Recording Studio Progress

In 1993 at the age of 17 I shared a house with my music managers/mentors; Norman Ives and David Michelsen. The three of us did a bunch of stuff to get by and earn some money.  We had a harmonica group and did gigs, we wrote and recorded harmonica tuition material and sold harmonicas and a variety of musical goods via mail order. In a lot of ways it was the best time of my life. In all the trading of musical equipment that went on we had managed to procure a Fostex 4 track tape recorder. For the younger generation or those unfamiliar with this device it was a piece of rudimentary multi-track home recording equipment. One could record one’s self separately onto the 4 tracks and then mix them together into a narcissistic blend of Tubular Bells-esque madness. So that is exactly what I did.

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Fostex X-18 4 track tape recorder

I had always tried to write songs and tunes with multiple parts but I lacked a way of being able to present my ideas to other people. Don’t get me wrong, I could write and read music notation and had a thorough understanding of music and chord theory. I just lacked the confidence and self-belief to be able to convey my ideas to other musicians without worrying that the other members would trash my ideas or just plain get bored. To this end I shied away from musicians of my own peerage and didn’t even try to form a band. I needed a way to make my own band by playing all the instruments. This Fostex thingy provided the perfect solution for introverted me to record my music as I envisioned it (more or less!).

Uninitiated as I was to recording equipment I made a bit of a hash of it by over-recording the whole thing. I remember the sound being distorted as hell. A standard SM58 microphone was all that was to hand so I used that to record all the harmonica parts and even plugged an electric guitar directly into the Fostex for one of the tunes. They were all instrumental tracks, just me chugging on harmonicas and playing melody lines over the top of the simple chord patterns I’d invented. I remember being totally over the moon that I had created such a thing. Norman and David were very supportive and Norman reproduced a number of copies of the tape to sell via mail order. David insisted I put it out under a ‘Blues name’ so he called me ‘Dynamite Red’ on account of my ginger hair and proclivity to play fast runs on the harmonica. As the recording was done on a tiny Fostex at home and not in a recording studio and being of pretty poor quality, I decided to call it ‘Rough Cuts’. I have a copy of the cassette and I really should get it digitised for prosperity.

In 2013 I bought and iMac when I was trying to start a graphic design business. The business never got off the ground and the iMac sat unused for years. Sometime in 2018 I decided to switch it on and see if it still worked. Whilst looking around it to see what software was installed on it I discovered a little programme called Garageband. This programme was like a Fostex on steroids. I soon discovered that with Garageband I could multi-track record and THEN add effects. And not just any effects, this programme had hundreds of them I could add. Not only did it have effects but it did MIDI and did loops that it gave you for FREE! It had amp simulations for your guitar and bass and pre-built settings for recording a large variety of instruments. My mind was totally blown and I immediately started recording my harmonica again.

The first issue I came up against was how to get the acoustic sound into the Mac. My SM58 didn’t work no matter what adapter I used on the tiny plug in the back of the iMac. I soon discovered that the iMac had a built in microphone so I started using that instead. I chucked together a few drum loops, recorded a bass line by playing it on a regular harmonica and dropping it an octave in the software (you can do that too!) and then I strung melodies over the top. It was just like the old days but with massive digital knobs on! Here’s one of the first tunes I recorded that way:

Okay, So I also discovered iMovie whilst I was about it and set about making silly videos to go with my music. I soon discovered that the recording quality was a bit thin and boomy through the built-in microphone. It was also a pain leaning in towards the Mac to get enough recording volume. I own a few PA bits and pieces and had an old Peavey 8 channel powered PA mixer to hand. It had phantom power so I could use a condenser mic to get a better quality recording. I found a mic on wish.com for £25 that looked the business so I bought that. I covered my spare room in sheets and cushions to try and get rid of the ‘boomy’ room sound and actually tried recording vocals. Plugging the ‘tape out’ phono plugs from he PA into the 3.5mm jack input on the back of the iMac created and fairly pleasing result. In fact, my guitarist friend and I recorded a small album worth of songs and released it. Here’s one of the tracks:

