs, we have great musicians, creative people with talent who could do it. Every Tuesday night I would open up the building for everyone. I would be there writing songs and anyone would be welcome to join me. Most often nobody came to these events.
The point of all this is to say, don’t despair if at first, no one is interested. Or if people are interested but don’t show up, try something else. Whether you have ‘the right people’ or not, this is a difficult path you are undertaking, work the problem.
Not everyone wants to be a song-writer, and that is okay
The critical mistake was to conclude that just because someone was on the band that they wanted to be a part of the songwriting team. But this assumption is wrong. Those two groups are likely to have some overlap, but not entirely. It is better to throw the net wider and see who in your congregation isn’t on the band, that would be interested in writing. In the secular music world, there are many ghostwriters, who are not performers. They prefer to work behind the scenes and spend their time creating. These are often the people you are looking for. It’s best not to just throw out an invitation to everyone but to ask specific people who you think might be good at writing. It’s a good idea to sit down with these people, make sure you are on the same page about what you want to achieve. And if you are the person in charge, make sure you are spending time writing, but also in the Word, in prayer, set an example for the people you want to lead. I recommend making a space where you can get creative work done (as pictured below).
We organised a time to write music in which we would invite specific people into a Space, the only purpose being to write songs and then record demos of those songs. The turn out to this event was small, it was a Friday and a Saturday, all day, starting at 9 am in the morning going till late and it was fantastic. We played games to warm up (the reharmonisation game using a dice was super fun). People bring songs. We wrote the lyrics on the board and pulled them to bits, we changed chords, we had this great idea called the Bank, whenever we come up with something we didn’t get to use we would write it up on the board so we can remember to use it later and we always did, whenever we got in a funk we would go to the board and see what we had.
Setting a Goal
We set a goal to write and record 5 songs, We did three and we were totally chuffed that we managed to write and record three demos. In terms of the tech of the demo recordings we used our “Allen and Heath QU-24” desk as an interface into a MacBook Pro via USB, it is an excellent solution for a quick demo, we have one Shure Sm7b for a lead vocalist, everything else is pretty standard live recording microphones, Shure sm-57 on the electric, acoustic was a cardioid (NT1000 if I remember correctly and a DI, We used SM-58s for backup vocals, we used a click and all had headphones to facilitate that, keys were just a DI. It was important to set up the room to be ready to go so we could hear how things would sound straight away and get a recording done as fast as possible. Two of the songs we wrote were ones that were already partially written and one was started from scratch. It was a very collaborative effort, everybody gave their bit musically, lyrically and honesty.
Defining the Rules
We wrote on a board a list of rules ‘not to be broken’, like we have to be kind to each other but also be willing to be told that we need to change our idea. Songwriting is difficult because it is vulnerable, a song becomes a part of you in a strange way and so when people want to change it, that can hurt. This is why rules are so important. So that we can say, this is what we agreed to. Things go better when we have rules we can follow.
The Purpose of the Demos
The purpose of the demos is to have the songs set in stone, so we know how it goes, so the bands can learn to play them on Sundays and the congregation can get to know them for when they sing them in the recording. These demos were very useful to have and I still kind of enjoy them even though they are of a lesser quality than the final version.
The Importance of Having Fun
I remember on the first night we had one more recording to do and we decided to play pool together and relax before doing it and what a beautiful time it was, I will remember those times forever.
Getting the Bands to Play Them
It does take convincing to get bands to play new songs on Sundays, even if you are the Music Director because playing new songs is more work. It is much easier to play a song you already play, regardless, say it enough times and you will get there, we play originals a lot nowadays and I love that we do.
Planning a Recording
We chose to make a live recording of the songs we had written at the retreat. This would include video and audio in a live congregational setting. It is very useful to have someone around who has a good understanding of the various aspects of making a recording happen. If you don’t have someone like that, someone (maybe you) might need to learn, but hey, there could be worse ways to spend your time. The smart thing to do after you have that person is to find people to be in charge of each aspect and have them report to the main director.
After that, we would have to choose a band. This is a different team than the songwriting team. Generally, you need to choose people who are the best at what they do. We were really fortunate to be able to have a full band of excellent musicians, all from our church community, but from different locations than ours. It isn’t a band that regularly plays together but the calibre of musicians allows for that.
The Technical Recording Aspect (skip this if you aren’t interested in Tech)
In the lead up we had to organise the count of microphones and channels we would need, we needed soo many microphones because of the two drum sets, if we did it again we wouldn’t have two drummers, only because of recording reasons. As for our interface, we used a QU-Pac, made by Allen and Heath, one of our church plants uses it and so we borrowed it. It is great because it is all controlled from an iPad so you can have multiple people adjusting the mix at the same time and the musicians can jump on their iPhone and adjust their own mix in their earbuds. We used an extender which gave us about 32 channels in total, we ran that via USB into a MacBook Pro. We used the latest MacBook at the time but I ran a test with my MacBook (2012) and it worked perfectly fine somehow, there were 8 separate foldback mixes so some people had to share, we used a Behringer personal monitor solution which was super useful, people brought their own earbuds and the drummers used proper headphones. We had to have a lot of headphone extenders, and cables in general, We got anyone who had cables of any kind and mic stands of any kind to bring them because we needed so many, we tested every cable before using it and threw away the dodgy ones.
Where Does This Gear Come From?
