Producing a Taiko Album

In this article, I break down the production of a taiko album into 6 steps: Planning, Pre-Production, Recording, Mixing, Mastering, and Distribution.  I describe what’s involved in each of the steps, and how they affect the quality of the final product.

Producing a Taiko Album?

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1. Planning

I would say this step is perhaps the most important in determining the overall outcome.  I’ve broken down the Planning phase into the following steps:

  1. Define Success – What is the desired outcome of the album?  If the goal is to make money, how many units do we want to sell?  Or, are we creating a demo that will generate more exposure and gigs? Are we trying to give back to the community that supports us?  Or, are we trying to document a specific point in our musical career? Without a clear, concrete definition of success, we’re setting ourselves up to be eternally unhappy.
  2. Choose Songs – Sometimes it makes more sense to record a Single (one song) or an EP (4-5 songs) than a Full Album (10+ songs).  For example, if a group wants to record a demo that will get them more exposure and gigs, a Single might be enough.  The less material, the more time, energy, and money you will be able to devote to each song.
  3. Decide On a Process – Where are you going to record?  Is it at a recording studio, a theatre, or a practice space?  Will you record each song in one take, or will there be edits and overdubs? What gear do you have available?  Who will record, mix, and master the recordings?
  4. Go Back – Once you’ve thought all of this through, go back to your definition of success, and think about whether the finished product is going to align with your goal.  Go through each of the steps numerous times, until you’re able to visualize the entire process in your mind.

2. Pre-Production

In the Pre-Production phase, we’re getting everything ready to make sure everything goes as planned. There are three main things you want to be sure are in place:

  1. Venue – This is the venue where you will be recording.  Did you book the right date(s) and the right amount of time?
  2. People – Are all the performers, engineers, and staff going to be able to make it?
  3. Equipment – Are all the drums and recording gear going to be available for the entire duration of the recording session?  If there’s going to be rentals, how are we going to pick them up and return them?

This all sounds simple and straightforward. Actually making it all happen is a lot of work.

3. Recording

This is where we actually record the taiko album.  It’s important to know what can and can’t be done in the studio, and how this affects the production process from here on.

We CAN record a song in sections. If a song has a long pause in the middle, we can record up to that part of the song, take a break, and record the rest of the song.

We CAN record instruments separately. We don’t have to play all the instruments like we would in a performance. For example, we can record a person playing the ji, and record a fue solo on top of it later on.  It’s important to note that we lose some of the spontaneity when we do this.

We CAN combine various takes and make it sound like a single performance. In the aforementioned fue solo, we can have the performer play his or her solo several times.  We can then take phrases from each of the various solos, and combine them so that it sounds like one take. This technique will work better on a single instrument recorded to a click.

We CAN adjust the volume, but we CAN’T adjust the timbre. The drums need to be played with the same loudness you want reflected in the recording. We can’t play the drums soft and turn the volume up later on or vice versa. Here’s why:

If we record a person shouting, we can tell the person is shouting even if we turn the volume way down.  That’s because the timbre of the human voice changes when we go from whispering, to talking, to shouting  It’s the same thing with drums – a drum played softly has a different timbre than a drum played loud.  We can adjust the volume of a recording in the studio, but we cannot change the timbre.

We CAN’T fix bad performances or bad recordings. There are a lot of things we can “fix in the mix” but there’s really no substitute for a good recording of a good performance.

4. Mixing

The Mixing phase is where we edit each song and apply various types of processing to make the songs sound the way we want them to.  If you don’t know a whole lot about mixing, I recommend outsourcing this step.  Here’s a basic overview of what’s involved:

  1. Remove Noise – This includes shuffling of feet, bachi clicking, etc.  We want to make sure we remove any unnecessary noise.
  2. Choose and Edit Takes – It’s a good idea to record each song multiple times (takes), so that you can choose which ones to use.  Depending on the circumstances, you can combine takes.  For example, if you like the first half of one take and the second half of another take, we might be able to edit the two so that they sound like a single take.
  3. Processing – Processing typically refers to Equalization, Compression, Reverb, and Panning.  These processing effects are usually used to create a clearer, more natural sound – but they can also be used to completely alter the recordings into something new.

“Sanctuary” on my taiko album IK was originally recorded as three separate songs – a shime solo, a chudaiko solo, and a shakuhachi solo.  The shakuhachi part that you hear playing throughout is a completely unrelated piece of music that I decided to overlay during the Mixing process.

The album would have sounded completely different, had I stuck with the original idea of three separate solo tracks.  This is just one example of how the Mix can have a significant impact on the final product.

5. Mastering

As with Mixing, if you aren’t too familiar with Mastering, I recommend outsourcing this to an expert.

During the Mastering stage we’re trying to create an overall continuity of the album by eliminating any jumps in volume between songs, and creating the right amount of space between the end of one song and the beginning of the next.

Ideally, the Mix Engineer and Mastering Engineer are two different people. The Mix Engineer works on the micro details of each song, while the Mastering Engineer works on the macro, overall flow of the entire album.  This gets a fresh set of ears working on your album and improves the quality of the finished product.

6. Distribution

The distribution phase is where you decide the formats and marketplaces you want your taiko album to be available. More channels usually mean higher costs, but not necessarily more sales.

I find it helps to go back to your initial objective of creating the album in the first place.  Think about whether setting up a particular distribution channel gets you closer to your initial goal, and whether it is worth the cost.

  1. Do you need physical albums? Physical albums are difficult to sell, and are rather expensive to manufacture.  Do you have a plan for getting a sufficient return on investment?
  2. Do you need iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify? If most of the people purchasing your taiko album are people you know, it doesn’t make sense to pay iTunes or Amazon a share of each sale. Set up a “Buy” button on Paypal and sell downloads of the album yourself.

If you decide you need either or both, here are links to the most popular providers:

Hopefully this article shed some light on the process of producing a taiko album from conception to final product.  If you’re interested in producing your own album, please feel free to reach out with any questions you might have.