First thing you need if you want to get recordings of your music out to people: SONGS! Sounds kinda stupid and obvious doesn't it? But this is absolutely the number one consideration and priority. If your songs suck, SO DO YOU. I got a 7" in the mail a few weeks ago, very cool cover with some clean, glossy car wreck graphics, very slick. I couldn't believe how lame it was when I listened to it though. Even when you are doing cheap DIY releases every cent counts so you want to get the best quality for what you can afford. I sweat a lot over the expense of doing the Bored CDs even though it really isn't that much money. ( I easily spend way more per year on beer and cigarettes than on the albums...) So why, why, why would these guys waste a couple thousand bucks to put a 7" out that is just crap music, but looks cool??? I called the band and talked to the bass player. He told me that they had been together for a couple months and they were the only three songs they had written but they thought it was really important to get a 7" out. This is stupid. What is "really important" is writing the strongest songs you can, no matter what genre or sub-genre of music you're doing. Once you have put your heart and soul into creating the songs, then it is time to worry about recording and releasing them.
Simple 2 Track Recordings
So, you have written the best songs that you can and you are ready to record them but you are flat broke. The cheapest and fastest way to get them on tape is to make a simple 2-track recording. In the next few paragraphs I'll go over every thing from the worst case scenario to the ideal setup. To hear the ultimate example of this type recording listen to The Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session album. The entire thing was recorded live on two tracks in an old church and it is one of the best sounding recordings I have ever heard.
What is good about 2 track recordings: It is cheap as hell, they capture the live energy of the band playing together, you have just about all the time in the world to get it right and they can be made just about anywhere.
What is bad about 2 track recordings: They are not as crisp and clear sounding as multitrack recordings, it only takes one person to fuck up the entire take, you can't overdub layers and layers of guitars and vocals like the last Queensryche record. (Wait maybe that last one should go under the "what is good" heading...)
As simple as it gets
The easiest way to do this is to ask the soundman to run two lines off the mixing board at your next gig and record the whole show. You might have to provide the tape machine but you won't have to worry about miking everything etc., etc.
The ever popular Jambox
The easiest way to do this is to record yourself on a jambox. Most portable tape decks have built in stereo condenser microphones. You can of course do this where ever you normally rehearse.
Set the band up like you usually do when you practice. The best place to put the jam box is usually about eight feet in front of the bass drum and about 4 feet off the ground. However, trial and error is your best bet here. Record about thirty seconds of one of your songs. Stop the tape and listen. Are the guitars too loud? Turn them down and try again. (Those knobs do go below ten you know..) Spend about half an hour moving the jambox into various positions until you find where it sounds best. In general the nearer to the floor it is the more bass frequencies it will pick up and the higher it is the more treble frequencies. So if the bottom end it too boomy, put it up on a stool. If it is too thin sounding set the sucker right on the floor.
The biggest problem with a jam box is that there usually is no way to adjust the input level of the sound going into the mics. If everything is just too loud, distorted and fuzzy, try moving the recorder back a few feet.
The coolest thing about recording this way is that you are not paying for expensive studio time so you can take all the time you need to get the sound right by experimenting with recorder placement. And you have time to get the takes right. I'd say record each song four times. Later on, at least the next day if not longer, go back and listen through your takes. Pick the best one for each song and then transfer them to another cassette in order.
A Step Up
The next step up from the jambox is to use the cassette deck from your stereo and two microphones. The procedure for recording this way is pretty much the same as using a jambox except you will be plugging two separate mics into the tape deck. This way you will be able to control the input levels with out moving the mics and you will be able to use better mics than the cheapies that are built into a jambox.
Start by placing the two microphones in front of the band. The end of the mics with the wires coming out of them should be touching and the front grills should be about 3 to 4 inches away from each other so they make a little 45 degree angle. If they are that close to each other and parallel you will get phase cancellation which is when Mr. Riker and Capt. Picard shoot each other at the same time and the beams cancel each other out. Actually it is an ugly sounding thing that only real recording engineers understand. But trust me you don't want it. Like I said before, you have all the time in the world so move the mics around in different positions and see what works best for you.
Of course you could always substitute a DAT machine for the cassette deck and get a much cleaner recording.
