Exploring A New Wilderness

When I first started dabbling in recorded media a few years ago, I was under the assumption that there is only one right “sound” for a recorded project and the recording engineer knows what that sound is. Further, said divine knowledge makes them able to magically produce a professional recorded sound that I could never reproduce on my own.

But then I was encouraged by a friend to really listen to recordings. There are many, many different sound aesthetics out there… how far out the vocals are from the rest of the mix, the way the vocals are processed,  the way the piano is recorded, the shape of the overall sound, etc. So my perception of the recording process has evolved. I am now under the assumption that there are a number of right ways to do it and the recording engineer knows what at least some of them are and probably has a bias toward a particular sound that he/she likes. Further, said divine knowledge still makes them able to produce a professional recorded sound that I am yet unable to produce on my own. But maybe I can eventually learn.

So I’ve made some steps to try to be a little more self sufficient in the recording process. Maybe it will lead to me being able to create a decent mix that can be mastered by a second, educated set of ears. Or maybe I’m destined to post weird sounding recordings to Soundcloud for the rest of my life. Either way, much like when I cluelessly explore remote areas of NM without a compass, I’ll have a good time.

wilderness

A wilderness of a different kind

I find the tracking process interesting- like composing or orchestrating in real time. When I write a song, it is purely melody with piano or guitar accompaniment. Sometimes the song works best just like that, and everything that I write (that maintains my interest) seems to work well in this stripped down form. But exploring what can bring the song up to its full potential, be it a bass line, backing vocals, or an additional instrument, is really a fascinating birthing process. In this modern age, one can purchase some software like Pro Tools or Logic, invest in a decent audio interface and some good mics, hook them all up and be entertained for hours.

But one also needs to learn a new language. Words like “Gate,” “Gain,” “Limiting,” and “Compression” all take on new meaning. I haven’t even come close to figuring it all out yet, but since I listen for a living I should be able learn to mix over time. Then there’s the room. This is the problem I’m having at present. And, when one is on a budget (because you’ve invested in a decent interface and mics) it’s tough to figure out how to make the room less present on the recording without spending a fortune on treatments. “Hey, on the recording my Martin sounds like an overgrown car stereo playing Snoop Dog. How do I fix that? Oh, I need to buy bass traps? Can I  just stick a few pillows in a corner? No? How about my 15 pound cat? She’s pretty thick.” In the end, attention has to be paid to all elements to get a good recording, so I foresee a few bass traps and wall panels in my future.

I suppose the sane question to ask would be, “why bother?” I certainly don’t expect to become a professional recording artist, but the recent selection of “Beulah Land” for play on Women of Substance Radio has shown me that these songs do deserve to be out in the world, feeding people, making an impact, or just having a margarita with some new friends (we all want the best for our children, don’t we?)

The DIY thing is very appealing and fun, but I am interested to see exactly where it will go. Can one really be singer, songwriter, arranger, engineer, mixer, even producer and make something stand up to industry standards? How much do we do ourselves with research, trial and error, and raw talent before we call in the professionals to master the sucker? I think a musician is always thinking about how he/she will share the music produced, and if it is to be formally released and sold, I do feel like we have a responsibility to make it a good product. At the very least, some really decent demos could make any future recording studio process infinitely more efficient.

So this is where I am now: just beginning to learn all the basics of making a respectable recording and wondering when to give up and call in the pros. Here’s a snippet of “Stand,” an unfinished recording of a song I wrote last summer, with some extra vocal layers, a little bass, and one little acoustic guitar that occasionally sounds like it’s been sipping on gin and juice.

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