Welcome back! So far, we've talked about some of the reasons to start a solo project, formats of such acts, singing, and songwriting. The purpose of this series is to give you a few ideas for your own music, regardless if you're a band player or the one-man (or woman) warrior. I had to learn a lot of the information I'm presenting through trial and error, so it's my hope that, through the presentation of my story, your road will be that much easier.
At this point in the articles, we've established a project, written a few songs, got some cool words to sing (if that's what we're into), and we're ready to rock, right? Hold on, soldier! We need some gigs, fans, and downloads.
People need to hear you. Unless you're a strolling minstrel, you need the capability to record your tunes and give them to people in the form of a CD or mp3. You can build your fan base, book shows, and even send one to your great aunt who is a nun and really hope that she's not offended by the story about nuns in the radio track in your CD...wait, that last bit only applies to me. Sorry!
Musicians are lucky to be living in this day and age. Recording technology is readily available, cheap, and sometimes even free. In the past, the only choice we had would have been to spend hundreds of dollars to record in a commercial studio.
Although the matter is fiercely debated, it's probably still
the best way to get that million-dollar sound, because of that million-dollar equipment and acoustic space they have! (For example, when I got my new CD mastered, I calculated the sound ran through over twenty thousand dollars of processing gear in a sonically-optimized room.)
That being said, a lot of us starting out don't have the budget to spend on studio time, or, if you're like me, prefer to buy some basic equipment and spend as much time as needed on the project without having the pressure of the clock ticking your cash away. So, let's find out how to...
Set up shop
Here's some of the things that I found out in experimenting with gear as a solo musician. Keep in mind that it's only a very basic overview, and recording is it's own art form that can and should be seriously studied for maximum results. View the following as what I used, not the be all and end all of recording.
I needed to record, and had some special considerations for a soloist drums. Maybe you can play them, but I haven't gotten the hang of it yet. With that in mind, here's what I found:
Getting the sound recorded
There's two main types of recorders we can use:
- Stand alone recorders
- Computer systems
If I only had to pick one, I prefer the second option. But, I actually use 'em both. (To be fair to other types of technology, there ARE other recording systems out there, but I'm outlining the ones most useful for my purposes. If you happen to have a tape machine sitting around, great.)
Flip through any music catalog, and you'll immediately see a multitude of snazzy little recorders with faders, blinky lights, and even the capability to burn a CD from the unit! So shiny! I had an old Boss BR-532 with a whopping 32 megabyte card. (It held one song.) Thankfully, the storage has improved. The units are cool because you can move them around easily, and record tracks at gigs, band practices (if you're not doing a solo gig), etc. There's actually two main types of these: There are multi-track recorders, which are more desk units, and the true portable field recorders, which can be hand-held. Several disadvantages of both of these units are, compared to a computer, editing can be clumsy, and not nearly as powerful as the systems I'm about to talk about.
Of course, it all comes down to taste. I've even heard of a band recording a song on an iPhone. (The app is called Four Track, and yes, I own it! It's cool!) Despite their editing limitations, they really shine for capturing ideas on the fly. (And some of them interface with computers, giving a hybrid option.)
Digital Audio Workstations
My favorite system is the DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation
. I find it to be the the most flexible, powerful, and surprisingly, in one case, the cheapest. The setup consists of two to three parts:
1. The Interface
The interface is what converts the signal from the microphone placed in front of a guitar amp, or a direct line in, into a format the computer can understand. Technically it employs devices known as A/D Converters Analogue to Digital converters. The mic plugs into the unit, and the signal is routed to the computer. Interfaces come in three main flavors: Firewire, USB, and PCI card (sound card.) Your computer already has a sound card, but you'd probably want a souped up one designed for recording. I've had bad luck with the stock card on my computer for two reasons: Noise, and latency. I got lots of electronic interference in the tracks, and the timing was difficult due to latency. This term refers to the time it takes for the computer to process the signal. A half-second delay isn't a problem when you're putting down the first track, but it is
an issue when you try to record another track over that one
. Check it out: If I put a drum track down, and then go to to put a bass track on it, I'm going to be off beat, since the computer will a.) delay the reference drum sound getting to the speakers, and b.) put an additional
delay on the bass track as I play it. It's annoying, and really hard to get anything done. So watch out for latency in your selection of audio gear. Buying a good interface is a great solution to this problem. Many interfaces come with recording software, too.
