In 2000 when we first started thinking about recording our music, we realized we would need to do it ourselves and at home, because when anyone else was around we got uptight, played it safe, and our music lost its magic.
( Performance )
However back then we knew absolutely nothing about recording. We didn’t know the difference between a condenser and a dynamic microphone, we didn’t know what a “sound card” was, we’d never used a mixer, and we’d never even seen a sound file, let alone tried to edit one. Only recently returned from our sweet neo-ancient life in Varanasi, we were still more comfortable with charcoal and candles than with electrons. ( Doing Music Differently )
Even worse, when we started to shop for gear with which to record our first CD, “huhnandhuhn”, we soon discovered we would not be able to afford equipment that was even close to “professional” quality, that we would need to make do with a setup which would never satisfy a serious recording engineer.
But we proceeded anyway, and in the end produced a surprisingly clean and lovely first CD. Of course in line with our general preference for figuring out things by ourselves, to do this we didn’t first enroll in a recording course or read any how-to-record books, instead we just took our time, were very careful, let the process speak to us, and tried very hard.
( Unspecialized )
Our Basic Kit for huhnandhuhn and Sweet Heresy
When we bought our equipment we were living in a tiny rented trailer, and so needed a computer quiet enough to be running right next to where we were playing. This meant we couldn’t go for the cheapest one that worked and instead ended up getting a somewhat expensive but almost silent, “Stealth” computer from ARM systems.
However since we were counting our pennies, we settled for a midrange consumer grade sound card, a Sound Blaster Platinum Live 5.1 which didn’t do as good a job of digitalizing as some current onboard sound, but which was the best we could afford.
For our mixer, we chose a Mackie with 6 preamplified channels, a dependable but less than exalted machine more often used for mixing loud live performances than for recording soft music. In the same spirit of frugality we bought Shure SM57 dynamic and AKG C-2000 condenser microphones that were far from top of the line models.
While for software, we used the light version of Steinberg’s WaveLab, a program that just happened to come bundled with our sound card.
These were all decisions that just kind of happened. A little advice from here and there, some poking around a bunch of sites looking for information, a choice, and finally a quick purchase on the web….
So probably it was fortunate that back then we didn’t understand by making these decisions the way we made them, we were locking ourselves into a primitive digital recording style involving just 2 channels, “left” and “right”. Indeed like much of what we’ve done it was pretty much a “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kind of operation, but as has so often happened it worked out for us, and in the end using this limited ( but carefully chosen ) equipment, we made not one but 2 lovely CDs.
Because it turned out four years later when we wanted to record a second CD we had even less money and no choice but to do it with this identical kit. Still we were very pleased that though we were working with exactly the same equipment, by being cleverer with microphone placement and our mixer settings, we were able to record files for Sweet Heresy with less noise, more ring, and a richer sound than anything we’d managed to get down for huhnandhuhn.
Our New Recording Setup
Not until early in 2009 did we get around to upgrading our recording setup. We were poorer than ever and our translation business was crashing for the first time ( Doing Music Differently ), but we figured if we were going to be broke, we wanted it to be with more up-to-date equipment, we wanted to finally be in a position to explore true multi-track recording and to experiment with overdubbing.
Thanks to this, Work In Progress was recorded with a much more sophisticated and powerful kit set up in what we refer to as our “recording shrine”.
The cubby holes at the bottom are for microphones and their cables, the three units in the middle compartment are M-audio dual mike preamps, the silver thing in the top is an Echo Audiofire 8-channel digitalizer, the hanging headphones are Koss PortaPros, while the firewire cable running up the wall goes over the door and into the next room where it’s connected to our new quad core computer.
