The One-Man Multitrack Band
Part 1: The StudioBy David A. Gatwood
June 17, 2003
IntroductionIt's always hard to figure out how to begin an article about productionthere's so much to say and so little space in which to say it. Rather than try to cram it all into a tiny amount of space, I decided to write a series of articles. In each part, I'll talk about one aspect of the production process, focusing on the issues that I experienced while creating the CD Thirty-Six.
In the first part, "The Studio", I will describe the studio itself, including information about hardware, software, and how the technology has evolved since I began recording.
In the second part, "Recording, Rerecording, and more Rerecording", I will write about doing the initial recording, from scratch tracks to final tracks.
In the third part, "Miking, Editing, Mixing, and Tweaking", I will describe the editing process, including various tips and tricks for polishing the final mix.
In the fourth and final part, "The Kitchen Sink", I will throw out a bunch of tips, tricks, and random insights that don't fit into the first three categories.
Basic Computer HardwareProbably the most dynamic part of our studio setup is the hardware. From the first recording to the final mix, we have used three different computers with five different kinds of audio hardware. We've used everything from a kludged-together phono preamp to a multichannel 24-bit audio card.
The oldest track on the CD is "Angel". It was originally recorded on a PowerBook G3/250 (Wallstreet) using a cassette deck for a microphone preamp, using the laptop's internal audio hardware, and using a 640 Meg external hard drive as storage. (Editor's note, the current editing machine has 640 Megs of RAM....)
All of the instrumentation for "Angel" was produced by a Korg M1 keyboard. This is actually the only non-acoustic sound on the CD (unless you consider an electric bass to not be acoustic).
The second song we recorded, "'Til I See You Again", was recorded using the built-in sound hardware on a PowerBook G3 Series "Pismo" laptop. At the time, its internal hard drive (IBM 30G) was worn out, and the bearings sounded like a jet engine, so I ran cables around the corner into another room.
Of course, running into the next room to start and stop the recording computer makes recording difficult, to say the least. To solve that problem, I took advantage of MacVNC and used my 700 MHz iBook to control it (slowly) from the piano bench.
For most of the recording process, though, I used a PowerMac G4/450. I have just under half a terabyte of spinning storage (500 "hard drive gigs", or about 466 actual gigabytes by the normal definition thereof), 200 of which is internal, and the rest of which is attached by FireWire.
The PowerMac is equipped with a SCSI card, an M-Audio Delta 1010LT audio card, and two video cards, which drive an Apple 15" Studio Display (LCD) and a (better and cheaper) Radius 15" LCD display.
Audio GearFor most of our recording, we used an old Realistic stereo microphone (circa 1980), though the vocals from that microphone tended to sound a little hollow without equalization. So we now use that largely for piano work and use a Shure PG58 for vocals. We're working on getting a Shure 565SD for non-vocal recording, since I've had good luck in the past with using its predecessor, the 555SB, for brass work.
We have a Mackey CR-1604 with MIDI automation for our audio mixer, though I haven't really done much with the automation. (I bought the automation hardware so that I could do recording in my grad school apartment with the mixer under the bed, but never got around to finding a copy of the MIDI controller codes until long after I'd moved to a bigger place.)
For monitors, I use (horror of horrors) a pair of Labtec Spin-70 speakers. For about $35-40 bucks a set, I was shocked at the clarity of the sound in every frequency range. They may not be near field monitors, but they're a lot better than any other speakers that I can afford.... :-)
InstrumentationI have lots of random instruments that were used on this CD. In many songs, you'll hear multiple layers of each one.
At the heart of the studio is a Boston 6'4" studio grand piano. Boston Piano is a mass-produced line of pianos designed by Steinway & Sons. When I was choosing a piano to buy (about 10 years ago), I tried a lot of different brands. I hated some (Young Chang, for example, with its uncomfortable key bounce-back), tolerated others (Yamaha, whose dynamics I found hard to control but otherwise good), and fell in love with a few (certain Steinway pianos).
The Steinway pianos, though, varied way too much. I came to the conclusion that because they are handmade, you might have one that spoke beautifully and another one right next to it that was muffled and lifeless. Unless you chose one particular piano and bought it on sight, you didn't have a chance of being happy with it.
By contrast, the Boston piano, being mass-produced, was almost completely consistent. It has a solid feel, and I find it easy to control its dynamics from soft melodic passages to powerful bombastic fanfares.
I also play a trombone and trumpet from Benge. Some people ask why I chose these horns. After playing about a dozen horns of random brands, the choice came down to a choice between Benge and Bach in both cases. To make the final decision, I did some blind testing, and decided that the Benge horns spoke more clearly in the higher registers.
Finally, I own a used student-line clarinet, a couple of random recorders (one plastic, one reed from... Busch Gardens, I think), and a Korg N1 (which was not used for this CD).
Closing RemarksThat's a brief look at our studio. Come back in a week or two for our next article, Recording, Rerecording, and more Rerecording, where I'll give you all the amusing stories and other dirt on the making of the CD Thirty-Six.