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Session 1: Getting Started
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Session 1: Getting Started

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June 2008 (1)

Participant Websites

Glen Stephan, SouthSIDE Multimedia

Participants (in order of appearance)
Jay Walsh, Farview Recording
John Scrip, Massive Mastering
Tom Volpicelli, Mastering House
Jon O'Neil, Niant Studio

Glen Stephan: OK, let's say for the sake of this session that I have a band that plays a mix of cover and original material. We are interested in recording and releasing our own CD for PR distribution and public sale. Where should we start?

Jay Walsh: Practice. Not just as a band, but individually and in different combinations. Everyone in the band should be able to get through all the songs by themselves, without any cues from the other players. A well rehearsed band that knows what they are trying to accomplish can get through the process quickly, cheaply and relatively pain free.

Count. Everyone should be able to play with a metronome. Everyone should know how many times you play a riff before you change to the next one. If you can't play to a metronome without sounding robotic, you're not doing it right. The metronome is a tempo reference, not a feel reference.

Work everything out in advance and know your parts: Who is going to count the song off? Will there be a rhythm guitar part behind the solo? Will there be vocal harmonies? Who will sing them?

Divine intervention does happen in the studio, but only when you don't need it. Don't just show up with a rough idea of what you are going to do and just try to feel your way through. It almost never works out. After you take a few passes and they aren't brilliant, you start to worry and that just makes things worse. There is room for experimentation in the studio, but learning your parts at $$/hr is just a waste of money. I can't tell you how many two-guitar bands have come in and one guitar player was playing something different than the other when they were supposed to be playing the same thing.

GS: Many will find it surprising, Jay, that your reply concentrates solely on the band preparation and performance itself. Where's the answers like, "What you need to buy is a Shatner2000 recording kit complete with Tubesteak microphones and a dozen Megawave software plugs?" After all, we're talking about recording here, not playing.

Jay Walsh: But if the band can't play their own songs, there is little point in recording them. It's so much easier to sell a marginal recording of a great performance than a great recording of a marginal performance. All the U87's, 1076's and LA2A's in the world won't help you if you can't play the song.

John Scrip: Pre-production. In my opinion, it's all about pre-pro. That's what home recording *was* all about "way back when" in the first place. A cheap way to get your chops down before running into a place that was charging you $75 an hour. The amazing things that a band will find out when they're recording that they don't want to find out when the dollar signs are flowing out the door.

No matter the gear, getting the core sounds and the performance right is going to be the difference between a good session and a bad train wreck.

Jay Walsh: All you need a some sort of recording device, I think DAWs are the best way to go. I've worked with the Roland VS series and they are great. But once you outgrow them, you have to throw your entire studio away and start over. The effects are way too limited as well.

For the same money, you can get MOTU 8pre, Cubase 4, and you still have $2800 for mics, stands, cables monitors, etc...

Minimum for drums is 4 mics: kick, snare, and stereo overheads. If need be, you can use SM57's for everything.

Guitar: SM57, Sennheiser 609

Bass: DI

Vocals: SM58 or cheap condenser

If you are really strapped for cash, you can use the drum mics for guitar and vocals - just not at the same time.

GS: You both make an excellent point that step number one, before doing anything else, is to get the performers and performance as practiced and as ready as possible before even thinking about recording. That sounds to me like the key to everything else; if you don't start off with the best possible performance, the quality of the final result is already suffering.

Jay, you mention a next step of setting up a computer-based recording and editing system, or PC DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). John, you talk about how home recording was often used as the way to prepare for the "real" task of recording in a professional studio. This brings up an interesting question: buy the gear and record it yourself, or use your money going into a pro studio instead? What factors should I consider in making that choice? Or is there even a choice to be made?

Jay Walsh: All of that would depend on your intent.

For getting down ideas and pre-production, a small cheap setup is really all you need. All we used to have is a cassette 4-track and four cheap mics. It gets the job done and lets you experiment. Reaper and an m-audio card will cost you almost nothing and be much more powerful than a 4-track.

For recording something that you are going to hand out at shows or use to get shows, it takes a little more equipment. Still, with a little work you could do that sort of thing at home.

If you want to record a real album to sell or shop to a record company, it's cheaper to go to a professional studio. The studio will have all the right mics, preamps, and staff to help you get the most out of the project.

