Thursday, May 23, 2013

Value based home music recording

Value based credentials
Everyone who knows me knows that I'm obsessed with getting a good value. I probably look for good deals a little too much. My wife has said to me on multiple occasions that she would really appreciate if I would stop telling everyone how much I like to get good deals. To put it bluntly, I'm a bit cheap sometimes, although I do prefer "value based" or possessing "Yankee ingenuity". The whole idea of being cheap isn't consistent with the rest of my life, since I have been known to make a fair bit of money and have spent quite a bit of it as well. The long and short of things is that I like to get the best value I can from the money I spend and I spend a fair amount of time researching things to find the right items to buy. I should probably write a separate blog just on my neurotic need to find good value, but let's just establish for now my credentials for finding good deals.  

The challenge
About 9 months ago I started the process of recording a set of songs. I'm not a particularly good musician and the other guys in our casual band are definitely not professionals either, but having set out to do something I always try to do as good a job as I can with the time and resources available.

The band
Our band is not a traditional band. We write and perform parodies for our school auction. The idea started with my good friend Jeremy and fellow school parent David who decided, off the cuff, to do a few songs during the school live auction just to be a bit different and entertaining. I joined the band the following year and it grew from there. Each fall we get together for 3 or 4 nights and write some new lyrics to classic kitschy tunes and figure out how to hack our way through them. Our lack of great talent is part of the charm of the whole affair. (Or so we like to think) I mostly think that Jeremy's jovial personality and overwhelmingly funny and positive stage presence is the only thing that makes it work. So the raw talent that we are working with is limited, but there is a fair amount of enthusiasm and positive energy that we want to capture in a musical album of the songs we have performed over the last few years.

Knowing that I need to take the reigns and figure out how to record our band, I set out to find out how the process works and what equipment I would need to pull it off.     I'm a drummer and I have always had the additional task of managing the PA and mixing equipment.    At this point, having done it for many years, I'm pretty good at setting up microphones, speakers and mixing consoles.   I have run audio boards for other fairly decent bands in the past so I know the live performance side of things well.     Recording is a different beast and requires different tools.    Here are the things that I knew I needed:
  • All the standard live equipment: Instruments, amps and microphones
  • A hardware device that takes analog input from the microphones and other instruments and translates it into separate recordings of each instrument.  Each one of those is called a "track".
  • A computer program that can take those separate tracks and mixes them together to create a master track that is the finished product.    Ideally this software would work similar to Photoshop and can be used to touch up and improve the tracks after they are recorded.

Microphones are a bit like your favorite food or wine.   There is something for everyone and everyone will have a different opinion about what quality, price and sound they prefer.    Microphones are a cheap as a few dollars and can run into the thousands for bespoke models for professional studios.    If you already have a band, you probably already have some microphones.    The singer will probably care the most about what their mic sounds like.    If you don't have any mics I recommend looking at Shure, AKG, Sennheiser and Audix.    For this project I used Audix OM-5 microphones.   They are an inexpensive durable mic made for live giging.   If you are only going to do studio recording you can probably find something less durable and better sounding.   I also used a Shure wx-20 headset mic for myself (the drummer).    There are specialty mics you can get for guitar amps, bass drums, snare drums, harmonicas and every other type of instrument.     One mic I really wish I had was something like this AMT 15G for recording acoustic guitar.    A regular mic on a boom stand can work great for guitars, but the guitarist needs to have the discipline to not move around during the recording session.    A mic attached to the guitar solves those problems.    I don't really like the sound of the mics and pickups that are inside the guitar body.

Recording drums is an art unto itself.   Ideally you would mic every drum head and each cymbal separately.   Practically speaking most people just can't get there.    If you want to record an acoustic drum set properly you will need to spend more than I did on my entire recording set up.    I got around this problem by using a Roland TD-30.   High end Roland drums are pretty amazing to play, they really reproduce the feel of an acoustic set.   In live settings they are definitely a different type of instrument and don't feel quite as edgy and real, but for a recording session, they are really hard to beat, and the benefits for recording are amazing.   Everything you play will be recorded properly and if you record using MIDI you can go back and tweak the track losslessly.   You can also tailor the drum sounds to the music you are playing.    I'm a pretty weak drummer, but the TD-30 makes me sound better than I am.  (Don't worry, I'm not planning on quitting my day job)   I didn't buy the TD-30 for recording, I bought it so that I can play in my house everyday without driving my family crazy.    If you don't have an electronic drum set to record with I recommend two things.   1)  Isolate the drummer as much as possible from the rest of the band so that the drums don't bleed into the rest of the band's mics.   2) Record with a single overhead mic to capture the entire sound in one track.    You will have to play with the height to get it to sound right and the acoustics of the space you are in will color the sound, so you might have to figure out how to soften the room by hanging blankets or carpet on the walls.

