Category Archives: home studio

SONGWRITING: Thoughts on “cool” and “uncool” music. CASE STUDY– Alex G vs. Ida

Something that always bothers me about music in general is it seems to be divided up the middle: cool, and uncool music. Even in pop.

Cool (yesterday and today): Joy Division, Chvrches, Hozier, Dance Gavin Dance, Wilco, Alex G, Turnover, Wet
Uncool: John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Alex Goot (not Alex G), Ida, Twenty One Pilots, Billy Joel

In local scenes… you have the acoustic/folk singer-songwriter people, and the hipster/punk/DIY bands. I’m friends with people from both scenes, and always have been. Both are making listenable, cool music. But god forbid you’re on the opposing team, and you find yourself at one or the other shows. What would everyone think?!

I see this on social media all the time, too. It bugs me. A lot.

There’s a level of songcraft that artists who truly don’t give a damn and are really all about the music (and put in their 10,000 hours), always seem to strive for. And then there’s an (admittedly) lower level of songcraft, from artists who exist mostly to please their popular friends, in a scene. They might also enjoy music and the art of making it, but for these artists, it’s more about the immediacy and the lyrics carrying the music, and less about the total package.

Take for instance, local hero (at least to those of us in Philly), Alex G. Alex G is an artist whose music I don’t entirely enjoy, though I also don’t entirely dislike. By and large, it’s not that musically interesting or listenable. But it’s got that certain something and anyone who’s a huge fan of his can understand the appeal. He’s insanely popular. Insanely popular. He’s got 77,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Seventy-seven thousand! It’s only going to grow.

On the flipside, let’s take Ida. A band I worship (and always will). The level of songcraft is much, much higher with this band. They released their first record in 1994. Their best record is 2000’s Will You Find Me (Tiger Style Records). Carefully-thought-out harmonies, interesting guitars and arrangements, and an avant-garde sensibility, shared with Alex G, who also has a huge avant-garde sensibility in his pop writing.

But… why does Ida only have 2,800-ish monthly listeners on Spotify, whereas Alex G has 77,000? Part of the reason is that Ida never has promoted themselves, nor has toured much. And they haven’t released any new music since 2008. But… the craft. My god, the craft.

Alex G records all of his music from his college dorm (or friends’ houses). And it’s lo-fi as FUCK. Ida records in professional studios, or sometimes at home, but again…. it’s a higher level of craft all around. Again, let’s compare.

Why is one cooler than the other? Why does one have thousands and thousands more listeners?

More importantly…. what do YOU do when you feel you’re making the best music you possibly can (and when you listen to it, you realize… “This is damn good!”) and like, no one… NO ONE CARES. You see all these mediocre bands from your town or city get all the press and all the shows… and not just press, but multiple press, weeks or months down the road…. and you read about bands you feel your music is better than… everywhere you look. What do you do? Do you refine your craft? Do you change your sound to become more lo-fi? Do you throw a little bit of “phony” in your genuine sound? Do you let the lyrics be 85% more important than the music, itself?

I feel this is an important discussion, and something so many artists are afraid to publicly discuss, or honestly admit to other artists, or themselves!

 

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RECORDING: Free Online Course that is actually GOOD

https://soundfly.com/courses/demo-recording-101

 

From Soundfly…. I recently discovered this course while researching some material for my 9th annual songwriting/recording summercamp at the school I teach at in the Philly ‘burbs, and I think this course is really, really helpful for recording a demo at home and on the cheap…… ALL instruments, too. The entire course is two and a half hours, and well worth your time.

Do check it out, and check out more of what Soundfly.com has to offer… all of their courses are long and useful, not just this one. Really dope site.

 

 

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.

proteus_2000
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.

 

 

 

 

 

RECORDING: Acoustic Panel Assembly (again)

This is a FANTASTIC, easy-to-follow video, on how to make high-quality acoustic panels for your home studio, on the cheap. One of the best videos I’ve found, to date.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqZPhfxSaTk&w=400]

RECORDING: Best Kept Gear Secrets

This entry will probably raise the price of all this stuff I’m about to mention, but here goes, anyway…

CAD M179 mic
Sells new for about $120. I have read that pro engineers LOVE this mic and it is extremely versatile. Haven’t used it, but no one has a bad thing to say about this mic.

