I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember and it has always been my dream to record professionally. In my youth (during the 80’s and early 90’s) I got pretty close – a few sessions on some demo recordings at local studios as a bass player, and later some rhythm guitar work with a Jazz combo and vocal group at a local University studio. My gear itself had been lent out occasionally for studio sessions to a few trusted friends and where I’d do some very light engineering work during the process (mostly acting as a grip pulling cables etc.). But most of my early years of recording experience and exposure came from the recording I was doing in my own primitive suburban home “studio” (from the age of 16 to about 20). I used a combination of cassette recorders and stereo VCR’s (audio only) to bounce tracks back and forth (using left and right channels as individual tracks) to create my own rough but exciting multitrack mixes of songs demos and covers. This mad scientist approach to recording was born out of necessity using the tools available to me and a lack of any real road map or how-to and was very basic and primitive.
As fun as it was (and I loved it) it was also incredibly slow and time consuming which weighed heavily on the spontaneity of the creative process when it came to recording. In fact so much of the creative process went into developing the recording techniques I used that there wasn’t much left for the development of the songs. It was pretty crazy and cumbersome, and I can still vividly remember taping up one side (a single R or L channel) of the recording head of my cassette player to protect a previously recorded track from being overwritten while I recorded on the other channel. Bouncing and layering tracks and takes this way was pretty cool – and I always had to keep track of what decks the various elements were recorded or played on, as there were subtle speed variations on all of them which would alter pitch and tempo if I got things mixed up. My experiences wiring the units into a household light dimmer proved unsuccessful as a master tape speed trim. I didn’t catch the house on fire, but the dimmer just wasn’t adjustable with enough precision to do the task. I yearned for something like a Tascam or Fostex portastudio but they were too expensive. By the time I could afford one myself I had already hit a brick wall with my music and life had moved on.
Getting Reacquainted with Music
I can’t explain it here – that’s a story for another article – but my hiatus from music lasted over 20 years. This hiatus included listening as well as playing. I had had brief moments of resurfacing – both in the late 90’s, and again in the early 2000’s where I dragged out my guitars and some of my music collection – but it wasn’t until a house move where my wife and I set up permanent roots in the city, did music make its way back into my life. It started with the process of selling my parent’s family home where I had originally had my old home studio.
My father had passed in 2000 when I was 30, and my mother, after living with the diagnosis of MS since the early 1960’s, lived in the home until around 2009 until she needed to go into long term care. My wife and I were tasked with taking care of my family’s lifetime of clutter and junk and preparing and dressing the family home for sale (which was an enormous task for those of you yet to find yourselves in this situation). As part of this dressing, and almost as an after-thought, we included a display of a few old vinyl record sleeves on a sideboard. They looked pretty cool all laid out there and my wife turned to me as asked the question “why don’t we play records?” Thankfully, the existential nature of the question could be avoided and I was free to answer with less exposition to address the obvious: “We don’t have a record player”. Fast forward about 12 months, the house was sold, my wife and I had moved into the city, and after a trip to Vancouver’s Lotusland (a used vintage stereo equipment place), we found ourselves walking out with an amazing used turntable and some vintage Altec Lansing stereo speakers. Once I set up my old vintage 70’s Sansui 6060 receiver and amplifier (inherited from my Grandfather – the old centerpiece of my original home studio) we had the ability to play vinyl – ergo music. There were no excuses now.
Playing my old vinyl was cool. This was stuff that I hadn’t spun since before 1984 when I got rid of my last turntable and had moved on to cassettes (and later CD’s). I had kept my records in pretty decent condition back in the day and they had been stored properly – mixed in with my parent’s old albums for all these years – so they were all good to go. There’s lots I could write about the experience of listening to those cherished albums again that would be fun to share. Dropping the needle onto Tom Sawyer and hearing that opening synth blast was literally a catapult back in time to the very first time I ever played that album. It was wicked giddy fun that was only surpassed in intensity by my wicked goofy grin. I could not stop smiling. We were now officially one of those couples who were spinning vinyl again. It wasn’t too long though before the idea of digitizing some of our vinyl came up. Not specifically for us as we were into the whole experience of the vinyl itself. It was for my mom.
