My sister gave birth to a son (Ezra) in October of this year, and shortly afterwards I got the idea for The Project: I would go around Massachusetts and Rhode Island and record family and friends singing or otherwise performing children's songs. Then I would make a bunch of CDs of the result and give them to my sister's family and also to everyone who participated in The Project.
The Project was brought to a successful conclusion the week before Christmas, with twenty-seven recorded tracks from twelve different people (some in groups, some performing alone). Huzzah! Also, it has now been played for Ezra and it didn't make him cry or anything, so that's a win.
How I recorded stuff
My father gave me a Zoom PS02 three-track digital recorder for my birthday, and I used that to record everything. For most of the songs I used a vocal microphone with a 1/4 inch jack that plugged right into the PS02 and recorded everything on a single track. Then I removed the SmartMedia card from the PS02, transferred the files (which were in the .aud file format) to my Mac using a USB SmartMedia card reader, converted to .wav using a script paracelsvs wrote for me, then clipped out extraneous stuff at the beginning and end of the sound file and converted to mp3 using an ancient copy of SoundJam MP3. (If anyone out there reading this actually owns a PS02, the filter I used was built-in filter #21, the 'RCKVCL' one if I remember right.)
There were two tracks where I actually made use of the PS02's ability to record multiple tracks (recording initially the guitar part, then vocal and other parts on other tracks). For these, I made the recordings using the PS02's built-in microphone, then transferred the tracks separately to my Mac, and finally mixed them using Audacity, a free software mixer.
The remaining exceptions were the two tracks I recorded with Chris Monti, where we miked everything separately and put it through his mixer and then to the PS02 using a quarter-inch cable. Other than the recording means this was basically the same as option one and I dealt with the resulting recording the same way as above.
After I had the mp3s, I used MacMP3Gain so that all the tracks would be around the same volume. (Someone had told me about this utility while I was putting together the Interrobang Cartel album Needs More Wanger.) Finally, I used iTunes to burn the CDs (using a USB iomega ZipCD 650 I got for Christmas a couple of years ago).
A couple of the tracks ended up with an unacceptable level of hum or buzz on them (I think a combination of environmental noise and a quiet performance) and couldn't be used, but those exceptions aside I was surprised at and very happy with the quality of the recordings.
Getting people to record
In general everyone I talked to wanted to contribute, including some people like my mother who I wasn't sure would want to. There were still a few hurdles, though ...
I knew that the people I wanted to record were not, by and large, professional musicians, and I especially knew that I was very far from being a professional recording engineer. But for me the point was that I was recording people, not just songs, so if the recording quality wasn't professional quality or the performances contained the odd mistake then that was OK with me as long as the songs were still fun to listen to and the quality of the people being recorded came through. (Of course I still wanted to get the quality to be as good as I could with the materials I had on hand, but I wanted to make it as easy for the people I was recording as possible, so that I could set up, record, and break down again in as little as half an hour.)
The musicians themselves didn't necessarily have the same vision, though, and (quite reasonably) wanted to present the best possible performance, so when I tried to set up times to record them initially they would put me off saying that they wanted more time to select the songs they wanted to record and to practice. This is setting aside more prosaic problems like people getting the flu or getting snowed in and so on. The result was that while I had hoped to finish all the recordings by the end of November in reality I did the last of the recordings the weekend of December 14.
One aspect of this was that I learned that everyone disliked their own recordings. On the other hand, I think everyone liked the end result, so there you go.
I should also note that I am a total hypocrite, and that while I wanted to go in and record one-take shots of my relatives and friends recording random songs that came to their minds when it came to recording my own song I used multiple tracks and did a whole bunch of takes of each track until everything was just right, or at least sounded acceptable to me.
I wanted to provide pretty minimal guidance on what people recorded, although I broke the rule a couple of times (I specifically requested that my cousin Johnny record the 'Three Little Pigs' song and 'Billy Barlow', which he did). This worked out well, and resulted in some pleasant surprises, as when a friend of the family provided a completely unexpected and charming a capella rendition of 'Petit Chat Noir'. I was a bit concerned when a group of friends recorded a bunch of Christmas songs, though, as I wanted the CD not to be season-specific, and you don't necessarily want to be listening to Christmas music in the middle of August. My solution was to put the songs on a separate CD, copies of which went to my sister's family and the people who had recorded the Christmas tunes. This seemed to work out fine.
Putting the tracks in order
I think that the order of the tracks on a CD does make a difference, even if there isn't an obvious thematic progression. (Some people are skeptical of this.) As a result, I spent a fair amount of time fooling around with the order and listening to the result before going with the final ordering. I don't have much to say about this process except that one strategy I considered and rejected pretty early on was putting songs by a particular person all together -- in some ways this would have been more convenient but I decided it would make the CD a bit too balkanized. (As a nod to the fact that you might want to listen to all the songs by, say, my great-uncle Tony, in order, I put a list of the performers and which tracks each performed on inside the CD booklet.)
I wanted the cover to reflect the fact that this was children's music, but I didn't want to do something like putting a picture of Ezra himself on it. The idea at the back of my head was that I would get out my crayons and do a drawing of a dinosaur similar to the ones I did when I was elementary school. (Doing drawings like that is like riding a bike -- you never forget how to do it.) Of course I had to wait until all the recordings were done and I had figured out what the track orderings were.
Then, a week before Christmas, I went out to lunch and managed to lock myself out of my car with the motor still running. I fortunately was parked in front of a stationery store, and the proprietor generously allowed me to use his phone to call AAA. While I was waiting, I bought some paper and some multi-colored Sharpies and came up with this:
That evening, I used the Sharpies to create more abstract designs for the CD label and back of the booklet. Then I used ClarisWorks to put together more informative and legible stuff for the back of the CD case and the inside of the booklet. The outside of the booklet had a fairly big 'bleed area' so that if things weren't lined up quite right I wouldn't end up with a big ugly white border anywhere; despite this I had to do a few test printings followed by some adjustments to the placement of things in the documents I was printing to make the stuff in the booklet line up right. My previous experience putting together Interrobang Cartel CDs was helpful here -- if I hadn't done this previously I'm sure I would have made even more mistakes.
The booklet and jewel case insert were printed on standard white card stock and cut out using scissors (at least until I wised up and bought a cheap paper cutter at Staples). The CD labels were printed out using a Fellowes Neato label-making kit.
And there you have it.
I probably was too dry and technical in the above, but this was a really fun project and I had a great time recording everyone. There were some people I ended up not getting recordings from, either because they ended up being too busy or because they don't live in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, so who knows? I may end up doing another one of these some time.
Ah. And ...
Here are some samples of what we recorded:
- My cousin David playing and singing 'The Lion Song'
- My cousin Robin playing and singing 'Cindy'
- Chris Monti and I playing 'Shortnin' Bread'
- Me playing and singing 'C-H-I-C-K-E-N'
- Friends of the family Bob, Sarah, Diana, and Mary singing 'Fooba Wooba'
- My great-uncle Tony singing 'My Owlet'
- My father singing 'Ship In The Sky'
- My mother and I singing 'You Are My Sunshine'
- My cousin Johnny singing 'Three Little Pigs'
- Friend of the family Sarah singing 'Petit Chat Noir'