Doesn’t sound half bad eh? I was impressed and we released it on iTunes etc to a pretty good response. I was on fire and I loved this new way to record my own stuff exactly how I wanted to. So I went mad and recorded all sorts of stuff and found that I could instantly release it to the world via Soundcloud:

I think it’s fair to say I was addicted. As you listen through my Soundcloud uploads, working from oldest to newest you can (hopefully) hear the progression in the recording quality as both my equipment and knowledge upgraded gradually. The more I recorded the more I heard holes in my audio spectrum and holes in the recording quality. The next steps happened over the next two years. I upgraded my £25 condenser microphone to an AKG to the tune of £170 and then looked into a way of dispensing with the very hissy Peavy amp mixer. I was using the PA for monitoring as well through a couple of well placed PA speakers. I needed those upgraded too, but one thing at a time. After much research into interfaces I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett to the tune of £169. The USB interface was worth every penny. I plugged it into the USB port and plugged my AKG mic into the front. I just sat and listened to the silence for a good 20 minutes after that. The hiss had gone, the tiny bit of latency had gone and the £200 I had spent on a new pair of AKG headphones made it clearer than ever. The monitors would have to wait. As the recordings went on I grew so tired of the crappy sound from the PA monitors I ended up just mixing with headphones.

All this may sound completely rudimentary and obvious to the seasoned musician and I know that as I’ve been playing the harmonica for over 30 years you’d think I would be a bit more savvy about modern recording techniques. I can tell you that I wasn’t and in a lot of ways I’m still not. I am, however, fascinated by it and always looking for new ways to improve my sound and to grow.

After the advent the album with my guitarist friend I noticed that my recordings were coming up quite once I’d exported them This lead to a whole journey into ‘mastering’ and what that means. It’s a tough subject to get anyone to shed some light on and I’m still not sure that a lifetime of sound engineering would qualify me as an expert. My understanding of mastering is to set the volume and mix to a place where they can be heard on almost any device with minimal loss of volume and quality. Its a skill of picking frequencies that need to cut or boost through EQ-ing and a level of compression that creates a reasonable even volume for all the instruments on the recording. Adding a high-pass filter would help with the ‘boomy’ room. The mastering can make of break it and I’ve had good and bad experiences and every shade in-between. Some of my better mastering is on the latest of my Soundcloud tracks, I’ll always be learning it! I found that I would have to use a programme AFTER Garageband to master stuff up. I chose Audacity and use its tools to Normalise, amplify, compress and add limiter to my tracks in a strange brew that differs every time. Indeed, I chickened out of mastering my last album ‘You Don’t Even Know’ and sent the files to the rather awesome Blaze Studios to master it for me. Plenty of studios offer a mastering service and very reasonably priced too.

My finest and most proud moment for my home recording studio was being Able to record someone else. I was at an open mic night in October 2019 and a young man got up to play with a beat-up old guitar, flat cap and beard and proceeded to sing a collection of his own songs. As he opened his mouth on that first song: “Who are we…Who are we-e, does anybody know…” the hairs on my arm stood up. The young man was Danny R and I waited and spoke to him afterwards, I think the young people would say I wanted to ‘fan’ him(?) He didn’t have a CD or demo for sale which made me think. I thought about it over the weekend and contacted him on the Monday morning offering to record him in my little studio. Two weeks later he was round and we recorded his 5 track EP:

Danny R was most impressed with the result and as a thank you gifted me a pair JBL powered studio monitor speakers. Bless his heart! Danny has now set up his own home studio in the same vein as mine and we regularly collaborate on songs from the comfort of our own homes. The JBL’s have improved my mixing ability no end and I’m now hearing even more stuff I was missing in my previous mixes.

My new album entitled “Invisible Prison’ is due for release in July of 2020 and I’ve recorded, mixed and mastered it myself. Funds aren’t allowing for a mastering service this year, but I’m hoping that it stands up to its peers when it gets some airplay. It’s an electric Blues album this time and I’ve used the amp simulators, the bass amps and even bought some new live drum loops to create my very own band-in-a-box. In a way I feel I’ve gone full circle, I feel like I’ve finally achieved what I set out to in 1993. Whatever it is, its been a world of fun and I can’t stop now.

Recording Studio Progress