Adventures in Home Recording (Part II - Learn from someone great)
During my junior year in college, I lived in Glasgow, Scotland studying abroad at the University of Glasgow. One of the first things I did after settling in to the neighborhood was finding a local music store and buying an acoustic guitar. One of the easiest ways to find other musicians and make friends is finding a local open mic to play. I got lucky in this respect as there were many open mic nights at nearby pubs and student unions and some of the pubs hosting them even offered a free pint for musicians who performed.
One of the open mics I played was a pub called Whistler’s Mother (named after the famous painting from James McNeill Whistler). The host was a guy named Andrew McGregor who ran the open mic with his friend Lindsey. They played mostly cover songs to start the open mic and created a very friendly and inviting atmosphere. Andy’s brother Stuart tended bar and was also a talented musician with his own band. The first night I played open mic at the Whistler’s I had the notion to let my freak flag fly a little and play some weirder, original songs. I made some sort of impression on Andy (not necessarily a good one) and he approached me afterward and talked about music and recording. He invited me to his home studio located in his dad’s print shop in a town about an hour away called Largs.
I met him early on a Saturday morning next to the Whistler's Mother. I had my guitar, a tuner, and a notepad with ideas for a couple of tunes I wanted to record. He picked me up in his small red hatchback and we headed for his little seaside hometown of Largs.
What a nice, interesting fellow musician! Here he was, getting up early on a Saturday morning. How cool was this situation I stumbled into simply by playing at an open mic?
On the way out of town, Andy turned to me and asked: "Hollis, did you know I'm a viking?"
Panic immediately set in as I thought how dumb it was to get in a car with a Scottish stranger. "I'm about to be kidnapped, or murdered, or molested, or all three," I thought.
Andy continued: "Largs has a viking museum as it was the last point of entry when the vikings invaded Scotland. I give tours and bang a battle axe on a shield and scare the wee kids. My viking name is 'Ragnor'."
I started breathing again taking comfort in the fact that the worst Andy would do to me is attack me with a medieval weapon (which he later confirmed he possessed).
We drove an hour to his home town of Largs along the coast of the island--a beautiful little sea-side Scottish shire with plenty of gambling machines and places to eat fish and chips. I expected we would record in Andy's garage at his house or maybe set up a few microphones in a living room, which is why I was so confused when we pulled up to what turned out to be a print shop.
Andy’s home studio just happened to be located in his father’s print shop: a larger warehouse with printing technology ranging from large, laser printers to century-old printing machines with moveable type. The “studio” was located in a closet. Inside the closet was a large, custom-built computer running some version of Cubase which required a USB dongle to be inserted into the computer while running (remember the days?), a tall chair, a control surface with the model name of “Houston” (perhaps to launch a rocket, Andy frequently joked), a 88-key midi keyboard, and some cables hanging carefully from nails equidistantly plunged into the shelving unit above the keyboard.
It didn’t look like much, but I knew that great recordings had been done with less, so I was happy to throw my songs in Andy’s hands to see what kind of recording we could get.
Watching Andy work was stunning. He was an incredible piano player, and knew how to coax all sorts of great sounds from his keyboard. He also worked quickly and efficiently on the Houston. It was amazing to watch him work. When we think of recording engineers working in a studio, we get the image a guy passively moving faders up and down and twisting knobs occasionally—not so with Andy. After every track was recorded, Andy's real work began with editing, mixing, and doing the work of a producer to guide the song idea into a recording which would sound even better than what I could have dreamed. That is one of the real challenges of a producer. While an artist may come to the table with the component parts and ideas for a song or album, the monumental technical and artistic task largely resides with the person in charge of running the recording session. Perhaps an artist may come into the studio with an idea of a song he wants to sound like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but what part of that hit and his or her song does that likeness intertwine? Is it the killer, memorable guitar riff? Is it the vocal sound of 90’s teenage angst? Is it an ineffable mood aspect of the song that inspires him or her to make that comparison? Such is the challenge and the heroics of a good, competent recording engineer and producer. In professional settings these roles are usually separate, but for the more budget projects all these roles are relegated to the songwriter who might be recording the album on his own.
I fought a fight internally for a while for Rescue over whether I should complete each stage of the recording process with a professional: going to a professional studio and having an engineer record and mix the tunes; maybe having a figure in the local music scene with a particular and apparent talent for recording and production produce the record—guide the record into something worthy of attention. In the end I chose to serve these roles by myself not be because I thought I could do them better but because I wanted the time to learn and do it myself. While I will certainly be calling on professionals to help me finish the record, part of the “artistry” I hope people get from the album is a DIY aesthetic and a sense of artist growth.
I am better for doing this album and I am better for all the different people I have learned from (ahem…a one Andrew Robert McGregor). It is special for me to do the recording part of this project by myself, but there is no way I could have done it without the experience of learning from talented professionals.
If you want to record. find someone great in the studio and learn everything you can from them. What does their workflow look like? What special techniques do they employ on each track recording? How thorough are they? Do they make you do lots of takes until a line is clean and performed well? What can you steal from them (ideas and techniques--not actual property or equipment).