When You’re the Band
Successfully Recording by Yourself in a Home Studio
Helpful advise on recording alone in a home recording studio. This is a subject that’s often alluded to in the recording publications, but rarely addressed head on like this. Includes advise on both technical and non-technical upfront organization. Also things to watch out for when the recording red light is on and you’re all alone, doing everything yourself, producing, engineering, performing, etc.
This article was published in Recording Magazine in the March 2010 issue.
When You’re the Band – Successfully Recording by Yourself
by David Summer
“You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in
And you shake it all about.”
If you were lucky, as a kid you did the Hokey Pokey. To me there was always a certain profundity in the idea that moving your feet and hands in the described manner, and then turning yourself around was “what it’s all about”.
Take a look around you. Is anyone there? If not, just for old times sake try doing the “Hokey Pokey” again. Go ahead, it won’t hurt. But this time, while you’re doing the prescribed motions, try expounding on one of your most creative, original ideas. Describe your idea in great detail and even try to enhance it, all the while moving your right foot in, right foot out etc. This is what it’s like when you’re recording by yourself.
Wearing many hats in any creative endeavor, especially modern computer based recording, with its eclectic mix of right brain/left brain activity, can be a difficult challenge. On the other hand, there’s an intense personal satisfaction that comes from nurturing a creative idea from conception to fruition all on your own. While it’s true that many ideas can benefit from the perspective of another person, it’s equally true that creative concepts can get watered down when compromises are made.
As you know, transforming song ideas into recordings takes a large amount of preparation. When preparing to do a session by myself, I like to think in terms of low-tech preparation first.
OK Ducks, Line Up
Make several copies of whatever written materials you’re using, including lead sheets and lyrics. When I’m recording, I’ll set my lead sheet down, place something on top of it and it’s “gone”. Having copies on a music stand or on top of a speaker lets you keep working without giving you time to forget what it was you were looking for.
The same goes for having plenty of pencils and paper on hand. Handy pencils and paper provide a quick easy way to note that excellent idea that comes up while in the midst of recording. Pencils on hand are also good for making corrections to your lead sheet or to write last minute lyric changes. As I mentioned in Creativity Traps a low-tech solution, like a pencil, is often preferable to a sometimes-fickle high tech alternative. Especially when you’re in the heat of a creative moment.
One thing I often neglect before starting a session is to have a large container of liquid refreshment handy. If it’s something cold (plain ice tea is a favorite) remember that drink might be sitting there for hours so don’t skimp on the ice. Also, be aware of the potential for disaster when the liquid is in proximity to all your expensive recording gear. Ice tea inside your computer or microphone will not enhance your recording experience in any way. Use a separate table, like a TV tray, placed several feet away from the computer to hold the refreshments.
The typical recording environment is a strange mix of technology and mood. This is especially true in home recording, where there is normally no booth. This means that the devices used to make the recording; your computer, breakout box, etc., are usually in your line of sight right along with the lava lamps, music posters and similar artistic mood enhancers.
Quick access to your computer is necessary when you’re recording by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to look at the beastly thing while you’re about it. Set up your microphone, music stand, etc. so you are facing away from the computer.
Setting the proper mood for your session is something that’s easily overlooked in all the technical details that must be attended to. However, it’s important that you take the time to do this right.
Put on your engineer hat now. Check all connections and input levels. Also, be sure your project is being saved on the proper place on your computer’s hard drive. When starting a new project, I like to make a new file folder and create and save an empty project. I then verify that the project files are being saved on the computer in the place I intended.
Remember to check your axe(s). This is something that’s easy to miss when you’re embroiled in all the technical preparations. It’s very distracting to get all your equipment set up and hit Record only to find that you have a string about to break, a valve that’s stuck or a reed that’s thirsty.
If you’re using multiple instruments in your recording, remember to tune to a single reference pitch. Use an electronic tuner or tune to a keyboard. I often play several different wind instruments on my recordings but use a single note from a keyboard to tune. This is because an electronic pitch will be more consistent than a pitch generated by wind power.
If your recording is to include an acoustic piano (hopefully in tune) use that as a tuning reference, since that’s one instrument you won’t be able to easily retune during a session. Place any string or wind instruments on their stands so they’re handy but well out of tip-over range of the microphone area.
