Making an Independent Recording, Part 1

Part I – Understanding the Basics

The following article is an excerpt from Shure Notes, Issue #13 (August 2005).

There are almost as many reasons to make your own recording as there are new (and yes, even established) artists making them. You may want to chart your progress as a performer or record a new tune you’ve written. Maybe you’d like to make your band’s music available on the web. Aim even higher and enjoy the artistic freedom (along with the profits) of self-producing your own indie effort.

Point is – whatever your goal, you need to understand the basic process and how to make the most of your freshman effort – whether you create it in your home studio, a project studio or a professional recording studio.

We’ll look at:

  • Reasons to Make an Independent Recording
  • Pre-Production
  • Recording
  • Mixing and Mastering

And while the focus of this issue is on producing your own CD, we’ve asked Cliff Goldmacher — who owns Cliff’s Walk-In Closet Studio in Nashville— to explain how and when to use a professional recording studio to your best advantage.

Why Do It? Or Just Do It.

We’re not going to spend a lot of time taking a long view of the leap-frogging advances in recording. Suffice it to say that the introduction of cassette tapes in the 1970s made it much easier to record (with portable, but bulky by today’s standards, multi-track equipment) and distribute music. When digital technology arrived, and along with it the availability of slick, affordable, user-friendly recording tools, “home recording” was born.

Here are some reasons to record:

Personal Archives
If you’re a performer, recording your music is a great way to preserve a chord progression, an arrangement, an interpretation … even your progress as a musician. It’s one thing to write down lyrics and chords — and another to hear how you and your band interpreted a piece of music on a particular day. You’ll have all the time in the world to experiment with your recording set-up, arranging multi-tracks or overdubbing.

Live or Songwriter’s Demo
You’ll need to do this if you’re pitching your band or your songwriter skills. In either case, this is a showcase of your talents and should capture the essence of either your live show or your music. In either case, you want to keep it simple and keep it short. Five or six tunes are probably more than enough to demonstrate the range of your offerings. This is your business card.

Independent Project
Not that long ago, self-produced CDs were a little like vanity publishing – the last refuge of the desperate. Today, things are completely different – and for one reason. The Internet. The fact is, with file sharing, piracy and music download sites, not to mention the popularity of iPods, record company sales are down. Those elusive record deals are harder to find and here’s more news: not that attractive.

Major artists, including Prince, Peter Gabriel, Phish, Fugazi, Ani Difranco – and scores of others – not only produce their own music — they’ve started their own labels. These artists want more control of their music and more control of marketing and profits. You may give up the record-company sponsored tour to support the new release, but you’ll be in charge. Out-of-reach, you say? Think Kyle Riabko, the 18-year old self-produced Canadian singer/songwriter who has toured with Keb Mo, John Mayer and Buddy Guy.

Pre-Production

This step is one of the most important in the entire process since it forms a bridge between why you want to make a recording and how you will make a recording. In its simplest form, it’s planning, the foundation of any creative project. While the feel you may want to capture (for a live demo, for instance) is spontaneous, the process is not.

The Price (and the Profits) of Success

“With digital technology, a CD can be recorded these days quite inexpensively. And, CDs can be manufactured for less than $1 apiece. Artists who record and manufacture their own CDs can sell them at shows for as much as $15 or $20 a piece. About 1,000 CDs sold means revenue of $15,000 to $20,000, minus recording and manufacturing costs. When you add in sales of merchandise and tickets, an independent touring musician can begin to make a living wage on relatively modest record sales. “

