Top 5 Production Tips For Solo-Artists w/ Shroud Ritual
Wanna get a head-start on making your own album sound as awesome as possible? Don’t skip these steps.
Shroud Ritual‘s Five Suns was one of the most welcome surprises of the year, the debut album gracefully traversed prog, black, death, and everything in between, however perhaps the biggest surprise was that it was written, recorded, mixed, and mastered all by one young artist from Washington D.C. Today, we get some insight into the making of the record from it’s creator Patrick, who has also kindly given you his Top 5 tips on how to self-produce your own metal masterpiece.
Hi Patrick, Five Suns has incredible compositional depth for a debut, how long have you been playing music?
I think I started playing guitar when I was about 10. I took jazz and theory lessons in high school, but I wasn’t as committed as I should have been because I didn’t immediately see the relevance of the material to the music I was listening to. You can’t just roll up to your jazz teacher and say, “Yeah, but how does the guitarist from Cryptopsy use this?” Once I finished college in 2012, I had the space and spare time to go back and relearn some of that material, and to sit down and analyze songwriting and theory in albums that I found interesting. That’s what provided the initial impetus to create Shroud Ritual.
Do you have a preference for a particular instrument?
The only instrument I have any training or real experience in is the guitar, so that’s where most of my ideas start. That being said, I actually enjoy writing bass, keyboard/synth and drum parts a lot more. I usually make a song blueprint, and then I write all the instruments one section at a time, starting with the guitars. Once the guitars are written, I’m free to play around with the phrasing, dynamics, and melodies of the other instruments, so they represent a bit more of an open creative process.
You handled the production on your own too, right? Could you give us a brief rundown of that process for us?
Right- I recorded, mixed and mastered Five Suns myself in my home studio, for better or worse. I started learning about audio engineering via the Andy Sneap forum three or four years ago, and spent a lot of time practicing before I felt comfortable enough to do an album by myself. The guitars and bass were all recorded in Cockos Reaper using a Kemper profiler; the drums are Superior Drummer. I wrote about 40% of the drums from scratch, and the rest are heavily modified Toontrack MIDI patterns. Acoustic guitars are a mediocre old Yamaha through a $50 MXL microphone. Keyboards and synths are software instruments. The only area where I spent a lot of money was the Kemper, which I bought used. Process-wise, I decided early on how I wanted the project to sound – massive and dense, but pretty clear and not over-produced – and molded the instrument sounds and signal flow to fit that, starting with the drums, followed by the guitars, bass, and other instruments.
Was it a conscious decision to experiment with several sub-genres within the songs on the album? The diversity of influence seemed quite broad, who are some of the artists who’ve had the most profound impact on your music?
The mix of genres isn’t deliberate per se – I could sit down and try to write a straight-up grindcore album and still somehow end up with parts that sound like King Crimson, whether I want them in there or not, because that’s what sounds interesting to me – but it is reflective of my personal tastes. I’d say my riffs and songwriting are most influenced by bands like Opeth, Enslaved, Artificial Brain, Deafheaven, Intronaut, and Between the Buried and Me. I also love Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, Tortoise, and other decidedly un-kvlt music.
For the most part, albums tend to evoke a definite sense of either introspection or external outlook for me, but Five Suns tended to feel a little more ambiguous in that sense, oscillating between the two moods throughout the songs. Would you say the music is more derived from looking within yourself or looking externally?
The thematic center of the album is mostly external, but I tried to play around with the arrangements, melodies, and styles to shift between very majestic and baroque sounds (first half of ‘Celestial Dome’) and more grounded and personal ones (most of ‘Verdant’). Through the album title, the track names, and the overall flow, I was trying to suggest an exploration of human creation myths in different cultures. We’re still talking about an instrumental debut record record, so that might sound massively pretentious, but that’s the general idea.
Can you tell us a little bit about the album’s artwork?
