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http://lamkins-guitar.com/music/article/low-tech-recording
David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
LCW on Bandcamp
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: performance, recording, sound engineering, @musings info
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Low-tech recording

Twenty or thirty years ago, talking to an amateur musician about recording music at home invariably brought up discussions about recording to a four-track cassette tape (or for those who had more money to spend, a consumer-grade reel-to-reel machine with a comparable number of tracks). These tape machines were usable in the right hands, at least for those who could effectively manage the inevitable time distortions and noise buildup.

Nowadays a home recordist is likely to use a computer-based workstation connected to audio sources and reproducers via analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters. Those converters are the gateways between the digital and analog worlds; once on the digital side, everything - recording, processing, mixing, editing and mastering - takes place "in the box".

With most of the recording process taking place in the digital domain, home recordists have reaped the benefits of the commoditization of computing. Processors, memory and mass storage have become so inexpensive and the continuing improvement in price-to-performance so relentless that it has become commonplace to replace rather than repair a failing computer. Even the converters, which share much with computers in terms of their manufacture, follow this trend.

On the software side, open-source projects are producing DAW software and processing plugins that are in some respects competitive with branded commercial offerrings.

The upshot of all this is that the home recordist, even on a very modest budget comparable to what one might have paid for a Tascam Portastudio 144 in 1980, has access to recording capababilities and quality as good as found in any industry-funded studio in 1980. Sure, it's not quite as sexy to move virtual knobs and faders or watch virtual meters as it is to caress a majestic Neve or SSL console with the accompanying racks loaded with outboard processors and their 3D knobs and blinking lights. Nor is there as much visceral satisfaction in moving a cursor as there is in shuttling a two-inch tape and hitting your edit point just right. But in the end, the sonic result is (making allowance for those who'd argue about nuances that no one else can hear) clearly in the same ballpark.

With computer-based recording has come computer-based editing. By the early `90s Editing Machines Corp. and Avid independently productized their versions of "non-linear editing" that had existed in various prototype and one-off forms in the film and recording industries for most of the prior ten years. Avid remains a force in this space.

When performed in the computer rather than with recording tape, edits and other changes that once involved careful planning, flawless technique and considerable risk became no more complex than moving text around in a word-procesing program. Editing with a computer allowed writers to more easily make speculative decisions than they may have while using a typewriter and correction tape. It's no longer necessary to hone a draft when the constantly evolving draft can become the finished product with the push of a button. In music - as in writing - this ability to use the supporting technology to incrementally evolve a piece led to a revolution in the artist's workflow, to the point where the technological workflow becomes inseparable from the creative process.

The upshot of all this is that it has become increasingly unnecessary to perform a piece of music as a whole. As in the days of multitrack tape, individual performances can be assembled into a coherent performance. Unlike in the days of multitrack tape, however, it no longer requires considerable skill to edit an imperfect performance. Not only can we comp a "perfect" take from multiple performances or copy a bar or two to put a band-aid over an unfortunate stumble in a rhythm section's or vocalist's performance, but we can also micro-manage the time and pitch of individual performances. This ability to fine-tune a performance can provide some benefits, but can also lead to a lackadaisical attitude regarding the expected proficiency and competence on the part of the artist.

What's worse, though, is that assembling a piece of music from bits and pieces of performances completely eliminates the interaction between the musicians. What should be a series of real-time decisions made in-the-moment by the performers themselves becomes a long chain of interdependent technical and musical decisions mediated by one or more third parties. Depending upon the specific decisions made during production, the abilities of the musicians and the expectations of the market, the musicians might perform an unpolished (but no doubt raw and enthusiastic) version of their work in concert or they may end up being slaves to the machine, following inflexible backing tracks and singing through corrective filters to match the mass-market musical product concocted in the studio.