We have a small budget, and so we didn’t have much to work with in terms of buying microphones so everything is borrowed. Everything is from a friend of a friend of a friend. People serve in different ways and some people serve by lending gear, and we appreciate that. If you are at a church which doesn’t have the funds to pay for this kind of stuff, it is possible to do, but you have to get creative.
All the Gear
There is a list attached of every microphone that we used and what it went on. Having a list like this is very important when you have a lot of information to keep track of. You can often import something like this into your recording software to keep track of where all the audio files go, this is what we did.
The speaker fold back for the congregation was tricky, we had someone delegated to run it and keep it real low, what the congregation were hearing was not a good mix, but just enough so that they could sing along, it was very difficult to record the congregation because of the drums. We did a rendition of “Jesus loves me” at the start to get levels for the congregation which was hugely helpful and created a fun atmosphere.
Things to Watch Out for in Audio
It is important to make sure that all of your levels are right, that nothing is ever going to clip. Ideally, the microphones would only capture what they are pointed at, but this was impossible for us. We just do the best we can within the parameters of a live recording.
The Sound of the Room
The live recording room is our ‘church building’. It is not a great recording room, due to the parallel walls mostly. But you make do with what you have. We were able to hire a big curtain which killed a lot of the slapback delay issues.
We used Sony Alpha A7 cameras of various editions, we had three roaming and one on a tripod, the one on the tripod was super handy in editing because it never moves, this means you always have a camera angel to go back to if there is nothing interesting happening on other camera angels. It is a good idea to get some b-roll in case you don’t have a good angel of what is happening in the shot so you can cut it in later. The three roaming cameras were close up on whoever the camera operator thought was doing something interesting.
A lesson learned
Something we realised in editing was that you need to stagger when the cameras move to a new spot because everyone naturally moves when the song changes section, Ie chorus to bridge which means you don’t have any camera angles at that time, it’s funny to watch this flurry of movement on a Multicam screen.
Shooting in SLOG3
The Sony Cameras used SLOG3 which makes everything look really flat and grey but gives a lot of room in post to make things really awesome and I highly recommend doing that.
The Design Aspect
CityLight has a look; the stage particularly was designed to be low and natural-looking. The background of the stage is made of cheap lamps and tables from op shops and there are bookshelves full of books. The effect is that it looks like a lounge room, like someone’s home, and that’s what church is: a family gathering. so we wanted to have that feeling in the recording.
Taking a Stage and Turning it into a Circle
So we took what is normally straight and made it round, it took forever and we had to build it really high because the wall behind looked really ugly on its own. I made sure to make it known that everyone could come to the event, it wasn’t a youth thing. We had everyone from young children to much older people there, which was fantastic. We wanted it to represent the diversity of our community.
There are little things that are a part of the set that are Easter eggs for CityLight people, like the jar of red hotrods, a clock set to 5:15 (when our service starts), these things are fun things that people probably don’t notice.
Lighting this was tough because what looks good in real life (yellow light), doesn’t look good on camera. White light looks clinical like a hospital, but it is what you have to use, and you need the room to be well lit if you are going to video. We had some set lighting, like lamps but we had to make sure they were fairly dim, there were also overhanging lights which had a manual dimmer so that they wouldn’t affect the video but just look cool. We used an LED light behind the lead singer’s head which makes a glow around them and is a very cool outlining effect. The main lighting though was from three softboxes hanging overhead. The cost was $70 for two, bulbs included, from Ebay. We just used a regular rope to tie them to the ceiling.
Setting up the night before
We had everything set up the night before and practiced (this is when the lighting was setup and a promo for the night was filmed). We made sure all the tempos were right, everyone set up their foldbacks using the handy iPhone app. This was really the only chance to test everything and was extremely useful.
What Went Wrong on the night
The band was struggling to play the bridge in the song Worthy. Someone suggested changing the tempo and take a break for a bit. We didn’t want to lose momentum but we decided it was needed. When we came back we were able to get it right (although the song will forever be recorded faster than we intended it).
Recording it is the easy part, then you have to do everything else.
The bass and guitar were both recorded as dry signal and then re-amped later on in a home studio. Basically what you do is take the dry signal, run it to an amp and then record the amp with a microphone. It means we didn’t have to have the bass or electric pick up in any of the other microphones which was really useful for mixing.
We did some overdubs. Some of the harmonies, the glockenspiel were done later. We aren’t perfect and so sometimes we need to do stuff again and I am thankful that we can. I’m really glad we were able to keep the congregational singing as is and we didn’t have to re-record that.
Mixing and Mastering
The next part is mixing which involves taking all of the tracks and mixing them together, in terms of volume, panning effects and really anything else involving how the instruments relate to each other. Having multiple drummers increased the difficulty of this task. We also had the tracks mastered which involves some simple things like making sure the tracks are the right volume next to each other, but also that they sound like they belong in the same set of recordings.
The video editing process was super fun, we had the four camera views open in Final Cut and you can watch it and live cut to different takes. The main considerations are, ‘who is playing something interesting’, ‘cutting in time with the music’ and ‘what camera angle looks best’. We used some b-roll when we didn’t have anything to cut to.
The Design Aspect
Part of releasing the EP was making an album cover, something. We neglected to take any photos at the event unfortunately and so we had to take a still frame from the video. We really wanted the album cover to capture the people in the room together.
Your church can do this!
Your church can do this. There is nothing stopping you and we hope you are encouraged to write and record music from reading this.