Monday, April 23, 2012

The Demo

It's an ever changing world out there and I like to think it changes for the better once in a while. Take for example the state of the music business. Big music is taking hit after hit and instead of reacting to the changes in a way to take the best advantage of the surge in indie music they're working on breaking the internet to protect their interests.  The good news for us in the biz is that artists like Radiohead and the comedian Louis C. K. are putting their stuff up online and you can pay what you like. It sounds like a disaster but they both made a mint. Instead of needing to sell millions of records and making pennies on each one, a small artists can sell a few thousand to their Facebook friends and make dollars on each one, then go on to make another.
My area of interest in all of this is the recordings themselves.  The days of record companies throwing buckets of money around for recording artists to ride around in limos and live in studios are long gone. The biggest of the big have always built their own places to record and it's getting ever more possible for even the lowest of the low to do so as well. About ten years ago I turned my garage into a studio, really I just added a window to my workshop so it wasn't a heavy investment and good thing too. After doing only about a dozen projects the price of a digital recorder got to be less than hiring my services for a weekend and garage bands started retreating to their parents' basements to murder their music on their own time.

Suddenly the scene was flooded with terrible demos which was really pretty awesome. In previous years I had watched bands play out for months to save enough to go into the studio for one night and record. Only a few did it and only a few more attempted it on their own because even an awful four track cassette was a pretty big investment. Most of those bands played for a while and moved on with life, but a few caught the interest of the fans and eventually record labels and went on to sign contracts and tour. But all those that made the attempt made a contribution that helped the scene to flourish.

But I'm getting away from what I really wanted to write about and that's the method.  Let's assume that we're talking about computer based recording here because it seems like the hardware based digital recorder is just about done for.  Now that Pro Tools is available for paper route money, and other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are available for cheap or even free (check out Reaper!) there are lots of ways to make a better recording on your own.  But where to start? The problem is that no matter what your experience level as a musician is, your experience level as a recording engineer is likely to be pretty close to the bottom of the scale.

There's always dumb luck.  My studio friend Kevin remarked once that on almost every awful sounding demo there's usually one thing that sounds great. The high hat, or the floor tom or something.  But to try and get beyond that the learning curve is pretty steep.  The problem for a lot of musicians is that they try to get their stuff to sound like other recordings they like. The truth is though, if you're a kid in your Mom's basement with a ten watt practice amp you're not going to lay down tracks that sound like Jerry Cantrell because he's doing five passes through three amps and a dozen mics. The thing to concentrate on is just getting a good take that sounds more or less like what you actually sound like.

So if the band sets up and you've got a minimal interface for your computer, you might only be able to take two tracks at a time. There are a number of ways to get good drum sounds with one or two mics, so read up on those and try to just get your drum tracks down with maybe a guitarist and singer playing along in another room to feed to the drummer's headphones.  Then go back and do passes to pick up the bass, guitars, vocals and whatever else you have. Learn how to punch in and fix mistakes and work it over till you have it as right as you can get it.

Then stop. Stop right there. 
Don't try to mix down your own stuff. Well, do... but not for keeps. Go ahead and do a rough mix so you have something to listen to and decide if you're happy with the way you played, but without some experience you'll never get it to sound right.  Take that rough mix and go find someone to mix down for you.  If there's a studio or venue in the area, start hitting people up. Even offering a few bucks for a couple hours of quick mixing will yield better results that what you're going to do with stock plugins and lame presets.  Use it as a learning experience, sit in on the process but don't be a pest. Even a hack will at least be able to dial in some EQ and compression and get your stuff cleaner and louder.

Don't forget that with digital tracks, the world is your oyster.  Get on the message boards and ask for people to mix your stuff. Maybe make a contest of it and only pay the guy who does the best mix. Or look up studio websites. There's not a huge chance that you'll steal away Metallica's mastering engineer, but it could happen if your stuff makes him smile. More likely there's a studio intern who knows a bit and is waiting for a chance, and your $100 mixdown would keep him in Ramen for another month. Then at least your stuff gets mixed on better gear.

So how do you ship it out? If you've done your work well you've got a track for each mic you set up in your session.  Then if you went back and did some punches or edits to fix mistakes you've got different regions in some or all of those tracks. If you went ahead and turned on a bunch of plugins and set up automation for your rough mix that's fine, but turn all that stuff back off and do what's called "rendering the stems". Different programs do it differently, but they'll all be able to process the edits on each track and turn out a new track that's one complete file. Label those and that's what you'll send off, along with a copy of your rough mix and any conceptual ideas that you have.
And that's the last thing I want to talk about. Your concept. In the theatre, the lighting, costume, set and other designers will often have a concept that allows them to tie their work together. In school the joke one was "a rose blooming through ice". So the lights start out cold and get warmer, the costumes start out blue and are stripped off to reveal colors underneath, and so on. For a record it could be something as wanting an industrial sound, or more esoteric like, "I want it to sound like robots fighting in a junk yard". Usually what I get from teenage bands is, "Just make us sound like Godsmack". Which is fine really, at least I had something to go on. But give your mixer some input about your goals.  Then let them do their thing and most importantly don't bug them too much.  If you're getting a cheap or free mix out of somebody don't be that client that asks for six revisions.

You may find that you have a talent for it, or maybe one of your friends does.  But to really get good at it there's just so much that you need to learn about micing, gain structure, processing and a million other things, that if playing is what you're really interested in you should learn the bare minimum and just play.  You can make a pretty good recording with just some cheap mics and a little practice at placement, so study up on that and spend some time setting up your sessions. Then you can hand off to someone who's joy is in the rest of the process.

And with all that said... anybody got some tracks they need mixed? Hit me up.

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