I consider Eric amongst the most gifted of musicians I've met, whether via the internet or in person. It is a privilege to know him. Individuals like Eric fascinate me, as they go about the world seeking to better the communities in which they reside.
Eric Endres has created for both the stage and in the recording studio. He is about ready to leave on tour throughout the western portion of the United States. His focus now is on providing education and entertainment for the youngest amongst us, our children. For his work with children, he uses the moniker of Eric Herman and the Invisible Band.
It is a privilege to know him and I'm grateful for the time he's taken to share his thoughts during these busy days. He's just released a new children's CD, in addition to everything else!
CS: Eric, we spoke some time ago about your first album, The Kid in the Mirror, which you'd released for children. Now you have a second album which you just released this year called Monkey Business. What was that like, creating a new album? After doing the first one, which direction did you want to go in for any future CDs? Did your goals change at all?
ERIC: Roseann (my wife and co-producer) and I really liked how The Kid in the Mirror turned out, and we had a very positive response from kids and adults for that, so we knew it would be tough to follow.
We challenged ourselves to create an album that was more involved, musically speaking, and also more upbeat and fun. And technically speaking, there were some definite goals for improvement. For example, we wanted to use drum loops as opposed to MIDI drums. The MIDI drums on The Kid in the Mirror are decent as far as MIDI drums go, but they just can't compare in realism to drum loops. And I wanted to play bass throughout Monkey Business, whereas on The Kid in the Mirror that was all MIDI bass. I'm not even sure why I didn't play real bass on The Kid in the Mirror. Just lazy or in a hurry, I guess. (laughs)
CS: Well, interestingly enough, kids so love what you do, I think they would never notice! In fact, there are so many delightful children's songs on both of your albums - honestly, I don't know how you come up with such creative material. Have you always been a kid at heart or how is it you are able to think from the perspective of kids?
ERIC: I have to give some credit for that to Kenn Nesbitt. Kenn is a writer of funny poetry for kids, and I've adapted poems of his for about half of the songs on both albums. When coming up with song ideas myself, I think it's a matter of observing and recalling what it's like to be a kid and finding special or funny aspects of that to write about.
CS: Of all the songs on this new CD, any favorites or funny stories?
ERIC: "Ants in a Lunchroom" has become a favorite, and that's unusual because it nearly got squashed at the first demo. The original demo had only the music and words, and Roseann and Kenn both felt it was too "heavy-metal" as it was. It was on the spec CD for a while, but Roseann kept saying that she thought it had to go, as it just wasn't funny enough to overcome the heaviness of it. But once I had the idea to add the ant voices in there, it made the heavy music fit perfectly in a cartoonish sense, and we all had a lot of fun recording the voices for that, most of which are Kenn's.
Another favorite is "The Monkeys", which stemmed almost directly from a show on Animal Planet that Becca (our daughter) was watching, where I heard monkeys making this screeching pattern that I copped for the chorus of the song. You never know where inspiration is going to come from! So we knew we wanted a song about monkeys, and where we went with it lyrically was fun for us to play with and seemed like an obvious choice. Kenn also helped in the arrangement of that, as he encouraged us to vary the rhythm and instrumentation throughout. I think the three of us have become a good 'team' for making the Eric Herman material work.
I wouldn't say "The Math Game" is really a favorite of ours, in fact we had reservations about even including it on the album... it was meant more as an experiment... but it's been strange for us to discover how many kids really love it ("The Math Game" is a non-musical radio skit styled piece on Monkey Business). I've had several requests from kids to perform that, and I keep thinking, "How can I do that?" (laughs)
CS: Yes, that really would be something. Our readers need to hear the song to understand why that’s so! Go on. Tell us more!
ERIC: We really thought that would be one the kids would skip over but the adults might be amused by once or twice, but it turns out that a lot of kids love it and even have it memorized. So I may end up doing something similar in spirit to "The Math Game" on a future album.
CS: You've done so many things, from doing orchestral arranging to writing and producing stage productions. Which is your greatest love (or is that fair to ask?)?
ERIC: Whatever I'm working on is what I love to do. With the kids' music taking off over the past year or two, that's been the main focus, and I'm thrilled to be able to work on music that's so much fun to create and produce, and performing for kids is such a blast.
I love to compose orchestral pieces and would like to get into scoring work for films and TV and things like that, but it's a tough field to get into, so I'm not sure when I'll have more of a chance to do that.
CS: Your orchestral pieces are quite good. I do hope that opens up for you in the near future. So tell us, when did you begin plans for the Monkey Business CD? And what was that process like? Did you first map out certain kinds of songs and the flow of the album? Or were you just continuing to write songs and eventually realized you had enough to fill another CD?
ERIC: We didn't start working a lot on Monkey Business until we had about six or seven songs already in progress that seemed like they would work together for a new album, though a couple of those never even made it on there.
It's hard to say how things for an album come together. It's kind of intuitive in some ways, and in some ways it's more calculated, where we might say, "How about if we have a song like this on the album?"
CS: You have some songs on Monkey Business I think most parents will appreciate (like "Crazy Over Vegetables"). Do you set out thinking, "What would a parent want?" or do you just sit down to write and let anything and everything flow?
