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Drum Breaks, First Takes + Jaffa Cakes: Part 1

by jay.sankara

How to record an EP without spending any money (except on Jaffa Cakes!)

Part One.

Most of us are familiar with the “Classic Albums” documentary series made by Isis Productions and distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment. When focusing on the production of a landmark album there’s a fair amount of footage of some Grammy-award winning producer, sometimes accompanied by one-or-more of the musicians (depending on whether they can remember which particular ego-fueled incident caused them to fall out with one another), enthroned behind a suitably gargantuan mixing desk. With fingers delicately poised on faders, said producer will lovingly bring up each instrument hither-to concealed in the mix, all the while pontificating about how wonderful the recording experience was.

The general conception of recording revolves around the idea that you throw a bunch of well-rehearsed (sometimes well-lubricated) musicians into a cavernous acoustically-tuned room, give them some great-sounding instruments and amplification, position a bunch of good-quality microphones around them, press record and lean back (or forward over a mirror if it was the ’80′s). Well, recording the Enigma EP was absolutely nothing like that!

A very clever man named John Storck codified the idea that you can bring a project to completion quickly, cheaply or well, but you’ll never succeed in attaining all three. It’s taken us a year to go from the first recording session (Vinden’s drums on the 19th of September, 2010) to the CD being sent off for production, so we’ve hardly been quick. I’m the wrong person to ask about the quality, as I always want to improve on things, but I can resoundingly state that it was cheap to make; in fact the recording cost nothing!

How did we manage this? Well, partly in the time-honoured method of blagging, borrowing or stealing and partly because recording technology has moved away from the analogue paradigm towards a computer-based setup. You still need to get the audio into the computer, but any reasonably modern “off-the-shelf” PC is more than capable of handling the processing once you’re in the digital domain. If you want to record an entire band at once (and actually have any control over balancing the level and tonalities of the individual instruments) then you still need a mixing desk connected to enough analogue to digital converters to get your 24 or more discrete tracks of bits & bytes laid onto the hard drive.

This is a problem. Audio interfaces that can handle that much throughput of data are expensive (at least any that are of good-enough quality for commercial use), so are the preamps necessary to take the (extremely quiet) signals from the mics and amplify them to line-level. And finally, the average living-room or garage is not sonically conducive to having a bunch of noisy oiks thrashing around at 100dB. We could have booked a recording studio at a few hundred quid a day, but this is our first release so there’s no money in the band kitty to spend a couple of thousand pounds poncing about pretending to be rock stars and annoying a recording engineer by spouting drivel like “can you give me a couple of dB more guitar in my cans, please?”

So, Rule 1: everybody overdubs. Yes, you at the back, I can see your hand up. I’m aware that there appears to be a paradox in operation. Let me explain…

We demo every song we write. This means that as the song is being constructed, it’s being recorded. I don’t mean the ‘stick a cassette deck in the rehearsal room’ kind of recording; I mean recording each instrument onto a separate track of our digital recording software, using programmed drum parts just to make it sound more like a finished recording, doubling guitar parts for a more layered approach, adding vocal harmonies. In essence it’s a dry run for when we record a song for commercial release. But thanks to the power of audio recording software we can move sections around or drop the middle-eight in after we’ve worked out the ending. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that I’m apparently contradicting myself (see Our Process Needs More Process), but I’m talking here about the way we write the material, not how we record it for public consumption. I’m not bothered about cutting and pasting the chorus for subsequent choruses – the purpose of a demo is to give the rest of the guys something accomplished to listen to. And here we get to the ‘everyone overdubs’ bit – the demo also provides us with guide tracks to play along to when recording.

Drums are the trickiest thing the home-recordist usually has to capture (unless they’ve decided they just have to have a marching pipe band on a track!). The amount of ‘good’ microphones needed to record a drum kit can cost over a thousand pounds, plus there’s the problem of using a poor acoustic space to record in. Recording the drums in an  average living room doesn’t sound great – nor does a garage with carpet stuck all over the walls and ceiling. Thankfully, a friend of Rhayn’s and Vinden’s teaches audio engineering and happened to have a reasonably sound-proofed live room we could use, a Toft 32 track mixing desk (lots of money), and a fully featured Pro Tools HD rig (lots and lots of money). Viv Lock (for it was he) kindly agreed to record the drums and vocals for our EP, his commitments willing. I made ‘drum karaoke’ mixes for Vinden to play along to, complete with click tracks, and away he went. He got the drums for all four songs recorded in one session, we transferred the files onto an external hard drive to take away with us, and we were rolling.

jay.sankara


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