Multitracking On The Cheap
A flexible home studio set up explored.
Curtis Schwartz explains the cheapest ways to set up and achieve fine results on a home/room based studio.
For better or for worse, it is no longer sufficient to present one's musical ideas in their barest forms — either acoustic guitar and voice, or perhaps a recording of the band from a Walkman or similar tape recorder. A certain level of sophistication is expected (not only by record company A&R departments, but also by anyone else whom you might wish to impress), below which demos will be dismissed as being 'ordinary', 'unprofessional', or 'uncommercial'.
This is a very sobering thought for all those budding songwriters who have just formed a band or started picking out tunes on their newly acquired SH101. However, raising some cash amongst the band members and going into a sixteen-track studio for a few days is not the only means of putting your songs onto tape with a 'produced' sound...
Firstly, we must establish the kind of figures we are talking about when under the heading of 'Cheap'. I will therefore aim this article at the persons for whom five days in a sixteen or twenty-four track studio would be financially difficult, and inevitably a disappointment because they would not, through inexperience, produce a recording any better than what they might be able to produce in an environment where re-doing the vocals would not be costing £10 to £20 an hour — namely in a home studio.
One would anticipate spending upwards of £600 for five days of studio time, not an impossible amount of money to raise among a group of perhaps four or five persons.
However, such an investment (for 'first-timers') would be better spent on some multitracking equipment for home, where production ideas could be developed and experimented with, and where the vocalist would not be nervous, the guitarist could happily spend a couple of hours over a solo to finally realise that his/her first takes were the best, and song arrangements can be restructured when, halfway through a track, it is observed that the chorus does indeed come too late in the song.
For less than the price of your average polysynth, a four-track studio could be put together in a bedroom, living room, or even garage.
It is common knowledge that the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper was recorded using two four-track Studer recorders, as that was all that was so far available in the mid 1960s. However, it is a less well known fact that there are many modern releases too that have been recorded on home four-tracks — the Flying Lizards' hit single Money (ironically) was recorded on four-track, as was Bruce Springsteen's previous album Nebraska. The Eurythmic's first hit single Sweet Dreams and many other tracks from their first album were recorded on their home eight-track.
Once it has been decided to build a home studio, the first decision to be made is to ask yourself "How many tracks will I need/can afford?" The bottom line of viable propositions is a portastudio — anything less (ie. bouncing tracks on an old Revox A77) would, in the long run prove to be more costly — new heads costing well over £100 to replace on an A77, and probably needing new brakes, the odd output card, windshield wipers, etc. (?) It would also be counterproductive — taking your concentration away from the 'musical performance'. You may, however, be a solo artist who uses borrowed synths and sequencers, in which case you might well get away with DIing into a small mixer and perform live with only one mic being necessary (for your voice). However, if you have access to borrowing all that gear, then you are bound to be able to find a portastudio to 'blag' off someone too.
Anyway, once it has been established that it is a portastudio of some sorts that you are going for, and that your overall budget 'is as much under a grand as poss' (nearer to £600, say); then again I must advise against the secondhand Tascam 144s (for example), for the same reasons as I would advise against second hand reel-to-reels, such as the Revox A77: new heads and their fitting costs a bomb — again over £100 for a portastudio's, by which time you are likely to have spent more than an X15's or Porta One's retail price (£250-£425). If you are fortunate in finding a relatively new Tascam 244 or Fostex 250 or X15, still under guarantee second-hand, then good-on-you and I hope the guarantee is transferable! But it is more likely that you should choose a Fostex X15, now being sold well under £300. This machine has a built-in four-channel mixer, two 12-step ladder LED metering, tone controls, tape counter, dolby noise reduction, and of course a four-track cassette deck. It can be battery or power-supply powered, and although primarily intended as a musical notebook, can produce results which are of a very professional standard.
Another alternative to Fostex's X15 is Tascam's new Porta One — a similar portastudio type device, yet incorporating DBX noise reduction, four-channel VU metering, full four-channel mixer with high and low tone controls on each channel and a separate four channel cueing mixer, again with the cassette running at normal speed. This is intended, less as a musical notebook, and more as a very competitively priced four track, to compete with Fostex's more expensive 250 high speed four-track.
