Home Studio

Home Studio
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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fun with music

It's a wrap!  The digital/analog blog must come to a close.  Thank you, to the followers of my Digital Music vs. Analog blog.  Your comments have helped to further shape and tailor my own opinions and knowledge.  Though the debate regarding concerns of which source is best can never truly be agreed upon, the topic has served well as an interesting foundation on which to discuss, explore, and debate. We have been on a journey of sorts, one that has involved the inspiration that birthed my desire to pursue music interests, to share various techniques/tips, and to explore the pro's and con's of both digital and analog recording.  Before I bid you all farewell, I will share with you one of my most treasured memories from my years on the road with Youth In Motion, Inc a youth centered evangelistic ministry team.  

Our team consisted of myself, and three other young women all of whom are Florida natives.  Our southern gospel/country praise team included a keyboard, bass guitar, and drums with four part harmony.  Our ages ranged from 16-26.  Each one of us took a lot of care to work diligently to minster effectively but we definitely had fun doing it too.    

Our ministry team had traveled over the hills of the Kentucky/Ohio line down deep into the Ohio valley.  It was a cold February and there was a thick snow on the ground when we pulled into the parking lot for this country framed "community" church with bucket loads of old-school charm.  After we had setup the equipment, we went back to our hotel and got dressed for service.  Upon entering for the church, I asked one of the church members where the bathroom was located and to my surprise she pointed outside to what looked like a poor-man's shed.  You guessed it; she was pointing at an out-house.  This is where I try not to "trip out" but it's dark, cold, and snowing; I didn't know what to think about this situation, until I thought, "Let's set Yanna up for a laugh!"

There was one team member that we could always count on to fix things that went wrong; Yanna was our technical support.  Our policy was that if we broke it, should could fix it. :)  If we screwed something up, she found a way to work it out.  I went to the out-house but when I returned to the church I discreetly went up to Yanna and whispered to her that the van key had fallen out of my coat pocket into the bottom of the outhouse sewer. (this is the joke)  What's important to note is that this was the ONLY key to the van!  We never had a second one made--there was no hide a key and we were twelve hours from home!  Yanna, with all seriousness looked up at me, pushed up her sleeves and stated, "Well, (sigh) Let's go get it."  Okay, now I'm surprised.

We walked out to the van (which wasn't locked), opened the back doors to the van, fumbled around for a flash light and some old wire coat hangers from our clothes closet area.  Then she began to untwist the wire hangers and straighten them out and connect the ends of each one to the other to make one long wire hanger.  Next, she headed off to the out-house about to plumage through poop!  But I could not hold my laughter any longer so in the words of the minister of the group (Lora) who had preached a sermon about the Keys of Death, Hell, and the Grave the service prior to this, I pulled the van keys out of my pocket, shook them, and said, "Hey Yanna, Whose got the keys?"  Then, we all laughed and I ran.[grin]

It's been almost 16 years since this event occurred; however, Yanna and I are still friends, attend the same church, and both are church musicians.  

A dear pastor friend stated to me once, "If you're not having fun, then you're doing it [your walk with God] wrong."  That's actually my philosophy for life too and it works.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Living the dream that sometimes is a nightmare!

We have discussed the many advantages to having a home studio.  The fame that is laced with envy that moves through our own personal social groups and networks--after all, it is pretty cool.  The countless hours that we can invest in what every home recording artist and/or engineer wish were his/her full-time job.  The freedom to create and produce what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. The fairytale is over,  now enters the nightmare.

A friend, from out of state, that wants to record her own album.  Yikes!  Well, it sounds fun [not really] but my studio, fourteen years ago, was not portable.  Turns out that did not stop her from coming because she could leave her family for two weeks and stay with me, in my house.  After all, what kind of friend would I be if I did not give her a place to stay? Being a crafty individual, I thought "quick on my feet" and said "It would be expensive" and come up with a ridiculous amount of money to pay a "friend" to do a recording in a new [then it was new] setup, with little experience.  Imagine my surprise when she said she'd be down in two weeks.

As I considered my dilemma, I decided I would make the best of it.  I reminded myself that I was going to get paid to learn more about what I love to do--play music and record.  My friend did not play any instruments so I became the "studio-musicians" -- for an additional small fee.  Don't judge me, everyone has to eat and I took two weeks off my regular job to do this project for her.
You're probably wondering what is the "nightmare" part of this story, it started when she arrived.  She walked through the door, I showed her to her room, offered her some food/drink [which she didn't want] and then she said, "let's get started."  It's evening, I worked all day, I was exhausted.  This lady drives six hours walks into my house and wants to go to work NOW!  You guessed it, this was going to be a long two weeks.