Multitrack recording hardware
Your microphones have to plug into something.    At a live gig you plug all the sources into one mixing console and have someone adjust the levels of each source to sound reasonably good.     Mixing a live gig is very subjective and results vary wildly.   The nature of the live gig is that people expect to hear a more raw sound and it is often played very loudly which gives music a very different feel.   When making a recording, listeners tend to expect a more polished sound and they tend to be more critical of the recording since they listen to it over and over again.    In order to get a more polished sound it is necessary to get a clean recording of each instrument and save each one separately so that they can be mixed together into a final form later.     Traditionally, artists recorded onto tape.   8 track tapes from the 70s were are a commercialization of technology that artists used to record their individual tracks.    Today most people digitize into a computer and store each track as a file on disk.    There are lots of different products that do this.   Some are fully integrated and look like a mixing console, but also record each track to an internal hard drive.   A lot of products use FireWire to record to any computer often times a Macintosh, since they have supported FireWire for a long time.    Recent products use USB to interface with the computer and are compatible with any computer you have.  (PC, Mac or Linux)     I wanted to find a USB product since FireWire is hard to find these days and is almost impossible to get on a laptop.    The product I chose is the M-Audio C600.    The C600 can record 6 tracks simultaneously and comes from a company that has a high regard for audio quality.   There are lots of similar products out there from Tascam, Behringer, Roland, Alesis, Mackie, Motu and others.    The products are improving and changing quickly, so as you are reading this, chances are that there is or will be better products out already.   The product class is called a "USB audio interface".   Here are the basics of what you should look for:
  • Number of simultaneous tracks that can be recorded.
    • 1 is the minimum you can buy.   You can buy multiple single track recorders and attach them all to a computer to get multiple tracks.   This can work, but can also be a source of frustration if your computer can't handle the multiple hardware sources properly.  The cheapest ones you can buy are on Ebay for $12 each. 
    • Figure out how many you tracks will need at one time.   The bigger your band the more you will need.    I figured that I would need at least 6 to mic a 4 piece band.  
    • Figure out how many you can afford.   This technology is getting cheaper all the time, but there is still a pretty significant price jump from the 2 up to 6 and again up to 8 or 12 inputs.
  • Overall quality.   There is a big difference in the mic pre-amps between the high and low end of the market.    Read the reviews carefully before you buy a bargain priced unit.
  • Phantom power.    Transducer mics require power to operate and your audio interface should supply it.   You can plug your mics into a mixer and then key off the audio inserts on the mixer, but that represents one more step for noise to creep in.
  • Rack mount or desktop.   The higher end units and especially the 8-12 input units are usually rack mount and integrate into a "professional" studio environment.    
  • Headphone and audio sends.      Your audio interface will be used to provide monitoring for your band as you are recording.    The audio sends can go to speakers or you can use the headphones as a monitor.    Headphones work best since you don't want to have extra sound sources in your recording room.
Almost any reasonable computer should work.    I used a Thinkpad X220 laptop.    You will only need about 30 gigs of free disk space for most uses.    Obviously if you choose a Firewire solution, you need to have a computer that has a Firewire interface.    If you have a USB audio interface, you can use pretty much anything.    Almost everything is USB 2.0 still.   USB 3.0 is coming but isn't really necessary for most uses.

