Fire Your Slacker Band! Part IV: Basic Recording

SSo far, we’ve talked about some of the reasons to start a solo project, formats of such acts, singing, and songwriting. The purpose of this series is to give you a few ideas for your own music, regardless if you’re a band player or the one-man (or woman) warrior. I had to learn a lot of the information I’m presenting through trial and error, so it’s my hope that, through the presentation of my story, your road will be that much easier.

At this point in the articles, we’ve established a project, written a few songs, got some cool words to sing (if that’s what we’re into), and we’re ready to rock, right? Hold on, soldier! We need some gigs, fans, and downloads.

Trouble is…

People need to hear you. Unless you’re a strolling minstrel, you need the capability to record your tunes and give them to people in the form of a CD or mp3. You can build your fan base, book shows, and even send one to your great aunt who is a nun and really hope that she’s not offended by the story about nuns in the radio track in your CD… wait, that last bit only applies to me. Sorry!

Musicians are lucky to be living in this day and age. Recording technology is readily available, cheap, and sometimes even free. In the past, the only choice we had would have been to spend hundreds of dollars to record in a commercial studio.

Although the matter is fiercely debated, it’s probably still the best way to get that million-dollar sound, because of that million-dollar equipment and acoustic space they have!

For example, when I got my new CD mastered, I calculated the sound ran through over twenty thousand dollars of processing gear in a sonically-optimized room.

That being said, a lot of us starting out don’t have the budget to spend on studio time, or, if you’re like me, prefer to buy some basic equipment and spend as much time as needed on the project without having the pressure of the clock ticking your cash away. So, let’s find out how to…

Set Up Shop

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Here’s some of the things that I found out in experimenting with gear as a solo musician. Keep in mind that it’s only a very basic overview, and recording is it’s own art form that can and should be seriously studied for maximum results. View the following as what I used, not the be all and end all of recording.

I needed to record, and had some special considerations for a soloist – drums. Maybe you can play them, but I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. With that in mind, here’s what I found:

Getting The Sound Recorded

There’s two main types of recorders we can use:

  • Stand alone recorders
  • Computer systems

If I only had to pick one, I prefer the second option. But, I actually use ’em both.

To be fair to other types of technology, there ARE other recording systems out there, but I’m outlining the ones most useful for my purposes. If you happen to have a tape machine sitting around, great.

Portable Recorders

Flip through any music catalog, and you’ll immediately see a multitude of snazzy little recorders with faders, blinky lights, and even the capability to burn a CD from the unit! So shiny! I had an old Boss BR-532 with a whopping 32 megabyte card. (It held one song.) Thankfully, the storage has improved. The units are cool because you can move them around easily, and record tracks at gigs, band practices (if you’re not doing a solo gig), etc. There’s actually two main types of these: There are multi-track recorders, which are more desk units, and the true portable field recorders, which can be hand-held. Several disadvantages of both of these units are, compared to a computer, editing can be clumsy, and not nearly as powerful as the systems I’m about to talk about.

Of course, it all comes down to taste. I’ve even heard of a band recording a song on an iPhone. (The app is called Four Track, and yes, I own it – it’s cool!) Despite their editing limitations, they really shine for capturing ideas on the fly.

Digital Audio Workstations

My favorite system is the DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation. I find it to be the the most flexible, powerful, and surprisingly, in one case, the cheapest. The setup consists of two to three parts:

  1. The Interface

The interface is what converts the signal from the microphone placed in front of a guitar amp, or a direct line in, into a format the computer can understand. Technically it employs devices known as A/D Converters – Analogue to Digital converters. The mic plugs into the unit, and the signal is routed to the computer. Interfaces come in three main flavors: Firewire, USB, and PCI card (sound card.)

  1. (Optional) Pre-Amp.

Some interfaces already contain a pre-amp, but you can easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a separate pre-amp. It boosts the level of the incoming signal, and can add a warmth and special flavor to the sound. Each preamp sounds different, much like guitar amps all have their own voice.

  1. Software

THIS is where the fun happens! The signal arrives at your computer – now what?

Process it, baby! Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs for short, are where the magic happens. You can start out with a free open-source program called Audacity (google it) to see how cool recording software can be. If you decide to upgrade, there are many options available, from the industry-standard Pro Tools, to Cubase (what I use), Acid, Cakewalk, Logic, and the list goes on.