You can do it yourself, but you will need to buy enough mics to properly mic up the drum kit, enough preamps for the mics, enough inputs on your interface, etc... Just getting that in order might cost you more than going to the studio.

Of course, you might think that all that is an investment into your recording future. But that's correct only if you end up having a recording future.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone, this is how I got into recording. But it is hard to wear two hats on the same project. Engineering uses one side of your brain and being a musician uses the other. It can be very frustrating having to switch back and fourth. There are a lot of other pitfalls to doing your own stuff that you shouldn't have to deal with when you are trying to record something that is meant to really impress people.

John Scrip: Yep - There's a disconnect when being one's own engineer. Something is going to suffer. Granted, yes I know some exceptionally talented folks who have made some fantastic recordings - Still (A), they had some pretty impressive budgets and (B) there was the occasional "stupid" moment (the first 5,000 CD's released had no kick on one track - true story).

The first time I walked into a recording studio, with no particular recording experience, was eye-opening to say the least. The second time we went in with a plan -- track sheets, overdub schedules, all of it. And came out under budget. The only reason we could do that was with fairly complete pre-pro for weeks before we went in. Sure, we had to "pretend that drum track is actually 8 tracks" and such. But we knew what was going down, when and on which track.

Along with that, we let the engineer do his job and concentrated on the performance. I could never record my own band to my satisfaction (just as I can rarely ever master my own mixes to my satisfaction - but that's for another conversation.) Detachment is a good thing much of the time.

But as Jay mentioned, it comes down to intent and economics -- If you want to plunk down $20k on gear so you can save $2k in the studio, go for it. But in most cases, I'd rather spend $2k on gear and have $18k left, still pay $2k in the studio and have $16k left for a car or a Harley or something.

I know several studios, Farview included, that wind up trying to salvage home-recorded (in some cases, home WRECKorded) projects. That's great, and it definitely can improve the project and yada, yada. But imagine if these bands would have *tracked* at a good studio with good rooms and good gear with a good engineer - and then took the tracks home to mix them...

Tom Volpicelli: There's a sticker on a desk in my upper office that says "How can you be a fan of a cover band?" Unless you are adding something to make a song truly different, unique, or better in some way, why bother even recording covers?

As far as the originals for me it all starts with the music, and that's pre-pre-production work. A band should know from their live shows how well a song is going to be taken by an audience and should have everything arranged and well-rehearsed before even considering recording. I recommend that a good producer be consulted to help with the process before and during recording, but I'm going to assume that this is a self-produced venture. So step one is having some music worth recording and listening to.

As Jay mentioned, pre-production - step two - is critical, it includes:

 - Having the arrangements, lyrics, parts of the songs completed.

 - Knowing what instruments to use for recording all of the parts and making sure that they are well-maintained, proper intonation, suitable drum heads, etc. Not that you can't change things around a bit in the studio, but any changes shouldn't interfere with your performance. Do your homework, e.g. if you want to sound like Slash bring a Les Paul and a Marshall, not a Strat clone and Peavey combo amp. If you don't have the proper gear, rent or borrow.

 - Being well-rehearsed but not over-rehearsed. You want to keep a little edge on things to make your playing exciting and new.

Step three - recording basic tracks:

 - Come to the session with a good night's sleep, not hung over from a gig the night before. Save the drugs until after you cut your part correctly.

 - In basic tracking cutting the drum parts are the major issue (assuming there are drum parts). The basic tracks are the building block for the song, if the tempos are off, out of time, etc. everything else is either going to be out, or some sort of compromise to cover up the mistakes.

 - If the performance is helped by cutting a scratch vocal track go for it. In some cases a tight rhythm section can play with or without the vocal. I've even heard of some cases where the drummer prefers to play without anyone else at all.

 - The engineer should record everything even if it's a "scratch" track. There have been untold number of times where the scratch track was the best performance, or where a performance couldn't be repeated as well.

Step four - overdub. Lay down the remaining tracks, possibly several versions of the vocal or other tracks to comp later. Don't' feel that you need to fill up all of the tracks, just lay down what is needed leave room for the important instruments to "breath".

Step five - mixing. Let's leave it at that; mixing requires a 500 page book to discuss.