-Christian Bordal, “Marketplace”, National Public Radio, March 2005

The difference between making a demo to get gigs and an indie CD dictates everything — gear, personnel, instrumentation, timing and packaging. How much a recording costs you in time and money depends on having identified your destination and what it will take to get you there. Main goal of preproduction: Advance planning for smooth sailing.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Have a vision for each song. Know what you’re going for, whether it’s a pounding beat or a soulful vocal. Hearing it in your head (and being able to communicate what you want) will increase your chances of nailing it on the CD.
  • Recording your songs during live gigs and pre-production rehearsals can be helpful. A simple cassette recording played on a boom box may reveal weak parts.
  • Collaborate with bandmates, fellow musicians or, if you’re using the services of a recording studio, a producer. A cross-pollenization of ideas can make all the difference.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Know the material and make sure everyone else does, too. Warm up.
  • Have the right gear on hand. Choosing the right mic, for instance, may save you some of the hassle of fooling around with EQ later.
  • Make sure everything works. This means instruments, recording gear, cables, connections. Have back-ups ready to keep the momentum going in-session.
  • Know how to use it. If you’re doing computer recording, for instance, understand how to use the software. All those bells and whistles are there to make you sound like a pro. Your recording will reflect your knowledge of ProTools or Q-Base or whatever you’re using.
  • Understand the limits. Recording a live band performance in a home studio is a pretty tough challenge. Live recording at home is better suited for techno, electronica, hip-hop or singer/songwriter projects.
  • Get comfortable. Recording studios understand this. If you’re recording in a home or project studio, make the room as comfortable as possible because you’re going to be spending a lot of time there. This means paying attention to room lighting and temperature and of course, seating.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep before the session so you’re ready to record. Make sure that you and your band mates stay hydrated – have water on hand, especially for vocalists. John Lennon’s amazing version of “Twist & Shout” was made in one take, fueled by cough drops and milk, after a grueling 15-hour recording session. If you’re not trying to achieve that ragged sound, treat your voice kindly.
  • Allow enough time. You’re not under contract yet. Be realistic about how much time it will take to produce a recording that you’ll be happy with. If you’re recording in your own or a friend’s studio, you won’t have the pressures of hourly studio rates. And if you are using a recording studio, solid pre-production work will help you make the most of the time you have.

Recording

Here is where it all comes together – the tunes, the musicians, the engineers (if you’re in a recording studio) and the talent. You’ll be doing several takes for each song, with the first more or less a rehearsal. Listen to each take in playback and keep in mind that if you don’t like it here, you’ll like it a lot less when you’ve burned 500 CDs.

A Java Chip Frappuccino and a Herbie Hancock, Please…

Another reason for the move away from traditional record company deals is the fact that most artists don’t see a dime until the CD has sold a million copies – a mean feat in these MP3 times.

Enter Starbucks. The Ray Charles album, “Genius Loves Company” was actually released by the Starbucks Music Hear label and sold an impressive 700,000 copies. What’s next? “Possibilities”, a collaboration between jazz great Herbie Hancock and pop artists Sting, Christina Aguilera, John Mayer and Paul Simon. According to Herbie, “It’s a fantastic business opportunity. Unlike record stores, which are geared to young people between the ages of 18 and 24, Starbucks is not limited to younger listeners. Everyone goes to Starbucks.” And? “When you sign a contract with a record label … they can do whatever they want.”

-Source: “All Jazzed Up”, New York Times Magazine, July 24, 2005

Here are some guidelines:

  • Treat this just like a gig. Wherever you’re recording, be on time and let others know what is expected of them.
  • Technical accuracy is a given, but emotion and feeling in the final recording are probably even more important.
  • If you make a mistake, don’t stop and start over. You can always go back and punch it in later.
  • Assume that it will take at least five takes to get the one you like. If you’re considering a five or even ten-song CD, that’s a lot of takes. One more reason to pace yourself.
  • Use the right microphones and use them correctly. This will save you time and trouble in EQ and will guarantee the best sound (learn more about recording techniques in our next issue.)
  • Don’t try to fill all the tracks on the tape. You don’t need to force something that won’t fit.
  • Keep the focus of your music in mind. If it’s the vocals, spend your time there.
  • Get the sound you want while recording. Don’t try to fix everything in the mix. This is the time.
  • Record individual tracks clean and add effects later.
  • Keep guests out! This is work and they’re unnecessary distractions. The same is true of cell phones – turn them off.
  • Be flexible. It’s great to have creative ideas, but realize that they won’t all work.
  • Tune instruments often. Use the same tuner if possible; since some tuners may differ in their sensitivity.
  • Maintain a track listing and time log.
  • If you’re tired, rest. If you’re exhausted, quit for the day.