A Word About Multi-Tracking

Muti-tracking refers to capturing many sounds (such as a drum set) simultaneously, and having the capability to mix them later. For example, if an interface only has one input, and I go to record a drum set, I’ll have to either use one microphone, or mix the signal from several together before it hits the computer (I could use a small mixer that a live sound engineer would use.)

The problem with that is: If I mix the signals wrong (say, the snare’s too loud), I can’t undo it later. I’ve got one track recorded for all of the drums. Multi-tracking lets me track everything individually, and mix it later.

What if you only have one input on the interface or recorder? You can record in a Track At Once fashion. Put the rhythm guitar track down, go back, and record the lead guitar as you listen to the rhythm track play back, and do the same with the vocals, etc. If you’re a one-man band like me, that’s what you do anyway. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping for recorders or interfaces. Do they have enough inputs to multi-track for your recordings?

In Plain English…

There are many different systems available. I started with a stand alone recorder. I prefer DAWs for their power and ease of use. I do use portable recorders to capture ideas on the fly, sounds of the city, and the like. The DAW signal chain consists of (sometimes) a pre-amp, an interface, and the software to process everything. Interfaces are great because they have low latency and clear sound.

One Man Band Info

If you’re like me, and trying to cook up the sound of a rock band all by yourself, you might have an issue with the drums. I was able to put down guitar tracks, vocals, keys, bass, and the occasional classical noise without a hitch, but the drums took me a little while. Here’s my story. I hope it helps you.

  1. Josh hears about drum replacement: I was talking to a buddy, and he mentioned the programs EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer (there’s many others, too.) I looked around, and what I found was this: The company hired a great drummer in a great studio to play a lot of sounds. They then chopped up the sounds, and wrote a program that could call them up at will. Writing a drum loop file would trigger the sounds and rearrange the pieces to sound like a drum beat. With further investigation, and a bit of disbelief as to the musicality, I found that lots of people use drum replacement technology. Often they’ll use a real drummer to capture the timings, convert the sounds to MIDI, and replace the sounds with the samples. The sounds are incredibly high quality, and very editable. No more stuffing the bass drum with a pillow! I was sold.
  2. Josh tries to play drums: I ordered the software, as well as a Korg PadKontrol to trigger the drums. I figured I’d try to be a finger drummer. Stupid folks on YouTube – they made it look easy. The controller was awesome, but my ineptitude got the better of me. I couldn’t put down a solid beat. (If you CAN, this is a great option.) I did end up using it to write some drum fills, though.
  3. Josh discovers he needs more software: To record with the MIDI drums, I needed a DAW that would support MIDI. I was using Adobe Audition at the time, and it didn’t. I ended up getting Cubase 5.
  4. 4.Josh goes programming: I said “if I can’t play drums, I’ll program them!” I tried to use the free software Hydrogen to program the beat of the century. It’s got the best arranger screen I’ve seen, and it’s very intuitive to use. Unfortunately, after hours of research, I couldn’t get it to export the right type of drum map to Cubase. After trying many different programs, I found a neat, cheap program called Rhythm Rascal. I was able to build the beat to Workaholic Blues with it. Fruity Loops also looked promising, but I was baffled by it. Lame excuse, I know. I’d like to go back and check it out.
  5. Josh discovers what was right in front of him: Superior Drummer came with a program called EZ Player Pro, which has a bunch of drum fills and beats played by a real drummer. I had great luck arranging these, and used them on a few songs on Signalman. The loops were MIDI files, and dropped right into Cubase, triggering the Superior Drummer plugin. Awesome sounds, and fully editable. I could change the qualities of the drums and keep the same beat. I loved it.
  6. If Josh went old school: I would have written the MIDI notes right in the file. Cubase (and many other programs) have a place where you can click to build a drum beat. It DOES take some time, though.

There You Have It!

Well, folks, there’s my not-so-brief account of my continuing journey through the world of recording and cooking up a band sound. I hope it will be of assistance, and maybe save you some money in the process. I urge you to start recording! Get that CD out there, and hey, send me an mp3 of your efforts! I’d love to hear them.

As ever, be sure to check out the full version of the article (with much more useful tips) over here!

Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he’s not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he’s busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first “real” EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at, and say hello!