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!

 

My Music Week 7/24/15

Peeps, it has been a music-filled couple of weeks! I feel like i have so much to share with you and I’ve barely had time to breathe. I wish it were all music, but a lot of that is the 9 to 5. Anywho, here’s the haps.

Shows

InterpolI got to see Interpol at The House of Blues lat night. A buddy of mine happened to have an extra ticket so I tagged along with him. I’m not an Interpol fan or anything. I mean, I know a few songs and think they’re okay, but I never would have bought tickets on my own.  I have to admit the show was not what I expected. I had this idea of Interpol as being an emo-boy band. I think I have the association because of an ex-boyfriend of a friend of mine who came across as a sensitive emo dude, and he was in love with Interpol. I was therefore completely unprepared for the number of bros in attendance. It was a good show though. Interpol fans really, really like Interpol. Go figure.

The opening band was really interesting as well. They’re called Coscmicide, and they have a style of music that’s very 80s synth pop. Seriously, standing in the back of the room watching them play was like being an extra in one of the club scenes from Less Than Zero. The drummer’s kick drum was mic’d so hard I literally felt it in my vertebrae. There was a woman playing what I think was a synth of some kind with super-permed hair a la 80s Wendy and Lisa in Purple Rain, and she literally had songs where she would stand in place with like one finger on a key and sway. It was trippy. Everything comes around again, right?

Speaking of live shows… You guys! I had my very first gig, all by myself!palounge Let me tell you: there is a major difference between getting on stage with people you dig and playing behind an amp and effects. This gig was me, myself, and I on stage with a mic’d acoustic. I was so nervous, you’d think I’d never performed before. I’ll be honest, I made some mistakes. At one point in a song I actually had to start a section over because I effed it up completely. Man. Over all though I think it went rather well, and I hope to take the lessons learned from that first gig and use them to prepare myself for my next solo gig, which is in August. It’s a coffee house deal at Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

 In the works

studioI finally got into the studio to record July’s single, “Wasted”. I’m pretty excited about it! It has taken a direction I did not expect when I first came up with the rhythm guitar part. I literally wrote the lyrics the night before I was to head into the studio. The song has turned into a kind of 50 Shades of Grey rebuttal, which is a little silly considering I have never read the book nor seen the movie. But hey, why let that stop me?

The song is just about done. All that’s left is to get back into the studio and do a final mix, and then to get it mastered. Wanna hear what it sounds like so far?

I enrolled in this online marketing course, Cyber PR’s Social Media House. I heard about it via some of my GGChat twitter pals. The sad thing is I have not been able to dedicate as much time to it as I’d hoped. In fact, I’m still on week one and I’m pretty sure the course is officially on week three. One of week one’s tasks was to create a to-do list with due dates, and to make sure that you look at the to-do list every day. Just look at it, mind you. I’ve failed at even that little thing. I’m seriously pretty disappointed in myself, but there’s been madness and just not enough time in the day—or evening for that matter. I hope to get back into it this week, although I’m heading out of town in a few days to go to the Osheaga Music Festival in Canada. Not a lot of studying happening there.

So, that’s what’s up in my world. Keep an eye out on my Instagram because I plan to take lots of pics at Osheaga. Also keep an eye on this site, Twitter, Facebook—the usual suspects—because “Wasted” is going to hit your eardrums in the very near future.

Peace,

Stevie

The Making of “Mirror”

ID-100214196“Mirror” is the first of what I’m calling my Homebrew Sessions. It’s a track recorded in my home on my consumer-grade equipment: Macbook Pro circa 2011, a Blue Snowball mic, my trusty Fender HSS and Mustang III amp, an M-Audio Fast Track, an Akai LPD8 drum pad, and Ableton Live 9. All in all I think it came out pretty well for my first shot. It was not an easy go though, and I have many things to learn.

