Home Music Recording

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Down-home musician Marc Bristol, pictured here performing at a local festival, has a wealth of useful advice about  home music recording.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.

Home Music Recording

There have probably been times in your musicmaking career when you’ve felt that a certain tune or collection of songs was worth preserving. Perhaps you just wanted to hear what the total sound of your group was like (since it’s often hard to tune in to your partners while you’re concentrating on your own instrument), or maybe you needed a demo/audition tape to send to producers and club managers. Then again, perhaps you wanted to have an album on hand to sell at your band’s gigs.

Well, whatever the reason for the urge to record, you’ll be glad to know that it’s easier to “preserve” your music than most folks think. In fact — for all practical purposes — you can even do it yourself in your own home!

Although most people believe that superior recordings can be produced only in a professional studio that’s equipped with the latest high-priced gizmos, the fact remains that excellent recordings can be made under much simpler conditions. (In fact, some of the best tracks I’ve heard were taped in home settings, using borrowed equipment!) Technology has advanced so quickly in the past few years that a person can now make a better-quality home music recording on his or her stereo deck than was possible on even the best commercial equipment that was available 20 years ago!

Now it’s true that musicians can hear themselves better in a studio environment (and may be inspired, as a result, to turn out a more enthusiastic performance), but the same “professional” setting can easily bring about a tense recording session. Since they are paying an hourly studio rental fee (which can range from a reasonable $15 to as high as $100), performers in such a situation are bound to feel rushed and therefore may find it difficult to produce their best music.

In-home recording, on the other hand, offers a relaxed (and affordable) atmosphere. Instead of spending money to rent a studio for several hours, you can borrow — or rent, if you need to — a few pieces of equipment and record at home. (Even if you plan to do your recording in a studio, it’s always a good idea to practice your arrangements in front of the microphones at home before you start that expensive tape rolling. Who knows . . . you might be so pleased with the results of your rehearsal that you decide to skip the more expensive studio method altogether! )

Another money saving alternative is to make a master tape at home (where you can take your time and get it just right) and then go to a commercial studio for professional mixing and equalizing. Such a procedure will give a flawless finish to a flawless performance, and cost you much less than you would have spent to record the original, from scratch, on expensive studio time.

Taping Tips

So how do you give “homemade” recordings a sharp and clear professional quality? Well, simply by using top-notch equipment and the proper mixing techniques. Obviously, you’ll want to get hold of the very best tape recorder and microphones you can lay your hands on, but you’ll also need a good mic mixer and playback system.

The mixer — which is used for balancing the sound levels of different instruments and voices — could even be one of those normally used for stage mixing as long as it has a “mic” level output. Furthermore, your system for playback should be able, ideally, to approximate both ends of the audio spectrum: from the ultra-faithful sound reproduction of an expensive stereo system to the blare of a noisy car radio. Also, it’s important not to listen to your playback only on headphones. The music may sound quite different when it comes from speakers, and that difference could affect the way the final product should be mixed.

I’ve found that — although there is a good bit of difference between expensive recording microphones and moderately priced stage mics — you can get very good results in a home recording session with the latter kind of equipment. In fact, my friend Phil Williams (who is co-owner of his own record company, Voyager Recordings) says he can actually get better sound quality from condenser mics than from dynamic mics in the same price range.

Your best bet, when choosing recording equipment, is to obtain a reel-to-reel setup, because it’s easy to duplicate reel tapes and the recordings made on them are generally of a higher quality than those made on cassettes. Reel machines record more rapidly than do cassette recorders; the faster the tape moves, the better its sound reproduction will be. (A multitrack unit will offer more versatility, particularly if you plan to have your tape mixed professionally at a later date.)

For a top-quality recording, use a machine that moves at a speed of at least 7 1/2 inches per second. (Many commercial studios now use systems that can record at 30 IPS!) Also, the amount of “fuzz” and noise is less on better-quality tapes, so get the very best tapes you can afford. (And be sure, in addition, to consult the operator’s guide for your recording system because some machines require adjustments for different brands of the sound-recording ribbon.)

If you’re dealing with two or more instruments — with some players sharing a microphone — you’ll probably want to experiment with placing the mics at different distances from each of the musicians … or you might have the performers vary their volume. Obviously, one of the luxuries of home recording is that it allows you time to experiment with such factors in order to find just the right mix for an ideal cut (whereas, in a studio, you’re dependent on the engineer to control such variables).

