Chapter 2: Sam Gallagher: Turning a good song into a great record
Text: Tirza de Fockert
For Sam Gallagher, a song is only finished when it has been properly recorded and mixed. Since he got a 4-track recorder for his fifteenth birthday, the very productive Tribe of Noise-artist has recorded over 200 of his own songs and produced more than ten albums for other musicians. Nowadays he has a professional studio built in his home and makes a living by recording, mixing and producing other artists, as well as his own music.
Sam in his studio (photo by Edward Gallagher)
A good recording is not about how extensive your studio set-up is, but how creatively you use it. Even with limited resources, you can make a great song. You just have to be creative with your ideas and do the best you can with what you have. When I moved from my 4-track recorder to 24 tracks I would come to the point that I had used them all and think: “Oh I want something else”. The big danger is that you easily make a song too bulky.
You can build a proper home studio for less than £ 2000. That may sound like a lot of money, but you pay much more if you rent a professional studio. And I would say that my home-set-up is as good as, if not better, than some professional studios I have used in the past. The key components of my current studio are a MacPro, an audio-interface, different microphones and recording software called Logic Pro, which only costs around £ 140. Not only does it allow you to record all the audio through a microphone into a computer, it also has a great range of virtual instruments and additional sounds. You can do nearly anything you need within that one program.
When you are recording, always play to a metronome. It just makes it so much easier to edit when everybody plays in time. And really, unless you play something like free-jazz, a song just sounds much more confident when it is actually in time.
It is difficult to know when you have to stop tinkering with a song. Sometimes, until you play a song to somebody else, you don’t really know if something has too much going on. Traffic Lights was a song that just started to get bigger and bigger in sound. When I played it to my brother, he said: “You know, that’s just a really great song, but all those big guitars and drums only distract from it.” That was really difficult. I thought: “OK, I was quite attached to all that.” I build up a song in a certain way, and then get used to the way it sounds. But when I mixed it again with just acoustic guitar and vocals, I realized that freeing it from all those extra sounds did make the song better.
Mixing has a vital impact on making a song great, much more than the quality of the actual recording. Mixing is where all the sounds come together. It is where you give it the punch and the effect it is going to have on people. Putting the vocal not too loud or to quiet, or getting the drums on the proper volume. Seemingly little things like that will determine the atmosphere of a song, and whether it will grab you or not.
Being quite ruthless in the production process is something I have learned over the years. If a song does not need to be longer than 3 minutes, it won’t be. This is particularly important when you are mixing and editing, as you can quickly decide what you do and don’t need in the song. When I first started recording on my 4-track, I would have just put in every idea I could think of. Whereas now, with unlimited track possibilities, I am often removing instruments rather than putting more in.
Any idea you have is worth keeping. I always carry around some type of device on which I can record sounds or lyrics. I have recorded hundreds of ideas that I would have lost otherwise. You never know what can inspire a good song. The song Amy started as a joke between me and a girl I met on MySpace. I was going to write her a poem about her orange hair and how it was on fire, that kind of stuff. That poem turned into a song. When I finished recording it, it had become this epic, anthemic rock song. This was for a girl I never met in real life, we just had a few brief chats. Amy herself was a bit blown away by it, I think. She must have thought I was totally, madly in love with her.
Writing with other people is a great way to take your music to another level. A guy added me as a friend on Tribe of Noise, and we actually ended up doing some songwriting together. He lives in England, so we e-mail back and forth. I really value writing songs with other people. You end up with a result that neither of you would have gotten on your own. So I’m trying to write with as many people as I can, constantly.
Would you like to know more about recording, building your own studio, or how to keep your producer happy? Or would you like to do some songwriting with Sam? Get in touch with him through his Tribe of Noise page here