I'm not a complete shrewd, I got that she was excited. So we "got started" in the most basic of terms.  I showed her the recording studio, we discussed her song choices, review copy right laws, and any new developments that I might need to know about, such as backup vocal selections--on one song she wanted a choir, YIKES!  I took some notes and entertained my guest. 

Next morning, I woke up, grabed a Diet Coke -- don't drink coffee  -- and went into the studio.  I had a rough cassette demo of the artist singing her songs "acapella" [without music].  Please remember that I never said she was a good singer.  Although sometimes torturous, I had to listen to this tape, to determine: the key the song was sung in, the structure of the song (like intro, vs, chorus, vs, chorus, tag), what instruments I should suggest for the song.  Since I was playing all the instrument (except lead guitar--I hired that out) I had a lot of advice I needed to be prepared to give.  Now, I had the WOW factor on my side, in that seemingly everything was, "that's so good" type response.  I take pride in doing my best and that works for me.  I chose a country drum, some songs had a stand-up bass other electric, rhythm guitar on most, some orchestra on one.  The artist was a Southern Gospel singer. 

I got started laying the drum tracks.  These tracks are tedious to lay if you want to do them right.  You have to listen, stop, go back and listen again.  More caution had to be given because it's not my songs, so I had to record the music the way the vocalist sung, not the way I thought it should be done.  But, honestly, for me that's all still the "fun" part...then enters Jar Jar Binks [the good natured Star Wars character that is always getting into trouble]. 

My friend cooked me breakfast and serves it to me.  Nice, right?  Then she stood behind me for hours watching every move I made and talked constantly.  How was I suppose to do a good job like this?   I distracted her with errands..."Would you mind to go to Wal-Mart and get _____?"  Thank God for Wal-Mart.  That worked for a day maybe two days.  Everyday was the same.  She drove me crazy and I just didn't want to be the butt-hole friend that couldn't handle the situation.   

I worked all day and most nights.  I wanted to get this project done ahead of time.  I was about to loose it.  As soon as the basic tracks were laid, I set up the vocal chamber for her to belt out some tunes.  After all I didn't want to record all the music tracks just in case I had made a mistake; I would have so much time invested in the tracks to have to start over.  Again, more WOW factor here.  She was like a kid on Christmas morning with every song she heard. Yes I admit, that made me feel great.  All the music tracks were good--no errors--thankfully.  She recorded her lead vocals (singing through the pantyhose pop-filter) and loved every minute of it.  At least until I sat her down and calmly discussed with her that I had to have some space to work on the final mix.  She was not excited then for sure.  I suggested sight seeing or visiting other friends in the area but instead I got resentment.  The "How dare you" reaction.  All I wanted was time to finish recording the additional instruments, back up vocals, and work on the final mix.  She would be consulted on every aspect just not "breathing down my neck" while I'm trying to work. 

The rest of the project was created with resentment and attitude from my friend towards me and guilt and attempted resolve from me towards my friend.  I felt so bad, I called in several vocalist friends and got them to perform the choir she wanted for the one song, which was crazy in a little home recording studio.

The job was finished in ten days.  In ten days, I WOW'd my friend, recorded some cool jams, recorded my first small choir, made a few bucks and lost a friend forever.  Before you ask, yes of course I've tried to contact her via phone/mail and she want return my calls or letter to date.  The funny part of this story is that I enjoyed the project itself. 

This was  dream turned nightmare, when I woke I knew never to let a "client" (regardless if friend or foe) stay in my home when working on their recording project--hotel and business hours--definite must haves.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Home made remidies that work

The vocalist asked, "Did you make this with a clean pantyhose?"  You betcha!  She stepped up to the home-made pop filter and began to sing.  I saved a few bucks by by straightening an old wire coat hanger which I then bent into the shape of a small circle apx 4" in diameter.  Next, I cut a piece of a nylon pantyhose and stretched over the nylon over wire to make a  screen.  I then secured the pantyhose to the wire by tying it into a knot in several places around the circle.  After the nylon was secured, I then attached the straight end of the coat wire to a boom stand by wrapping it around the microphone stand several times.  Then I adjusted/bent as needed to make sure the pop filter was positioned correctly.  For those that are unsure as to what a  pop filter does, well it softens the "P" and "T" during pronunciation of lyrics while recording vocalist.