2 Tracks and a mixing board
To make things a little cleaner you'll need a separate mixing board as well as your tape deck. Place a microphone in front of each amp or instrument. For vocals you can either run a line out of your practice P.A. into the second mixer or tape a second mic that goes directly to the second mixer onto your main vocal mic. (Watch old Black Sabbath footage, you'll see Ozzy singing into two mics, one for the band to hear his vocals coming out of the P.A., the other for the film crew to get a loud clear recording of his singing.) If you are running the vocals through a guitar amp, just mic the amp. Again, use trial and error to find what sounds the best.
If You've got a little money (but not a lot)
I got a great tape from the band Aerosol last year. They made a little money on tour but not enough to spend a lot of time in the studio to do a multitrack recording. So they rented one day in a sixteen track studio. Instead of laying down tracks and overdubbing, they had the engineer mic them up using all of the expensive gear they had there (a thousand dollar microphone sounds better than a twenty dollar mic ...) as well as all of the cool reverb and other effects. They did a few takes of each song and were done recording in about four hours. They didn't have to pay for overdubs or mixdown time and got a good sounding tape. Not all studios will do this for you, and you'll surely run across some asshole who will try to convince you that you MUST make an 8, 16 or 24 track recording or it will sound like shit. Remember, he wants your money. The more time you spend at his place the more cash he makes and therefore he will try to talk you into spending as much time there as possible. Find another studio that understands what you are doing and is willing to work with your budget, not their greed.
Part Three: How to use microphones.
I am writing this now because BORED just spent the day in the studio working on rhythm tracks for a new 7" and it occurred to me that I should do this while my memory is fresh. This is a very important topic. Whether you have a state of the art digital machine or a crappy old four track, the signal they record begins its journey from sound source to tape with the microphone.
Dynamic mic: your usual everyday microphone is a dynamic mic, Ex. a Shure SM57 or SM58.
Condenser mic: kinda like a dynamic mic but it works a little different somehow or another.
PZM: a "pressure zone microphone", those little mics that look like spatulas.
Omnidirectional: picks up sound from all directions
Unidirectional: picks up sound only from the direction it is pointed.
Before you start to worry about which mic to use or where to place it remember this computer geek cliche, "Garbage in, garbage out". A lot of engineers talk about "fixing it in the mix". This is a myth!!!! Make sure everything sounds good to start with!!! If you want things punchy and bright, buy some new strings or drum heads. If you like a nice warm sound, try thicker gauge strings or heads. Get your instruments to sound the best you can before you start putting anything on tape. Later on if you want to re-EQ things or add reverb at least you'll be improving a good sound and not trying to polish the proverbial turd.
Pick a speaker on your amp. Place the mic up against the grill (it can even be touching the cloth) so that it is pointing directly at the center of the speaker cone. Now angle the end of the mic out towards the edge of the cone so that it is at about a 45 degree angle. This will give you a nice warm sound. If you'd like it to be brighter or to grind a little, more move it back toward the center.
I usually use a Shure SM58 to record guitars. This is a relatively low budget microphone that is usually used for instruments or vocals in a live set up, but not necessarily for recording. Any mic will do but it seems that a dynamic mic is better than a condenser mic. (Look on the mic, if it says "dynamic" it is a dynamic mic, if it says "condenser" it is a condenser mic.)
You can experiment and move the mic farther from the speaker. The farther away you go the thinner the sound will get. "Thin" doesn't mean "bad sounding", it might be exactly what you are going for.
Put the mic about 6 inches from the guitar and point it right at the spot where the neck meets the guitar. Don't point it at the sound hole itself or you will just get a boomy, ugly sound. Of course if your guitar has a pickup or transducer you can run direct to the board, but be prepared to have the sound of an acoustic guitar pickup and not a pure acoustic guitar.
Synths and keyboards:
Your best bet is to plug them directly into the mixing board and record them as opposed to miking them through an amp. You will get a much cleaner and better sound this way. The exception would be an organ through a Leslie speaker. As in guitar miking, get the mic as close to the Leslie as possible. If you hear an ugly "whoomp, whoomp, whoomp" sound from the speaker spinning, back off a bit.
Pianos are also a little tricky. If you are using an upright piano, open the top and point the mic down into the soundboard, but don't actually put it inside the piano. If you do it will tend to be very boomy. The other option is to hang a PZM mic above the open top or on a wall directly behind the piano. If you are using a grand piano open the top all the way and place the mic directly in the middle of the piano. In an ideal situation you will have two tracks to work with. Place two mics facing away from each other at a 45 degree angle in the center of the piano about 6 inches above the strings or hang two PZMs back to back in the same position. Try moving the mics into various positions to either capture more highs or lows.