Our dear old Stealth computer died when we were between CDs, and since at that point we were still living in a place where if we’d recorded it would have been in the same room as our computer, we replaced it with a lovely new one which was both quieter and more powerful. This turned out to be a smart move because every bit of that extra power was necessary for proper multitrack recording. And though now our computer and instruments are in different rooms and with hindsight we could have saved some bucks and gone with an off the shelf model, as noise nuts we can’t imagine co-existing with a normal loud computer. Since the company which built our Stealth computer no longer existed we crossed our fingers and bought our new beast from “End PC Noise”. And once more we lucked out as right from the beginning their machine has done everything we’ve asked of it, while the company’s continued stellar support shows they’re proud of and ready to stand behind their products.
Considering the quality of the sound we’ve recorded with it, the whole setup was remarkably cheap ( about $1,200 not counting the microphones we already owned, and the new computer we had to purchase anyway to continue doing the translation work which was paying our bills. )
The M-audios are far superior to anything we’ve used before. Compared to the pre-amps built into our old Mackie mixer, they give 15 db more amplification and introduce very little noise until they’re cranked way up. In fact connected to them our old microphones sound like entirely different critters. So though the AKG C-2000 condenser mikes still need to be positioned close to our soft sounding instruments and still produce hiss, they now generate a larger cleaner signal, and as for their hiss, well we’ve learned to edit it out. While connected to the M-audios our Shure SM-57 dynamic microphones, a classic design intended for singers trained to produce lots of volume, are finally sufficiently sensitive to record our small non performer voices. ( Performance )
The Echo for its part does a squeaky clean job of digitalizing. True the preamps built into it for its 2 front microphone inputs don’t match the quality of the M-audios, but we just use the six line-in inputs on the back of the unit. These are connected with patch cords to the M-audios, and since we don’t expect to ever play more than two instruments at a time or to use more than 2 mikes on an instrument, even with 2 added vocal tracks, these six inputs should be enough. Beyond this, if one wanted to be picky one could complain the headphone amp built into the Echo machine is a bit weak, but it’s good enough for our purposes, and in any case what really counts is the quality of the digitalizing, and that seems to be impeccable.
It took us a while to realize all digitalizers are not created equal. Like many others we were hypnotized by the “digital sound is noiseless” mantra heard so often back when digital recording was new. We didn’t understand even digitalizers which don’t introduce extraneous hiss may still do a terrible job of converting analogue sound signals into digital information. That is they may still miss the highs and lows, mush sounds together, and in general produce an inaccurate distorted image of the sound.
Since the digitalizer ( or sound card ) is also responsible for converting digital into analogue audio signals, this is another place where poor quality ( i.e. cheap ) equipment often does a terrible job. That’s why inexpensive players usually produce thin sound. It’s also why it’s silly to waste money by choosing a particular brand of cheap self-amplified speakers because it offers a SPDIF input. Used this way their built in “sound card” does the conversion to analogue, and since there’s no way a maker of cheap speakers can afford to include a proper sound card, such units inevitably produce hissy low quality sound even when handling very clean digital signals.
In any case, we were absolutely blown away when we started using our Echo and discovered its sound was light years better than that from our old sound blaster.
While the PortaPros are amazing for being so small and cheap. They have ample bass, only rarely do they buzz, and they’re so light we forget we’re wearing them. Plus since they’re open, with them on we can still hear each other talk. And they come with a lifetime guarantee. If one breaks just send it back with six bucks, and Koss will ship you a replacement. By the way, all this praise is for the classic model of these lovely Star Trek era phones. Koss now sells a new “improved” version of the PortaPros which we’ve yet to try, though we must confess looking at its specs we worry that like so many “upgrades”, this one may have sacrificed basic quality for bells and whistles…..
We also have a pair of M-Audio AV-40 speakers which put out remarkably rich and accurate sound considering they’re small ( 14 lbs. for the pair ) self amplified units. From them quarter inch cables snake down the hallway to the music room and connect directly to the line out jacks of our Echo. They’re our reference speakers which we listen through to make final decisions about our sound files. If our music sounds OK with the AV-40’s, we know even demanding audiophiles will be satisfied with its quality.
However since we know many people will listen to our stuff through less exalted or laptop speakers, we also check how the music sounds through a pair of cheap self amplified speakers we had with us while living in India during the ’90’s.