Turn off the telephones. All of them. I don’t want to tell you how many times I’ve been bitten by that one. Take a moment to listen for any extraneous sounds. Is there a connection happily humming? How about household sounds? After making sure you have the quiet you need, do one more sanity check. The mic is plugged in and the level is good, right?
Now that everything is set up, take a short break before hitting the Record button. Mentally remove yourself from the technology for a moment and remind yourself of your musical vision for the song you’re about to create.
When you’re recording solo, where there are so many technical considerations that come into play, you need to constantly remind yourself that what’s most important is your own performance.
Often, you’ll have a tendency to rush while performing. People who act and direct in the same movie speak about this. When they’re acting, actor/directors often say their lines too fast, because they are not focused in on the acting to the exclusion of all else. Be aware of this phenomenon and listen for it on your playbacks. Take time to focus on your performance. While you’re playing, try consciously thinking about slowing down if necessary.
Give yourself more up front clicks than you normally might before you start a take. Instead of the usual 1-2 bars for a lead in, use 3-4 instead. This will give you the time you need to get from the computer keyboard to the recording area. It should also give you time to focus on your performance. Adjust the number of lead-in measures accordingly to compensate for very fast or slow songs. You don’t want to use too many lead-in bars or you run the risk of losing focus while you wait to come in.
If you’re using a microphone, check headphone leakage from previously recorded tracks. Do this by hitting Record and standing silently in front of the mic for a few seconds. Then play back the track, listening for leakage. While you’re playing or singing, if you have some rests during the song, glance at the meter to double check for clipping.
If it’s comfortable for you, record with one ear off the phones. This helps in a couple of ways. You can often better judge your own performance when listening this way. Also, it’s always possible that a noise can start that would ruin the take while you’re rolling. This has happened to me on several occasions, most often as an airplane tries to horn in.
When I’m recording with one ear off the phones, I use regular closed headphones pulling the right earpiece over, so it’s pressing against my neck or the back of my head. This stops any bleed into the mic. As an alternative, you could hard pan the monitor output so you are only getting sound in one ear. Either of these techniques represents a compromise though as some people like to be sonically immersed in the recording experience. Just be aware that you do run the risk of having an unwanted accompanist show up in the middle of a take.
While we’re on the subject of monitoring, be aware of the “equal-loudness contours” principal (aka the Fletcher-Munson curves). If you’re unfamiliar with this, there is plenty of technical information explaining the subject online. The bottom line is that keeping your input level at about 85 dB SPL allows your ears to hear a flat signal, one that doesn’t artificially emphasize either the treble or bass. Using significantly higher or lower volumes while monitoring will likely cause you to make unproductive use of your EQ.
Take Breaks, Take Notes
I find one of the hardest parts of recording by myself is taking breaks. When you’re “in the zone” it’s hard to pull away. But taking a short break every hour or so will help your recording. Besides the physical replenishment, a break gives you the chance to think and get some perspective on how the session is going.
Remember to take notes about the takes and any instrument settings. I keep a text file for each project that includes the instrument settings and any notes I need. The keyboard instrument settings are especially important if you want to punch something in later. I later add to this “settings document” during the mix process making notes on effects as well. This helps if I want to go back and remix at some later date.
This document also helps if you want to duplicate a particular sound on a future recording. Use a pencil and paper to note settings, if that’s faster for you. Then, after the session, either type your notes or scan the paper you wrote them on and save the scans with the project files.
Alternately, consider using a portable recording device as a means of keeping notes. A portable recorder can also serve as a backup for your entire session. I’ve used a Zoom H2 with a 4-gig memory card for this. That setup allows over 6 hours of wave recording. If you place the recorder near the microphone, in a pinch that recording could even be used as a backup in case of a computer foul-up or other technical problem on a fabulous take.
You’ve had a great session. You see the sun coming up so you know it’s time to quit. Before you exit your software, do a quick, rough mix and copy it to your MP3 player or burn to CD. Having a CD gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of a session.
After you exit your DAW software, be sure to backup your work. Then, when you’re away from your studio area, pop the CD into your stereo and share it with someone you like.
Building a collection of recordings that you’ve created all by yourself can be a very satisfying artistic experience. Just remember to “put your right foot in and your right foot out” as needed.
Published in Recording Magazine March 2010