Friday, December 2, 2011

What You Need to Record Music: Letters to a Young Musician / Artist / Creative (Part 2)

So my dear friend, Matt Cleveland, has a younger brother named Seth who has started writing songs.  We've been emailing for a bit and I though it would be fun to share the Q & A.

Last time it was very esoteric and conceptual.  This time it's much more pragmatic and gear-based. But with me it always veers esoteric and conceptual.  Seth has granted his permission for me to turn you all into voyeurs.

Ah, so it appears we wil just be late in replying to one another.  No more apologies. No offense taken and none intended.  I'll respond to your questions below.
I have been doing lots of writing. A lot. I have worked out a playlist of about 12 to 14 songs and have been thinking about putting together an album. I guess my first question would be, where do i go from there? Ive been looking at a preamp set at guitar center that includes speakers, a mic stand, a preamp, and a condenser mic. Would this work for recording? 
Bedroom Recordings Aren't Studio Recordings and That's Fine
Send me a link to the set you're looking at and I'll give more specific feedback.  It all depends on what kind of recording you want to do.  I tell people who are doing home recording to no pretend you're doing studio recording and go crazy trying to make a perfect acoustic space.  There are lots of great albums recorded in bedrooms (Iron and Wine's "The Creek Drank the Cradle" and Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" to name two).  Let home recording be what it is.  If you hear someone washing dishes in the background or birds singing, that's not neccesarilly a bad thing.

Having your own Personal Amplification (PA) with speakers can be helpful if you want to play gigs where there isn't anything but you don't need all that to record.  All you really need is a good microphone (preferably a condenser mic but a Sure SM57 or SM58 are also good), a computer and some kind of software to record into and some kind of audio interface or mixer to get the mic input in the computer (they make condenser mic's that go straight into USB and they sound alright but I regret spending my $100 on one of these instead of getting a standard mic with an XLR input which I could use in recording and live settings).    

Software Is a Big Deal But Doesn't Have to Break the Bank
The software is important.  Audacity is free and does the job but it's interface is not the easiest and I don't like how it stores your files in its own special format until you mix them down.  The simplest option would be Garageband for Mac.  If you knew someone with an old Mac they weren't using anymore you could ask them to use it for recording.  If it's from the last 7 years it will have some version of Garageband on it.  It doesn't have to be super new.  Other people like Apple's Logic.  Lots of people swear by ProTools.  I haven't used either.  I use a software called Ableton live but it's really complex and most of the complexity wouldn't help you much.  

That said, almost all audio interfaces (like a small mixer that has a USB out into your computer so you get clean audio in and out with no system noise) come with some kind of multi-track recording software even if it's a limited version.  Almost any of them will work with an afternoon of fiddling.  

Alternately, if you're clever with the computers, almost all professional audio software is available for free on the web illegally.  But beware, if you want to sail the high seas of pirated software you will have to navigate between the Cylla and Charybdis of viruses and porn.  Honestly, I used Ableton for 3 years before I bought a legitimate license and it was those years of getting familiar with it and needing it to be more stable than my pirated copy that motivated me to drop the $300 on it and never regret it (see the appended list for more detail of my gear/setup which may or may not be relevant to you).

It's Never About the Tools it's What you Make
Most importantly, don't get stuck on getting all the ideal gear in place.  Use what you have, record what you're playing now.  An imperfect recording that is done is much better than a perfect one in your head.  I record a lot of song ideas and samples on my iPhone.  Before that I had a mini-disk recorder and before that one of those tiny cassette recorders.  I would be playing guitar and something would really be working and grooving and I would record a couple bars of it.  A lot of that stuff ended up on recordings of mine or gets reworked and re-used.  And a lot of it is trash!  Use the tools you have when you have them.  Make stuff now and don't worry if it's not perfect.  The more you make the more you learn about what makes it better.

Also, after the initial recording, where do i go? How do i get people to hear it? How do I go about getting more sound into my recording? Other than the norm(i.e. Guitar, vocals, harmonica).
Do Good Work.  Put it Where People Can See/Hear It
The short version is best summed up by Austin Kleon in his great essay "How to Steal Like an Artist and 9 Other things Nobody Told me."  
The whole thing is well worth your read but he basically says that to succeed at any artistic endeavor you have to do two things: 

1. Do good work.
2. Put it where people can see it.

#1 is as hard as it has ever been.  #2 is easier than it has ever been because of the internet.

Once you record a demo or an EP of songs it's as simple as setting up a bandcamp or soundcloud page and you can link it to all your facebook friends and all their friends' friends.  I do a lot of networking and connecting with people who are into the same kind of music I am on Twitter (@mattlumpkin) and when my EP came out a lot of them promoted it there.  Twitter and facebook let you move beyond the networks of people you know so that people outside your immediate social circles can get a chance to hear.  I would then hit up music blogs you like with links to your stuff.  College radio stations might also be interested in a young indie folk prodigy.  

Other than online and social media the best thing you can do is talk about it.  When you talk about what your'e working on and what you're excited about, excitement is contagious and people who are interested in the same stuff will start to gravitate toward you.  This happens much more rapidly in places with higher concentration of people and people who are interested in music and art (cities, college towns, etc.).  This does two things: it makes it more real to you and you're more likely to follow-through and two it lets you connect with potential collaborators from whom you can learn and get inspiration from.

"There's A Story In Every Sound" -Chris Willits
As far as adding more sounds, exploring how differeing mic placements, different amps, different guitar pedals and different gear sounds differently when combined is half the fun of recording.  I read a story about Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins putting a mic inside an angel food cake pan once and mic'ing his guitar amp with that to get a weird effect.  I used to record thunderstorms and sample them.  I recorded a song of synthesizers underneath two tracks of road noise and one of the washing machine running. If you have a mic and a way to get that audio into a computer you have a world to explore.

Sorry to bombard you with questions. I just have a bunch of them. Ha, ha. 

Can you tell I like to answer them? :)  With your permission, and in the spirit of sharing with others, I'd like to post some of our conversation on my blog.  I get asked these questions and variations on them a lot and it would be nice to be able to refer people there.  Of course if there are bits you don't want shared, you can just let me know.
Talk to you soon. 

Thanks again,

S. Cleveland

--S. D. Cleveland
Appendix 1 - Matt's Recording Gear: Not an Exhaustive List but What I Use to Record With Mostly

Ableton Live: The main recording and mixing software I use.  Complex but great for loop-based electronic music and fast song sketching

Behringer Mixer: I run synths, keyboards, mics and guitars (through the Line6) violins etc into this and use the tape-out to go into the audio in on my laptop. I'd like to replace this with an audio interface but it's hard to find one with so many inputs for so cheap.

Blue Snowball: USB Condnser mic.  Weird shape, decent sound though I like it less and less.  But cheap! 

Line6 Pocket Pod: Guitar Amp Simulator and multi-effects box.  Cheap, tiny and great.  I love the Fender Twin and Marshall amp models and the delay is pretty useful too.  It's not too bad to edit for only having 4 knobs and it has exactly the same guts as the normal sized 3X as expensive POD.

Shure SM57I'm borrowing this from a friend but I love it and want one.  It's great for guitar and vocals.

Sony MDR-750 Headphones: I've been through a lot of headphones but this is really key if you want to multi-track (play the guitar track then go back and sing over it).  You don't need high end headphones but its nice and it helps.

As far as speakers,  use a pair of cheap bookshelf speakers I got from a yardsale for $10 powered by an old stereo reciever someone gave me years ago (the output from the laptop goes into these).

Update: Seth wrote back asking about this package from Musician's Friend.  I think this collection is a good value and great place to start.

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