( The Indian Music Scene )
These were pretty terrible when we first bought them, and after a decade of killer wet heat and dust in India and then another decade of cold damp back here in storage, they’re truly bottom of the line. But this of course is what makes them useful, since if we’ve engineered our music ( by doing things like fiddling with high and low pass and reducing unnecessarily high peaks ) so it sounds acceptable through them, we know it will be ok even for people listening through low end speakers. Then we know even marginal speakers won’t buzz too badly, though of course they’ll still fail to reproduce all the rich lows and clear highs which are actually in our files.
Anyway, our new kit has also finally allowed us to realize our old dream of being able to always play amplified. Now there’s no longer any need before we start to fiddle with endless knobs and sliders. We just put out our instruments and mikes, turn on the M-audio’s and Echo, open Tracktion, click on the appropriate project file, don our headphones, and we’re ready to go.
It’s downright magical and for most combinations of our instruments the whole process takes less than 10 minutes. If our settings are not quite perfect and we’re recording, well we can always adjust them after the fact, but more often we’re just playing for our own pleasure and then they need only be good enough for us to hear and enjoy the sounds we’re producing.
So we’ve been delighted to discover that this always being able to play amplified turns out to be just as big a deal as we’d imagined.
For example one important reason we built a second quartertone kalimba
( Kalimba Family ) was our hunch that two of them played together would generate interesting music.
But before we could play them amplified boxus quartus was just too loud for boardus quartus. Now with a few simple adjustments they fit perfectly. Plus when power is added to the musically important between note ring the sound becomes more enveloping, even as it becomes easier to hear it’s two very different instruments which are being played together.
More generally and from the point of view of putting out the best possible CD, since our recorded final product is by definition amplified it makes sense to do all of our “practicing” amplified. That gives us a chance to experiment with and learn to use the actual sounds which will be on the finished product. ( Practice )
Editing and Engineering
Since when we purchased our lovely Echo digitalizer we knew very little about music software, we were happy to take a hint from the gods and just start recording with “Tracktion”, the program which came bundled with it.
But now after using Tracktion for better than 3 years we’re in a position to say it’s more than good enough to do the job. Sure some folks with infinite money may sneer at it for being somehow less than “professional”, but we’ve been blown away by its power and delighted by its easy to use intuitive interface.
This confirms what we read in reviews which were uniformly enthusiastic about Tracktion’s basic sound quality ( its “recording engine”? ), though one did note Tracktion gave users less control than “Pro-Tools”. However being able to play fewer tricks with our sound doesn’t bother us, and of course compared to our prehistoric light version of WaveLab, Tracktion is rocket powered.
Unfortunately Tracktion is no longer being supported or sold. But we’re pretty sure they’re still other “Tracktions” out there, that is other cheap or free programs which do as good a job of basic recording as the more expensive options currently enshrined as recording industry standards. To us these over-hyped mainstream programs like Pro-Tools smell like gear for people with more money than brains.
Not to mention that our one personal encounter with Pro-Tools left us very unimpressed. We know many folks swear by it, and that the soundologists are unanimous about teaching it in their classes, but the master made with it from our Sweet Heresy wave files was so piss poor we had to have it redone by a local studio. ( See the “Mastering section at the bottom of Doing Music Differently. )
Of course it’s quite possible the mastering problem was with the person using Pro-Tools not with the program itself, but if so this only further reinforces our impression that in sound recording the limiting factor is more often the ears, skills, and/or judgment of the engineer, than the inadequacy of his equipment and software.
For us one of the exciting and useful things about Tracktion has been all its editing operations are done by applying “filters”. Even basic things like deletions, volume adjustments, pan, and equalization are treated as filters. Thanks to this every editing operation is non-destructive, which means no matter what’s done the original recorded signal stays the same ( though of course as one edits, what one hears does change ). So right up to when we convert our Tracktion files to audio files, we can push the virtual sliders around without fear of doing any irreversible damage. And even after rendering our work into an audio file, if we don’t like what we hear we can go back to the Tracktion file and resume editing.