Totally. The artwork is by Luciana Nedelea, who is a Romanian artist who’s done artwork for a number of extreme metal bands, including Mare Cognitum and Ghost Bath. I found out about her back in 2014 via Mare Cognitum’s album Phobos Monolith, which has this gorgeous, brightly colored piece for the album cover. Her work tends to alternate between pieces that look like that Mare Cognitum record and much more earthy, black-and-white material where the aesthetics pretty strongly suggest a black metal influence. The Five Suns album cover is a piece she had previously done called ‘In the Heart of the Woods’. It doesn’t bear any special significance in relation to the music, but I try to imbue my songs with a sort of ethereal, dream-like quality, and her work in general and this piece in particular seemed like a perfect fit.
Now let’s move on to your topic for today, you’re going to take us through your Top 5 Production Tips For Solo-Artists…
With the caveat up front that I’m certainly no Ihsahn or Devin Townsend, I did learn some important lessons while making Five Suns that I think are generally applicable to solo artists, particularly in the extreme metal camp:
#5. Don’t Forget The Last Mile
I realized when I was 95% done with Five Suns that there was a whole set of things to which I hadn’t given much thought: Who was going to make the band logo? How do I decide what bit depth to dither to since there’s no physical release? Which streaming services and distribution company (Distrokid, CD Baby, etc.) should I choose? What price point should I set on Bandcamp? (The answers: me, in GIMP, poorly; 44.1/16 bit; Distrokid; free, for more exposure). Some of these get resolved by a label, but most people don’t start from the bottom working with one. So even when you’re pining to get your release out there, take some time to think about the intermediate-term decisions that are going to affect who ends up listening to your release and how. I still sort of have no idea what I’m doing, but at least I now know what to work on.
#4. Take Notes On Everything
The songwriting process is different for everybody, but I often come up with ideas while I’m away from my guitar, so I use the audio recorder app on my phone to verbally narrate ideas I can come back to later. You’ll feel like an idiot recording it, especially if you’re in public, but it does work. Similarly, keep text notes in your audio workstation, or in a Word document or sticky notes app. Keep notes on song titles, lyrical themes, or theory ideas- any of it might become useful later. This is especially important as a solo artist, where there isn’t the same degree of interplay that emerges from multiple musicians practicing in a room together. You have to approximate that process by dialoguing with yourself over time, and notes are the best way I’ve found to achieve that. Plus, your studio will look like Guy Pearce’s apartment in Memento.
#3. Learn New Tricks
I watch a lot of YouTube videos on guitar techniques, music theory, and audio engineering. Whether it’s reframing something you already know or exploring something new, having that impulse to acquire mastery of a new tool in your repertoire can prevent your creative process and your music from getting stale.
#2. Fake Drums Need Extra Attention
Drums are incredibly important. From an engineering standpoint, they provide the meat in your metal sandwich that holds in the guitars and bass. From an instrumental metal songwriting standpoint, they provide texture in the center of the stereo field that replaces the vocals. So if you’re programming software drums, take the time to really nail the sound you’re shooting for, and to take a second or third pass over each song to switch up the beats, play with the velocities, and make things sound both human and interesting. I spent hours watching YouTube videos of my favorite drummers (Danny Walker, Blake Richardson, Gavin Harrison) with the speed slowed down to watch what they were playing, how hard they were hitting, and what was feasible for a real drummer. It’s a slog, but the results pay dividends.
#1. Make Everything Interesting By Itself
I saw an interview with Kerry McCoy from Deafheaven a few years ago where he said that he works on each riff until the point at which that riff, played by itself, is interesting enough to hold the listener’s attention. That seemed like great advice, so I tried to follow it when I wrote Five Suns. It forces you to write better riffs, but also to slow down and ask, “What will the other instruments do during this part to make it sound even more [brutal/grim/eldritch]?” The immediate upshot is that you feel better about the quality of your musical output, but the end result is that people won’t get bored and turn off your album after ten minutes, which is a nice perk.
That’s it for another week. Make sure you pick up Five Suns from Shroud Ritual’s Bandcamp page, it’s still Name Your Price but definitely swing him some coin for this amazing album. And if you’re broke and have to cop it for free, at least give him one of your thumbs on Facebook for these tips.
Previously On The Friday Guest List
Everlasting Spew Records head Giorgio coughed up the Top 5 Bands He’d Love To Sign.