We had inherited her old vinyl collection with the sale of the house (don’t get too excited) and we wanted to find a way for her to listen to her old albums at the care home as she suddenly had a real nostalgia for them. Cue up the Doris Day and Jim Nabors. Yes – I said Jim Nabors – and I promise you – I will write that article and articulate that pain – specifically being the child of parents who had come into their adulthood in the 60’s but somehow managed to miss the musical and cultural revolution that defined that decade. To paint that picture: My mom – in her late 20’s in the early 1970’s, and after having literally come of age in the 60’s – was buying Jim Nabors albums. Let me make that a little more clear. She was buying Jim Nabors albums when Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy were being released. If you can visualize that you can imagine the contents of the rest of my parent’s record collection. They were inexplicably the least hip couple of their generation. That was my pain (and my loss) growing up as their son – but I digress…
RIPPING vinyl to digital requires a couple things — a program and some hardware. I only had an old laptop with a stock soundcard built into the motherboard. To RIP properly at the resolution I wanted I’d need to address that first.
After a little research I found a great expresscard on Amazon that had promise – an Echo Indigo IOx. It turned out to be a great little card with awesome sound quality and build. After a little more reading I found lots of people recommending the program Audacity for vinyl RIPs. It was pretty simple and I’d encourage anyone interested in this to check out Audacity for RIPPING vinyl. It’s a great and powerful free program with tons of features that’s easy to use – perfect for RIPPING to FLAC or MP3 or .WAV or whatever your fancy. And I gotta say – My mom was stoked to get RIPs of her old vinyl records (literally unplayed by her for 35 years or more). Note to the kids out there: Wanna make your Grandma super happy? RIP some of her old records and load em up into an Ipod or burn them to CD’s for her to listen to – you’ll light her up like you’ve never seen her. Enough about that though as this article isn’t about Vinyl ripping – it’s about home studio recording. But at least you get a sense of the journey. This is how it came about.
Are You Ready to Rockman?
As part of moving into the city and cleaning out the family home I was able to gather all my old music gear, guitars, and instruments back with me under one roof for the first time since I left home as a young man in the very early 90’s. But that roof was not the suburban home I grew up in where I used to do all my playing and recording, it was an inner city condo with neighbours sharing walls both left and right, and top and bottom – so my amp had to stay in its road case. When I played I just noodled on some of my acoustics – no rocking out. I kept one at the ready in our living area and would pick it up as the mood struck me. After 16 years together, my wife showed enormous patience as she finally began to realize what being married to a musician really meant. She was great that way. But soon – after about 6 months of sporadic playing and enjoying the timbres of the acoustics while spoiling most of our evening TV watching together – it suddenly struck me as I was listening to an old Boston album: The Rockman!
I had an old X100 somewhere in a box and although I had never used it as a headphone amp back in the day (I used it as a pre-amp, or in my effects loops), that’s certainly what it was – probably the best headphone amp of it’s kind ever made. I pulled it out of a box, and one of my electrics immediately. Plugging into it after so many years and rocking out in my living room was sublime. I could suddenly play soaring leads without disturbing anyone. Why had this taken so long for me to work out? There’s an answer to that question – but it didn’t really matter. I had made the connection and had plugged in, and I was playing. There was a day where I just went crazy and got lost playing with it – the feelings and sounds of my youth coming back at me like a flash flood. It had been so long I hardly recognized my own playing. I held that little Rockman in my hands, marveling at its buttons and inputs. It was awesome. That’s when my eye came across the line out — “… line out? — recording out? — line in…? Eureka!”
Barriers to My Understanding
I had been thinking of building a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for years. As a gear head I always tried to buy the best of breed when I could and would usually forgo a purchase and go without rather than buy lessor products. It meant I had top gear – but not a lot of it. I had looked into home recording in the early and mid 2000’s and still had the impression that a proper DAW would be a substantial amount of money. My assumption was that I needed a monster computer, and several thousand dollars worth of interface hardware and software to even begin to entertain it. I kind of left the whole idea on the back burner so to speak as I didn’t really have the resources or priorities to allocate them in that direction. So on that fateful day that I held the Rockman in my hand, it really was a Eureka moment in the sense that I realized I could probably use that Rockman to record my guitar directly into my current PC with something like Audacity, just like I had RIP’d the vinyl for my mom. Could it be that simple? Of course the answer was absolutely — and then some. But that first revelation was a thunderbolt in that I hadn’t even been thinking about it. It was an emergent idea.