MCA SP-1 mic
Sells new for about $60. Apparently it is one of the most-used inexpensive mics in studio situations. From lead vocals to drum overheads, the SP-1 is a go-to mic.

Behringer ADA8000
Can be found new for only $180, or used for $125. Need 8 more channels for your home studio, via ADAT/optical? Nothing can be found cheaper. It has 8 XLR ins and 8 XLR outs (but you don’t need the outs if you’re using the optical connection for the 8 additional inputs). It’s relatively quiet, as long as you don’t push the gain too hot (sounds like ass at near-max gain). A lot of audio interfaces come with optical inputs these days, including the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo
Sells new for only $69. A 2-input USB audio interface with phantom power? And by Focusrite? There isn’t a better deal out there, if you’re getting into home recording. Good friend of mine calls it the “cute little hamburger”. It rules.

MXL V67G
Best condenser mic for the price, in my opinion. $95. It sounds great on female or male vocals, and acoustic guitars, too!

RECORDING: the truly best VSTi plugins (virtual instruments)

And, the best CHEAP ones…..

I hate and have hated looking for VST plugins. When I first discovered them in the early 2000s, I was addicted to finding the best free ones. Occasionally I get addicted still today, searching for newer stuff I may have missed. Let me give you a list of the absolute best… and, in the interest of saving time, I’m not going to include a screenshot of each. Just trust me when I say, these are the best free ones, and the best cheap ones. If I didn’t include a link, just google it, you’ll easily find where to download them.

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FREE Grand Piano

PianoOne (by Yichi Wang). Download from http://www.supremepiano.com. It needs a little tweaking of the “release” fader (bump it up from minimum, just a little beyond it) and enjoy the wonderful (and quite realistic) piano sounds you get from it.
mda Piano (by Maxim Digital Audio). Extremely lightweight. Very nice. http://mda.smartelectronix.com/ Make sure you click the “VST Synths” link at the top (hard to read).

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FREE Electric Piano (Rhodes and Wurlies)

Lazysnake (by Andreas Ersson). Destroys most others. Has wah, tremolo, overdrive, etc. Sick-sounding Rhodes and not-quite-Rhodes. They always sit in a mix perfectly. Extremely useful plugin.

Legacy Collection by GSi/Soundfonts.it. MrRay73 and MrRay73 version II are GREAT Rhodes emulators, as well as Mr Tramp, fur Wurlitzer 200 piano sounds. Also included in the collection is a great Hammond B3 emulator called Organized Trio. When you first insert the plugins, they nag you to donate, but there are no sound limitations. You just have to wait a few seconds to edit the parameters, but they work, and they work great. Download at http://www.genuinesoundware.com/?a=showproduct&b=37

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FREE Synths

Synth1 (by Ichiro Toda). This is one of the first, and the best. The presets and banks (made by users for over a decade) can be difficult to install/add, but this thing is so programmable and so damn good-sounding, it’s a shame to pass it up. Also has a step arpeggiator built-in. Sick. Gives Nord Leads a run for their money, no doubt. http://www.geocities.jp/daichi1969/softsynth/#down

ANYTHING and EVERYTHING from Togu Audio Line (TAL). Specifically the TAL UNO-62 (a perfect Juno-60), and Noizemaker, which is so insanely useful, I can’t even get into it. Plus, nearly all parameters are MIDI-learnable (if you have a nice midi controller with lots of knobs/faders). Download all their completely free plugins (for Mac AND PC!) here—- http://kunz.corrupt.ch/Products

Aethereal (by Psychic Modulation) – ambient/pad heaven. Gives Atmosphere a run for its money, and then some. The demo is limited to two notes polyphony, and one audio output, but it’s worth it, believe me. And the price is right for the full version. Lots of great presets. http://www.psychicmodulation.com/aethereal.html

Crystal (by Green Oak) – mentioned EVERYWHERE online. A must-download. http://www.greenoak.com/crystal/dnld.html

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FREE Drums

This is a tough one. There aren’t many good ones at all. I’d recommend using a free sampler such as ShortCircuit. You can load your own wav samples of drum one-shots, and it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, once you do. There are tutorials on YouTube on how to use it. Stick with version 1.1.1, and stay away from ShortCircuit2, as it’s very unstable and crashes constantly. http://www.vemberaudio.se/shortcircuit.php