ERIC: "Crazy Over Vegetables" was actually written specifically for a compilation CD looking for songs about eating healthy. I asked Kenn if he had any ideas and that's what he came up with. What I love about that is that it's a much more fun and sort of kooky approach to the idea of eating vegetables, as opposed to being pedantic or preachy about it. We're more about having fun.
I really don't think too much about what parents might want, or try to come up with 'message songs' that I think they might want for their kids. I hope the kids will like it first and foremost as entertainment. If they get something beyond that, then great, but the best message is lost anyway if the song isn't fun or entertaining in some way. I will throw in some references here and there that the adults would appreciate more, and hopefully the music is interesting enough for them to like as well.
CS: Just know that from my perspective, I think it makes a great Christmas present that the kids love, yet they’re also getting these great messages. (And I don’t make a dime saying this!
ERIC: Yes. (pauses and laughs) I used to think that the music had to come first with a vocal melody to put words to, but I've since found that to be bunk. Many of the songs on both albums were written directly to preexisting words by Kenn. Sometimes I may have to change the words or phrasing a little to make it work better with the music. Sometimes both the words and music come more or less together, as with "In the Box", which I started singing off-the-cuff to Becca while she was picking up some Legos.
CS: What is your process of laying down the tracks once you do start recording? Has it changed any from when you first started doing all of this? In fact, when DID you first start?
ERIC: I started recording many years ago with bands I was in, but that was all in studios and I had no idea what I was doing and relegated most things to the studio engineer, for better or worse. Once I realized a few years ago that you could do decent multi-track recordings right on your computer, that was a real revelation. I could now record at least demos of any musical idea, and experiment with arrangements, and take whatever time I needed (within reason) to make sure the parts were closer to how I wanted them.
Too many times in studios, I'd be looking at the clock and feeling the burn in my wallet and saying, "Ah, that's good enough." And then listening back later, there were too many imperfections for me to be happy with. But now, for example, on a song like "Don't Bother Any Butterflies", I can record the vocal parts 50 or 60 times until I know I'm really happy with the phrasing and pitch of everything. There's never a point of perfection, in fact sometimes noticeably imperfect things are what I end up using, but there's a point of feeling "just right" that sometimes takes a while to get to, and now I can afford to be patient for that if it's not there right away.
CS: So true! Go on.
ERIC: The process of laying down tracks changes depending on what the first impetus for the song was. I write a lot of initial chord changes for songs on guitar, whether guitar will end up being the main part of the song or not, so I might just record the chord changes against a click track and work from there. Then, I might try to find some drum loops that will provide some rhythm and build around that. Usually a scratch vocal comes in as early as possible. Even if things are very rough, I like to hear them in as close to some kind of finished form as possible, and then hone everything from there. I still use a program called Band-in-a-Box once in a while, which is a nice way to get a basic arrangement going around chord changes that you input. If the arrangement from Band-in-a-Box is close enough to how I want it, I may export the MIDI file from that and then substitute real instruments for the parts. I only did that a couple of times on Monkey Business, as opposed to most of the time on The Kid in the Mirror, but it can still be very helpful for me. "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard", "Bounce and Flap and Twist" and "Picture Day" were done that way.
CS: How long do you tinker with a song before you finally stop and say "enough"?
ERIC: There's a point when I'm adding instruments or sound effects or extra harmonies, and sometimes they just sound bad! (laughs) It may be a case of approaching the right arrangement and then stopping, or it might be going too far and then pulling back to find the right blend.
I also spend a lot of time with a lot of blank CDRs listening to songs in development while I'm driving around, and sort of 'weeding out' the bad things or honing in on what needs to be added, or developing and trusting a good feeling about what sounds just right. Roseann is a big help in that regard, as she'll often catch things that I haven't noticed, or will have good ideas about things to change or add.
CS: You have your own recording equipment, don't you? For those musicians out there who might like to record their own music, how do they begin learning to do so? What would be a simple setup sufficient for them to get started? Any books or classes you also recommend?
ERIC: Computers have made home recording possible and affordable for just about everyone. Well, as long as you can afford the computer. I'm happy that a lot of people have commented that the Eric Herman albums sound very well produced. That means that the expense bar is set low for everyone else, because I've got a lot of cheap stuff! (laughs)
If you're recording vocal songs, then probably the most important thing is to have a decent condensor microphone. My main microphone is an Oktava MK319, which I got for about $200. I've used that for almost all vocal recording and for other things like acoustic guitar. There are a number of good audio/MIDI recording and sequencing programs out there now. I use Sonar and Adobe Audition for most of my work, but there are less expensive and even freeware programs that can get the job done well.
For someone looking to get into that, I strongly suggest downloading the free demos that most programs offer and finding which one you are able to grasp and work with the best. I also recommend a software program like Garritan Personal Orchestra if you're looking to do arranging with a full complement of orchestral instruments. Of course, there are more expensive and involved programs in that regard, but that's an excellent starting point.
CS: And how do you handle the mixing and mastering once you're done recording? In your opinion, does that require a special talent (or just lots and lots of patience)?