I had always intended to record at home. It’s cheap, convenient, and I have total control. The problem was that I thought I could connect all of these devices, plop myself down and hit record like the old days of 4-track cassette recorders. Wrong. As soon as I actually started trying to record—Garageband was my first DAW—I ran into all kinds of troubles and got mired down in technical details. I couldn’t get this plug-in to work, I couldn’t get sound on my headphones, the sound coming out of the virtual instruments sucked—you name it. I figured I needed to get a “professional” DAW, so I downloaded a trial of Ableton. The learning curve was steep, and I soon gave up on the tutorials because I was just not getting it. Trying to understand the differences in usage and functionality between Session and Arrangement views was enough to make me batty. In the meantime trying to do it myself was putting a serious hamper on the timeline I’d set for releasing my songs. In the end I tallied my finances and said, “Self? Get thee to a studio verily.”

My first two tracks, “The Girl Who Fell” and “So Into You”, were recorded in a studio—the same one my band used for our EP (yeah I’ll plug it: http://sixtimesseven.bandcamp.com/)—so it was a pretty relaxed and familiar experience. It was also expensive. I loved the end results, but it was not a sustainable model and after two tracks I knew I had to either take a break from releasing music or get back into my home and give the DIY circuit another try. I also found that, although I enjoyed the producer’s additions and input, there were times when I felt like the music wasn’t as much of me as I wanted, or that I had to struggle to voice my desires or preferences. I’m not by nature a very assertive person so even though we were friendly and he was very nice, it was still difficult for me to point out things I didn’t like.

On the second round of home recording I tried a different approach. Instead of trying to learn all the intricacies of the software first, I plugged in and just started figuring things out as I went along. I first tried to lay the rhythm guitar tracks down, but the sound I was getting from the effects was harsh and not very natural. I switched to drums—loosen things up a bit, set a rhythm, get something down no matter how simple— but half of the time I couldn’t get the DAW to recognize my drum pad and wallowed in midi frustration. I went back to the guitar again, to put down something, anything. I’d play it clean and mess with effects later…except then I realized I was getting severe latency and everything was out of time. Finally I had a light bulb moment and my experience in the studio gave me some guidance. I remembered that he didn’t have me going directly in; he’d mic’d the amp I was playing through. Why couldn’t I do that at home? The amp has sounds that I’m familiar with, and maybe I’d get less latency. I hooked up the Snowball, put it in front of my amp, and the world opened up. I was in business! I was so pumped to finally have one track down!

The rest of it came pretty smoothly after that initial hurdle. I utilized some other tricks I’d seen in my studio session in terms of moving parts of the tracks around, deleting empty spaces, utilizing fades, etc. Just clean-up tasks, but important ones. I researched the effect/task/tool I needed at the time I needed it, not before, so that I didn’t waste time and distract myself with things I would potentially not use.

The last hurdle was vocals and mixing. I put them together because the way I recorded the vocals, especially the chorus, really hampered my mixing. The first few takes I couldn’t figure out how to make it so that my vocals wouldn’t go into the red. I tried standing back, I tried adjusting the volume in the DAW. I finally realized that without an external interface (or controls on the mic itself) I couldn’t change the levels coming into Ableton. What I could do was to adjust the input volume on my Mac. I did that and got rid of the peaks. There was no red when I was recording. Unfortunately when I went back and listened to it later though my vocals were distorted. If I turned the track up past a certain point it was clear that I had still recorded them too loudly. Thus began a silly game of making minute adjustments to the volume of all the tracks individually in order to get the overall song low enough to not have to bring the vocals up too much, but not so low that the final mix would be awful. You’d think I would have simply re-recorded them, but getting a few hours where I’m all alone in the house is a rare event. I didn’t want to hold off until the next time it happened.

I also spent a lot of time trying out and applying effects to various tracks until I got the sounds I wanted. There are tons of presets and samples and such to chose from and it’s very easy to get side-tracked by doing this. It’s also challenging to avoid the temptation to overdo it on the effects, and the flourishes and flare. The little accents. Done properly it can make your song more textured and full, but it’s very easy to do improperly.

Overall I’m pleased with the results and proud of myself for doing it. I think if I continue to learn some tricks and get familiar with recording best practices (such as recording the vocals and -3db max) my next release will be even more successful. As it is this recording isn’t one that I feel I could release on iTunes or anything; I wouldn’t charge people for something that I think isn’t great audio fidelity. I’m allowing free downloads from BandCamp and Reverbnation. My goal is to get to the point where the HomeBrew Sessions are good enough to put out there with my first two songs. Stay tuned.

-Stevie