Sunday, November 21, 2010

Home Recordings

I've been recording music since my teens and doing multi-track recordings since sophomore year in college. I really enjoy the art of putting together a song.....crafting the arrangement just right, layering the mixes, perfecting the performance and finally capturing it all on tape. It's a highly involved process and very rewarding. I've been to recording studios and worked with professional sound engineers, and that's very exciting, but there's nothing like doing it yourself in a private setting on your own time.

My recordings are captured on hundreds of cassettes I keep under my bed...

The first recording equipment I ever used was an old boombox I inherited from my dad in the '80's. It was a wonderful machine, with a built-in microphone loaded with compression. So much punch and clarity. The extra bonus was this thing had a short wave radio built in, which I used on a few songs for sound effects. I used this thing pretty consistently until the late '90's when it finally conked out (the microphone was picking up radio interference on top of whatever it was that you were recording).

My vintage '80's boombox

In highschool I had read Mark Lewisohn's "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions", which first made me aware of multi-track recording and the basics of how it works. I read how on one piece of tape you could record multiple tracks, and found out for the first time it didn't all have to be done live; you could overdub while being able to individually control each completed track on its own. Amazing! But I figured this kind of equipment was only available in expensive recording studios and you needed a record contract to do it. I had no idea there were compact home mixers available at a decent price.

Then, in 1992 or so, a friend lent me his cassette 4-track for a few months. Now, I finally got to try multi-tracking on my very own. It was so exciting to layer on guitar solos and vocals and use weird special effects with varispeed and panning knobs. It was a cheap little thing with lots of tape hiss, but I loved it. I recorded about a dozen songs with it in a matter of a couple months (none of them worth listening to today, admittedly).

Recording with my beloved Tascam back in the day...

I bought my own 4-track in '94, at a store in Maryland. This was the Tascam 424 portastudio and this became my main axe for the next 6 years. I recorded hundreds of songs on this thing, including my old band, Nerve Generator's underground CD, "This is 4-Track!". With the 4-track I learned about bouncing down, which means after you record onto 3 tracks you bounce them all down to the 4th. Now track #4 has three different instruments on it and 1-3 is available to record more music onto.

For years my equipment was very bare-bones. All I had was the 4-track and one microphone. All the electric guitars I would run directly into the 4-track, bypassing any need for amplification or microphones. I didn't know better; it was easier but I found out later the sound quality wasn't as good. It took me a couple years before I started using the more common practice of micing the amp. In '97 while recording demos for our band, my friends and I learned about Sam Ash's return policy and how lax it was. So we would buy expensive mic's and DAT machines and use them until we were done with the mix, then return them. Since bouncing down degrades the sound quality, we would do a mix onto DAT, then record the DAT back into the 4-track on one track, and record onto the other 3 tracks for a full, clear sounding demo. Nice tricks to learn on a low budget.

Recording with the 8-track

I often write charts like this to remember how the mix was done

After my 4-track crapped out on me I bought another Tascam, but this time with 8-tracks! I still use it do this day for portable or field recordings. Because of noise complaints, I can only record guitars and vocals at my house. For the louder things like drums and piano, I walk over to a studio down the block with my 8-track and cassettes, set up the mics, record, then go back home and mix it all down into my computer. Which brings me to computers....

By the early 2000's I was working with engineers more and more on computers. It was becoming the industry standard and I realized I had to get with the times and learn this thing. I laid down a thousand bucks and bought a Pro-Tools rig. So for the past 6 or 7 years I've been recoding with a mixture of old-fashioned cassettes and a digital audio workstation (or DAW). As with all computers the technology is constantly being upgraded and as a result the sound quality of digital has been getting better and better. I'm really happy with the set up now and I use mic pre-amps, some outboard gear and lots of plug-ins to get some great sounds out of my mixes.

Me and my current recording set-up at home. You can tell I'm just posing for the picture and not really playing.

For my Francis Friday stuff I record all the instruments myself at home. I usually start on the cassette with the scratch vocal and acoustic guitar. Then I go to the hourly-rate studio down the street to record the drums and piano overdubs. This is the most stressful part of the recording because I'm on the clock. It takes a long time to set up all the mics, and drums are a tricky beast. I never have time to practice so my playing can be a little sloppy and the work can be tedious. By the end of the session I'm sweaty, exhausted, stressed-out and still not sure if I got a worthy take. Most of the time I have to do some editing later on the computer to take out the flubs. From there I bounce all the cassette work onto the computer and record the rest of the song on Pro-Tools. I take the longest on vocals and guitar solos. I like to craft a guitar solo very carefully so it's arranged and melodic. It's great mixing with pro-tools because you can automate everything. Then the mix is saved forever if you ever want to do some tweaking in the future.

Well, now that you've heard my boring recording stories, you'll have to download some of my albums available here on my website. Just check out the links in the right hand column on this page. Thanks for listening!

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