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Songwriters—Recording From Scratch
A guide to catching the muse
By Bruce Kaphan

Inspiration strikes. First, melody fragments float into your mind, then lyrics begin assembling themselves out of the ether. You’ve been down this road before and know that if you don’t catch the muse now, you’ll probably lose the clarity of this gift, and in relatively short order. 

Notation or memorization would have been your only choices to store these precious ideas in the days before electricity. If you weren’t schooled in music notation your only choice would have been to find someone who was. 

That was then, this is now. Have we come a long way or what? Now there are so many different products designed to aid songwriters and composers in documenting their ideas that some recording novices might think that learning notation might be easier than choosing and then learning the technology to record.

In this article we’ll explore some means for songwriters to record their ideas. We’ll consider home systems, from the most rudimentary to those using the same technologies found in the finest studios, and we’ll evaluate how to decide when to seek the assistance of a professional.

You—or who?

Your two basic choices are still the same—you can do it yourself or you can find someone to do it for you. You can educate yourself in recording techniques and products and invest in some tools, or you can throw your hands up and buy studio time. Or you can do a little of both.

Recording comes naturally to some musicians, and it drives others to distraction. Do you have the music technology gene? Why do you want to record? Are you a pure songwriter, or are you also interested in promoting yourself as an artist? Are you merely interested in archiving your ideas, or do you hope to sell other people on your concepts? Since recording quality is a totally subjective concept, are your tastes toward hi-fi or lo-fi? Will a live performance fill your needs, or is overdubbed orchestration necessary for you to convey your ideas? 

Be clear on your intentions for recording 

Say you fancy yourself as a pure songwriter—you have no aspirations for becoming a performing artist—but you want to perform your own demos. I’d suggest keeping them simple. History is rife with songwriters who could barely be called singers, but whose presentation of their own material is sublime.

In my opinion, the combination of a well-crafted song with a vulnerable vocal performance and simple orchestration can often be more powerful than the combination of a well-crafted song delivered flawlessly by a qualified vocalist accompanied by layers of orchestration, especially if that orchestration is achieved on the cheap, with cheesy synthesizers attempting to play the role of real players playing real instruments. 

Cheap and stereo

If you are interested in simply documenting a musical idea, buy a cheap boom box (with audio cassette recorder and microphone) or a micro-cassette or digital memo recorder. The point here is that the recorder is cheap and easy to use, therefore minimally impeding a songwriter’s process. 

When I produce an artist, at the outset of a project, when considering material, I’ll tell the artist that they should find a comfortable place to record, take their time, then record the song as many times as it takes to get a take which powerfully conveys the emotive essence of the song. I want to hear the structural elements which make up a song—the melody, the lyrics, and the chord changes. I explicitly don’t want to hear orchestration at this point in a project, and I don’t care at all about audio quality. In fact, I think I actually prefer a lo-fi recording at this point, so that I don’t find myself fixating on sonic detail. 

A little higher up the cost/quality ladder, but still in the self-contained recording devices, you might consider buying a higher resolution recording device such as a handheld portable recorder or a MiniDisc. The benefit of owning this kind of tool is that it can fit almost anywhere and be very useful for a variety of purposes including easy rehearsal or gig recording, sound effects and ambience collection, etc.

At the very least, such a straightforward recording device can serve as an excellent sketch pad. From capturing the first inspired moments through rough drafts and all the way to documenting the completed song, a simple recording will absolutely suffice to convey the essence of the song. For some songwriters, this might be a good place to stop before sinking a great deal of time and money into developing as a music technologist. Once you’ve written and simply recorded a few songs, maybe it makes more sense to practice your performances, then spend a couple of hours in a bona fide recording studio.

Maybe a soundproof, acoustically treated room, thousands of dollars worth of mics, preamps, signal processing and a quality recording device under the operation of a skilled person is worth the money. Then again, maybe your do-it-yourself spirit is indomitable and you must proceed to home multitrack recording. Just beware—to rival a decent recording studio’s arsenal of gear and knowledge is going to cost you a bundle. Believe it!

Multitracking

What if the line between songwriter and artist is more blurred, or if the songwriter in you thinks that your songs require orchestration to be everything they can be? Now you’re going to have to invest more of your time and money into either a multitrack system of your own, or hours in the local recording studio.

If you choose to build your own system, at the very least you’ll have to have the following pieces: a microphone and some way to position it (a mic clip, a mic stand, preferably with a boom), a cable which will connect your mic to a mic preamp, a recording device, and monitors which could either be headphones or a preamp, amp and speakers. Note that in lower-cost systems many of these system elements may well be combined in one piece of equipment.

Also note that this description is of the simplest multitrack system possible. You’ll likely want to have at least some sort of signal processing (reverb for example) and a stereo recorder for recording your final mix. Again, the signal processing may well be built into your recording device.

One of the most difficult aspects of putting a multitrack system together is knowing how to choose everything you’ll need, and of course, fitting all your needs into a budget. Hidden costs can mount swiftly if you don’t have a clear pic ture of your entire system before you begin buying elements. For this purpose, find a vendor who specializes in systems sales. A well-informed professional who’s willing to stand behind the system they sell you will make this whole process a lot less painful than it could otherwise be.

Multitracking on computers

There are so many products available these days! Budget has become less limiting, with computer interfaces costing as little as $100, and software like Garageband (free on every Mac) or other inexpensive multitrack programs, you can get recording with minimal cash. Although there might be a bit of a learning curve, a computer-based system will be the most powerful and ultimately easiest and least frustrating to use. Once you become accustomed to the editing capabilities offered by computer-based systems, it’s really hard to look back. 