I have four different suggestions for this, the first of which is to read the section on miking guitars. The second suggestion is to plug the bass directly into the mixing board. You will get a much fatter sound this way. The drawback is that you will lose the distinct tone setting you worked so hard on getting out of your amp. On BORED's Monsoon Season album we simply miked Jeff's amp and let it fly. On the new material we have been recording though he has been running his bass through a Sansamp, which is a little guitar box made for direct recording, and then directly into the mixing board and it sounds great.
If you have the channels on your mixing board try a combination approach. Split the signal and run one line direct and the other through a miked amp, and mix them together onto one track. This way you can have the best of both worlds.
Drum sounds are one of the hardest things to capture. I am going to describe how to get a good clean sound on tape. For Monsoon Season and Lo-Fi High we used the vocal mics from our rehearsal space and a couple of radio Shack mics for overheads. You do not need top of line equipment to make drums sound good.
Dude, we like only have two mikes:
Put the first mike in front of, but not in, the kick drum, about three inches away from the front head should do it. The second mic should be hung about a foot over the drummers head and pointed directly at the snare. This setup works really good if you use two PZM microphones, but you'll want to simply lay the first one on the floor in front of the kick instead of on a stand.
Dude, I found one more mic:
This time place the first mic inside the kick about 3 inches from the back and pointed straight at the spot where the beater connects with the head. Take the second mic and place it between the high hat and snare, pointing at a 45 degree angle down at the snare about an inch from the top head and about an inch in from the rim. Make sure it is not in a spot where it will be accidentally hit by a drumstick. (At best you'll get a dumb sounding thud on tape, at worst you'll have to go back to the two mic method.) Hang the third mic overhead as described above. If you have two PZMs, use them as the overhead and the kick mics and use a dynamic mic for the snare.
As many mics as we'll ever need dude:
The basic concept here is: "Point mic at drum." Mic the snare and kick as described above (I am way too lazy to re-type the exact same thing again...). Place microphones on each tom, miking them in a similar manner to the snare, about an inch in from the rim, an inch high and pointing down at a 45 degree angle. The important part is getting the overhead mics set up right. If you are using dynamic or condenser mics place them about a foot above the drummer's head facing the kit at a 45 degree angle. Those little lapel mics newscasters use work good for this. If you have PZMs, place two mic stands about 2 feet behind the drummer. Line them up so that they are shoulder high with one facing the center of the high hat and the other facing the center of the floor tom. Make sure they are in line with each other.
A few more things about drums:
If possible try a PZM inside the kick it will sound big and fat.
Make sure the drummer's headphones aren't leaking or you'll get weird flangy noises from the overheads.
A few years ago I produced a demo for a band called Millgrist. We didn't have enough mics for overheads so I just hung a pair of headphones above the drummer and plugged them in to the mic input. It worked great.
If you have mics and room on the mixing board try sticking a few in the corners of the room, pointed at the walls and a little up toward the ceiling. This is a cool way to catch some reverb and room ambience. For example, listen to the Breedersí Pod CD.
Have the singer stand about 6 inches back from the mic. Use a popstopper which is the little round screen thingy you see in rock videos when the band is "in the studio". You can buy these pretty much at any music store or you can take an old pair of pantyhose and stretch them over a hanger. (for sanitary reasons you might want to use a new pair of pantyhose, I mean who knows where those things have been...) Put it about 3 inches in front of the mic. This will keep the "P" and "B" sounds from going crazy. If you can't find any pantyhose or a popstopper have the singer turn their head slightly to the side when they sing any hard syllables. One really simple way to improve you vocal tracks is to make sure the singer sings INTO the microphone. A lot of people really "get into it" and start moving around. That's fine, just make sure their mouth stays in the same spot and is pointed at the mic.
The Almighty 4-Track
In the 80s technology advanced to the point that it was feasible to make quality four track recordings using a cassette tape as a master. These units were the basis for the home recording boom and also the best thing to ever happen for bands doing DIY releases. Why are they so cool? They are relatively cheap. They are both tape deck and mixing board self contained in one handy unit. Cassettes are cheap as hell. They are small and portable. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a 4-track just imagine what you can do. (More on the Beatles "4-track" recording later...)
In the past ten years since these little multitrack marvels were introduced the quality of recording has improved even more. In fact things are so much better now that "professional" quality 8-track recordings can be done on a cassette tape. (BORED's Monsoon Season CD was done on a Tascam cassette 8-track.)
