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Laying Down Tracks and Vocals
By Queenie Sataro - 05/11/2004 - 01:16 AM EDT

In my previous articles on Being Your Own One-Person Indie Team, I mentioned that creating a self-produced album was a lengthy but achievable process for the self-motivated musician. Here is a brief outline of the process of getting and promoting an album:

I. Song creation--a song is born!
A. Song creation and song choice
B. Time management
C. Performance, musicians, and demo making

II. Recording the songs
A. Laying down tracks and vocals
B. Mixing and mastering
C. CD design and duplication

III. Promotion
A. Offering a CD for sale online
B. Creation of an artist website
C. Free web promotion and beyond

In this part of the series, I will discuss Part II A, Laying down tracks and vocals. For some of us, this is the fun part, recording. For others, recording music presents huge technical challenges. I am of the latter school of thought and have struggled for many years when it comes to recording time for my projects. In this article you will learn about the recording process in a nutshell.

Where to start

Remember that there a dozen ways of going about the same recording. I always begin my recordings on my sequencer. I used to have a used Ensoniq TS-10 sequencer but then I bought a new Korg Triton Workstation which I used for my own debut album, QUEENIE. I often begin a song by sequencing EVERYTHING, including the keyboard version of electric bass, drums, and piano. Nowadays, I still start in this fashion, but now I have the budget and the actual instruments to play everything myself, including electric bass, Classical guitar, and piano at any time in the recording process.

Record one sound at a time or all at once

Recordings are traditionally done in layers. What this means is that all the sounds go in one at a time, often with drums first, bass second, guitar third, keyboards fourth, vocals last. Why the order? If percussion tracks go in first, they keep the beat for you just like a click track. Bass builds a foundation, then the rest gets added as the main body of the house. Vocals are last because they need to be a bit louder than everything else to understand the words. I like doing backup vocals AFTER the lead vocals as I find it is easier to write them this way.

There is no one way to begin a recording, but I record each individual program (that's sequencer-ese for keyboard "sound") by soloing it into my computer running Digi 001 one at a time, each on a separate channel. I usually end up with about 8 channels. A channel is the word for one layer of the recording, such as bass guitar or lead vocal. I choose to record all my channels separately, the lingo for that is to "overdub."

You could also record all the sequenced programs into the recorder as 2 big fat tracks, one panned totally left and one panned totally right. This is what they are referring to in the books when they say "stereo". Could I record all my tracks in via MIDI instead of audio by hooking up MIDI cables from my sequencer to my computer? Sure, because there are always a million ways to achieve the same results in recording.

Don't want to rely on sequencer? You could try playing drums into the computer FIRST with a click track, then overdubbing bass, guitar, keyboards, and piano. All of this can be fed into the computer raw and dry, that is, without effects. Some books recommend EQ and effects being used, I recommend always going in dry and adding effects later. Going in dry forces you to play a better take. Effects are like syrup. A little is good but too much gives you sugar shock. People who start with effects right away oftentimes add too much, ruining a good take with a sugary delay.

I use my sequencer to feed in tracks that I will later overdub with "real" instruments. If I feed in an electric bass from the Korg Triton sequencer, I later double the part with an identical part played on my REAL electric bass amped with a bass amp and miked with my Rode NT-1 microphone, the same one I use for vocals.

If you truly want to just get to the point with your recording, record your debut album as a live performance. This means that you use every microphone you own, set them up in a room, and sing and play piano or guitar into them at the same time. My friend Frances Mai-Ling does it this way. You can hear her songs streaming audio at http://www.eastwestnow.com/media.html . This will give you a streamlined "live" sound, something akin to people hearing you in a coffeehouse setting.

Too much equipment = total frustration

One thing the books always fail to explain is how all this stuff actually gets into the computer. It is endlessly frustrating to be told how easy it is to create auxillary tracks and to bus channels when these things in reality not easy at all. Personally, I find equipment hook-ups annoying and difficult. For instance, it is nearly impossible with my current equipment to add equalization or effects/reverb to a sound before the sound is entered into the computer, so I don't. For now I have to add all my tracks dry and add effects later.

Don't make the same mistake I did. To make your own life easer, get a SIMPLE mixing board. I made the error of buying a 24 track Alesis mixing board with a zillion bells and whistles. It was a mistake, because I don't use even a quarter of features the board has and I tend to work with one channel at a time. I ended up frustrated and virtually unable to use my mixer. Don't let it happen to you. Get an 8 track mixer, a cheapie with almost no extras, like the one I used on my old QUEENIE demo tapes. Then play around with it and you'll find that less is definitely more.

I am not a recording guru. Therefore I want to explain to you how to get your singing into the recording equipment and actually have it work. Will it be fancy, with effects and EQ and correction? No. You can always add that later. But the vocals will get in there and you will have at least one thing accomplished with your album.

Example of how you get vocals into your computer

To understand how sound goes into the computer via a mixer, try to start simple and branch out later to harder stuff. For instance, here is the process of creating a solo vocal track from start to finish:

1. Turn all volumes down on mixer and recording unit. Plug your microphone into channel 1 of the mixing board. The plug opening is the same pronged type plug as the microphone cord, meaning, you could try plugging it in elsewhere and it won't work. Thank goodness it is foolproof.

2. On the mixer, turn phantom power ON. Phantom power is typically only used for vocals, which are always for some odd reason way softer than any other instrument even if you are a loud vocalist. Phantom power is not used on keyboards, as they are already fairly loud as a rule.

3. On mixer, push the LINE/MIC button to the MIC position.

4. Hook the mixer's main output to the Main Input or Channel 1 of your recording unit via a 1/4 inch cable.

5. Bring up the mixer Channel 1's volume meter to Zero and do the same with the Master Volume of the mixer. These are the big rectangle shapes that look like thermometers. Turn the round gain knob of channel 1 to the middle.

6. Create a New Mono Track on the computer recording unit if necessary. On the unit, press record and test if you are getting any sound.

7. Try to adjust GAIN until the sound of your loudest voice does not create digital static, or clipping.

8. Hook up headphones to the computer recording unit, turn down the Monitor Volume of the unit and turn up the headphone volume. Now you can only hear yourself through the headphones.

9. On the computer recording unit, Press RecordPlay, meaning Record and Play buttons at the same time, and record your vocal track. I prefer to sing with one of the earpieces of the headphones off of my ear so that I can hear myself and stay on pitch.

10. Press Stop when you are done recording the vocal. Turn the monitor volume up, take headphones off, and listen to your track.

With any luck you should now have the method to create a bunch of dry tracks, good takes on every one of course, in your recording device or computer. Next we mix, which is an activity that certain demented geniuses (not I) find fun. I find mixing to be torture, but I'll do my best in the next article to explain how to do the world's simplest mix.

Keep the big picture, your first album, in your mind as equipment is not always easy to use as the magazines claim. With experimentation you will constantly improve your sound and you will get your crucial first album on the road.


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