Imagine being able to pick up and move, loop, stretch, shrink, pitch shift all of your audio tracks. Imagine being able to automate every single mixer function. Imagine being able to upload and download and share your files with users on the other side of the globe. Imagine being able to involve a whole new sense in your music—your sight! And it all exists, right now. Plug-in technology allows you to incorporate an endless array of signal processing capabilities, and you can add them one at a time, as you can afford them. 

Another benefit of learning a computer-based system even while you’re a beginner is the reality that computer-based systems are what professionals use. This means that the work you do translates easily into a professional environment. Who knows, maybe the demo you started in your bedroom will evolve into a track delivered into an album or film. Or perhaps you’ll find that you really enjoy the work and ultimately want to pursue engineering as a career. You’ll already be in training.

Gear galore

If you think a computer-based system is beyond your financial means, or you don’t want to invest the time to learn the software, then perhaps some other form of multitrack recorder is your best choice. There are a variety of hardware options to suit your budget and needs.

At the bottom of the multitrack ladder you’ll find audio cassette based systems. For approximately $100 you can purchase a TASCAM MF-P01 4-track recorder. Compared to more expensive systems the functionality of such basic devices is severely limited, but if you just want to put backing vocals and a bass part on top of your guitar/vocal performance, this will do the trick. Sound quality is guaranteed to be marginal when compared to digital audio systems. You’ll still need other system elements as mentioned earlier in this article (mic, monitors, etc.).

For more serious sound quality, increased track count and enhanced features, digital audio is the way to go. There are several approaches to digital recording; the least expensive (at least in terms of the recorder itself) is the portable memory-card recorder. Using SmartMedia or CompactFlash cards, these little boxes offer 4 or 8 tracks of playback (usually only 2 tracks at a time can be recorded), a suite of digital editing features, and good sound quality. Many have onboard omni mics built into the case, so you can play guitar and sing and just have the box catch your performance, and some even run on batteries. 

Prices are dropping as track counts and features climb; TASCAM’s Pocketstudio 5 (reviewed April 2003) offers a complete General MIDI synthesizer and sequencer as a ‘backing band’ for 4 tracks of audio, and Fostex’s MR-8 has 8-track performance for under $300. The big gotcha with these systems is storage; memory cards don’t hold much audio and are expensive. You’ll need to have a computer to back up your cards’ memory, or be ready to mix down your ideas to a stereo format like CD-R or tape and then erase your card for further use.

When digital audio first entered the market, all systems stored data on moving tape. Alesis’ introduction of the ADAT system revolutionized inexpensive digital recording devices. Although hard disk systems have proliferated and offer many advantages over the ADAT system, if you plan to record huge amounts of material and storage space is an issue, for aproximately $2000 you can put together a system including the Alesis ADAT LX20, a 24-channel mixing console, reverb and compressor. In an ADAT-only system, editing capabilities of the kind we described above essentially don’t exist.

Hard disk systems combine editing power with lots of inexpensive storage. Fostex’s 8-track VF80 recorder is available for under $700; $1000 gets you a Korg D1200 all-in-one 12-track hard disk recorder/mixer (see the review in this issue). For less than $1500 you can purchase a Yamaha AW16G 16-track workstation, and a Roland VS-2400CD will set you back by less than $3000 for 24 tracks and moving-fader automation. To one degree or another, each of these systems offers digital audio editing capabilities. To deliver finished songs, you’ll need a CD burner—all of the above have that included or available as an option. And you also need the aforementioned mics, stands, cables, etc.

The role of the pro studio

Once you see these prices, you may wonder why on earth anyone would ever want to rent studio time ever again. You can do it all in your bedroom, right? 

Maybe. Have you tried recording at home recently? Street noise, airplanes, the refrigerator, kids, deliveries, telephones, not to mention recording equipment fans and motors... Just how good are the acoustics of your bedroom? How do you think your Shure SM57 stacks up to a Neumann tube mic? Do you think the mic preamps in your Fostex stack up to a Neve? And let’s say that you go out and spend $3000 on a Neumann. What’s left in your budget for the guitar part of the guitar/vocal recording? Oh yeah—where are you going to set up the drums? What about miking up the grand piano—oops, don’t have one...

Truth be told, there is no end to the amount of money that can be spent on acquiring audio equipment. But money’s not the whole story by any means. Okay, so explain the function of each of the controls on your compressor. Eq the nasal quality out of that vocal. Why is there 60-cycle hum on the keyboard track? How do you punch in on this thing? Why does your mix suck in your car? 

There are the unavoidable issues of knowledge and expertise—even in the current environment where technology has proliferated to the extent that almost anyone can afford to own a high quality multitrack recording system. Sure, dabbling with these toys is fun. But when you’re hot to trot, and the muse is shouting in your ear and you need to get the stuff recorded right now, and you want to get the best recording you can so that you don’t waste this first, inspired performance, maybe it isn’t so expensive to go into a studio and let a pro help you.

The best of both worlds

Maybe the best of all approaches is to plan your studio and equipment so that you can do good work at home, up to a point, and then painlessly take your work to a pro studio for the next step if needed. 

In my own way, I do this all the time. I’m lucky to have my own home studio which is just large enough to do most of the things I do most often. I use a Pro Tools TDM system which is large enough for almost everything I want to do. But when it comes time to record basic tracks, I just don’t have the space or gear to do it effectively. So I go to a facility designed to meet these needs. 

In turn, many of my clients have become Pro Tools 001 owners. On many of my recent projects, my clients and I have devised methods for allowing editing and even some overdubbing to be done in their home studio, thereby saving them a great deal of money. Some of my most savvy clients have even used this method of recording to have me impart some of my techniques and knowledge to them through the process of sharing the workload.

Bruce Kaphan is a musician, composer, producer, engineer residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Garritan Abby Road Studios - CFX Concert Grand Virtual Piano



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