Step six - Mastering. Send the mixes to John or I (hey I'm not above shameful self-promotion.) (laughs)

That's kinda it in a real small nutshell. Don't let the production overtake the music (we all know of situations where great bands have been overproduced). Production is there to serve the music, not the other way around.

Jon O'Neil: When should you record yourself, and when should you book a pro studio? That's not just one question, it's really a lot of little questions. You can farm out every step of the process, and to different people if that's the right answer. That is not to suggest that's the right answer . . .

The first question is what is your goal in the recording? Glen's hypothetical band's answer is incomplete, but I imagine it is common. Still, a band with an ill-defined goal for a CD is just asking to wallpaper their bathrooms with them.

The fundamental question is what is the goal of the band? To get signed? Then don't even think about recording yourself. Seriously, major waste of your time. I think about the talented people here who do tracking, and how cheap their services really are. You think a studio is expensive? I bill at $100 an hour to do tax returns, and I don't even let you play with the software. Tongue Recording is damn cheap.

Then there are all the bedroom hacks who are even cheaper. I am not suggesting hiring hacks, but why would a band believe they could do any better if they bought all the bedroom hack gear and recorded in a bedroom? Pay somebody else the $15 an hour and don't waste the money on gear you don't know how to use.

Again, if you are hoping for fame and fortune, spend the money on a reasonably good pro studio. Can't afford it? Get a job. Get real. What is your specialty? What are you really good at? Guitar? Writing songs? Then do some gigs and get the money.

I am not too good at landscaping. This is funny, because I use to be a farmer. I was a really bad farmer, but I did have the proper tools and I knew how to use them.

I don't have tools anymore, and I don't have time. So I hired my neighbor who runs a landscaping company. He did my whole front yard today, and it looks amazing. It would have taken me two weeks, during which time I could develop two new products = $$$$.

I do what I am good at, he does what he is good at, and everybody makes money.

Understand that if a band is a business, that is your goal, period. Don't get all artistic on me about recording. Save your creative disputes for songwriting sessions. When you go to a studio, get the job done and make money.

If your primary goal is not to make money--whether by getting signed, or busting your ass getting gigs to push your product, then this advice may not be for you.

GS: Not to mention the difference in learning curve between going to a studio and recording yourself. Just buying the gear isn't enough to make a recording as good as the pros, it also requires some experience in technique and knowledge to match what an experienced engineer can do. This experience isn't acquired overnight. If you want to turn out a quality product, it'll be a lot more efficient to hire out the talent and gear than it is to learn it yourself from square one.

But at this point I can hear an army division of "home recorders" out there gearing up for an e-mail attack against this panel as being self-serving or elitist, and that there are thousands of their fellow home recorders out there who daily churn out tracks that don't sound so bad, especially in this day of MP3s and over-compressed "professional" releases that are not exactly sonic gems. How would you respond to them?

Jay Walsh: Well, again, that all goes back to intent. If you just want something to be listenable, you can easily do that yourself with minimal equipment and not that much knowlege.

If you want to learn how to record, you can use this as an excuse to buy the equipment and start learning. It will take longer because of the learning curve and experimentation. But if are not in a hurry, there is value in being able to take your time to make sure everything is the way you want it. It is pretty easy to fall into the "trap of the never ending album" where you keep redoing the same songs over and over again and never get anywhere. But that's one of the responsibilities that comes with the freedom of recording yourself on your own time.

If you need a professional product now, the fastest, easiest, best way to do that is to hire a professional now.

Jon O'Neil: Well, that brings us back to the topic of the board: independent recording. As opposed to independent music, which is a completely different thing, not to be confused with recording.

But first, just to reiterate, if you have aspirations of being a professional musician, FLEE from recording yourself. Yes, I have heard a lot of good home recordings too. The difference is time. When you are a hobbyist, an amateur, by definition you are doing something because you really like it, and are willing to spend a lot of time on it without expectation of a reasonable return for your time. That's how I started out; I never wanted to be a rock star.

The only warning I have for the home recorder is to decide very early on whether your hobby is recording, acquiring gear, or building a studio.

If you have time, and don't care about money, then record yourself. People might think, "But hey if my time is free, then it's cheaper to record myself, right?" That is only true in very limited instances, where your recording needs are simple, and you are a VERY prolific songwriter. Production costs don't equal money, that's a function of revenue minus cost. Too many people--too many businesses, even, focus on reducing costs when the real money is to be made in increasing sales.

