by Chris Gowland
Our kids’ elementary school principal ended his announcements every day with his mantra “make good choices”. Today, because of the inevitable humiliation a teenager hears when receiving parental advice, there’s nothing we like to do more than beat the concept into submission and say it every day on their way to high school.
With the price tag of professional studio time I’m guessing that a lot of parents are looking to do-it-yourself approaches to recording. Now, when the band approaches you with the sales pitch for production or equipment funds, consider what they want to accomplish, then you can help them “make good choices”.
Going Digital – Not a Choice
Unless you’re unusually nostalgic, you’ll want to be recording onto some form of digital storage (vs. analog tape), ensuring that sounds are recorded with clarity and the least amount of noise. Digital recording enables this and avoids the burden of tape shuttling like with your old cassettes or a VCR.
What is the Destination?
There are lots recording platform options and knowing where you want to go will dictate how far up the budget ladder you’ll need to climb. Challenge the band to decide what they want to accomplish – a way to save song ideas, a tool to help them write, demos for their friends or to chase gigs, songs to post on Facebook, or to try to get on radio? Then step on the ladder at the lowest rung with a plan to climb – learning and taking your investment along as you go.
An Essential Songwriter’s Tool You Already Own
There’s a story I have heard about how Keith Richards woke up one morning on the couch, happened to hit “play’ on the tape deck next to him to hear that he had recorded an idea he came up with late the previous night. The riff that played back became the Stone’s song “Satisfaction”. The lesson here is to have a tool to capture your ideas when inspiration happens – or run the risk of forgetting them! The cell phones that are now surgically attached to our kids’ hands can typically record a voice memo. They are the perfect tool for retaining song ideas, lyrics, licks, or a capturing an idea in rehearsals to take home or send to each other for further development. Want to defray those cell phone charges? Stop texting and hit record!
The Next Rung – Song Development
When the band wants better quality or the ability to further develop ideas, this will require patching sections of a song together (editing), and layering multiple tracks (multi-track ‘dubbing’). Portable handheld recorders (about $250) with built-in mics will improve the audio quality, allow easy sharing of songs with friends or online, but lack in multi-track and editing capability.
The next step up will yield quality suitable for demo CD’s for friends, for the Facebook page and for presenting the band for gig opportunities. One choice is an all-in-one ‘portastudio’ with mic and instrument inputs, knobs and controls designed specifically for working with audio, an internal drive for storage, and even built-in CD burning. These are turnkey, great for portability, and they can run $200-500. What I don’t like is they usually have tiny screens and you have to navigate thru lots of menu layers and controls so the learning curve is steep.
In the middle is an iPhone or preferably an iPad if you have one. You can hook it up to the family stereo or headphones, run Garage Band ($4.99!) on it, it’s portable, easy to use and the screen is big. Everything you learn in Garage Band is like boot camp for taking the next step should you do that later.
The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The bigger step up is to leverage the investment you may already have made in a computer, one that uses your already-familiar keyboard, mouse and has a generous screen. Spend a few hundred dollars on multi-track software and an audio interface (connects mics and instruments typically with a USB cable to the PC or Mac) and it becomes a DAW. The downside is portability unless you’re using a laptop. DAW’s have unlimited upgradeability/expandability and can attain quality comparable to the best studios. It is the top of the ladder you will eventually want to reach if the band gets to a point where they want to record their own CD releases for sale or in hopes of radio airplay or any form of song licensing. The Cranks’ CD “Downside Up” was recorded right here at home on a PC based DAW with an inexpensive Presonus 10-input Interface – and it has been played on a few dozen radio stations. Please do not tell them.
Q. So What Should You Buy?
A: One Shure SM57 microphone! (Betcha didn’t see that comin’!) It is an essential component in any of the platforms described above. In the next 5 years you will use it 1000 times for as many reasons and its utility will never cease. Google it and you can probably find it bundled with a cable and mic stand for $100.
From there, pick the platform based on your near term objectives, but think about the time you’ll spend learning it. If you go with a PC-based DAW, you could start with a “lite” version of one of the major software tools so your learning investment carries forward as you upgrade and expand.
Now the slammer. The platform is not the biggest determinant of quality results. At this early stage, the process you follow is far more important than the equipment. Stay tuned. I’ll cover the essentials for getting the most out of whatever recording platform you choose in my next post.