Another does of getting by, requires setting up a vocal isolation booth in the hallway with some quilts.  This entire project is reminiscent of the days when I played camping with old sheets and blankets. [ha!] Seriously though, when I record a vocalist I usually prefer to add reverb post-recording (or after I record the vocal).  So, that means I want the room to be dead--I don't want sound waves bouncing all over the place.  To do this, I took my big old Tascam 388 multi-track reel-to-reel and moved it out in the living room.  Then I placed the microphone and stand (equipped with my home made pop filter) out in the narrow hallway.  Then I hung a huge patch quilt up right behind the vocalist.  Wah-la!  Now I have an isolation booth.

When you're recording you've got to get a strong guitar signal, right?  But, if you don't have a direct box or a built in preamp on your recording board then what are you going to do?  Well here's what I did back in the day.  Give it a try.  Hook the guitar up to the amp you usually use for live performances or practice amps.  In my particular scenario I had to use my little practice amp.  Then hook your amps output into the recording mixer board.  This will allow the signal of the guitar to be higher.  You can elect to record the amps equalizer and/or effect while recording the guitar or after the recording.  Personally, I like to record everything standard and then manipulate it post-recording.  But it all depends on your preference and what you and the artist prefer--especially if its a paying job.

Another big deal is studio monitors, which mostly is headphones in a home recording studio.  Sure, I listen through the studio monitors, but lets face it, most recording is done when my kids are asleep.  I use the headphones a lot and check it later.  Plus when artist are recording they prefer to have headphones on so they can hear clearly and control their own volume.  But in a home studio it can be difficult to have enough headphone jacks for everyone at one time.  Multi-line headphone adapters at the professional level can get really pricey fast.  But don't freak out yet, there is a remedy.  For $2.15 at your local Radio Shack you can buy a small battery operated (AAA -- weird, right?)  multi-line headphone jack.  It actually connect four set of headphones.  The down side, is that there isn't any individual volume controls but in a pinch it can save the day.

My philosophy is that its not what you use to make your music, its that you make it!  Enjoy the trip.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Milli Vanilli?

Lady's and Gentlemen....What you're hearing is not an all live performance!  After paying high dollar for a live performance of the artist of your choice, you get a fake show of sorts.  I've experienced performances that pretend to be "live" across all genres. 

What does it mean to put on a live performance anymore, anyway?  My interpretation of a live performance, is when there is a musician playing every instrument that I'm hearing, with the exceptions of syth. sounds because I've grown accustomed that it's a package deal.  Also, all the backup singers need to actually be present and singing live too.  Here's a few examples: 

A southern gospel group called Psalms 101 played a CD with prerecorded tracks of all the other instruments, except for the lead guitar player and the vocals of the husband and wife team.  Even the rest of the backup vocals are recorded.  When someone requested a song off of one of their recordings, they tripped out because they didn't have the CD with the recorded music and backup vocals on it.  Are they good?  Yep!  Are they live?  Nope--is my vote. 

I went to see Cher on her final tour (yeah, I know it lasted three years) and she rocked.  Dancers, musicians, pyrotechnic show, some live musicians but there were tons of instruments and vocals in the mix that were not represented by human beings--this was hidden more in her concert because their were so many distractions by everything else going on--good job, but not really live!

Last night I took my mom to see Debbie Reynolds at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City.  The performer will be 78 on April 1, 2010, so I give her props for just showing up, much less the jokes and trip down musical film's memory lane.  She had a good jazz piano player (Joey Singer) that played a gorgeous baby grand piano--he was an exceptional pianist.  She also had a jazz drummer--not my style of drumming--but he was very good.  While performing portions of various musicals there were all kind of orchestra and string sounds, the whole "big band" feel--with no band, not even a synthesizer.  Debbie did good, but the performance wasn't truely "live."

Here's my grip.  If you're going to perform be honest about who and what you are.  Why pretend to have a band that you don't have?  I want "real" performances.  I can accept the use of a synthesizer but it should not be the entire band, if that's the case you might as well perform with a soundtrack.  Which brings us to Milli Vanilli.  The pop group from the 1980's that reached stardum and was then exposed to the public that that were lip-singing to prerecorded tracks that were not even their own vocals.  Everyone cried, "Fraud!"  I agree.  Yet, now we have become complacent and satisfied to pay more for less at every performance we attend.  Often we don't even know we're getting less, in that many people do not even notice that the music/vocals are "canned." 

The next time you go to a concert, sing, or performance of some type listen carefully and look around and ask yourself, "Is this really a live performance?"

