Monday, August 11, 2014

Growing An Album

One of the most spectacular feelings I’ve ever experienced happened while I was working at the Walt Disney Company in Feature Animation when I created a polished demo CD of music that I had written.

About ten years earlier, while I was living at any number of beaches in Southern California, I had been actively writing songs.  It actually started much earlier during my junior year in high school.  As many kids of my generation had discovered, I had found that by doubling up on recording equipment, audio or video, I could edit pieces of things together.  This included hopping from one VHS tape for video to another, and also worked with using two audio tape decks.  The editing was a bit clumsy and there would remain artifacts of all sorts; rainbow streaks on video taped edits, and unsmooth transitions of audio cuts.  Oh, where was Apple’s GarageBand at the time?

My Casio Keyboard
With some more experimenting, I began to see that I could also overlay my voice using an input microphone while copying an audiotape from one machine to the next.  Pretty quickly I began to use this process to the maximum by playing an instrument, my cheap little Casio Keyboard or a guitar that I would painfully teach myself the few necessary chords to embellish a song, and I would sing at the same time while copying whatever I had already pre-taped to a second audio cassette recorder.  This process was far from optimal as during the copying of cassette tapes, there was an audible hiss, which would grow louder with every transfer.  So implementing three transfers (three overlays) was about the most that I could do without the hiss becoming unbearable.  I continued to create these recordings while either covering songs or writing my own short songs.  Because of their poor quality, I threw them out long ago. 

A couple of years later, a friend of mine bought himself a TEAC Tascam 244, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder Portastudio.  This was about a two foot wide by one and one half foot high recorder with four rows of mixing pans, pots, and faders.  You would put a plain audio-cassette into, and it would record input at about two times the speed of a regular audio cassette player, thereby improving the quality of the recording.  He also had two synthesizers, an electric bass, and a drum machine.  The first thing my friend did was to lay down keyboards, bass and drums for one of his favorite oldies, “Barbara Ann,” by the Beach Boys (and probably the Wrecking Crew), and then we put our harmonized vocals onto separate tracks.  His ability to record was at such an improved level to my ears as compared to my double cassette player transferring that buying one of these contraptions became an instant goal of mine. 

My TEAC Tascam 246
And after working the summer at Hughes Market as a box-boy, I was able to save the money to head down to West L.A. Music and buy the newest model; the TEAC Tascam 246, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder.  This newer model had now SIX rows of pans, pots and faders and a few more bells and whistles.  The other capability of these mixers at the time was that they allowed one to bounce tracks.  This meant that you could take a recorded track and then record it into a new track while adding instruments.  It was kind of the same idea as I was doing with my two cassette tape machines previously, but using the Tascam, you would maintain much better sound quality.  If you continually bounced tracks, then you would start to gain a hiss as well, but there were few times where I needed to bounce a track or two more than once.  Incidentally, at about the same time, Bruce Springsteen recorded his “Nebraska” album on the earlier Tascam 144 PortaStudio model, which I believe may have been the first model in the series.  So I figured I was in good company.

So I got to work experimenting with the recording process on my new mixer, which proved to be heavenly as compared to my prior technique.  And while I still only had a little battery operated Casio keyboard, I was able to lay down better sounding tracks.  This version I did of, “If I Only Had The Nerve” was one that I did with just three tracks; one vocal track, one keyboard track for main chords, and one for keyboard track for embellishments.  I should explain too that I went for an effeminate voice and sped up the vocal track in the end for effect on this little experiment.

My Roland D-20
I was soon off to U.S.C. and studying.  In between my classes I would write songs here and there and then realized, as everyone who is aware of what they could have, that if I bought a better keyboard, my songs might sound more professional.  So I went to West LA Music again and bought myself a Roland D-20 synthesizer, which was the lighter model of the Roland D-50.  The D-20 had 61 non-weighted keys and was capable of creating hundreds if not thousands of variations of sounds through programming, and had a drum machine on board as well.  I generally used the multitude of pre-programmed sounds to get the point across in my songs.  My only displeasure with the machine was that the keys weren’t weighted.  But it was a small price to pay for all of the new orchestral sounds I could access.

My Fender Jazz Bass
This new addition gave me a great sense of power over my song-creating because I could lay down strings, set a drum track. I also eventually bought two electric bass guitars, a Fender Jazz Bass, and a Warwick Buzzard Bass, and I taught myself how to play at least well enough to lay down parts for my songs.  The on-board sequencer could handle up to something like eight simultaneous instrument parts, which reduced the number of tracks I would need to use on my Tascam.  Now I could get a clean sound.  Three example of songs I did during this time were, “Why Did We Go Wrong?”, “Something’s Come Alive,” and “Tell Me Why.”  I must have made about thirty songs during these years, whose time span extended from about 1988 through 1995.  This period covered my years at U.S.C. through living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica and in the Venice Canals. 
My Warwick Buzzard
My goal was always to use my rough demos as blueprints.  I had friends who when they made music were so meticulous about getting everything correct and balanced that they seemed to get themselves stalled in the mud.  I always had it in mind that the musical gear I had served only the purpose of giving a rough illustration of what I might do with a song.  I always reserved the right in my head to take those rough demos to instrumentalists and vocalists later to polish them up.  I never saw myself as a performer or a musical technician; only a songwriter.  That is, a person who composed words and music.