Software is where you can really spend or really save, the type of software you need is call a DAW or "Digital Audio Workstation".   The 800 pound gorilla in the space is Protools.   Protools is what the pros really use and has pretty much every feature you could imagine.    Protools is expensive and has a really onerous DRM system that involves physical keys that you have to plug into your computer, it also retails for about $700 for just the base software.   There are "starter" versions of Protools and I received one with my M-Audio C600, but it turns out that the way they restrict the usage is to limit the number of simultaneous tracks you can record to two.    With only two simultaneous tracks you really can't record a band, you can only record yourself.   I'm an open source software guy and have given away nearly everything I have ever written, so I looked around to see what I could use.    I tried to use a product called Audacity.   It seemed to be the best of the open source tools, but it had a real problem interfacing with my hardware.    Most of the audio interfaces work best with a Windows driver interface called ASIO, and I couldn't make ASIO work with Audacity.    There are many DAW's out there, but I really wanted something that had a bit more polish to it and supported ASIO.   During my research I came across Reaper.   As it turns out Reaper was everything I was looking for.   It is a nicely polished product that works very reliably, supports ASIO and has very attractive pricing.    Reaper is free to try and nags you if you don't buy it.    Once you decide to buy it there are two options.   It's only $60 if you are a small time user like me, and $225 if you are a big time commercial outfit.    Most of us will fit into the $60 tier and that is a tremendous value in the DAW space.     One of the biggest benefits of Reaper, besides that fact that it works fast and reliably, is that it supports VST plugins.   VST plugins are the same things that make Protools such a powerful platform.    The DAW software is not just a recording, mixing and editing solution, it is also a platform for adding lots and lots of 3rd party effects to make your tracks sound amazing.

The recording process
Every band will do it different, but here is what I experienced.   We only had about 8 weeks from the start of the process to being completely done and we were trying to record more than 10 songs.    A real band would take longer than that just for one song in most cases.     On many of the songs we recorded the drums and rhythm guitar in one session and added the rest of the instruments as overlays later.    In some songs we tried to do all the instruments together and then went back and rerecorded some parts that we didn't like.    The complications that we ran into were many.     Sometimes one or two of our band members were not available, so we had to try and make progress.    Sometimes we would all get together and waste a bunch of time just trying to get ready.    We had problems with bleed when we tried to record multiple acoustic guitars.     Most of us didn't like our performance and wanted to go back and try it again and again.    The most important thing we did, was to keep making progress and keep making recordings.    Eventually we were able to get about 12 songs recorded in various states of completeness.   

After the band had recorded the major bits, I went back and overlayed backup vocal tracks, bongos and other percussions and started playing around with effects to try and make us sound better.

VST Plugins
After you capture your recording you will start mixing and editing.   A short while later you may  realize that you want to add effects to voices and instruments to enhance the sound.    VST plugins is where to turn for amazing effects.    Start searching the internet for VST plugins and you will find hundreds of choices for free and commercial plugins that do virtually everything.    Want to get that Autotune sound to be just like T-Pain, you can get the original commercial version and plug it right in.    Some really great free plugins are gVST and BetaBugs

Final cut
You may be listening to your songs on headphones and love the sound only to be surprised later on that it doesn't sound nearly as good in your car or on your iPod.    It turns out that one of the secrets of good audio engineers is that they know how to mix a song so that it sounds pretty good on all audio systems, even though it won't sound perfect on any of them.    One of the secrets is that they compress the music substantially.    Compression removes dynamic range from a song, but it also makes it sound louder overall in general.   It raises the volume of the quite parts and lowers the volume of the loud parts.   Compression is very controversial in the music world, but I will tell you that if you don't do it, people will probably tell you that your song doesn't sound right, since they will probably be listening to your song with poor quality speakers.    If your audience is all audiophiles or people with high quality headphones then leave out the compression.

Total cost and equipment list

Here is the list of equipment and approximate price for them:
  • $0  A laptop or desktop computer (assumed that you already owe this) 
  • $250  M-Audio C600
  • $360  3 -Audix OM-5 microphone (3 x $120)
  • $80    Shure WX20 headset microphone
  • $200  Mic stands, cables, beer holders, etc...
  • $60    Reaper DAW software
Total cost, just under $1000 USD.   The experience of recording and producing music, priceless.

The result
I know it's not terribly good, but I'm proud of the result and we had a great time making the music.   I hope these tracks are received in the spirit in which they were recorded.   I'll just post a few.

All of these songs were written for our nursery school, a COOP school in Menlo Park called the Menlo Atherton Cooperative Nursery School.   

Stop. Get Right Down and work it out
    This is a song about two toddlers battling it out on the nursery school playground.   It was inspired by a parents meeting in which we all learned the best way to try to resolve conflicts between two  children on the playground.

Can't you see what that COOP means to me
     This is the last song we wrote and is a look back at how the school had effected our lives and how special the time was.     Listening to it now brings back fond memories of all the friends I met and the great experiences helping to teach the kids in the school.