This is perfect for ignorant folks like us, since though often we don’t quite understand what a filter does, we can still take a trial and error approach to using it and make changes based on the way they sound.
Furthermore Tracktion has given us more choices about where and what we can cut when we’re carving a long file into one of our much shorter finished pieces. With WaveLab Lite every such deletion had to start and end in a silence between two sounds, since if we tried to make a cut in the middle of a continuous sound it always introduced a pop. This was a pretty severe limitation, but fortunately we managed to find enough of these gaps to get the job done and produce our first two CDs. But what we didn’t understand was this simple minded approach worked only because of the peculiar shape and slowness of our music, only because it unfolds as “sound islands” separated by silences ( Slow, Low, and Varied ).
So when we started using Tracktion to edit Work In Progress, we were pleased to find we could make cuts almost anywhere. If artistic considerations suggested a cut should be made in the middle of a continuous sound but this introduced a pop, we could almost always eliminate it by fading in and out for a few hundredths of a second. Such a short interruption is virtually impossible to hear, especially if it’s covered by stuff going on at the same time in another track. Note we’ve chosen to illustrate this method of pop control with a screen grab where the sound signal is plainly visible on both sides of the microfades, but in reality the situation was not always so straight forward. For one thing, in our music there’s important after-note ring which usually continues way past where it’s visible in the file, but cuts made in this invisible sound will still produce a pop. Also without the help of some covering sound, when the ring differs greatly on the two sides of a cut this may be still be audible even after any pop has been eliminated. Of course in most music this would present no problem since there’s usually stuff going on in every track. But since we’ve done our best to avoid ornamentation and gone for a kind of powerful rich simplicity, in our music there’s no place to hide and our files must be super clean or both editing artifacts and playing mistakes will be brutally obvious.
Tracktion also gave us tools for taming explosive sounds ( sounds starting with an attack so loud and sudden that it distorts ) which previously we’d had no choice but to delete. We first put the problem sound into a separate clip so we can fade in its nose, and then if that isn’t enough we add high or low pass filters to the clip. These same high and low pass filters also turned out to be invaluable in dealing with sections which were too boomy. In fact in general we’ve found high and low pass filters much more useful than equalizers since they do a better job of what we want them to do while making less change in the overall nature of the sound. Of course it’s quite possible the equalizers would work nicely if we understood more about them and knew more about the frequency distributions of our problem sounds. But we don’t, so rather than wasting time fiddling with equalizers, we just go with the high and low pass filters.
Finger noises we’ve discovered can be treated the same way as initial explosive sounds. So just before the start of the noise we split the clip and then fade it in right up to the nose of the actual note. Breathing noises are even easier to deal with since in a vocal track it’s permissible to have absolute quiet between the sung words, and so we can just silence all of our huffing and puffing. However some lip noises present more of a problem. Those that occur before or after words can like breath noises be silenced, but others are inconsiderate enough to occur right in the middle of a word. For these guys we’ve yet to find a magic bullet, but usually with enough sweat and a combination of very short silences and clever fades, we can at least make them less audible.
Of course all of these editing moves are easier and quicker to describe than to do. Even something as straightforward as splitting a clip takes a few seconds, so when there are long sections where every note must for editing purposes be put into a separate clip, and when the sad fact is it often takes several tries to get a split in just the right place, these seconds start adding up. Similarly saying “fade it in” is very easy, but in reality it often takes quite a bit of fussing to make a fade the correct length and shape. And when there are a thousand fades in a single piece, here too the seconds start adding up…..
But discovering one more time that doing something good requires a shitload of work doesn’t really surprise us. Rather it supports our Neo-Confucian belief that if you’re not willing to work hard, you shouldn’t expect to get much done. Indeed we’ve never once seen a “quick” and “effortless” approach result in anything worthwhile. It may look like the smart way to do something, but then it always leads to a dead end. As a beaten up Zen friend once said to us, “the easy way turns out to be the hard way.”