During the time I was living at the beach, I was also able to get private song writing instruction from a very patient women named Robin Randall who was a teacher at an adult music school, and who had written myriads of songs, including some recorded by Jefferson Starship.  She and I would meet in her mother’s Hollywood home, a dark quasi-mansion of sorts at the top of Beachwood Canyon, and we would regularly work out some of my songs on her piano.  I always had a strong sense of melody and chord structure, as well as a natural understanding of how and where to use key changes.  However, my lyric writing when I began was not focused enough for songs to be sold as “popular songs.”  Though I essentially knew what my songs were about, their lyrics would meander with a style that was on the verge of free-verse and ultimately were not clear enough. 

Robin was able to help me narrow my focus to the story or idea that I was trying to tell about in my songs. She also helped me to find ways of shortening interludes that I naturally put into songs.  I had a tendency to put several instrumental breaks into my songs, a kind of, “place musical solo here,” peppered throughout my songs.  But, like the treatment of a screenplay, a song has to be concise enough to be able to sell it to a performing artist in one or two playings.  Then, at that point, they can do whatever they want with it.  Robin greatly improved my ability to express ideas in the musical medium in this way.

By about 2002, I was working in an area of The Walt Disney Company that was called, Special Projects.  My work ebbed and flowed a bit more than it had during the full on feature productions I had been working on up until then.  So I had more time for myself here and there and decided that I had enough time and money to pull four or five songs that I had written in the past fifteen years and demo them at a higher quality level. 

I found a music producer, Dave Waterbury, who had formerly been a touring guitarist for the band, Berlin, and who had a nice studio.  He played several instruments such as keyboards, a wicked guitar, bass, and he also had great recording equipment.  So I notated out my music sheets for each of the songs and hunted around for singers, some of whom I pulled from the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.  Concurrently, I was producing a short film called, “Jack’s Gift,” and we thought we might be able to use a song for the credits, so I wrote an additional, new song and included it in the batch of music I was producing.

I met with Dave at his studio once he had laid down some of the tracks, and they sounded great.  We pulled in the singers that I found and recorded.  It was an easy process because I had planned it all out pretty well; both the notation and the laying down of vocals and harmonies.

Ross Tompkins and me.
There was one song I had written a few years earlier as a jazz standard type of tune called, “How I Loved You.”  It was about a girl I dated at U.S.C.  I showed it to Dave, but it really needed professional acoustic jazz players.  So I hired my U.S.C. jazz instructor and four professionals he played the jazz circuit with and we recorded the song in a couple of takes.  These guys were true professionals. My heart raced as they played my tune. After this, I brought in Ross Tompkins, the piano player from, “The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson,” to come in and put a piano track on as an alternative.  I was very proud to have met and work with Mr. Tompkins.  He arrived in a gold Corvette and looked very tan.  That’s a day I won’t forget.

I also had a talented graphic designer friend at Disney, named John Alexander, who helped me create the CD cover templates and artwork.  He was very helpful and did a stellar job for me. 

I remember delivering my finished tracks to a CD replicating company in Burbank and being very excited about being close to finishing the whole process.  And when the boxes CD’s that I had ordered were ready, I brought them to my car, broke a box open, unwrapped the CD packaging, and loaded it into my Mustang’s CD player.  And here it was.  My project was finished.  I remember feeling a glee that I’ve never felt before.  This album was something I had totally created and had brought to fruition of my own doing in small, creative steps.  I thought to myself, “Pete Townshend has lived nearly his entire life doing this, and yet, this is my first time.”  It was very satisfying. 

In order to compare one of the songs I created on my TEAC Tascam PortaStudio with a finished demo, listen to “Something’s Come Alive,” and then compare it to the final demo of, “Come On Come On.”  By the time I put the polished demo onto my CD, I had rewritten many of the verses and retitled it.  But at heart, it’s the same song about the same subject; two people who meet and risk the fear of failure for one more chance at love.

All of the tracks are available on iTunes under the artist, “Fred Herrman.”  The five-song album is called, “Watercolers Over The Sea.”  The title is a remembrance of my time writing songs in the Sea Castle apartment and watching winter storms roll in over the ocean. 

And now, I think it’s time to write some more.  All of that old equipment that I had is long since gone.  So I just need a piano, a synthesizer, a guitar and an electric bass again…but then, I should really start with a pen and paper. 

I love the rainy days and stormy nights
The watercolors over the sea
The wind sweeping through the pane
Has made it possible for you and me