It's usually a lite version, but still, a cool feature!
2. (Optional) Pre-amp. Some interfaces already contain a pre-amp, but you can easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a separate pre-amp. It boosts the level of the incoming signal, and can add a warmth and special flavor to the sound. Each preamp sounds different, much like guitar amps all have their own voice.
3. Software. THIS is where the fun happens! The signal arrives at your computer now what?
Process it, baby! Digital Audio Workstations
, or DAWs for short, are where the magic happens. You can start out with a free open-source program called Audacity (google it) to see how cool recording software can be. If you decide to upgrade, there are many options available, from the industry-standard Pro Tools, to Cubase (what I use), Acid, Cakewalk, Logic, and the list goes on. There's a few cool reasons I really like these systems:
- Editing is very visual. You can literally cut-n-paste tracks, delete takes and start over, move things around, and drop in samples. Editing is easy, and some of the options contained in the program let you do some wild stuff to the sound. Creativity is limitless!
- DAWs support extra software called Plugins
, which are third party software applications. Think of them as apps for a smartphone. You can buy reverb plugins, drum machines, orchestra instruments... You name it! I used the plugin by Toontrack called Superior Drummer 2.0 to get the drum sounds on my latest record.
- MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface
support (not available on every system.) This lets you use a keyboard controller to trigger sounds within the program. Need a spooky keyboard track? No problem. Just bring up the right plugin, and play away. (The program converts the data to sound that is editable.) This is how I put down the keyboard and violin tracks on Signalman
- Mixing in a DAW is a trip. You have an on-screen mixer, and you can use the mouse to move the faders around. All of it is easily saved and recalled, too. For those of you who'd prefer to mix on an actual console, there are many different external controllers available that plug right into your computer, and take the virtual mixer's place.
- You can also use outboard processors
here. If you have, say, a compressor that you really like, you can run the signal from the DAW, through the interface, out into the real world, compress it, and run it back to the DAW.
- When this technology was first emerging, it met with a firestorm of criticism from the audiophiles. It's not real music if it's cut 'n paste! Blah blah blah. Sure, it's neat to use the old school recording methods. I love that sound! But there's no need to try to devalue the latest in computer technology to open up new arenas for creativity. I also enjoy photography, and I run into stodgy people all the time who turn their noses up at Adobe's Photoshop software, the graphic design equivalent of a DAW. I see both of these programs as not compromising the playing field, but effectively doubling it. In the case of Photoshop, a camera is still 100% of the process but the program brings the art form to 200% with creative potential. I used Cubase 5 fairly conservatively on Signalman
, my latest album, but there are many exciting applications for DAWs that await the intrepid musician. If you're into the way out there sounds, or just want to capture exactly what you hear, DAWs are worth looking at.
A word about multi-tracking
refers to capturing many sounds (such as a drum set) simultaneously, and having the capability to mix them later. For example, if an interface only has one input, and I go to record a drum set, I'll have to either use one microphone, or mix the signal from several together before it hits the computer. (I could use a small mixer that a live sound engineer would use.) The problem
with that is: If I mix the signals wrong (say, the snare's too loud), I can't undo it later. I've got one track recorded for all of the drums. Multi-tracking lets me track everything individually, and mix it later.
What if you only have one input on the interface or recorder? You can record in a Track At Once
fashion. Put the rhythm guitar track down, go back, and record the lead guitar as you listen to the rhythm track play back
, and do the same with the vocals, etc. If you're a one-man band like me, that's what you do anyway. Keep this in mind when you're shopping for recorders or interfaces. Do they have enough inputs to multi-track for your recordings?
In plain English...