Here's another thought: it's not uncommon for a customer to tell me they tried my microphone and loved it/hated it/need something a little different. What's the catch? It's two months after they received it and they just tried it. Does such a person really have the time to record himself? I don't really know the answer to that question, but money will never be a substitute for time, because you can't buy your way into becoming a good engineer. You can buy an engineer.

GS: OK, then, it sounds like there's pretty much a consensus here that if one's goal to to make a professional-level recording of themselves or their band, that the #1 thing is to be prepared before you record. A great professional recording not only starts with, but depends upon , a great professional performance by the artists. Get on board before you record, don't hit that record button just because you can, like the shutter of a cell phone camera; hit it because you actually have a performance worth preserving.

We are also pretty much in agreement that for a truely professional production, it is for a number of reasons a good idea to leave the engineering to "the professionals" at a commercial studio.Yet, for better or worse, we are witness to the emergence of a multi-million dollar industry over the last few years of decent quality recoridng and production hardware and software offered for the indepenent recorder and musician. Much of this new gear is now being used in more intiimate, smaller commercial studio space made out of converted loft space, renovated basements or building additions. Many of them are little more than home-based project studios.

Many of these these project studios, rather than just being places for working ideas out before laying them down in a "real" studio, as John alluded to earlier, are being run these days by artists who want to record themselves, and wish to support that desire by also getting revenue by recording others. This new breed of DIY studios are now becoming the direct producers of a flood of independent recordings that are distributed as anything from CDs sold at the local record stores and to MP3s for posting to websites like MySpace and NoWhere radio.

So let's continue this discussion on "getting started" by talking more about that: Getting started in owning and operating an independent recording studio. Where does one start?

John Scrip: If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would've dumped every penny I had into the best monitoring chain I could find and some broadband traps. Then I would've locked myself in that room listening to great (and crappy) recordings for about a year while reading up on recording theory and saving for other gear.

I know more people who "waste" (for lack of a better term) their time battling with not being able to hear accurately, while not knowing how to listen.

Those are two things - inaccurate hearing and not knowing how to listen - that are just unacceptable if you want to make good recordings.

Jay Walsh: Well, if you are just trying to record yourself, it's pretty easy:

1. Decide on a DAW. I favor DAWs over these 'studio in a box' things simply because you can grow them as you need. If you need more than 8 inputs, you can just go out and get an interface with more inputs instead of throwing away the entire studio and buying another one.Reaper seems to work well and is pretty cheap. It's a good starting point to get your feet wet without having to shell out thousands of dollars until you really know that this is what you want.

2. Get an interface. If you are a one man band, it is likely that you won't need more than two or four inputs at once. For starting out, I would just get an interface that has built in preamps. It saves you from having to buy more stuff.

3. Monitors. Buy the best ones you can afford. You will be judging everything through these, if they are lying to you, you will never get anywhere.

4. Microphones. If you are just recording yourself, you have the advantage of just finding the microphone that makes you sound great and just getting those. If you are recording anyone that walks through the door, you will need to have mics that will work in a wide variety of situations. That gets expensive.

5. Room treatment. Just like with the monitors, if the room is coloring the sound too much, you will never really hear what you are doing. Bass traps are the key to the universe for both the control room and tracking rooms.

Even though I numbered these things, they are in no particular order. You really need all of these things before you start. Except maybe the room treatment.

Even though it is a good idea to do your research and try to make informed decisions before you purchace anything, sooner or later you will just have to dive in and try to tread water.

GS: I'll save us from diving into the details of hardware and software requirements and all that for another time; that's whole topic unto itself. But to bring this conversation around the back turn and try to bring it back home again. I'd like to hear how each one would respond to this situation:

I am ready to buy or already have all the basic gear and surroundings that Jay pointed out. It's no Abbey Road, but I have made a good start to having my own halfway decent project studio beyond just an mBox, a copy of Pro Tools LE and a couple of entry-level condensors.

What do I need to do or know besides what I read in "Hone Recording for Musicians"? What is *really* important? What rookie mistakes do I want to avoid and what insight from you experience should I take to heart as I start down the road of independent recording?