For example when we were cleaning up hiss we checked out d-essers, gates, and other filters that claimed to do the job with just a few simple clicks. But ultimately we were able to eliminate more hiss by instead going with our own labor intensive version of a gate filter. This involved putting each note of a hissy section into separate clips which we then either faded out with an appropriate curve or silenced. At first we were a little worried about this procedure since some of the lovely between-note ring which provides body for and adds magic to our music, was in these clips we faded out. But fortunately most of the hiss came from our cheap condenser mike, so we could usually leave untouched the ring rich tracks recorded with dynamic microphones. Also it turned out reducing the hiss improved the ring’s signal/noise ratio, so even though its absolute volume must have decreased, that which remained became more clearly audible and powerful.
Here as in much of our editing, it was obviously sensible and even essential to pay careful attention to psycho-acoustic factors…..
Now tricks like these must be routine for an experienced sound engineer, but we’re grateful we didn’t learn them as part of a course in recording. Because since we figured them out ourselves we ended up doing them our own way, and our editing became yet another reason ( like our playing only one-of-a-kind self made instruments ) our music is so profoundly different.
By the way, not only have we right from the start done all of our own editing, for Work In Progress we even made our own master. We took this step after realizing that thanks to Tracktion and our new equipment we’d already done a fully professional job of balancing and polishing our files. There was no need to hire some professional to tidy up our fades and adjust our levels. Indeed after working so hard to get everything just the way we wanted it, the last thing we wanted was to have some burned out Mastering Engineer change things to fit his limited vision of what music should be.
Of course like all of our insights, this one didn’t come quickly or easily. Rather it involved weeks of frustration, anger and sweat. ( If you’re interested there’s quite a bit more about this particular struggle in the Mastering section at the bottom of Doing Music Differently. )
At this point our far from top of the line Shure SM57 dynamic and AKG C-2000 condenser microphones are probably the weakest links in our recording system. When we bought them back in 2001, they were the best we could afford and more or less matched the quality of the rest of our equipment, but since then we’ve upgraded everything else…..
Indeed with hindsight maybe we should have replaced at least the AKGs before recording Work In Progress, but we were still counting our pennies ( Doing Music Differently ). In any case the nasty hiss they introduced into many of our files turned out to be another disguised blessing, since in the process of figuring out how to remove this hiss we also learned to deal with refrigerator, wind, and other continuous noises.
Still this learning process was painful and time consuming, and when our finances have improved we’re very much looking forward to better condenser microphones. Hopefully this would allow us to add additional tracks to our recorded files ( since hiss is cumulative ) and to produce clean finished music without spending quite so much time sweating in front of our computers.
We’ve been very satisfied with the M-Audio products we already own ( dual microphone preamps and AV-40 self amplified speakers ) and probably would start by buying one of their mid-range condenser mikes
As for the Shures, they’re classic dynamic microphones which are so good they’ve remained unchanged for decades, but for us they’re less than ideal having been designed for performers who produce lots of volume. ( Performance )
Still we made them work for our vocals by learning to sing with our lips almost brushing their tips, since then proximity effect gave us enough volume even though our voices are small. Of course there’s a downside to everything and using them this way meant we also ended up recording far too many breath and lip noises. But the breath noises were easy to remove because they usually came either before or after words and because it’s acceptable in a vocal track to have complete silence when nothing is being sung. Lip noises were tougher since they often came in the middle of words and so couldn’t simply be deleted. However if we were willing to fuss long enough, with Tracktion’s help we could always make them less audible.
Though recording our small voices has been a challenge, their relaxed intimate tone suits both our music and the message of our songs. Belting out words expressing sadness about and disappointment with our leftover past doesn’t feel like it would be quite appropriate. ( Dark Clouds and Hand and Hand )
We faced the same volume issue when we first tried using our Shures to record our very quiet instruments. Even if we positioned them as close as they could go without distorting, still they didn’t produce enough signal.