There are many different systems available. I started with a stand alone recorder. I prefer DAWs for their power and ease of use. I do use portable recorders to capture ideas on the fly, sounds of the city, and the like. The DAW signal chain consists of (sometimes) a pre-amp, an interface, and the software to process everything. Interfaces are great because they have low latency and clear sound.
Microphones and guitar ports and money to spend
We've talked about the signal chain, but so far, we've overlooked a very important point: How the heck to we capture that great guitar tone?
There's several ways. The most popular and time honored method is to:
Mic the guitar amp:
By using a microphone, we can capture the interaction of the guitar, speaker cabinet, and very air as they duke it out in a mega-fight. Speaker distortion can be a neat part of the sound, and it's hard to beat the vibe of a tube amp at full throttle
Not only do we get all of this wonderful chemistry, but we introduce yet another variable into the recording process: Mic Placement
By far the most popular placement is the mic put directly in front of the speaker cone against the grille cloth of the amp. Changing the placement of the microphone greatly influences the sound. The further off-axis from the center of the speaker the mic is placed, the more the highs are lost. Moving the mic farther back lets more of the room sound in cool if you're in a great-sounding space, but lousy if not.
And, of course, the sound is extraordinarily changed by what type of mic is used. A Shure SM-57 is probably the most popular guitar mic of all time, and you'll usually see it directly on axis with the speaker. However, it's not my personal favorite. I like to use a large-diaphragm condenser microphone placed about a foot back from the amp (or even behind it, for a different sound! ) I've also gotten a cool tone by using several microphones blended together in the DAW. The point is: Experiment to find the best sound!
It makes a huge difference, so take the time to fiddle.
What are these microphone types you keep yammering about, Josh?
I'm getting ahead of myself...Here's the basic families of microphones useful to the home studio:
- Dynamic Microphones: Most popular for live performances, and used quite a bit in the studio. The ones you'll often see are the Shure SM-58, the industry standard vocal mic, and it's equally popular instrument mic brother, the SM-57. Bulletproof, gritty sounding, and used for countless performances and recordings, dynamic microphones are typically the cheapest and most durable mics around. These are the things people think of when they say microphone.
- Condenser Microphones: Ever see the Real Men of Genius commercials, with the guy singing in the studio with the mic that looks like it got caught in a spider web? These are condenser microphones. There are two main varieties: Large diaphragm and Small diaphragm. The large often has a warm response great for vocals, while the small is typically better at accurately reproducing a wide frequency range and fast transients (quick response.) Condensers are generally more sensitive (that's good) than dynamic microphones, and while usually more expensive, there are some good deals to be had. One thing to keep in mind with this type of mic is they usually require external power, called phantom power
. It's 48 volts DC, and is typically supplied by the interface. I've had great success with the clarity and warmth of large diaphragm condensers, and they're my personal favorite for miking electric guitars and vocals.
- Ribbon microphones: Used on many of the old school recordings, and although expensive, great if you want a silky-smooth crooner tone. The fact that they're fragile, and again, usually expensive, put them out of consideration for this article, although they definitely warrant further investigation on your own time. I've heard there's some cheap ones out there, too. (But remember you get what you pay for.)
- There are other types of microphones, to be sure! I've just outlined the basic types that work for our purposes. The workhorse mic that I used on Signalman is a large-diaphragm condenser by the brand Blue, and strangely enough, it's called The Baby Bottle. It sorta looks like one, but sounds wayy better.
Keep in mind
that the microphone selection and placement has a tremendous impact on the sound of your guitar on the record!
Direct to the source
There's another way using onboard guitar effects processors and amp simulators. Line 6 is one of several companies that make such an interface. You plug the guitar right in, connect it to the computer, and use the software to dial up a great sound. I used to look down my nose at this, but let me tell you, after spending a few hours wrestling with mics and amps, it started to look pretty good. To be fair to you, I'll state that I've never used this type of recording equipment, so I can't offer a strong opinion on it. I will say that for a musician just interested in putting down guitar tracks, it presents an intriguing opportunity worth looking into. Anything that adds ammo to the arsenal is worthy of a test drive! Let me know your stories and recommendations with this format. I'd be curious to know. I've also seen guitar effects software, and that's also interesting. The possibilities are great go out there and find what works for you!