Proof of concept happened pretty fast — Rockman stereo out into my expresscard and into Audacity. Immediately I realized that only one channel was working on my Rockman. OK – no worries – I knew that anyway. Who needed stereo! Second — boy that Rockman was pretty noisy – no matter! At least it worked and Audacity seemed pretty cool. But I was having a few driver related issues with Audacity and wanted either something better or less of a hassle before I invested any more time navigating through its workflow. Remembering Cubase and Pro-tools as the big dogs, and checking out Reason and Ableton – all names I remembered from years before – I started researching the available DAWs. I quickly found reference to Reaper. Reaper had come up as an option when I was ripping vinyl – and it didn’t take much more research to realize that it would be a great product to demo as I tried to figure all this stuff out. This was partially owing to its very generous policy of offering unlimited demo use of the fully functioning product (with only a “nag” screen at startup to prompt a license purchase), and its low cost licensing scheme, but also the feature rich and continuous improvement development cycle that just inspired a lot of confidence. It made it very easy to download and try without fretting over the decision.
Downloading was easy and setting it up was quick – virtually plug and play. It recognized my soundcard and loaded the correct drivers and was basically good to go as soon as it opened. A little playing around and I figured out how to arm a track for recording and I was off. Knowing absolutely nothing in any formal sense, I plugged in and was able to cut multi-tracks of my guitar using the Rockman as my amp, and the soundcard as my interface into the computer. In twenty minutes I had a crude but rather awesome guitar army of multi-tracked leads dueling in harmony that sounded like trumpets from the heavens. (This is an exaggeration – they sounded like twenty 13 year olds having a guitar duel at a local Guitar Center). What I accomplished in twenty minutes of stumbling around on the PC would have taken me DAYS to do back in 1987. The process was so quick and so relatively painless that I immediately set to youtube to start surfing for tutorials. Youtube is the place to go for this stuff for sure. You need good google-fu seach sense so you can find what you need within its almost unlimited offerings, but with some patience and discrimination you should make out just fine. It’s all there.
Mission: Start A Project
One of the best ways to learn for me is to do an actual project – learning through process and the necessity of getting through that process being the thing that drives the learning. The next step was obvious. I had to record a song.
Without getting into the technical details of recording (we will in later articles) I knew that recording a song would be the best way for me to learn but that it would be easier if I had a drum track of some kind as a guide or template. Having heard some isolated vocal and instrument tracks on youtube, I knew such things existed. A little reading and digging around brought me to the video game Rockband. Apparently Rockband sound files had multi-tracks imbedded within them and they could be imported into certain DAWs (like Reaper) provided you owned or had access to the files. In Rockband, these special files are called .mogg files. As to whether or not licensing allowed users to pull these files apart wasn’t all that clear to me, but armed with the idea that I would make sure everything I did was documented for use as a tutorial – ie, for educational purposes – that I could do some of this stuff under the liberally applied “Fair Use” clause. So I started searching the web. At some point I stumbled onto a page of Rockband files in the deep web that some guy had posted up on an obscure page – but just bands starting with theletter “W”. There were songs by The Who, and Weezer – and somewhere in the middle were some Paul McCartney and “Wings” files that looked promising. Particularly interesting to me was Wings’ Let Me Roll It. I knew that song. I played it back in the day, and remembered it to have fairly simple instrumentation. It was just what I needed (plus I owned Band on The Run and Wings’ Greatest and figured I had already paid Sir Paul for this one.) I DL’ed the .mogg and immediately dragged it into Reaper. My jaw dropped as Reaper opened the .mogg file and imported it as 11 multi track mono .wav files. It took about 10 seconds and there it was.
I spent hours just clicking through the various tracks and listening to the isolated vocals, drums, keyboards and guitars. I couldn’t believe I could do what I was doing. It was almost as if I was inside the mixing studio with the master tapes myself. And even though I hadn’t set the timebase yet or really had any knowledge of how to move forward within the workflow of recording with Reaper, I was able to mute all but the drum tracks and begin the process of recording my own tracks to replace the original Wings tracks (with the bonus of having them there to guide me at the click of a mouse) almost immediately.
Of course I hadn’t really played in 25 years and my hands were like claws from an injury sustained all those years ago when I had to drop music while in the midst of pursuing a professional musical career… So just how or what I was going to do was a little more complicated than cutting some tracks. But that story will unfold in future articles. This was just the beginning. The thing to know was I could see a glimmer of light at the end of a very long dark tunnel – one that had been pitch black for almost 25 years. That light was called home recording.