First things first:
Buy a decent cassette! Look, this is supposed to be cheap and affordable. This is supposed to be a way to record and release your stuff without a major label budget. (Hell, for that matter, this is for those of us without a small indie label budget!!!) BUT, spend the extra buck and get a decent cassette!! Buy a TDK SA90 or a MAXELL IIXS. Don't get the fucking CERTRON tapes at the checkout line at K-mart, because they suck.
Second things second:
You have 4 whole tracks, plan this out carefully. Ask yourself these simple questions:
1) How many instruments/vocals are there?
2) Will we overdub solos or harmonies?
3) How can I return the CERTRON tapes I just bought?
4) Do we have enough microphones to track this live or do we have to piece it together?
Once you have answered those questions, written the best songs you can and rehearsed them endlessly you can get started.
We have a four piece band and 4-tracks what do we do? (the following section pertains to power trios with a singer also, you like Cream, I know you do...)
Duh! put each instrument on a track. For the drums hang a mic over the drum kit pointed at the snare but out of the drummer's way. Mic everything else close and play!!! One thing that might hold you back is the fact that most 4-tracks only have 1 or 2 headphonejacks. Remember. RADIOSHACK is your friend!! You can get an adaptor or two for a couple bucks that will let everyone hear what is going on.
Uh, we only have one microphone:
Hang the mike over the drums. Plug the bass and guitar directly into the 4-track. Record. If you need to, have the singer stand back and mouth the words so no one gets lost. The guitar will sound like crap. It will sound like rubber bands especially if you are playing anything that is the least bit aggressive. However, you will end up with a good bass and drum take. Now go back and mic the guitar amp and record over your scratch track while listening to the drums and bass. After all of the rhythm tracks are done, spend some time and lay down the vocals. All you need to do now is mix.
Ping-pong or More people than tracks:
Record a three track rhythm for the song, preferably bass, drums and guitar. Now read the instructions for your machine. (I am assuming that you can read, if you have followed this so far...) You are going to take the bass and drum track and "bounce" it. What that means is that you will re-record the tracks you already have on tape on top of each other on one track. It may take several tries to get the volumes set. This is the most important thing to pay attention to when bouncing: the levels of the tracks. You want to be sure that they end up at a volume where you can hear each individual part clearly. The drums should not drown out the bass and vice versa. After this is done you can go back and overdub the rest of the instruments.
The Beatles (and other 60's groups) are famed for their "4-track" recordings. The truth is that by the time the song was finished there might have been upwards of 20 tracks recorded, but they bounced so many times that they all fit on four tracks. I'll keep referring to a lot of dinobands because they used the very same 4-track setup that you are using even if you don't want to record songs that make people eat acid, stop bathing and move to San Francisco.
Problems with bouncing:
Later, when you mix, you do not have any control over the individual levels of the tracks you have already bounced. Make sure they are right when you do it.
The sound quality of the tracks diminishes each time you bounce it. This is untrue if you are using digital equipment, but that's another story.
People tend to get carried away and pile loads and loads of unnecessary shit on top of each other just because they can (Listen to any Boston record) which leads to a finished recording that basically sounds like badly recorded piles of shit stacked on top of each other.
The mix down:
This is the most important thing in all multitrack recordings. Even if your tracks are all sounding killer and are perfectly recorded you can completely screw up and turn the entire thing into a piece of poop if it is badly mixed.
What you are doing is taking your 4 tracks and putting them onto another cassette that can be played on any tape player. Plug your machine into a jambox or stereo. Listen at a decent level, not too loud, not too soft. And once again, use a good tape!!
Stereo, the world between your ears:
Listen to a bunch of recordings. Listen to where each instrument or voice is in the stereo field. You need to make a "space" between left and right for each instrument. In the early 60's as stereo became popular the engineers went nuts and panned everything hard left or hard right. The Beatles (sorry they are just the best example for 4-track stuff I can think of) used to have most of the instruments in one ear and all of the vocals in the other ear and nothing "in the middle". Or listen to some trippy hippie music like Jimi Hendrix. As they mixed they actually turned the knobs making the sound travel from side to side (wow how trippy, dude...). You don't need to do any of that. Pan the bass and drums center. Put the guitar and vocals off to the side. At most pan them to the middle of either channel. Any more than that and things start to get weird. The important thing to keep in mind is to have a nice symmetrical "fan" so that both the left and right channels are filled evenly.
Of course, you might want something weird. You might want things to suddenly appear in one ear or the other. Go for it, I'm giving you hints here, not laws.