I have tracked bass guitar by plugging directly into the interface, though. I found the sound adequate, but next record, I think I'll shop for some nice bass amp simulation software, similar to the guitar software I just mentioned.
A bit of both
A third option is to record with a mic, and
split the signal to route a dry sound directly into the computer. This has the editing flexibility to change the sound, or even play it back later through another amp and record that
with a mic. Options, options!
Recording for cheap
I'll keep this part simple: Download audacity, and use cheap mic that plugs into the computer. Bingo, you've got a recording set up. Later you'd probably want to upgrade the mic, and get an interface.
There are many, many things that go into getting a great sound. Remember, your signal chain is only as good as the weakest link. Use the information just presented to whet your appetite for knowledge, and get some books on recording. I'd also recommend checking out the magazine called EQ
. It's cheap, and it's a wonderful resource. We haven't even touched on mixing, which is another art form. Be sure to start experimenting, though. Not only will recording your music get you gigs with your demo CD, but it's a great teacher! It truly is a mirror for musicians.
One man band info
If you're like me, and trying to cook up the sound of a rock band all by yourself, you might have an issue with the drums. I was able to put down guitar tracks, vocals, keys, bass, and the occasional classical noise without a hitch, but the drums took me a little while. Here's my story. I hope it helps you.
1. Josh hears about drum replacement
: I was talking to a buddy, and he mentioned the programs EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer (there's many others, too.) I looked around, and what I found was this: The company hired a great drummer in a great studio to play a lot of sounds. They then chopped up the sounds, and wrote a program that could call them up at will. Writing a drum loop file would trigger the sounds and rearrange the pieces to sound like a drum beat. With further investigation, and a bit of disbelief as to the musicality, I found that lots of people use drum replacement technology. Often they'll use a real drummer to capture the timings, convert the sounds to MIDI, and replace the sounds with the samples. The sounds are incredibly high quality, and very editable. No more stuffing the bass drum with a pillow! I was sold.
2. Josh tries to play drums
: I ordered the software, as well as a Korg PadKontrol to trigger the drums. I figured I'd try to be a finger drummer. Stupid folks on YouTube they made it look easy. The controller was awesome, but my ineptitude got the better of me. I couldn't put down a solid beat. (If you CAN, this is a great option.) I did end up using it to write some drum fills, though.
3. Josh discovers he needs more software
: To record with the MIDI drums, I needed a DAW that would support MIDI. I was using Adobe Audition at the time, and it didn't. I ended up getting Cubase 5.
4. Josh goes programming
: I said if I can't play drums, I'll program them! I tried to use the free software Hydrogen to program the beat of the century. It's got the best arranger screen I've seen, and it's very intuitive to use. Unfortunately, after hours of research, I couldn't get it to export the right type of drum map to Cubase. After trying many different programs, I found a neat, cheap program called Rhythm Rascal. I was able to build the beat to Workaholic Blues
with it. Fruity Loops also looked promising, but I was baffled by it. Lame excuse, I know. I'd like to go back and check it out.
5. Josh discovers what was right in front of him
: Superior Drummer came with a program called EZ Player Pro, which has a bunch of drum fills and beats played by a real drummer. I had great luck arranging these, and used them on a few songs on Signalman
. The loops were MIDI files, and dropped right into Cubase, triggering the Superior Drummer plugin. Awesome sounds, and fully editable. I could change the qualities of the drums and keep the same beat. I loved it.
6. If Josh went old school: I would have written the MIDI notes right in the file. Cubase (and many other programs) have a place where you can click to build a drum beat. It DOES take some time, though.
There you have it!
Well, folks, there's my not-so-brief account of my continuing journey through the world of recording and cooking up a band sound. I hope it will be of assistance, and maybe save you some money in the process. I urge you to start recording! Get that CD out there, and hey, send me an mp3 of your efforts! I'd love to hear them.
Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he's not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he's busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first real EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at www.joshurban.com, and say hello!