Category Archives: crappy equipment

RECORDING: Trim the fat

What do I mean by this?

Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.

I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.

I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.

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A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.

Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.

I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.

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The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:

This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).

You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.

facepalm

In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.

I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.

I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.

Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…

These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.

In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.

I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.

Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.

Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.

Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.

I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen  displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.

That’s it.

Anything else is just not necessary.

Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.

It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.

 

 

 

 

 

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SONGWRITING/RECORDING: The lo-fi thing

With the ever-emerging popularity of sites like Bandcamp and Tumblr, more and more indie artists are releasing stuff at a rapid rate. Most of these recordings I come across are of the lo-fi variety.

What’s lo-fi, you ask?

Well, it’s a recording style (or hell, maybe even a genre of music, if you want to get analytically snobby about it) where you just record whatever you want, with whatever resources or equipment is around/available (yes, cheap equipment, and friends who might not be able to play instruments proficiently, but enough to get the job done). You might go “into the red” while tracking a song, and you might have the absolute worst guitar tone ever, but you do it all in one take, and make it the best you can.

Now, I’m not going to be snobby about the lo-fi thing, at all. No fucking way. If anything, songwriters and bedroom recordists who put stuff out there with cheap, crappy-sounding equipment is some of the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard (from the time I was in high school, to today).

I have grown insanely tired of over-produced, sparkly, extremely-well-performed music… even though I was into it for a bit, when I started teaching music. Nowadays, I just don’t care. I want good lyrics, good melodies, and music that comes from the heart, or obviously wears its heart on its sleeve. Nothing sounds better to me.

Here’s a great post by someone at Gearslutz.com, defending lo-fi… and someone who responded right after him…. notice the two polar opposites of opinion. I completely am on the first guy’s side, not the second.

The original lo-fi artists were lo-fi for pragmatic reasons and they preferred the freedom and spontaneity of using, say a 4-track in their bedrooms to having to spend loads of money and work in a really restricted way in order to get hi-fi studio recordings. Lo-fi sound is really about freedom and spontaneity more than it is about sound quality. When people speak nostalgically about lo-fi records, theyre nostalgic about the spontaneous, wildness of those records more than they are about the crappy sound. Although the fact that these records avoided the lamer side of modern hi-fi (over-compression etc.) may also be a factor.

Lo-fi sound is all about the front end of recording. It’s a situation that enabled artists to experiment themselves with sound by messing about with gtrs and mics. It seldom had anything to do with big mixing desks and expensive monitor systems. If they wanted a certain sound they would have gotten that during the recording stage. Also it seems unlikely anyone would hand you a record for you to make sound crappier than it already is. I say assume that they already have the sound they want (lo-fi is about front-end, not mixing) and just try to do a good job of what theyve given you without polishing it too much. Pan, balance, ride levels, maybe a little corrective eq-ing is probably all they want.

Finally if someone comes to you talking about lo-fi and you don’t know what theyre on about it goes without saying that you should check some source recordings out. The earlier recordings of sebadoh, the mountain goats, daniel johnston, pavement and elliott smith are all great records and defining sources of that lo-fi sound.

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and the other guy……

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Personally, and obviously in art it’s all subjective, but I think that bands who WANT a “lo fi” sound lack either material or chops or both. They are using the production style to make interesting what is inherently musically not.

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Wrong. To me, it’s about passion, immediacy, inspiration, and simply “getting it down.” The songwriting quality always matters more than the production. Always. Take Hank Williams’ earliest recordings, and Elliott Smith’s first record… and compare them to the over-produced/over-engineered Nickelback and Taylor Swift stuff. The new shit doesn’t even compare.

Food for thought.