Cripes! It’s been what? Over a month since my last post? Wow. I swear I’m not that lazy. I’ve been spending a lot of time down at The Frock working on an exercise in extreme DIY recording with my band The Lovely Savages.
New Band, No Money, Sound Familliar?
In my opinion THE biggest challenge for any band is making that first decent sounding recording as cheaply as possible. It’s the old catch 22: you don’t have money to record and you don’t have anything for getting gigs or to sell so that you can get money to record. Without a recording to sell or give away your opportunities for connecting with potential fans are basically nil. There are many great bands and songwriters who simply don’t have any even $1000 to make their first decent recording.
So how do we beat that catch 22? DIY recording. I’m here to tell you that it is possible to make a decent recording yourself. (Key Tip: save your money for mastering!) It may take some time and trial and error, but it is doable. And that’s exactly what we’re doing right now with The Lovely Savages.
Ok. Here we go!
Enter The Land Of Extreme DIY Recording.
A land where time and space do not exist as we know it. Lando Frock Recordings, affectionately known as “The Frock”, is a basically a couple of rooms with a bunch of random gear. None of the gear is expensive or even nice. There are two microphones that are pretty decent, but still neither of them retails new for more than $300. We also use a lot of stuff that has been retired from the trenches of live music production and still smells like beer. We use stuff that was not designed for recording. We actually use stuff literally pulled out of the trash (more on that in a sec). Recording with this stuff is a challenge, but the benefit is that it’s free and open ended.
The only reason Lando Frock Recordings exists is because several people decided to work together. We’ve pooled our equipment and knowledge. This isn’t the first time I’ve set up a makeshift studio with other musicians, and I’ve seen other DIY studios that consisted of a loose cooperative of several bands. Everybody benefits! The hardest part is coming up with a space and finding a device to record on. Lets talk more about these two challenges.
At The Frock we have a pretty good set up with two rooms. One is kind of big and this is where we jam. The other is smaller and houses the recording and playback gear. This is definitely one of the better setups I’ve had, but you can definitely do it with less.
For most bands the obvious choice is your practice space. If you can commandeer your house for a while, even better! All you need to make your space work is a corner to put the recording gear. The challenge of making use of a single, maybe smallish room is that it’s hard to listen back while people are rocking out, and you have to accept and work with bleed. You just have to get creative. It can be useful to initially track without vocals, which is what we usually do. That said, I have gotten some great old school sounding recordings just putting a mic in front of a PA speaker Stooges style.
We did our initial tracks live without headphones just like rehearsal. We turned down a little to reduce bleed into the drum mics, but we didn’t freak out on that. Remember we’re working with bleed rather than against it. We were still plenty loud enough to feel the song and get the tones we’re used to. This works well and you can go back and add instrument tracks even louder later if you want. Another trick we use off an on is to make use of your PA when adding instrument tracks. It’s difficult and hard on your ears to play guitar at full volume while listening to the drum and bass tracks through head phones. Instead, route your playback through your PA and listen to the playback through that. If you’re getting too much bleed, move the PA speakers into the mic’s rejection zones. That may not get rid of it all, but a close mic’d amp and something rather solid (aka “gobo”) between the amp mic and the PA can reduce bleed enough to be tolerable. (On a side note, the best cheap gobos I’ve come across are office cubicle walls. I was able to pick up about 40 old cubicle walls for $80 that came from a company that was downsizing their offices. They are awesome!) You just have to spend time experimenting with your room to get the best sound you can. If you have a house or a garage you can use for a while, your options get wider.
There are a ton of ways to cobble together something to actually record on. Because The Frock is DIY (or maybe just cheap) to the extreme, we actually got our recording computer out of the trash. I’m not kidding. We hooked up with a company that was literally throwing away a bunch of old desktop systems and I got them to give me an old HP something-or-other for free. I installed an older Linux OS called 64Studio and I dropped an M-Audio Delta1010 PCI card in it. This gave us a system where we could record 8 tracks simultaneously for about $150 – the price of the PCI card. This system works, but it’s a cranky-ass beast. You can probably do much better than that if you have a decent late model laptop. Again, experimentation is key. We dealt with all kinds of software headaches, crashes, buggy weird plugins. Slowly we figured out our limits and how to make the best of them. Whatever you end up with as your recording system will probably dictate the methods you use to record your band. If you’re a lone singer with a guitar, your problems are few.