Once it is established which four-track machine is going to be the backbone of your home studio, there are various preparations that should be made before going any further with installation of any equipment.
It is a misconception that a control room need be acoustically 'dead'. In the control room, the sound should not be too dissimilar to a normal listening environment, thus a balance between dead and live acoustics should be created. This can simply be done with a combination of some soft, absorbent surfaces (such as sofas, carpets or curtains) with a few hard surfaces (walls, ceilings etc). Certain 'dead' areas are useful, however, to dampen reflections or prevent spillage. Eggboxes are a popular sound absorber when placed on walls — possibly in a corner of the room allocated to vocals or recording the drums. However, when first deciding where to position the monitors/recorder/effects rack etc. It is useful to bear in mind that parallel walls can cause standing waves (peaks in the bass response), and so positioning the listening area as off-centre in the room as practically possible will be beneficial to the end result.
Soundproofing is even less of a concern in these days of close miking and DIing of synths, guitars and drum machines. However, if recording 'live' drums, it may prove useful to position some carpet-covered wooden screens around the drum kit — simply to reduce the low frequencies a bit. If more thorough soundproofing is necessary, however (if you are a rock band and live within whispering distance of neighbours), an inexpensive way of soundproofing a room would be to go down to your local dumps, and drag home some mattresses, which could then be nailed to the walls under some hard board. You would be surprised how many professional-ish studios use this method.
There is no such thing as a perfect monitoring system. Listening to sound is the definition of monitoring, and all it boils down to is a matter of preference and application. Big studios spend thousands of pounds on acoustic design and complex monitoring systems, however, the ideal monitoring system is one that you yourself are familiar and comfortable with — and therefore the big studios have to have a consistent sound with one another. If you record an album in Montserrat, take the tapes to New York for some overdubbing, and finally mix the tracks in Los Angeles, then it is imperative that the control rooms sound more or less identical. Therefore, the high powered, high prices and high everything else systems are the ideal in such situations. However, if you are happy with the sound of your bedroom's hifi, and know the kind of sound you want and like from that — then that is the ideal monitoring system for you.
The addition to your system of some mini reference monitors, such as Auratone C5s or AKG LSM50s, however, would be a wise investment — giving you an idea of the sound to expect from a car stereo, portable stereo/radio etc.
Additionally, the positioning of the speakers is critical. The tweeters should always point at your ears, for example, so as to give a true idea of stereo spread and balance.
And then there is the choice of amplifier wattage which depends on the size of the room, the material to be recorded, and the efficiency of the speakers. Quad have power amps rated at 45W and 100W which are a very popular choice, however, for the purpose of building as inexpensive a studio as possible, I would suggest sticking to a sound you are familiar with — your hifi.
It is useful to have a selection of different mics for different purposes, although with today's popularity for DIing synths and drum machines, it is enough to have only one really good mic — for vocals. Shure's SM58 is a good all-purpose microphone with a wide response and either high or low impedance. Sennheiser have a modular microphone, which is ideal for multitracking purposes, by having interchangeable capsules for different polar responses. This could equally well be used for vocals, bass guitar or cymbals (three extreme examples).
Turnkey/Bandive now distribute the Tandy PZM microphone (see October's ES&CM) which sells for under £20.00. This is a peculiar looking mic which is battery powered and produces exceptionally good results. It does not suffer from phasing problems associated with incoherent reflections of sound, and is well worth a listen.
Another place to cut corners is in experimenting with very cheap hi fi condensers — perhaps costing less than £10. These might be a little noisy, yet with careful use can produce surprisingly good results; as would experimenting with Lavalier mics — those used by newsreaders etc. attached to their jacket's lapel. By having a very small pickup surface, they can handle reflections in a similar way to PZMs.
Once it has been established which four-track, mic and monitoring system you are going to use, then you can decide on the 'extras' depending on the budget remaining. A massive 'bargain area' is often overlooked by the home recordist — that of footpedal chorus, flanging, delays etc. Among the best ranges are Roland's Boss range, the Scandinavian company t.c. electronics and many others. These are not to be sneezed at for although they do not look studio quality, in careful hands they can certainly sound very good.