Mixing

Now that everything has been recorded, it’s time for the mix-down. This is where you’ll blend individual tracks, adjust levels and add effects. Main Goal of Mixing: Balance track levels.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Understand there are limits to what you can achieve in this phase. That’s why it’s so important to get the sound you want in the recording stage. A Les Paul isn’t going to sound like a Strat – a dark ringy ‘jazz’ snare won’t ever transform itself into the bright ‘cracky’ snare heard on many country tunes and there’s not a button made that will make Vanna White sound like James Brown.
  • To keep the sound consistent from recording to the mixdown, use the same speakers (if you’re not recording in a professional studio).
  • Listen to your music at moderate levels in your car or on a boom box. This is how most people will hear it, and mixing at loud levels will fatigue your ears and distort the “true” sound.
  • Use sound isolating earphones in the mix-down, then playback on a small pair of speakers at low volume levels.
  • Give it a rest. What’s true in recording is also true in the mixdown. Come back to the project with fresh ears.
  • Think about the big picture and the overall sound.
  • Don’t fight for your instrument to be heard: “I need to hear more guitar/bass/tambourine…” Do what is best for the song.
  • Decide which format you want the finished mixes to be on. Use the format that makes the most sense for your needs.
  • And don’t forget to make a safety copy. It’s the best and cheapest insurance you’ll ever have.

Mixing involves more than ‘setting the faders and rolling the tape.’ Most mixes have a certain degree of dynamics: instruments being brought up and down at various points throughout the song. It’s a way of adding a sense of movement and liveliness.

Don’t be afraid of using automation. When there are a large number of moves to make, a computer has the facility to execute changes more consistently than a roomful of guys with their hands on the faders. If enough moves are involved, automation is often less time consuming than mapping, marking, and practicing a mix until you finally ‘get it.’

Mastering

You’ve reached the final frontier – the last step before the duplication process. This is where you put the finishing touches on the mixes and make sure that everything is right. Main goal of mastering: Get your recording ready for release.

Been There, Done That: One Band’s Experience

Kurt Dinse is a professional musician we know who performed with the band Apocalypse Hoboken from 1992 to 2000. In that time, the band released four full -length records, two EPs and “many, many seven-inch singles”. Today he is a successful graphic designer and creates a different kind of digital magic. We asked him to recall his studio days and what he learned from them. This is what he had to say: “After doing a bunch of demos on personal 4-track recorders we saved our money and went to a real 24-track studio. We did it over several weekends or whenever we could get the time and money. I was surprised at how long the process took. I wasn’t expecting that. You need to make sure that everything sounds just right. I learned a lot about drum tuning and vocals during that time. You really need to listen to the sounds not just the song. One of the most important lessons we learned is that good mastering is everything to a recording. The first CD we did sounded so thin compared to other bands recordings. That was because we left the mastering to the guy that was pressing the CD. From then on, we always made sure that the band was present for the final EQ.”

You’ll want to:

  • Put some time between the mix and master steps. Live with various mixes before you and your associates make the final decision.
  • Clean up the beginnings and endings of the final mixes.
  • Place the tunes in order, with the strongest first. First impressions are important. If listeners don’t know you or your band, you need to catch their ear.
  • Adjust the spacing between songs, and
  • Match volumes for consistency from track to track.
  • Think about adding a degree of EQ or compression.
  • Edit sections of songs or splice different takes together.
  • Consider having a different engineer handle the mastering if you’re using a pro studio. Fresh ears can make a difference.
  • Make sure your master format is compatible with what your duplicator uses.
  • Make at least two copies. If you’re recording in a home studio, you may not have back-up of the DAT you left in a taxicab.
  • Independent recording is an art and a science. It begins with a musical idea or lyric that floated around in your mind a few months or years ago and ends with the polished presentation of that idea in a form that you can share with the world.

Sources for this article included:

Cliff Goldmacher, Owner, Cliff’s Walk-in Closet Studio, Nashville, TN
Curt Juergensen, Director, Tokyo School of Music
Steve Revilak, Producer, Newbury Sound, Boston, MA

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Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a life-long career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities – from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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