Recording the DIY Way

As a DIY musician with all kinds of Grown-Up responsibilities like a mortgage and a child and college debt, I find it hard to justify spending large sums of money on recording music. I literally make $0 off of what I do, so I can’t even write it off as an investment (although I do tell myself that whenever it comes time to spend). It’s a labor of love, pure and simple. I often find myself trying to find new (cheaper) ways to get my music out there while still maintaining some quality. I mean yeah, I could plug into my laptop and just drop raw tracks onto SoundCloud like so much DIY rain, but who wants to listen to that? And I want people to listen, so…

I’ve gone through a few iterations of the “home studio” concept: recording everything at home with really shitty programmed drums and totally uninformed, half-assed attempts at mixing; recording all but drums and paying a remote drummer to send me wav files, and then sending those stems to someone else to mix; and bringing just the recorded drum files to a real studio and recording everything there to the drums. My reasoning there was that it took longer to mic and record drums than anything else so if I already had drums I could save a lot of time and get more bang for my studio buck.

I now find myself back in my home, in my “home studio” if you will, with a new combo. I discovered the Loop Loft which has allowed me to get decent-sounding drums that fit most of the types of rhythms I’ve needed to use. I also found a way to hook up my old Rock Band drum set to Ableton, allowing me to do a more realistic drum pattern if I can’t find a match in my samples. It’s not flawless, but in a pinch it’s handy since I really do suck at finger drumming. giggity

I updated my audio interface from an M-Audio something-or-other (like $30 at Borders years ago) to a PreSonus and yes, it does make a difference. I record all string instruments as usual. However I now record vocals in a professional studio.

My little private recording space for vox.

My little private space for vox.

I know, it seems like none of my solutions are able to leave out paying money and going into a studio at some point. The thing is, living in a condo with thin walls makes it very hard for me to get vocal tracks down. I’m not so much worried about disturbing anyone as I am of embarrassing myself. I’m too self-conscious about it to let it out and belt the way I need to sometimes. I found a studio that would let me record for 4 hours for $50. I signed up for a 4-hour block and got lead and backing vocals down for 3 songs! I was even writing and changing lyrics to like 2 of them in the process! Part of the reason I can save so much is that I bring in all my own stuff: mic, stand, interface, computer. I’m literally just renting a room for 4 hours. I also shelled out for a good condenser mic. Again, the difference between it and SnowBall I was using is impressive.

After everything is recorded comes the mixing. I invested in actual studio monitors so that I could mix with headphones and without. Again, huge difference. The differences I can hear between the two are kind’ve amazing. I’ve moved on from Ableton’s built-in EQ3 plugin and started using the MEqualizer from Melda Productions, which is a treat. I might have to buy the full version once I have a better understanding of what I’m doing. I’m on my way with that; one of my Twitter pals, Olav, was super nice and gave me a little tutorial via FB messaging which I’ve been using as my primary reference.

The new recording setup. Behold the Curious George lunchbox.

The new setup. Behold the Curious George lunchbox.

So what does all of this mean? Well, one of my 2016 goals was to release an EP. I have no illusions that I’m about to release a masterpiece; while I’m sure there are folks out there who could take my setup and make an album indiscernible from a professional release, I don’t have that talent. However, I’ve decided to use what I have to make an EP of demos. I’m going to call it “Hardly Mixed, Never Mastered”. It’ll be free. I have plans in the works to release a professionally tracked/mixed/mastered EP with a local studio that I’ve been in talks with, but until then I’m gonna share my homemade version of these tracks.

Stay tuned!


Switching Gears: New Pedals

I have been on an absolute tare over the last month or so with gear. I was kind’ve feeling the need for a gear refresh after I moved out of solo/acoustic performances and into a full band configuration, but I was trying to be practical and balance my desire for something new with the necessity for something new. I didn’t want to go out and plunge into debt for a lark, and I wanted to be sure that I knew why I was buying something.