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Piano or Keyboard? Part II

Though digital keyboards are not identical, they follow the same basic recording guidelines.  To begin, let's first explain that modern keyboards have several ways of transferring digital data out of the keyboard and into various recording and live applications.  The most common outputs include:
  • USB--which allows connection to a computer or computer interface
  • MIDI--which allows the transfer of data to external sequencers and other various MIDI compatible devices 
  • 1/4" Instrument Cable--which allows the instrument to be connected to an amplifier and/or a mixer (live or studio) 
Output connections are available on the back of most keyboards.  Higher end keyboards will  have both a left and a right output for 1/4" cables, so that you can record in stereo if you wish.  My setup, for this example is in mono, has a 1/4" cable running from the output of my Motif 8 to the 1/4" input of my Roland VS 1880 studio recorder.


 I have an orange output cable running from my Motif 8.  Notice that since I'm only using one cable it is in the L (left)/Mono jack.  If I was running two cables one would be in the R (right) output and the other in the L (left)/Mono output jack.

 This is the back of my Roland VS-1880 mixer.  The orange cable with the blue tape on it is the input from my keyboard (above) into the mixer.  Be advised that the longer the distance the signal has to travel from the keyboard to the mixer, the more likely that the signal strength will be compromised.  The rule of thumb is to always use the shortest cable possible to limit the distance the signal has to travel which will maximize signal strength.  

Once you determine what type of connection you need to connect to your recording gear, then it's time to connect and power up.

The next obstacle is to set the appropriate recording level for you keyboard.  Setting the recording level occurs both on the keyboard and on the studio mixer.  The volume on the keyboard must be at least 3/4 of the way up, otherwise, the signal strength will be too weak to properly record.  One might think that simply compensating on the studio mixer itself would suffice; however, even if the studio's mixer input volume is all the way up, the signal will still be too weak and make for a less than desirable recording.

In the above photo, the slider on the left is the Master Volume on my keyboard.  The four additional sliders are basically assignable; however, I frequently use them for individual volume controls when I play layered sounds on my keyboard.  Basically, if I play four sounds at one time, I can individually control the volume of each sound by using these sliders.  If that were the case, then all volumes would need to be at least 3/4 of the way up in order to maximize signal strength. 

Next, I simply select track #4, which is the track I always use to record the keyboard part, and then adjust the volume (line input knob and slider) to the highest possible recording level without red-lining.  More so than with tape (reel-to-reel) recording, digital recording is sensitive to signal limits.  Often with an analog recording you can exceed the input limits and playback is not distorted; however, if your red light clips on a digital recording then it's necessary to back off the volume or the final playback will be distorted.  Analog music records the actual continuation of the sound wave, which is often referred to as capturing a softer and warmer sound.  Digital music is an accumulation of snapshots from the sound wave that is then combined to create a jagged picture of that sound wave.  The 1993 MTV You-Tube video below, does a great job explaining the difference between an analog signal and a digital signal. 


Digital inputs for recording purposes includes the absences of part of the music; however, it also requires that digital music is quite stringent in that every error does seem to be captured in its exact format.  Similar to the views of Dave Mustaine (from Megadeath) in the above video, musicians that don't like digital "suck--can't play" rather I feel that it points to the exactness of digital recording which captures the errors in the recordings without softening the edges like in analog recordings.  Digital leaves a singer and/or musician naked at least until effects are added.   

To correct the input levels in order to avoid distortion, reduce the input volume by trimming small amounts with the mixer's fader/slider, larger amounts by the mixer's line input knob (similar to a gain knob), and finally minimally adjust the volume on the keyboard itself, only if the signal is still red-lining.

In the LCD window the two bars on the upper left are the input levels of a recording.  If you look closely you can see the number 12 is bold and highlighted that is because this is the minimum acceptable signal strength for a recording.  The VS-1880 has a clip light located on each track next to the line input knob--not visible in this photo.  

In a matter of a few minutes, you can connect a keyboard to a recording device and start producing your music.  The quality of the sound of the instrument is dependant upon the quality of your equipment.  As we discussed in Piano or keyboard? Part I it is possible to record a "real" piano, though the expectations to record a quality sound are the same for both instruments, the keyboard eliminates many frustrating obstacles for the home studio engineer.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Piano or Keyboard? Part I

Size does matter!  The first consideration when deciding whether or not to record an acoustic (aka "real") piano is -- size.  Will a full size piano fit in your home recording studio?  Do you own a piano?  If not, do you have muscular friends willing to assist in moving a borrowed piano into your home studio?  Moving a piano isn't fun.  But, let's consider what recording factors also have to be considered to record an acoustic piano.

