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June 12, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Book Review: Guerrilla Home Recording

There is a virtue to the subtitle of Karl Coryat's Guerrilla Home Recording, which claims to teach readers how to get great sound "no matter how weird or cheap your gear is." I heartily approve of this sentiment, but it's a wide field to cover, and invariably something's going to get left out. Unfortunately for Coryat, the gap here is basically all of digital audio, and that's kind of a big revolution to ignore, especially for a book published in 2005.

But first, let's establish what the book means by "guerrilla home recording." Basically, it means tossing aside a number of established pro-studio techniques, like never printing effects to tape, in favor of more pragmatic small-studio use. Coryat is a big fan of using sampled drums, for example, and he recommends close-miking everything instead of investing in expensive (and often ineffective) acoustic treatments. Above all, the book aims to convince readers that a perfectly adequate recording can be produced without $50,000 worth of studio gear. So far, so good. All of this is good advice, and something that non-pro musicians need to hear more often.

When it actually comes to recording the sound, Guerrilla Home Recording treats the process as a "black box" that's the same whether you're using analog or digital--and that's where the book falls flat on its face, because digital isn't just analog inside a computer. It's a radically different beast, and it means that a lot of Coryat's advice just doesn't apply any more. For example, he recommends owning a mixer and several stand-alone hardware effects units, including a compressor and a reverb. Now, a mixer's a handy thing, and I love buying new effects. But a digital project studio doesn't need any of that--it can all be done in software, for free, at a quality level that easily rivals budget-level hardware (in the case of the SIR convolution reverb plugin and a few others, it even rivals pro equipment). Likewise, it's a little silly to talk about "printing effects to tape" in this age of non-destructive effects. Sure, some musicians might use bounces and printing in something like Ableton Live Lite or Pro Tools LE when they run out of tracks, but those instances are both rare and easily reverted.

Whether or not the "professionals" have embraced it yet, digital is a true revolution for music recording, much the same way that it changed filmmaking and photography. Everything's faster and cheaper. The software's cheap and excellent (Reaper may still be a little ugly, but it's incredibly sharp for only $40) or even free and more than adequate (Krystal, bundled apps like Cubase LE and Live Lite, Garageband for Mac users), the plugins are free or cheaper than the hardware equivalent, and all of it will run easily on least year's computer (or last decade's). And tracking using these tools isn't like using analog, anymore than linear editing on film compares to Final Cut and Premiere in HD or using a darkroom compares to Photoshop.

Now, I understand that there are still holdouts on the old technology. I've played at session musician for people who are using standalone hard drive recorders or even cassette four-tracks. And I agree that a book on supporting "weird or cheap" gear should cover their use, to some extent. But Guerrilla Home Recording devotes a significant portion of its text to using older technologies for mixing, and even includes diagrams for mixing "out of the box" with a digital system. It's not that the information provided won't work with both analog and digital systems, but there's almost nothing provided on the only-digital side, and that's where the real guerrilla musicmaking is happening nowadays, in my opinion.

So if you've got any kind of computer-based studio setup, and once you eliminate the "here's a wave, here's what a compressor/reverb/distortion does" advice that every sound textbook offers, what you're left with is about half a (thin) book. That half is pretty good, sprinkled with tidbits of cool advice (using a drum machine to trigger a synth bassline is clever, for example), but it's not $25 good. There are big, thick sound guides out there for $25--and while they're not "guerrilla," they're up-to-date and cover conceptual frameworks that even free computer studios can use effectively.

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