June 15, 2023
There’s no shortage of reasons to strip down songs and make minimalistic versions. Whether it’s to adjust for a solo or duo gig, make home recording easier, or just offer something different to fans, putting out an unplugged album is a time-tested strategy – and it usually works like gangbusters.
There are many reasons unplugged material works; stripping away production lends authenticity to the songs, removing current production tricks helps recordings stay timeless, and sometimes, it’s simply a matter of being able to hear the lyrics clearly. Plus, a more modern advantage is that unplugged recordings can easily be filmed to create a compelling live performance video for social media.
So, here are a few strategies for planning and executing your unplugged album.
It seems obvious to say to write songs, but modern production techniques mean songs are often written and recorded piecemeal, alongside producing, mixing, and other technical stuff. But to get a stripped-down, authentic performance, you need whole songs. You’ll need new songs if you’re doing a new project, or you’ll need to make sure arrangements are tight if you’re re-imagining older material. Either way, start the old-fashioned way – far from the studio with your guitar (or piano or whatever!) and a notebook. This approach will help solidify songs you intend to fully produce later too.
Obviously, the term “unplugged” has taken on a loose meaning. If you watch the iconic MTV Unplugged performance with Nirvana, all the guitars are electro-acoustic guitars. And you can’t record audio without power. So, when you start planning your unplugged album, it helps to define what you mean by unplugged. Will you play every song live with an acoustic guitar with no pickup and only mics? Or is it ok to lay down guitars and overdub vocals? Maybe your definition of unplugged really means minimalistic, and you’re ok with electronic elements if your vocals are still raw and in your face. Whatever it is, it’s helpful to define your parameters ahead of time.
Even in a stripped-down performance, you can use studio trickery to get it done if you’re having trouble performing a great take from start to finish. But it’s a lot more fun and makes for a wholly more authentic and moving end result if you can really perform the song. So, once you’ve written or arranged the songs, practice them like you’re getting ready for a live gig.
There’s a reason modern production techniques and full bands tend to get more attention when people make records. After all, 12 songs of the same instrument and voice can get tedious. So, if you’re putting together a whole unplugged album, you’ll have to put more effort into remaining interesting. You can do this in many ways. Expand your songwriting repertoire, learn different playing and vocal styles, change out instruments, or add subtle extras like a guest strings player or vocalist. Since the point is to remain minimal production-wise, you’ll have to think in purely musical terms to retain interest, rather than technically.
One thing that helps is putting together a potential stripped-down live set, keeping this kind of interest in mind. In this case, think more about putting on a compelling show, rather than being a jukebox in a bar where no one really interacts. If you can keep a show compelling and fresh, you can translate that into an unplugged album that remains interesting to listeners.
Once you’re done planning, writing, and practicing, you’ll need to actually record your project. The great thing about an unplugged album is this can be incredibly simple. If you’re playing an acoustic guitar with a pickup and singing one vocal, for example, you could do the whole thing in an afternoon with a two-channel audio interface.
You may want to bone up on recording an acoustic guitar before you get started, and a refresher on recording vocals at home wouldn’t hurt either. In the end, though, keeping it simple is best. Make sure the room you’re recording in sounds good, and if it doesn’t, set up a small remote recording rig somewhere else. A friend’s house, a church, a rehearsal space – or, of course, an actual recording studio. Studio time may not be cheap hourly, but without all the bells and whistles, things go much quicker (especially if you’re well-rehearsed).
Recording an “unplugged” or stripped-down song or album can be incredibly rewarding. It can help you grow as a performer, especially if you’re used to studio productions, it can connect you better to fans, and it can open creative avenues that you might miss if you never turn off the synths, plugins, amps, and gizmo-whatsits in the studio. So go ahead, give your unplugged masterpiece a whirl.
September 15, 2023
August 18, 2023
It’s not like the guitar is ever boring. But sometimes you just want to branch out and see what else you can accomplish. This is true if you’re in a noise band or hyper-experimental act, but it’s also true if you’re in a straight-ahead rock band looking to add a few crazy moments to your show or record. So, let’s look at a few advanced effects you can try for that experimental vibe.
July 31, 2023
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