"Home Electro-Musician without a Home"
Steve Howell's article in the November issue of E&MM
is both encouraging and realistic, a rare combination. The information it contains will contribute a great deal, I am sure, to the matching of home recording techniques with serious musicians, something from which we can all potentially benefit. His emphasis on affordability and simplicity highlights the availability of this rewarding medium and reaffirms the central position creativity, I feel, must assume. Setting up a home recording studio is never a cheap or simple thing to do, but it is a cheaper and simpler undertaking when you have access to good advice.
The affordability of any home recording system will depend largely upon the cost effectiveness of each of its individual components, which is inextricably linked to their sound and versatility. A preference for versatile instruments and effects can go a long way towards avoiding the annoying and expensive duplication of functions. In addition, noise generated unnecessarily by duplicated effects will only further defeat the noise-reducing purposes or quality recording equipment. A principle factor in the design of a home recording system, then, is the rather careful and candid look you must take at what you already own: buying or building equipment of quality well in excess of what you already own is simply throwing good money after bad.
Home recording systems can be viewed essentially as a series of compromises between needs and means; while my system is no exception, my particular needs were rather unique to say the least. Size is ordinarily not much of a consideration in the design of a system, but in my case, it was of principal importance. My father had recently retired, and our family had made arrangements to move onto a purpose-built thirty-five foot yacht. As I was planning to spend a couple of years on the boat after graduating, I was faced with the rather difficult task of designing a home recording studio that would fit into an area the size of an average loo. Clearly, some compromises were in order. Versatility, therefore, was a primary consideration.
I chose the TEAC A-2340 simul-sync 4-track reel-to-reel tape deck as the heart of my system because of its flexibility and affordability. While TEAC offered the higher quality 3340 tape deck with a greater signal-to-noise ratio (due to an increased tape speed of 15 inches/second), I chose the A-2340 for its lower initial cost and tape economy, and have never regretted it. This deck has a multi-track capacity that enables me to record six relatively clean synchronised tracks. The simul-sync function allows the musician to monitor earlier tracks while recording later accompanying tracks, eliminating much of the guesswork systems.
My recording technique is thus very simple. I merely record three backing or rhythm tracks using the simul-sync function so that they are all synchronised, mix those three tracks down onto the fourth track, and then record three more tracks over the first three tracks, yielding a total of six clean tracks. I also have a stereo cassette deck that can increase this total to twelve tracks, but I find multi-generation recording utilising this technique too noisy without additional noise-reduction equipment.
A limiting characteristic of 4-track recorders is that separation amongst the various tracks is lost if too many tracks are involved. Clean recordings of more than six or eight tracks is usually limited to more complex systems and studios. Because the tonal qualities of the various tracks are seldom balanced, I use a ten band stereo graphic equaliser to make subtle tonal adjustments to the composite output.
The monitor consists of a rather modest low wattage stereo receiver coupled with the greatest space-saving components of the system, Visonic 'David' loudspeakers that each measure no more than 6" x 4" x 4". Realising that living on a boat I would only need low volume levels, I chose a low wattage monitor and could then afford to pay attention to the efficiency and accuracy of the playback system. All of these components were fitted into a plywood console which was itself then secured to the deck beams, and stringers via eye bolts and heavy nylon line. Having travelled over 5,000 miles, the system has certainly proven its dependability. While it may not be the best home recording system, it certainly is one of the best travelled. The system even had the unique ability to record at sea, utilising a voltage inverter that modified the ships 12 volt DC to AC.
The limitations of space did, however, force some regrettable compromises. Although my principal instrument is the drums, I received nothing but sour looks when I brought up the issue of bringing the drums on board. Instead, I opted for the percussive effects I could produce on the top and sides of my classical guitar. Because of the rather unique demands of the enclosed environment of the boat (you could hear the pages of a book being turned at the opposite end of the boat), I chose the Frap guitar transducer over a microphone because the Frap proved quieter with less of a tendency to pick up stray noises. While direct transducers take some getting used to, their predictability over microphones more than offsets the initial bother, given the limited space available (and by this time, limited funds), I chose not to buy an electric guitar, but instead to build and buy my way out of the prospect of owning two guitars. Through the rather judicious use of compression and equalisation, I have managed to produce a satisfactory substitute for electric guitar with a sizeable saving of funds, space and the frustration of tuning two, stringed instruments.
I also use a three octave polyphonic string synthesiser offered by the American company PAiA in either kit or assembled form. I, of course, chose the kit form and halved the cost of the unit. Perhaps the most versatile of the systems components, it offers violin, cello, organ and piano voicings with the option of computer control. Keeping the number of active components and effects to a minimum, I found I was able to produce tolerable multi-track recordings, even in Havana!
As a postgraduate philosophy student at a British university, the system has accompanied me and has enabled me to continue work on a musical I began three years ago. Without the unusual and vigorous demands of the boating environment, it is doubtful I would have developed a home recording system versatile and mobile enough to accompany me on my studies in the U.K.
If there is any lesson in this story it is that with a little bit of ingenuity and some good advice practically anything is possible in home recording studios. I was particularly lucky that only weeks before I made my decisions concerning which components to buy, I came across two very helpful books by an American author, Craig Anderton; 'Electronic Projects for Musicians' and 'Home Recording for the Musician' were responsible more than anything else for my rather fortunate and timely education.
'Electronic projects for musicians' takes musicians with only marginal experience with electronics through the basics of electronics and project construction including schematics for some useful projects like compressors and state-variable filters. 'Home Recording for the Musician' (reviewed in the December issue of E&MM), is a comprehensive survey of home recording techniques and is an invaluable aid for anyone setting up their own recording studio. Both publications are available from PAiA Electronics, (Contact Details)
In conclusion, although small in size the versatility of my home recording system is ideally suited to the compositional style I have been trying to develop. The classical guitar enables me to generate the acoustic sounds that are central to my compositions while the effects allow me to modify and develop upon the basic notes and progressions. The synthesiser offers an additional compositional format which inevitably broadens the stylistic base of my music. With an emphasis on syncopated acoustic progressions, my system and style is a good example of the matching of electronics and traditional (acoustical) musical techniques. But as Howell wisely notes, it is all too easy to become ensnarled in the trappings of equipment and effects, to lose one's creative way in the language and artifacts of electronics.
Creativity, even more than talent, is the defining characteristic of the successful electro-musician. You cannot buy a creative way out of the problems musical composition and style present, but then, no serious musician would want to do so.