Mustang iii amp

Mustang iii amp

I’d been playing out of a Fender Mustang iii for years with a good deal of success and having a ton of fun with the presets. Two thing bugged me though: 1) I was relying solely on the presets and not taking the time to orchestrate a sound of my own, which meant I wasn’t really familiar with what the the effects I used did, or bothering to tinker with them at all, and 2) switching between presets during songs caused the amp to cut out for a second. It was quick but definitely noticeable, specifically on a song I wrote called “One of These Days”.

I found out that it was possible to play external effects through the amp and that helped me to decide on exactly what kind of gear refresh I needed. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a brand new amp if the one I was using worked fine, so instead I decided to start experimenting with different effects. The best part was that even if I didn’t use the built-in effects on the Mustang, I still had access to a few different amp styles, so it wasn’t as if I was going to be ignoring all of the features of the modeling amp, which would seem like a huge waste.

Now, I had very little experience with pedals. The only pedal I’ve ever owned was a Boss distortion pedal, a Mega Distortion MD-2 that I’ve had for years and hardly used. I didn’t really know much about what else was out there, so to get I started I relied on forums, details about the presets I used most on the Mustang, and this little video by Steve Vai.

With that in mind I tried out a few different pedals at Guitar Center and wound up buying the following:

The links I provided for these various pedals are simply the first hits from a Google search. I started off trying to purchase at Guitar Center but a computer flub (wherein I was prevented from using my GearCard) meant I couldn’t purchase right then and there. I next tried to hit some local shops (you know, support local businesses and all) but only two places within a 20-mile radius actually sold pedals. One place only sold Boss pedals (and only about 10 different models to boot) so the only thing I walked out of there with was a One-Spot and the tuner. The second place wanted $90 for a pedal I could get for $50 online. I wound up going through Sweetwater and Amazon to get the pedals I wanted.

Most of my choices were spot on for the first time out of the gate. I regretted the DS-1 though because it was ridiculously noisy and weak-sounding. I researched a ton of other distortion pedals but ultimately wound up hooking up my old Mega Distortion. It’s surprisingly beefy compared to the DS-1, and not quite as noisy. I also bit the bullet and bought a Pedaltrain Nano+ to organize my pedals. I played one show without one, and was a little dismayed at how difficult it was trying to wrap up my pedals while the next band was rushing to get set up. This is what my board looks like right now:

Pedaltrain Nano+ Setup

Pedaltrain Nano+ Setup

It’s a smidge crowded. I have to replace the wired pedal connectors with the little straight and offset couplers to get a little breathing room. Not pictured here is the Dunlop CryBaby Wah pedal I bought as an afterthought. Still haven’t figured out exactly how/where to use it, but I know I want the sound somewhere. Also not pictured is the Fulltone OCD Overdrive pedal I purchased and have to send back. I tried this out at Guitar Center and loved but, but didn’t realize it was an overdrive pedal and not a distortion pedal, so when I was looking for something to replace the DS-1 I bought one of these. Imagine my surprise when I figured out that the Mooer Hustle Drive was actually a knock-off of the OCD. I definitely don’t need two of those on my board!

I’ve reached a place where I’m pretty happy with my sound through these pedals for my solo stuff. I haven’t had a chance to see how it translates to the stuff that I do with Six Times Seven; we haven’t been rehearsing much because our drummer decided he was done with it. I do find that a little bit of phaser goes a long way, and I’m wondering if a flange wasn’t more what I wanted/needed. Also I’m digging the combo of the MD-2 with the Mooer kicked on for a little extra oomph during solos, but the MD-2 is still pretty screechy when the volume is high. I’m still learning my way around the levels and such as well, and trying to find out how to get them all set up so that clean or distorted don’t drop out when switching—something I found out is called “gain staging”. Im enjoying the learning process though, and I have to admit that I like more finer-grained control the pedals give me over the presets, like being able to keep the exact same sound and just dropping the Phaser out during a section. I could do this on the Mustang, but it would require setting up two presets, and again switching between them would still have that small but noticeable delay. Overall I’m pretty pleased with my purchases so far!