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FREE arpeggiators

Kirnu (by Arto Vaarala). This is one of the most easy-to-use, beautiful-looking, and powerful arpeggiators, PERIOD! Throw it before your favorite synth plugin in your DAW, and have tons of fun. http://www.kirnuarp.com/kirnu1/index.html

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CHEAP, amazing stuff

For drums / sampling / hip-hop production

Poise (www.onesmallclue.com). Windows-only (but hopefully Mac, soon!) Who the hell needs an MPC anymore, or even Native Instruments’ Maschine? (I love Maschine, for the record)… but, if you’re on an insanely tight budget, all you need is Poise and an Akai MPD18. Poise is $49. The MPD18 is $99 new. Watch tutorial videos I made, on YouTube, to see how freakin’ awesome it is. I can never live without this amazing plugin.

Cheap arpeggiators

CTHULHU by Xfer Records. It’s like Kirnu, but 1000 times more powerful, fun, and intuitive. If you like arpeggiators…. you NEED this. Comes with a shit-ton of classical chord sequences, that you can arpeggiate, or create your own (playing songs essentially with one key at a time). INSANELY awesome. Only $39. http://www.xferrecords.com/products/cthulhu

Also, when you subscribe to (or buy a physical copy of) Computer Music magazine, you get the “CM COLLECTION.” LOTS of great stuff, in there, too. That magazine introduced me to the absolute power of recording with a computer, when I first bought an issue in early 2000. The technology has moved so fast, though. So new issues can be intimidating… however, they always include a chapter (in EVERY ISSUE) called CM Basics or whatever, and they cover everything you need to know, if you’re new to this.

What are some of YOUR favorites?

RECORDING: The perfect desk

In all my travels (well, to IKEA, anyway)…. I’ve come across some great stuff…. more on this in a second.

You might be familiar with the companies that make these “studio” desks (see your Musician’s Friend or Sweetwater catalog, or their sites)… these desks are a bit on the expensive side. Case in point… in 2003, I bought the Studio RTA “Creation Station” which has served me well… and is rock-solid….

studioRTA

That desk also set me back $199 at the time. Studio RTA makes a couple desks that aren’t as well-designed as the Creation Station (which they don’t make anymore)— namely the Producer Station ($500 and a bit too big/bulky), and some other thing, which is only $100. I still think this is hella expensive. And there are other companies which charge WAY too much for their studio desks.

With a little creativity and a minimal investment, you can get the perfect recording desk. First, stop at IKEA, and buy these items:

1. LINNMON table top (47″ by 23.5″ one will set you back $20, a 59″ by 29″ one will set you back $36, and a 78″ by 23.5″ will set you back $45).
http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/50251350/#/10251352 (the 59″)
http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/60251340/#/00251343 (the 47″)
http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/80251358/ (the 78″)

2. ADILS table legs (4). $14 for all 4
http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/70217973/

3. EKBY JARPEN shelf $15 for a 47″ one, $10 for a 31″ one
http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/20025047/#/20094347

4. CAPITA legs (to turn your EKBY JARPEN into a tier for your LINNMON desk!) $16 for 4 8″ high ones
this requires some basic drilling… the good thing is, these come with all the screws and hardware you need. Line each bracket up to the 4 edges of your EKBY JARPEN, drill pilot holes with a small drill bit…… then attach the screws to bracket, and screw the legs in (and the riser pieces if you need, for uneven surfaces or extra height). Done.

http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/20049538/

I built several of these very functional and awesome studio desks (photos coming soon):

Desk 1 – 59″ by 29.5″ with 30″ tier
Desk 2 – 47″ by 23.5″ with 47″ tier
Desk 3 – 78″ by 23.5″ with 31″ tier

Never did I spend more than $100 on each desk. The 47″ set me back $65 total. The 59″ set me back $67 (thanks to the scrap shelf piece), and the 78″ with the shorter tier set me back only $86.

The desks look great (photo of my 59″ table below), they’re insanely functional, and they’re stable. What more do you need, for your MIDI controller, computer monitors or laptop, audio interface, and speakers/monitors?

Don’t buy into the hype. Stay creative, as always.

ikea
my main studio desk — Linnmon 59″ by 29″ tabletop, Adils table legs, Capita tier legs, and a scrap black shelf piece from the IKEA “As Is” department (for $1). Keyboard/mouse shelf by Fellowes (attaches without screws or drilling).