One of the main effects that divides the men from the boys, or rather the demos from the masters, is Reverb. It is very difficult to cut corners on this one. However you might attempt 'catching' reverb in the conventional way, à la Les Paul; by setting up one or two speakers in a large-ish room or bathroom, and one or two microphones at the other end, pointed away from the speakers. Then with the addition of an amplifier, a small mixer (4:1 from the X15's four-tape output sockets for example) and a modicum of subtlety, you could then send the various tracks either in mixdown or whilst recording to the mixer, to the amp, to the speakers; which will then transmit the sound to the mics with the addition of reflections off the wall, and back from the mics into the mixer — Hey presto! you have a very long-winded, expensive-ish and complicated way to produce reverb. A much better idea would be to buy Accesses excellent stereo spring reverb. This sells at just over £100, and incorporates a parametric equaliser to 'fine tune' your reverb's tone. It is very capable at handling percussive sounds (unlike most spring-type reverbs), and takes up very little space. There are other, even cheaper reverbs — Frontline make one for less than £70.00; however, I think for our purposes a stereo unit would be worth the extra.
Other than that, if you can afford to go up in price above footpedal effects and the Accessit Reverb, then the next 'effect' on your shopping list should be a digital delay — JHS are now selling their 1024 at under £250, from which you can produce effects from flanging and chorus to long repeats of over a second in length.
Other than the 'blatantly obvious' signal processors previously mentioned, other important items which are too often overlooked are the ones which can make all the difference. Yes, I'm talking about compressors and noise gates. Fostex have a combined five-channel mixer and compressor, the MN-15, which is very inexpensive, and provides the X-15 owner with the ability to overdub whilst bouncing (thus giving you an extra 'track'), and a channel with a 6:1 compression ratio and variable release time. This, possibly used in conjunction with a footpedal noise gate or Accessit's £50 noise gate, would be of enormous advantage. You would find you would end up with better signal-to-noise ratio (by being able to record at a higher level without fear of transients), and a tighter sound overall.
If you are going to use a multitude of effects and signal processors, a patchbay would solve the inevitable "rats' nest" of leads that they would incur. A simple phono type patchbay can be obtained at under £40.00, and would save much heart-and head-ache.
Well I have outlined the various areas which require a bit of forward planning/budgeting for a home studio. Assuming you opt for a portastudio-type system, then money and space can be saved — mixer, connectors and a more sophisticated patchbay would be required for a system based around Tascam's 234 or Yamaha's excellent MT-44 standard speed four-track cassette deck. Just to mention these as another alternative, on top of which a mixer would be necessary. Yamaha make a mixer specifically for their MT-44 which sells for under £200, however, to make the most of the MT-44, a more versatile mixer such as Teac's model 2A at just over £200 would be a better bet.
One place where corners should not be cut, however, is with connectors. A piece of ordinary hi fi cabling with average impedance will cut 3dBs off frequencies up to 10kHz over a length of two metres, increasing to a loss of up to 8dBs at 10kHz over a length of 8 metres! Therefore good quality cabling should always be opted for, for all connections. The best type of connectors to buy are professional, readymade-up phono-phono leads. These are so cheap that it is not worth buying jack plugs and making up your own leads. Some phono to jack adapters in conjunction with these leads will cover most situations.
I would also like to simplify all the bullshit flying around about matching specifications between units — for this level of equipment never plug anything marked watts into an input, but other than that — anything goes. If it don't work, it won't hurt!
And now, a final word on the mastering machine. For this kind of set-up, a good quality hi fi tape deck is ideal. Not only because it will probably be the medium on which you will play the finished demos, but there is an even better reason. Namely, that if you have one or two generations of cassette bouncing on your standard speed four-track, by mixing these down to the hi fi cassette machine, you can then switch the cassettes and have two more tracks free to fill.
In a future article, I will elaborate on the techniques with which to make the most of your four track studio, but raising some cash and buying some gear and listening attentively to the ES&CM cassette should be enough to be getting on with for the moment. Happy Spending!
Thanks to Andy Bereza of Bandive-Turnkey for his assistance in compiling this feature.
Feature by Curtis Schwartz
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