So as an experiment we tried using two big rubber bands to tie a Shure to the neck of one of our Bowus Family instruments, and bingo！ Suddenly we had a much bigger sound！
Soon we found laying dynamic microphones directly on top of our Kalimba Family instruments resulted in the same sort of improvement
Of course this made good sense once we realized placing our dynamic mikes in direct contact with our instruments had in effect turned them into cost effective high quality pickups！
Subsequently since the Shures are very directional mikes we managed to further improve their performance by putting their heads instead of their sides in contact with our instruments. ( Microphone Placement )
But even used this way the Shures by themselves still didn’t do a good enough job of recording our instruments. So we started double miking each instrument with one Shure and one AKG and this immediately gave us the richer bigger sound we were after.
What seemed to be happening was that our dynamic microphones were doing a good job of picking up the ring and other subtle resonance of our instruments, while our condenser microphones were better at catching the initial attack and shape of the sounds. Used together the two types gave us more accuracy, a rounder tone, and sufficient volume.
Recording Our Three CDs
When we began recording “Huhnandhuhn”, our first CD, we were far from sure we had a CD’s worth of music in us. Also as we’ve written at the top of this page, the depth of our ignorance about the recording process was truly staggering.
So it’s not surprising for many months we were frustrated and dissatisfied with everything we got down. Indeed the whole endeavor felt so dauntingly difficult we took to thinking of it as a magical quest, as something we described to ourselves as “catching a unicorn”.
It seemed obvious just having our microphones properly positioned and our mixer settings correct was not nearly enough. Clearly we would also need help from whoever it was upstairs who was writing the script…..
For hundreds of years people have known that the only way to catch a unicorn is to station a beautiful maiden in a flowerfull meadow until a unicorn comes and voluntarily puts its head in her lap.
So we were ecstatic when after about 3 months we finally started catching occasional glimpses of the mythical beast, that is we started recording music good enough to play for sympathetic supportive friends.
But by then we were badly burned out. Fortunately it needed only a 5 week break before we were able to resume work with fresh energy and in the next 8 sessions record 8 of the 9 cuts for our first CD.
Four years later putting together Sweet Heresy turned out to be a much less traumatic experience, and after a few months we found ourselves recording music more finished sounding than anything we’d gotten down for Huhnandhuhn.
In part this must have been because it was our second CD and we were less terrified by the whole recording process. But also between having three new monster instruments to play ( Our Instruments ), and having had four more years of making music together, our music had grown. Plus it must have helped we’d learned to avoid playing stuff which sounded just fine live, but not so good recorded. ( Performance )
For all of these reasons, for Sweet Heresy we eventually rounded up a whole herd of unicorns, or to say this another way, despite its limitations to us the whole CD still sounds like one big magical beast.
However one more time the official gatekeepers of the music world managed to ignore us, so we sold very few CDs and soon had to put music aside to devote all of our energy to paying the bills.
It was not until 2009 that we could fire up our new equipment and take the first steps towards Work In Progress. Our situation was still far from ideal, we were off scale anxious about our finances, and often recording sessions had to be squeezed in between Japanese to English translation jobs. Still right from the beginning the music we got down was technically and aesthetically light years ahead of our earlier stuff. Clearly the often painful detour through translation had been fruitful. Not only had it turned us into stronger bigger humans capable of playing deeper more powerful music, it also had given us the computer chops necessary to get the most out of our new equipment and Tracktion. ( Doing Music Differently )
We’re really curious about what our music will be like once we’ve made it, once we’re no longer worried about paying the rent, once we’ve built a few more instruments, and once the nasty work of chucking our old friends is so far behind us we can start remembering the sweetness of our past.
In the end the sound we recorded for Work In Progress turned out to be as clean, rich, and balanced as that on the very best studio produced CD. Working as “amateurs” we’d turned out an absolutely professional job of recording, and we’d done it without spending megabucks. ( Unspecialized )
Of course it cost us more than 1,000 hours of sweating at our computers…..