ERIC: Again, I think it's the idea of burning a whole lot of CDRs all through the process, listening to them on different players, and eventually working towards a mix and master that sounds decent in at least most situations. I do my own mastering with Adobe Audition and Tracktion, but that isn't often recommended, as mastering is sometimes best with a fresh set of ears and a professional set up. I'm somewhat of a hack in that respect, but I try to apply one of the golden rules of mastering - don't overdo it.
I actually did a lot less in terms of mastering for Monkey Business than I did for The Kid in the Mirror... just some very basic tweaks and some multi-band compression. That may be an indication that my mixing was better, and that's really the best form of mastering... to get a great mix to start with.
Actually, speaking of that golden rule of mastering “not to overdo it”, it seems that many are not following that these days. That's become a pet peeve of mine, where mixes are squashed and compressed and limited to the point of there being no real dynamics left, just for the sake of getting the loudest possible output.
As a guide for people doing their own mixing, you should make sure that everything is mixed no hotter than -3 dB, and less is even preferable, which gives the mastering engineer room to work with and bring up from there. But once everything is squashed flat, or there are clipped samples, it may not be possible to repair that, sonically speaking. In terms of a WAV file, your final mix (and master) should look like a thick but somewhat rounded caterpillar, and not a giant, solid rectangle.
CS: Great words of advice, Eric. Thank you. What would be your advice on how many CDs to duplicate when first starting for a newer musician? Would you recommend duplicating them yourself? If so, what equipment would you recommend? Or do you think it's better to go with another company rather than doing the duplication yourself? You've got so much knowledge, I think many would find your thoughts helpful.
ERIC: Well, the best deals are for getting 1,000 CDs duplicated, but unless you're performing a lot or have a really killer marketing angle, you're probably going to end up with several boxes sitting around in your closet. There are some decent short run (100-300 CDs) deals out there now, so that might be a better option. You can always get more if the demand is there.
I made the initial run of CDs for The Kid in the Mirror with my own Primera Bravo duplicator, which burns 25 CDs at a time and also prints on the disc in high-quality inkjet. There are also less expensive printers which can print right on the CD, one at a time.
The thing with those personal CD duplicators is that you have to buy blank cases and print out and cut out all of your inserts and tray cards and insert them, and then find somewhere to shrink or poly wrap if you want it to look more professional. That can get to be a lot of work as you're selling more copies, in which case a low-cost short-run duplicator becomes more attractive. That's what we've done for subsequent runs of The Kid in the Mirror.
For Monkey Business we went with a company called Aspen Media in Utah for a run of 1,000 and were very happy with how they turned out. And thankfully, we're into the sixth box already, so that size of run was justified. With more performances and some songs from The Kid in the Mirror still among the favorites at live shows, we'll probably do a run of 1,000 of those soon, and I may end up remixing it somewhat for that.
CS: Having the CDs is one thing, but you’ve raised a really good point. Having them sit in a box in your closet does not serve anybody very well. How do you "move" your CDs?
ERIC: I find that live performances are by far the best means of selling CDs, so if you're not out there performing a lot, you're probably better off with a smaller run. I've tried some different things to increase internet sales, and they come in here and there, but not nearly as much as with live gigs. Even live gigs are hard to guage for CD sales... sometimes I might sell 1 or 2 CDs, and other times 10 or 20 for the same size of crowd. But there are usually some CD sales at shows, whereas it can be pretty sporadic for online sales.
CS: Thank you for the birds-eye view. So helpful! Once you had your first CD, did you find it difficult or easy to get the word out about your projects? What is your approach and what would you recommend for others?
ERIC: It can really be difficult, but I think the most important thing is to be persistent and consistent. Most local papers have entertainment sections that will print an article about you if you ask or send a press release. You may have to send out some free CDs to various places that might cover you or help you in some way. But the important thing is to follow up and be persistent until you get some kind of response, one way or the other.
But remember, sending someone your CD and press release might mean that it sits on a pile of other CDs and press releases. It's probably nothing personal against you, but people are busy and bogged down. The important part is that you follow up.
Once you follow up, you're bound to get a response. I recently sent e-mails out to several hundred elementary school principals around the Northwest to let them know that I'm new to the area and that I have assembly programs available. My initial e-mail received only about a 7 percent response. I waited about a week, and then sent another message to all of the people who didn't respond the first time. That time there was a response of about 40 percent! A few of those responses were kind of nasty, as in "Take me off your e-mail list", but at least it was a response!
Some people said, "We're not interested" or "Sorry, but we have no budget", but that was fine, too, because at least they responded to tell me that. Many people had meant to respond the first time, but were busy and forgot by the time other e-mail came in and pushed my first message down their Inbox. So you really have to be persistent and follow up with people until you get a response. There are many resources on the internet with advice or help for promoting music, better than I can offer, so I'll have to refer anyone else to Google what they can on the subject.
CS: Your time with us has been so valuable. Thank you very much, Eric. And best wishes on your upcoming tour. If people would like more information, please visit Eric's website at www.erichermanmusic.com to learn more about Eric and his efforts to make this world a better place!