A recording experiment

Behringer mixing deskI certainly won’t have the ready cash to splash out on a proper digital recording interface this side of Christmas, but I’m keen to start down that road. My cupboards aren’t bare of equipment, and I was happy to pull a couple of useful items off a shelf. Had a new song in hand that needed recording – which is to say that it was stuck in my head and the only way to get it out was to record it. That’s the way my brain works, okay? Anyway, my mission was to record something of quality in a way that wasn’t too formal or onerous. I’m an iPad owner, and I really love Garageband on iOS, so that’s where I started. I found a little four-channel Behringer mixer, as well as a bare-bones stereo USB of the same brand. The really useful thing about the four-channel mixer is that it’s got phantom power, so I could plug in a couple of good microphones.

The first challenge was to record drums that didn’t suck. I plugged a couple of Rode condenser mics into the mixer with balanced connectors, plus a trust old Shure 57 with an unbalanced 1/4″ plug. The Rode NT1 became my sole overhead mic, the Shure went on the snare, and the NT1000 (I think that’s correct) was pointed into the kick through the small port in the front skin. It took a lot of trial and error to get a reasonably balanced mix that wasn’t overdriving the iPad, but I got there – and I even panned the snare and hi-hat slightly. The stereo USB interface has a headphone jack for monitoring, and this worked well to hear the click from the iPad while I was playing. It wasn’t very loud, so I used in-ear monitors and put a hefty set of over-ear headphones on as well. I could hear enough of my playing to not feel weird, and enough of the click to keep to the clock. I’ve always played fairly loosely against the click, preferring feel over accuracy, but I was going to be playing sequenced instruments against the drums, so it had to be pretty clean. I was also conscious that there wasn’t much of an opportunity to clean things up afterwards – the drums would be as recorded, maybe with some extra EQ and compression. It took a few takes to get the feel of the environment, but it wasn’t that long before I had a simple enough track that I could work with.

Next was the acoustic. I used to triple-mic my acoustic, but recently I’ve opted for a simpler approach – one condensor aimed roughly at the patch of wood between my chin and the soundhole. It’s bright enough to cut through a mix, but with enough bottom to anchor the sound. For reasons that are unclear even to me, I stood up to record but had one foot up on my drum stool. My back’s been a bit dodgy lately, perhaps that’s the explanation. Only a few takes later I was happy with the acoustic.

Miking the drumsThe song is very simple: acoustic+vocal verse, second verse introducing drums and bass, chorus bringing in the strings, a guitar solo over the verse, the third verse, then two choruses that subtly build, and a gentle outro that neatly cleans the whole thing up. Three minutes all up. The idea of a guitar solo might be standard for anyone else, but I’m not that big on them. I really wanted something complementary to the verse melody but not simply a restatement of it. I ended up with my Fernandez strat copy (which I swear by, by the way – it’s awesome) plugged through the little desk into the iPad, with Garageband in guitar amp mode. Their version of a Marshall sound is simple but fairly true, and I kept it wound down. I chose to fingerpick the strat, so I could dial in a decent amount of gain for warm drive without it going crazy. In the end I was pleased with the result because it worked so nicely with the acoustic – a small amount of weaving the two guitars into each other.

I haven’t been happy with my Fender five-string bass for a while. The sound’s just not working for my style of music. So I selected the upright bass “Smart Bass” on Garageband, and the sound fitted well. The trick here is to play the lines using one of the fretted basses – for accurate intonation – then switch it over to the upright bass. With the note editing built into Garageband now, you can go through and painstakingly adjust note volumes and timing. With the looseness of the drums I wanted to make sure that the bass was in sync with the kick, and fortunately this was pretty straightforward; I only had to tweak the position of four bass notes to avoid over-looseness.

The string arrangement I already had from my very rough work while I was writing the song on Garageband, so I copied that over and didn’t massage it much at all. The new strings feature in Garageband is really nice; they could have introduced a keyboard that played great string sounds but chose instead to let you play the swells by rubbing your finger on the interface. Okay, I know that sounds weird but it really does feel like the right way to generate the sounds.

For the building choruses at the end I grabbed the strat again and did some more fingerpicking. It sounded rough around the edges but pretty good, so I recorded a second track of the same thing, relying on memory to play the same thing twice but also relying on unfamiliarity with the piece to ensure that the two tracks were different enough to sound interesting. I then used the iPad Garageband track merge feature for the first time, making sure that I had panned the two strat tracks wide before I did the merge. It was very straightforward and gave me a clean stereo sound – and an extra track for my vocals. Reminded me of the old days with the four-track!

Finally it was vocal time. It’d been late afternoon when I started the session and I wanted to get the kitchen cleaned up before my wife got home, so I didn’t take too much time for the singing. A few takes of the lead vocal, a few for the backup and it was all done for the day.

Listening back to the session later, I was basically happy with the whole thing but the vocals clearly needed to be redone. I was obviously tired when I recorded them, and it showed. My voice is a little rough just now anyway, which is fine for texture, but I’d also sung an entirely new melody for the final chorus and although it contained some nice ideas, it needed some proper thought to make it work. The backing vocal needed much the same attention.

Kick mic standAt this point I figured I’d migrate the project to Garageband on the Macbook Pro to finish the vocals and do the mix. I’d not done any real recording on the Mac before, so this was a good way to get a feel for it. The vocals were harder to get clean than I expected – I ditched the Behringer gear and used an old stereo M-Audio USB computer interface. I had to get the volume pretty close to the final level – too loud and it distorted, too quiet and it was hard to find in the mix. Once I’d worked that out I did the vocals in a couple of takes, then added two copies of the backing vocals so that I could stereo them and keep them low in the mix.

From there it was just a matter of deploying compression and reverb with a light hand, adding a little bit of EQ where I thought it made a difference. Took a few swings through the song and used the volume automation on the vocal and guitar tracks to help the everything hang together. Automated the fade too, which was lovely. I’ve always worked with an analog desk, so this was the stuff of dreams.

In the end it was a menu selection to export the song as a finished file. I used iTunes to tweak the metadata – added an album name, a photo and lyrics – then the finished song was uploaded for your listening pleasure. I’ve decided to put this out in the wild; you can download it and put it on your preferred device free of charge. Maybe it’ll come out on a ‘real’ album one day; until then it’s my gift to you.

Listen to the track by clicking here: Winter in the Summertime. Or right-click the link to download it to your computer. Enjoy!

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