How noisy are your neighbors?  Anytime an acoustic instrument is recorded without the use of an isolation/sound proof booth, consideration has to be given to the surrounding noises.  At my house noise is a big problem.  For example:  I have three active four wheeler riding kids, my husband is a sci-fi TV watching kind of guy, I have three barking dogs, and yes, noisy neighbors too.  So, why is this a big deal?  Almost fifteen years ago, a gospel group I worked with did a recording project at one of my friends house.  Aware of the noisy surroundings of the studio we chose to work from midnight to 3:30am because this was the most quite time.  Exhausted we sat down a few nights later to listen to the project, thus far, and could hear the engineer's house cat meowing on one of the tracks. (Grin)  In order to ensure that unwanted sounds are not picked up on your recording tracks its necessary to carefully analyze the surroundings.

Now let's consider the studios acoustics.  Novice often forget to consider the room acoustics.  A piano (like any other acoustic instrument) sounds completely different in every room.  It all goes back to the old sound wave and how it vibrates and travels.  Sound is affected by several factors, including:  the heighth of the ceiling, the size of the room, the amount of occupied space in the room, as well as the texture of the surfaces in the room.  Howstuffworks.com recently explained,
Sound is constantly being reflected off many different surfaces.  Most of the time the reflected sound is not noticed, because two identical sounds that reach the human ear less than 1/15 of a second apart cannot be distinguished as separate sounds.  When the reflected sound is heard separately, it is called an echo. 
Generally speaking, a sound (which is a vibration) causes a chain reaction of the continued vibration which travels through the air.  When the vibration hits a mass the vibration reacts.  The reaction is dependent upon the surface of the mass.  If the surface of the mass is hard, like tile, then it reflects and continues to bounce.  However, if the surface is spongy, like a carpeted wall, then the sound vibration is absorbed rather than reflected, causing less or no reverb aka "echo."  Think of the analogy that people sing better when they sing in the shower. Truth is, they don't sing better in the shower, but rather they sound better in the shower because the sound is reflecting so much it adds a lot of reverb to the sound causing it to soften and cover up quite a bit.

Establishing an understanding of the acoustics of your studio room will be an added resource when considering microphone placement for recording the piano track.  Here's my basic guide line for successful microphone placement:

  • Is the sound too strong?  If the mic is too close to the source of the acoustic sound it can make it very difficult to get a good quality sound.  With the piano, a mic placed too close is likely to record the actual hammering of the keys, as well as, any squeaks within the framework of the piano.
  • Is the sound too weak?  This occurs when the microphone is placed so far away from the piano, that when the piano track is played back, it sounds like its been shipped to another location far away.  You try to boost the gain and increase the recording input; however, it's not going to fix until the mic location is balanced out.  
  • Find the sweet spot.  Believe it or not, every room has a sweet spot.  A sweet spot is the one place in any given room where stuff (pianos, guitars, TVs, etc) actually sounds better than in any other place in the room.  Usually it's in the middle of the room, but it's relative to the ears making the determination.  
  • How many microphones do I need to record this instrument?  Bottom line, when you play back the recording and it sounds like its missing something, add another microphone to fatten the sound of the instrument you're recording.  If you use two microphones, pan one to record left and one to record right, then congrats you're now recording in stereo.  Another cool feature of additional microphones, is that you can pick up the sound at different wave widths that add rich texture to the sound quality.   
As you can see there's much to consider when recording an acoustic instrument.  However, I encourage you to give it a whirl because it is a great experience.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

No longer in the bedroom!

I've moved my home recording studio too many times to count. Each time that I have set all of my equipment up there has been some type of event that causes the equipment to carefully be taken down, boxed up, and stored for long periods of time. Each time I calmly dismantle my beloved equipment and dream that one day I will have a space to call my own. I suppose you're thinking, "You're grown and own a house. Figure it out." Yep, that's true. But I also have three kids still living at home, a husband, and a grand-daughter that visits. What ever shall I do?

This weekend my husband and I installed carpet into a small addition to our home. Yes, it has finally happened. My studio has a home. My labor of love is graciously reaching fruition. No longer will the sequencers, microphones, and guitars be forced to remain in their cases stashed in my closet. We (the equipment and I)have been liberated to pursue creativity and function.

As I sit and spin in my office chair, I am amazed in the difference a day makes. The walls are painted, the carpet laid, and yes, the equipment is unpacked. I am finally out of the bedroom.