Monday, 15 October 2012

The Joys Of Home Recording

Sometimes its hard to remember that the idea of once recording your own voice in your own home was so much science fiction.  Let's face it - it's a pretty amazing achievement for a bunch of strategically shaved apes that barely a few thousand years ago were trying to figure out how to re-create that nice warm yellow thing that had just burned down their mud hut.

But for those of you who play an instrument and want to record your efforts: whether to play it to friends, sell it on the internet or just to see how you are progressing - the modern world of technology holds a plethora of options.

Firstly, of course, you need something to record it on.  Now, even as a kid back in the dark ages before they invented ballpoint pens (well, ok, not quite that long ago), my dad would occasionally line up two tape recorders and sing "Lloyd George Knew My Father" into one, play back the recording whilst singing in unison whilst the second recorder added to the mix - until finally a whole chorus of voices ascribed to the point that, despite all historical records to the contrary, a former British Prime Minister had, indeed, been acquainted with his male parent.

Clearly the problem with this approach was that as each recording was made a sizeable amount of background noise was also picked up.  Plus there's only an extremely small market for recordings of my dad singing what is, at best, a rather repetitive song (repeat Lloyd George knew my father, my father knew Lloyd George ad infinitum to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers)

From the mid 90s we had a home recording system that effectively worked in a similar way, running a tape at a different speed and recording on only part of the tape so that you could multi-track.  Again the problem after a while was that the more multi-tracking and mixing you did: the muddier the sound (the most famous example of tape related problems is allegedly when Mike Oldfield had nearly finished Tubular Bells when the tape just disintegrated from constant re-use)

Enter the digital age and, assuming that none of us reading this have the resources to recreate Abbey Road, Real World or Sun Studios at the bottom of our garden and there are three digital solutions.

#1: Computer based
There are a range of software packages available for the budding musician in you including:
Cu-base - professional studio standard recording package.  Can be purchased in full (very expensive) or cut down version (affordable).  Cu-base has a steep learning curve that has lead to the popular phrase amongst Rocket Scientists, "Well, it's not cu-base" (see, you always wondered what it was that they referenced when dealing with a tricky subject)

Garage band - a cut down version can be bought for your latest i-Gadget and the full version for your i-Computer if you can live with the guilty conscience of all those rumors about the Chinese sweat-shops which suffered from a series of news stories about high levels of staff suicide.  Garage band and i-related products have made the news more positively when several major bands used them for entire albums.

Audacity - not really designed for music so much as presentations and therefore slightly limiting in someways, but it's popularity and selling point is that it can be downloaded entirely free

NB: There are many other products for recording on your home PC.  The only problem is that with each of them (with the possible exception of Garage band) you will probably need some kind of input device with which to attach your instrument and definately a high quality mike.  Also if your computer is old or full of other things then you may find that it runs slowly, there is significant delay between playing and hearing and that recording will pause half way through doing something (a problem that in the end made me give up entirely with Audacity)

#2: Self contained
You can buy little boxes that can easily fit into a back pack from £100 upwards depending on how many tracks you want to record and how all singing-all dancing you want it to be.  Some will even come with their own CD burner installed so you never have to go near a computer at all.  Most now come with inbuilt effects and drum patterns

#3: Hybrid
Effectively a box as described above, but that comes with a computer package that allows you to upgrade to a full studio and achieve a great deal more control when mixing and editing. 

Actually recording

First of all chose your song: and please, for the love of humanity - not Lloyd George Knew My Father.

Secondly - to keep yourself honest and in time find some kind of drum accompaniment.  A lot of recording devices will come with a "click track" (effectively a tick-tick-tick that can be set to different speeds) - but i prefer to use a full drum pattern as it helps you to remember changes in the song and is easier to follow as its more than one sound (NB - with most drum machines, especially in-built ones, you can edit the pattern once finished and add fill-ins etc to make your song sound more interesting)

Your next step, if you actually mean business, should really be to play the song through a few times to make sure that Mr and Mrs Error will go and stay somewhere else for the duration - however, if you're like me and not bothered about the occasional "fluff" then just crack on - but make sure that you know when you start what the basic structure of your song is - for instance: INTRO - VS1, CH, VS2, INST, VS3, BRIDGE, END

If it helps then sing along as you go - unless you are using an instrument that has to be miked

Record your basic chord patttern first using whichever of your instruments is the one you want to be the primary (add your supporting instruments later, such as bass as it will help to have the basic structure present)

Add a supporting vocal (again, if you are as lazy as me, this will be your final vocal as well)

Depending on how many different sounds you want you may need to go through the whole song several times (or else select the specific area where you want to record), multi-layering the sound so that you end up with something like this:

TRACK 1: Guitar (rhythm)
TRACK 2: Vocal
TRACK 3: Vocal 2 (if required)
TRACK 4: Keyboard
TRACK 5: Bass
TRACK 6: Lead Guitar (if required)
TRACK 7: Ukulele
TRACK 8: Saxophone

(NB: it's hard to actually picture a song where a Ukulele and a Saxophone could sit comfortably hand-in-hand, but you get the idea)

The hardest thing with all of this is maintaining that picture in your head of how the finished thing is going to sound - keeping the lyrics in front of you (particularly for songs where the chord sequence is repetitive and its easy to get lost) will help, as will writing down a note of where the song changes segment (most recorders come with an internal track time and "part" so that you can edit to specific areas

Finally you need to mix your song - which is largely a process of playing the final thing through and adjusting the relevant volumes so that the sounds you want as primary are clear at any given point - this can take a while and dependent on the method of burning to a CD that you are using may need to be done prior to saving your file.

And that's it - you are ready to go and annoy friends and family with your latest recording.


The Bug said...

Since I can't really play an instrument I'm pretty sure this is not knowledge that I need. However, I did learn one thing - I had no idea what NB meant so I looked it up. I'm going to start using it instead of Please Note. Ha!

Argent said...

My oldest friend and I used to record 'plays' that we wrote - spoofs of Space 1999 for the most part. We had my old cassette records and she had one with - of all hi-tech gew-gaws - a pause button! Garage Band is nifty though and even one's mobile phone can do a decent job (my hubs recorded a guitar lesson using his and it came out surprisingly well - no multit-racking though of course).

The real ingredient, though, is to get off my/one's but and actually do some recording in the first place!

sewa mobil jakarta said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Bug - you should learn an instrument. Ukulele is fun and barely takes up any space

Argent - yes indeed, i'm managing to do some at present

Sewa - thanks and should i ever need to rent a minibus whilst visiting Jakarta I will doubtless come to you