Breaking the Record with Roan Yellowthorn, Part 2: Preproduction

Breaking The Record 2020
Breaking The Record 2020
Jackie McLean of the indie band Roan Yellowthorn grants us an inside look at the making of an album from start to finish in her ‘Breaking The Record’ column.
Stream: “We Just Disagree” – Roan Yellowthorn

Our first day of recording our new album is rapidly approaching! Until then, we’ve had a lot to do. Our producer John Agnello connected us via email to the players who will be playing on the album and one of the first things we did was make chord charts to share with the group. Well, I didn’t make the chord charts. Shawn did. To be honest, I don’t know any formal music theory. It’s a goal of mine to learn. I play and write entirely by ear. This means that, for now, it takes me a super long time to translate what I write into chords that have actual names. Luckily, my partner Shawn knows his way around a keyboard and, more importantly, is a pro at using the music editing software Logic (he produced our first album, Indigo on it). Once we recorded all of our demos on Logic, Shawn went through and looked at the midi (keyboard) tracks to figure out the chords for each song. Then, he made chord and lyric charts for each one and shared the whole bunch in google docs with the group. It was a lot of work and he’s my hero for doing it.

Just jumping into the Breaking The Record series documenting the making of our album from start to finish? Read part 1 here!

This brings me to the other thing we did, which was to record all of the songs as final demos. The first step was recording rough tracks (just me playing keyboard and singing recorded on my phone’s voice app), and sending them to John. After that, he sent back emails, going song-by-song, with suggestions for structural tweaks to make on each one as well as other notes like reference tracks to pull from for the mood and vibe of each song. We also spoke on the phone a bunch to talk more in detail about ideas for the songs and plans for the album, as a whole.

Once we settled on all of the changes and tweaks to the demos, Shawn and I went back to re-record final versions with a cleaner setup – we made a little studio in the corner of our piano room, my keyboard on a stand by the window, mic on a stand in front of me, Shawn adjacent with the laptop (Logic program pulled up), and his Scarlett preamp set up nearby. He engineered the session to a metronome and we recorded every song to the new specifications.

This part was a serious challenge for me. I had a really hard time understanding how to implement the demo changes because my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way. In my mind, I see the finished songs as whole entities, and it took a lot of concentration for me to be able to reframe the songs in my head with the structural parts labeled and identified in order to understand what changes to make. Even then it wasn’t easy for me to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Roan Yellowthorn is Jackie McLean and Shawn Strack
Roan Yellowthorn is Jackie McLean and Shawn Strack

This is where Shawn and I make a great team. He sees space in a completely different way than I do and knows all of our songs very well. Thankfully, completely understood what changes to make and how, technically, to make them. He went through all of the songs with me, step by step, and we did each one. Over two nights doing this together, we re-recorded them all.

Once these piano and vocal parts were recorded, Shawn took the setup to our practice space in our basement (where his drum kit lives) and added drum parts to each song. This took a long time. He was up all night for two nights in a row re-writing and recording drum parts to fit with the new and adjusted demos. After many hours, the drum parts were done and demos were finally done, too!

Now that the demos are finished, I just have to practice the new versions of my songs so that I can play and sing them confidently in the studio. And I definitely need to get started on that because time is going by fast and soon we’ll be making the album!

Before then, we have to pack up all of our equipment, pack up suitcases for a week, pack everything our kids will need while they’re with their grandparents for a week, tie up any loose ends we have left, and drive down to the studio, about 5 hours from where we live. At the same time, we’re coordinating lots of other stuff. Shawn and I are planning out what video material we want to capture while we’re in the studio (both professionally and on our phones), we’re sending out tons of emails each day to book the tour that will follow our summer album release, we’re working on getting an additional musician to tour with us, and we’re researching PR options for the new album, among other things. There are a lot of moving parts and I’m truly grateful for every single one. This is exactly where I want to be.

Next week – in the studio!

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We Just Disagree - Roan Yellowthorn

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