The Cassette Mass Market

Once you’ve successfully mastered the fundamentals of recording your tunes in a home “soundstage,” you may want to branch out into mass production of your harmonies. If so, you should consider duplicating your original tape on a cassette. Even though the latter medium is not ideal for recording purposes (as I’ve mentioned), the cassette mode is a fine way to release your music to the public market at a reasonably low cost to you.

Playback equipment for cassette tapes is now widespread enough, and the sound reproduction of such systems is good enough, to make the format a viable alternative to phonograph records. The primary disadvantage of cassettes, of course, is the lack of space on the package for cover photos and liner notes (features which help sell an album ) … but that very problem is also a factor lowering your printing costs.

An exciting example of the do-it-yourself cassette release idea was sent to me recently by a group called Soundings of the Planet. This “cottage industry organization” is made up of a group of people who’ve used their own modest recording setup, complete with a high-speed tape duplicator, to produce a collection of cassettes representing the best in music that’s expressive of the “New Age” consciousness. Their offering of six tapes — which are packaged with beautifully silk-screened labels — includes such titles as “Desert Dawn Song,” “An Evening With Ram Dass”, and “Warriors of the Rainbow.”

Another fine example of New Age music recently came to me from California. Gabrielle Sylva has produced a cassette called “Tree Music,” on which a series of meditative compositions evoke images of springtime in the mountains and life in the city … without creating a contradiction between the two! The tape features the pedal steel guitar, keyboards, drums, and mountain dulcimers.

Record-it-yourselfers can find a source of real inspiration and guidance in How to Make and Sell Your Own Record, a book by Diane Sward Rapaport, the first definitive work on the subject. Although it’s certainly not a technical manual on record engineering, the volume does explain the various pieces of recording equipment and their uses.

The text is arranged in a backwards chronology: Beginning with the promotion and sales of a finished album, it moves through the printing and manufacturing phases to the original planning and recording of a disk. If you use the worksheets that accompany each chapter, you will be totally organized once you’ve worked your way through the process. Anyone who’s considering the release of his or her own album (or a cassette) should study this book before — and during — the entire operation. 

The “Homegrown Music” Album Project

I had hoped to be able to give in this issue’s column a definite release date for my own homemade recording. However, after absorbing advice from various quarters (particularly the Rapaport book mentioned above), I’ve decided to make the album a dual-purpose disk.

For one thing, I’m going to sell the recording (in order to help cover the costs of production) at any gigs that I play with the Okie Doke Stringband … since that group, which is the outfit I most often perform with, will be featured on the record.

And, in order to make the project even more valuable to folks who might want to make their own records, I’ll be producing part of the album in my living room using home recording gear and the rest in a full-fledged, well-equipped professional studio. The purpose of the split production, of course, will be to allow any would-be recorders to listen for themselves — before they sink their money into producing a disk — to the quality that can be expected when cutting a record in either of the two ways that I’ve outlined.

It promises to be an informative (and entertaining) album. I hope to be able to announce its “release” in my column in the next issue!

A Success Story

Finally (to provide you with further inspiration), I’d like to tell you about a couple who have been recording their own music — mostly old-fashioned fiddling — for about 15 years! Phil and Vivian Williams started Voyager Recordings by taping in the field (literally!) — with very simple gear — at local fiddling championships. They’ve gradually updated their “studio” until they now have about $5,000 worth of equipment. Nearly all of the gear was purchased secondhand from pawnshops, flea markets, and radio stations.

Phil and Vivian record albums at outdoor festivals or right in their own living room, and their large catalog testifies to the variety of good-quality music that can be turned out by “amateurs.” The Voyager lineup includes lots of Vivian’s award-winning fiddlin’, plus the country rags of The Old Hat Band … the Texas-style fiddle playing of Benny Thomassen … and the plain ol’ foot-stompin’ music of Rag Daddy.

The Voyager catalog offers a wide selection of other musical styles, as well. You can choose among traditional jazz, the classics, balalaika, African marimba, or gospel bluegrass. The firm’s free album list is available from Voyager Recordings.

Phil generally engineers his own releases, but the producer recently hired a professional engineer to mix and refine the homegrown releases. He reports that the extra expense doesn’t really strain his budget (which now stands at about $2,500 per album, including the cost of pressing and printing the covers), and the improvements in the quality of Voyager’s albums are astounding!

Contrary to what you might think, the Wiliiamses haven’t made a bunch of money from producing and selling their own records. What little profit they do realize is automatically rechanneled into the company’s future releases. As Phil explains, “We don’t do it to make money. We do it because we want to, because we feel this music should be recorded and made available to those who like it.” And that, folks, is what recording homegrown music is actually all about!