Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Apartment Recording: Putting together songs on a decibel budget- Part I: The process

So I thought some folks might be interested in reading about someone's attempt to record songs with a very limited money, noise, space, and time budget. 

Disclaimer: It should be made clear that I'm still a complete n00b despite having been doing this kind of thing for about 10 years now. However, here's to hoping that these notes might serve to help someone else who's looking for some pragmatic advice on recording at home. Or, at the very least, it might motivate some more knowledgeable folks out there to dish out some protips in the comments section.

This series will be illustrated by a running example - an Origin Theory song that's been completely written, but hasn't been recorded yet. The posts will, therefore, follow the order of the recording process that I've been using. With that in mind, it's probably helpful to show you all, at a coarse level of granularity, how this all is going to go down.

The Process

To borrow a software development term, my recording process can best be described by the oft-made-fun-of Waterfall process. For those non-programmers out there, the Waterfall process was something a bunch of electrical engineers at IBM came up with in order to save a hopelessly out-of-control software project. In this process, requirements are fully thought out and documented before any code is written. This prevented those wild-eyed programmers (or their indecisive bosses) from changing what it is they're building after it was built. It did so by making requirements changes extremely costly if done after the requirements gathering phase. This process worked out very well to save that misguided IBM project.

With time, the industry probably realized that changing its mind is just part of the game. Nowadays, most sane software development is done using iterative processes (e.g. RUP, extreme programming, scrum, etc). These processes recognize that requirements continue to be refined and discovered as the product is being built. They have built-in steps to double back, re-evaluate, and potentially start over in a new direction every so often.

In my experience, an iterative process sucks for recording music. Sure, folks like Klayton from celldweller pride themselves on their massively iterative songwriting and recording cycles. However, it takes him years to finish a recording. You do want to get it done in a couple weeks, right?

In a nutshell, here are the phases an Origin Theory song goes through:
  1. Writing
  2. Project prep
  3. Record scratch guitars
  4. Record drums
  5. Practice vocals with scratch tracks
  6. Record bass
  7. Record real guitars
  8. Record vocals
  9. Compile and tune vocals
  10. Project cleanup
  11. Mix!
Notice that there are no repeated steps, save recording scratch and then real parts. The takeaways:
  • Write first! During recording, you'll pay a dear price for any changes to song structure / rhythms / etc. In general, the price will be greater the further down the list you are when the change is made.
  • Record scratch parts. Temporary stand-in parts (or "scratch" parts) can help you avoid unnecessary (or circular) dependencies and enable parallelism that otherwise would not be possible. For example, some drummers (including mine) like to play along to guitar parts during recording. However, I, as a guitarist, prefer laying my final guitar parts down over top of the final drums. We can both be satisfied if I record a low-fi (but well-played) temporary take.
  • Record final drums first. In heavier music, drums (and, to an extent, bass) provide the drive of the tune and set the rhythmic standard for the rest of the instruments. 
  • Parallelize. If more than band member has a basic recording set up, then they can potentially track their parts independently. If you use scratch tracks appropriately and set up the project well, you'll be able to share the project and merge in tracks from your bandmates as they come in.

Disclaimer: This process is specially adapted to my work habits and my band situation. For example, note step #5 - I do this because our vocalist and I tend to fiddle with the vocal parts once it comes time to record. By moving this earlier in the process, we can avoid tracking entire verses that might get rewritten.

Next time: We'll take a look at some song setup and guitar scratch tracks for THE FINAL (ORIGIN THEORY SONG)/(COUNTDOWN)

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