One of the most satisfying things about writing you own songs is being able to record them in a professional way at home so you can share them with others. The quality of even the most basic of home recording devices is incredibly high when compared to what was available to the recording artist only two decades ago, meaning high quality results can be had easily and cheaply.
But there is more to the process than simply plugging a microphone into the device's input, hitting "record" and playing and singing your song in a single take. That is unless that's the effect you are deliberately aiming at and you have the skill and talent to be able to pull it off!
Most musicians prefer to record their songs in several layers, with different instruments, percussion and vocals laid down separately. Modern computer based DAW software allows you to do this on even the most basic computer or laptop (and now on tablet or smart phone using a dedicated app).
The only problem is that the more complex you want to make you recording strategy, the steeper the learning curve required.
Most musicians really want to be able to get their songs down and finished without all the hassle of trying to get their heads round complicated and often frustratingly difficult software. This is much the way it has always been long before the digital age encroached upon the art of music making!
In the Studio
In the "old days" musicians had to book themselves into a professional recording studio and have a dedicated engineer worry about the how-to's and wherefores of getting their songs down on tape. This was perfect because all the musician had to concentrate on was what they did best, which was to perform the song and create the music!
This still exists of course, but with the accessibility of end user products to obtain high quality results that are generally much less expensive than hiring out a studio and engineer, many musicians opt for the Do-it-Yourself alternative. Many excel in this area and a good proportion of hit records have been created on someone's laptop and then sent away to a pro studio to be polished ready for general release.
Others skip the record industry altogether and go the whole way themselves by taking on the role of musician, sound engineer, producer and distributer. This has never been so easy to achieve as today, when the Internet allows musicians to distribute their work either freely or for a reasonable price of which they get to keep the lion's share.
So what are the problems faced by musicians who decide to go it alone?
My Own Past and Present Experience
Fortunately, I am uniquely placed to write on this very subject since that's exactly what I and the band have been doing. In fact, I have been self-recording sing the mid 1980s when I started on a small Tascam four-track tape recorder and mixing desk, progressing to a Tascam 38 eight-track tape machine long before the word "digital" was uttered in musical circles!
Mixing was on a Studiomaster 16-8-2 desk. I had a pair of Yamaha NS10 monitors through an Aiwa amp. On my outboard rack I used a Drawmer LX20 compressor, Alesis Midiverb II plus Boss Reverb and a front end noise reduction. Mastering was to an Akai stereo reel to reel deck.
Analogue devices were the perfect teaching tool for what was to come. That said, I did upgrade the reel-to-reel for a DAT mastering machine before I took the plunge into computer-based recording.
The Move to the Digital Age
I got my first taste of digital when I got hold of a copy of Samplitude for my first serious home computer. It was a Pentium II with a huge 40mb hard drive and a massive 16mb ram memory! Yep, I said mb, not gb!
That system allowed me to record eight tracks digitally with a sound quality that was pretty decent, although I have to say it was no better than what my old analogue Tascam was capable of.
But that was in the days when I recorded solo. I programmed a drum machine (Roland TR626) because I wasn't and still am not proficient enough on a kit to hold a good beat. But I played the rest of the instruments (guitars, bass and keys as well as some clarinet) and sang vocals and backing vocals. I could do it all by myself at home and I had time to do it back then.
No Musician is an Island
That was then. This is now. And being in a band that is ready, willing and able to write and render our own songs onto recorded media, it makes sense to do it using teamwork the way it works best.
So the band records as a band, onto a Tascam 24 track digital machine. We have tried to capture live recordings during rehearsals but so far have never seemed to get a really good take. So we have gone back top basics and have been recording our own songs the "proper" way; piece by piece!
We first laid down the drums and bass tracks of all the songs we intend putting on our first CD album, then the guitars and finally the vocals. It is time consuming and can get tedious but we are not trying for the kind of perfection that I believe has been slowly killing recorded music since the 1980s when producers demanded faultless records that sounded fine but had all the soul ripped out of them.
Perfection is for Producers Not for People
So we are letting the odd mistake get through and are not going over endless takes, preferring to keep the soul and the emotion in our songs that is there when we perform them live.
But this article was supposed to be a how to, and ended up being a ramble down memory lane, but that needed to happen so you'd understand where I'm coming from. So now I'll talk some more about the how.
How to Turn Sound into Bits
The concept of multi-track recording has been around for a long time now, so that shouldn't really need much explaining. Suffice it to say that individual performances can be recorded one at a time and played back all together just like each piece had been recorded together.
That means you can record, say a rhythm guitar part first, return the track to the beginning and then record the vocal part while listening to the already recorded guitar part in your headphones. The tracks build up like that, one layer at a time as you add a second vocal, another guitar, some piano etc.
Of course you will need some kind of reference to play to such as a drum beat or click, which is recorded first with musical layers built up afterwards. We do it this way round because it is a whole lot easier for a drummer to play along with say the bassist first (to a click or not, your choice) than it is to try and drum along to a guitarist's part that may (or may not) be in good time!
The Cleaner the Better
To obtain a good sound overall, you must start with as clean a recording as possible. This means excluding all extraneous noise such as a buzz from a guitar amp, shuffling clothing, fans or aircon units (if it's hot) or heaters (if it's cold), people talking or even whispering in the same room etc.
Any noise on one track becomes amplified if it appears on subsequent tracks and can ruin a recording, so take great care on that score. So aim for the cleanest base sound you can get and your finished product will sound great.
Experiment and Be Yourself
The rest is really a lot of trial and error because your own unique sound, playing style, singing style and expectations will be different from other people. You should try to adopt your own way to create something that is special and different from the homogenous sameness that has polluted the popular music scene.
That is if you want to, of course. Not everyone wants to zag while everyone else zigs!
I like to try and be different, so I deliberately don't do what the "experts" all say you should do. I experiment with sound to a point, although I try not to cross the line that defines the limits of what is a good sound and what might be construed as an awful one.
The bottom line is that you should try to be yourself, please yourself and aim for what you believe is a great song and a great sound. If you get it right, your audience will soon let you know, just like if you get it wrong, you might want to develop a thick skin because the loudest noise always comes from the negative vibe.