this space intentionally left blank

June 12, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Not with an O

It's a little unfair for me to write a review of Guerilla Home Recording that pans its lack of digital awareness, without providing any information on the gaps I'd like it to fill. Here's a list of common problems that I've faced since I started learning about digital audio, and which I've rarely seen addressed in textbooks on production, either for pros or project studios.

  • Vocals: Getting good vocals is really, really hard to do on a budget. People are very sensitive to imperfections in the recorded voice, because we're wired to respond to the real thing. I'm never completely happy with my vocal recordings, although they've certainly improved. Doing it right seems to require developed skills with compressors, EQ, and technique--and might honestly be one of those places where you've got to spend some money on a good mike and even a preamp. Maybe this is one of those cases when it just takes practice, but it's rare that I read something that really changes the way I think about vocal recording.

  • Getting the most from a limited number of inputs: Books like Guerrilla Home Recording seem to be aimed at solo musicians, but there are a lot of people out there who need to record their bands. Inputs on digital audio interfaces are expensive, especially if you try to get past 8 inputs, because many 16- or 24-channel boxes are including lots of digital ADAT or S/PDIF connections in that count. That's great for people who want to expand using different preamps and A/D converters, but it's kind of a hassle for the beginning project studio. For reasons that I can never understand, it's easy to buy a box that will do 4 inputs and 10 outputs, but hard to buy one with 10 in and 4 out, which would surely be more useful to the average garage band. The extra outputs are meant to be used for mixing through an external console, but at project studio prices you're better off doing the bounce through software than through a cheap mixer.

    In any case, eight inputs don't go very far for a full band, much less four (or less). Some people use that just for the drums. If you're smart and mix in the box with plugins, you can manage to record a power trio with seven inputs (two drum overheads, snare/hat, kick, guitar, vocals, and bass), but getting fancy, recording a live show, or adding more people is going to take more than most budget interfaces offer. Something will have to be mixed down, and that means making decisions that will play into the mix later. Guidance on how to do that is something that's sorely needed, far more than learning how to cope with a limited number of tracks (something I doubt many modern musicians seriously consider).

  • Reverb: Reverb is another thing that totally mystified me when I first started. How much is too much? What's the difference between a hall, a church, and a room reverb? What's damping do, exactly? Why is it that I always find myself putting the reverb at 6%--what would I use the other 94% for? I know the answers to these now, but it always seems like the books I read want to talk about first reflections, the basic idea of a reverb, and the mechanics behind the scenes, and I was always grasping for practical information. It's taken a long time to feel like I've got a good feel for reverb, and I never felt like anything I read helped in any real way.

  • Soft signal routing: I'm proud of the ducking setup I created for our voiceovers at work, as well as the virtual effects rig I created for doing bass looping--justifiably so, I think. But figuring out how to route audio through a piece of software is crucial to bouncing tracks, setting up side-chains, and working around the restrictions of budget software. Using Senderella to get more flexibility in Cubase, creating aux sends in Ableton, or chaining VST effects inside of each other for higher plugin counts--that's the kind of thing that you have to do on a limited budget, and it took me a little while to put together what I needed.

  • Mastering: Most lessons treat mastering with a mixture of distaste and fear. To its credit, Guerrilla Home Recording doesn't. But most books are written from the perspective of people for whom a professionally-mastered CD is the final goal, as well as from the point of view that the "loudness wars" have become a detriment to pop music. Problem is, not everyone gets to that stage. Small, independent bands don't necessarily want to pay for the improvement in polish over a home mastering job, and a lot of bands may never even go to CD now that .mp3 files on MySpace are such a hit. But just because your tracks aren't being pressed en masse, that doesn't mean that you don't need the equivalent of mastering. I always wondered why my songs were so much quieter than everything else, even when I was pushing the peak levels. When I stopped treating mastering like something that only Bad People do and finally put Kjaerhaus's Classic Master Limiter in the mix bus, the apparent sound quality of my recordings jumped substantially. It's my belief that mastering should not only be covered by beginner textbooks, but it should be encouraged.
So if I had a book deal and a lot more experience, that's what I'd write. I guess you'll just have to settle for reading my complaints here.

Future - Present - Past