My first experience in a studio was in Ithaca NY in 1994. I recorded a track with two of my best friends for a compilation of local bands called “One in the Oven.” I played my bass too fast and too hard and then frightened the engineers with my screaming vocals for the outro of our song. Hey, if Kathleen Hanna could do it, so could I! A year later I took matters into my own hands when I spent my first “real” paycheck on a Tascam Porta-7 4-track machine, a xlr cable, and a Sure SM 57 microphone. So began my experience recording music. I’ve played bass, drums, guitar, organ, shakers, a cardboard box, half filled beer bottles, and a beautiful rhodes piano on recordings and of course I’ve sang onto 2” reel to reel, ADAT tapes, hard drives, and onto the four magnetic tracks of old fashioned cassettes. Every experience has taught me to be a better musician and left me feeling like I had so much more to learn. And no matter where your musical journey takes you, spending time creating permanent records of your work is a valuable and illuminating process. For example, my mother recently came over for a visit and played a cassette of my “early work” as I tried my best not to cringe when my voice cracked or a painfully banal or obvious lyric slapped me in the face. Illuminating to say the least.
There are infinite ways to record tracks, so I’ll keep it simple and tell you how Chris and I recorded our most recent album, Pop! Pop! Bang! Bang!:
- We picked the beats per minute for each song by playing them and fiddling with a metronome.
- I then recorded “scratch tracks” of just me singing and playing an acoustic guitar while listening to a “click” track. A click track is just a metronome that beeps in time so that you don’t speed up or slow down while recording. I did this using the Garage Band program that came with my MacBook.
- We then drove to Brooklyn. (This is not necessary at all as there are many awesome studios to do drum tracking in Maine.) But hey, it sounded pretty cool when you read it, no?
- Chris listened to my scratch tracks and recorded his drum parts.
- Oh wait, sorry, first we worked with the Engineer/Producer to get “drum sounds”. This means that we put microphones on all the drums plus mics over the kit (overheads) and in the room. Many knobs were fiddled until the sounds of the drums being recorded were just as we wanted them. Then he recorded his parts.
- Chris is an amazing drummer. He played through each song three times and one of those takes was a “keeper” and we were done. This is not usual and Chris has no problem reminding me how quickly he completes his takes in the studio.
- I then listened to the click track, chris’s drums and my scratch track and played my guitar multiple times for each song. I played several times not only to get the best takes and also to get different sounds by playing through different amplifiers so that we could layer the tracks for a fuller sound.
- Then I tried to record vocals, but using the same approach to singing live in the studio doesn’t always yield the best results so……we drove home to Maine.
- I then painstakingly recorded vocals to all ten tracks on the album. I sang them using an antique version of pro tools and a computer old enough to remember when Kelis was “bringing all the boy to the yard“. I had to record each song many, many, many times until we got takes that we wanted to use.
- I then played bass on all the tracks. Bass can be recorded many ways, but since I was using the antique machine I recorded “direct” which means that I didn’t use an amplifier, I just sent my signal through the analog to digital converter and into the software. Later we took my signal out of the recording program, sent it through and amplifier and then re-recorded that signal.
- Chris recorded some backing vocals.
- Finally Chris recorded shakers, tambourine and even a little cowbell and some saxophone on one track.
- Then…..yup, back to Brooklyn. We did what is called an “out of the box” mixing session. This means that we sent all the individual tracks (vocals, guitar, drums etc.) out of the software program, to a huge mixing board, and then through various outboard gear including a plate reverb tank that literally has a giant metal plate that reverberates the sound. After sending the signals through these various limiters, compressors, reverb tanks, EQ boxes etc, the signals go back to the board to then go out of the board one more time to a tape machine and out of the tape machine back into the software program. There were a lot of wires and knobs and blinking lights. We mixed ten songs in about thirteen hours time. Good thing there was lots of take-out food and two very entertaining dogs during our time in the studio.
- Finally the tracks were sent to a mastering engineer. Mastering is the last step before a series of recordings are sent out to be manufactured into an actual product like a vinyl record or a CD. This step in the process puts all the individual mixes into one coherent package, makes sure all the levels are at industry standards and puts the appropriate spacing in between tracks etc. A lot of folks will skip this part of the step, or use a mastering program to do this step themselves. And I understand, it’s expensive and I love the spirit of D.I.Y., BUT, your record will sound so much better if you dish out the money to have it professionally mastered. Of course it was our goal to have a record that could be played on the radio. And if that isn’t your goal, and you just want to get the darn thing out there, by all means, make your record any way you want. Hey, you can borrow my Tascam Porta-7 if you want. It’s right here in my living room.