Jay Walsh: You have to know when enough is enough. It's very easy to get so nitpicky about your work that you never think it's ready, so you never get anything done.

If you find yourself EQing the snot out of something, you might want to go back and re-record it. In other words, if you are trying to completely change the sound of something with EQ, you probably didn't record it right.

A lot of people new to this have the idea that you can record almost anything, stick it in a computer, apply some magic plugins, and end up with a professional product. And that the only real difference between noobs and pros is the fact that the pros know the secret tricks and/or have the magic equipment. This simply isn't the case.

Everything revolves around understanding the music, instruments, and equipment involved. Making everything play nice together is the only real trick, and that just comes from experience and repetition.

Jon O'Neil: I'd still have to divide you into two groups: those who mostly record themselves, and those who want to mostly record other people, for money.

That's just a different focus in terms of what gear to acquire. But it's also a different perspective; first, to create a business plan that will be profitable; second, to be able to emphasize with somebody else's music.

The great temptation is to do everything by yourself, but as I've already argued, that isn't really possible, nor profitable. Everybody always has the same first question: how do I make my (clients') recordings sound like the pros? Well, generally there wasn't one guy who was tracking engineer, mix engineer, mastering engineer, producer, intern, assistant, etc . . .

So why do you think as a neophyte studio operator that you can manage that? I am thinking no. Decide what you are especially good at, and target that market.

But the one hat you will probably have to wear is Producer (hopefully not in the hip-hop usage of that word!) One thing a producer decides to do is who to hire, who to fire, when to use a studio musician, what to farm out, etc. Find yourself a network of like-minded studio operators, and engage in cross-selling.

I'm pretty sure that if I went to boondocks of the Chi-town suburbs to Jay's studio, but I didn't bring a drummer, he could pick up the phone and get somebody. Then maybe he'd send the mixes out to John for mastering. Just on this board, right there is a powerful network.

What are you good at? Big room, giant mic collection? Focus on tracking, maybe even specialize in acoustic/ensemble stuff. Vintage collection of amps? Brilliant control room? Outboard to drool over? Killer mobile rig? Very few people can put that all together. If you can't, pick one thing and get really good at it. If you suck at mixing (or just hate it, like me), farm it out and keep your live room humming.

You have to realize that you are in a very competitive, very saturated industry that is largely built on personal relations. This is why I sell gear [smiles] but you need to go out and meet & greet, and always sell yourself. Not in an annoying way! But be out there and prominent and helpful!

There is one guy who pretty much dominates the local studio market here, he runs an open mic night every week - really more of a killer open jam; I won't even get up on that stage!. He plays out all the time, knows everybody, etc. That's what you need to become to your target market.

John Scrip: First, you're tracking too hot: Half the gear manuals out there suggest "recording as hot as possible without clipping" which is actually a rather horrific thought. Especially with a lot of the "budget friendly" gear out there that has little or no usable headroom.

Headroom is king, too much headroom is better than not enough. Most preamps will reward you for not pushing them too hard.

This is one of those things that I rant about on my blog. But to "dumb it down" quite a bit for the extreme rookie, there's no reason at all to have anything - *ANYTHING* - recorded hotter than -12 or -10dBFS. Me? I tend to shoot lower than that. Peak somewhere between -20 and -12dBFS and you're going to be in another world of clarity.

Second, use a clean [recording] chain: Mic -> Preamp -> Interface. Everything at unity except the pre-gain. No compressors - which make it even easier to overdrive the input chain, no EQ - except perhaps the roll-off on the mic or the preamp *if* it's available and *if* it's actually necessary. If you "need" a compressor in the front end, then remember point 1 and bring your input levels down. If you need EQ, take the advice from our preceeding conversation and find out why - Change the core sound, move the mic, do anything you can find to keep your input chain as straight and clean as possible.

Third, learn your monitoring chain. [This is] the only interface from the sound to your brain. If you don't know your chain and you haven't learned to simply listen, then everything else is pretty much moot. Study what really great recordings sound like. Study what crappy recordings sound like. Study dynamics, distortion, pink noise -- Personally, I think the average "non-seasoned" engineer should spend several months just listening to his system while reading about recording techniques.

At the end of that, he'd be years ahead of the guy who hasn't learned to listen and just dove right into making crappy sounding recordings.