Make It Work
There are of course other variables: Microphones, stands, cables, assorted adaptors, perhaps a mixing board, etc. The trick is to use what you have access to. Beg, borrow and.. best to avoid stealing if possible. Research your gear and play with different methods (I’ve put some resources bellow). The obvious drawback to DIY recording is that, at least at first, it is a slow process. You have to give yourself time to figure it all out. On the upside, you can turn that to your advantage. The more experimenting you do, the better your recordings will be, the more you and your band will become used to the methods, and the tighter you will get. We started by recording rehearsals, and we figured out a ton of basic stuff that way. After a while we starting feeling pretty good about our results, so we started tracking songs and learned a whole bunch more.
What Can YOU Do With Your DIY Recording?
Well, in the spirit of music business 2.0… Give them away! Or just give some of them away. Sometimes we mess with covers and different version in rehearsal – those make great give aways. It depends on what you end up with and what kind of band you are. Think of the first The New York Dolls record. An iconic record that is sonically dubious at best. (Thus proving that it’s about the songs.) Making a recording yourself at your house that sounds as good or better than a lot of famous recordings is not as hard as most people think. (ahem.. save money for mastering). I’m into garage and 70s punk where a gritty recording is actually desirable. If I can get a sound akin to my favorite records I’m happy!
One Last Trick
Ok now I’m going to tell you one of my favorite DIY recording tricks. It’s totally fun, even hilarious, and can really take the pressure off in terms of freaking out over how your recording sounds. I know I’m not the first person to do this, but I do consider it one of my little secrets. Ready? Mix crowd noise and sound effects into the spaces of your final recording and call it a live record. Seriously. You can get really creative with this. I’ve mixed in cheesy fight sounds and overdubbed goofy banter as if I’m on stage commenting on the action.. “Hey somebody towel these two off.. can we get some wet nurses in here?” That kind of shit. I’ve dubbed in canned laughter along with some goofy thing somebody said between takes while we were tracking. It’s totally fun and stupidly effective at turning your “Demo” into a “Live” record. You don’t even have to hide the fact that it’s all theater. Treat it like an inside joke! Camp it up! Your fans will dig it!
DIY Recording Resources
If you haven’t discovered it already, TapeOP magazine and forum is one of the most kick ass totally free resources for recording on the internet. Yes, the magazine is FREE. I’ve been getting the mag and hanging in the forum for years and I can’t stress how amazingly helpful and entertaining they are. Even if you finish reading this post and think “screw that, I’d rather just work two jobs and pay somebody who knows what the hell their doing”, do yourself a favor and subscribe to TapeOP magazine. They interview people who make incredible records and you can get a lot of inspiration to take into the studio.
In addition to TapeOP and a few other websites I’ve collected a bunch of books, some of which have been extremely helpful. There are two by Bobby Owsinski in particular that I love: The Recording Engineer’s Handbook, and The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.. Both are full of critical practical information and enhanced with details and insights by well known recordists across the spectrum. The sections on recording drums were invaluable to me. He describes methods using 1 mic, 2 mics, 3 mics, etc. Then he follows up with interviews of people like Steve Albini and other people known for great drum sounds where they discuss their approaches. Great stuff, and lots of useful information for us DIY aficionados. (These are Amazon affiliate links, so if you decide to pick up these up and you use these links, Amazon will put some change into my account and I will love you for doing so!)
Last but not least… The Goods
Here is a song that we recently recorded at The Frock using the system and methods described above. We’re pretty happy with the results. If you like our brand of Rock music and want to hear more, you can get our whole EP ‘YES’ for free right here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with DIY recording! I’m a rocka! I love feedback!
Until next time… Cheers!