Pop music, of course, is most likely than not to be assembled in the studio "factory" and carefully branded and accessorized for the supporting tour. A well-crafted big-budget stage show can be quite impressive; even enjoyable. But as someone who appreciates both the show and the music, I prefer to hear what the musicians can do on their own without the guiding hand of the studio and stage technocrats. This is one of the reasons why I'd rather hear a rough-but-energetic show put on by a bunch of kids who've just "graduated" from rehearsing in the basement to doing their first shows in the corner dive bar than to sit in a stadium watching a legendary performer go through the same flawlessly-scripted motions that he or she executed in two hundred other cities over the past year.

I've always been a fan of improvised music. As a young child I was delighted when one of my uncles - many of whom were accomplished classical musicians - went "off the page" to inject some good-natured humor into their performances. If you've ever seen Victor Borge play the piano, you'll know exactly what I mean. Of course, having grown up in a household that favored classical music as the defacto standard for legitimate music, I also knew the music's canonical form; this made me appreciate alternate interpretations all the more.

As I grew into my teen years, folk music was popular. And again, there were improvisations and interpretations to enjoy. Do you remember the Smothers Brothers...?

Soon thereafter folk music became electrified. Bob Dylan plugged in - to the great consternation of many of his biggest fans, not to mention the promoter - at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Young folk musicians everywhere quickly followed suit. Loud guitars led quickly to feedback and distortion. The confluence of electric guitars and psychedelic drugs caused folk music to mutate into psychedelia, or "acid rock". Dig into the musical backgrounds of members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and other west-coast bands of that era; you'll find that many of those performers have deep roots in folk music.

In almost no time at all, the `60s ended. The Haight hippies, responding to the annexation of their ideals by big media, declared the movement dead and buried. Psychedelic rock, with its roots in the simple forms of folk music, gave way to progressive rock with its influences taken from more intricate and musically-challenging classical arrangements. Despite the greater challenges of a prog performance, musicians still improvised extensively.

But the tides were already turning. The mass market needed something more accessible than prog for the average listener. Enter disco and stadium rock. Ten years later, enter keyboard bands. At each step, the interactions of the performers became more technology-driven and more scripted. The punk backlash briefly broke the technocrats' stranglehold on the production process, but set expectations for musical competence so low that it took almost two decades for a significant fraction of up-and-coming musicians to grow beyond the expectations that they should be able to get by on three chords and an attitude.

Improvisational music became a lost art, practiced mostly by a handful of old (and neo-) hippies.

While jazz remained the premiere improvisational form (if you're willing to look beyond the fact that classical music originally involved improvisation), it was becoming increasingly constrained by performers and audience alike due to the wrong-headed (and no doubt market-fueled) insistence that certain forms were "more authentic" than others.

The increasingly technical recording process that has evolved over the decades has further quashed acceptance and appreciation of improvised music. If you can't capture a live performance that's up to the production standards expected of commercial music, then you can't distribute that performance for others to enjoy. If the audience is required to be present at a live performance, then one's reach as an improvisational musician is limited to the number of listeners one can attract to your live performance. And if you can't reach your audience other than through live performance, well... you're never going to have much of an audience. Catch 22...

As there's a silver lining in every dark cloud, so there are exceptions to the bleak picture I've painted regarding the recording indutry's chilling effect on improvisational music. One need look no further than the Grateful Dead. Like them or not, the Dead were for quite a long time one of the top grossing American music acts due in large part - no doubt - to the legions of fans who'd follow the band from city to city. Although the Dead is probably the best-known example of a band that allowed - and even supported - its fans' efforts to record and redistribute live performance recording, they're certainly not the only band to have done so.

If you've ever listened to "tapes" of the Dead, you'll note that the quality of the performances and the recordings varies all over the map. The Grateful Dead took their improvisation seriously. Sometimes the resulting music was brilliant; at other times, not. That's not a condemnation of their music or their talent. On the contrary. If you take risks, sometimes you fail. On the other hand, if you don't take risks you never get the opportunity to do something that's surprisingly good or different. As for the recording quality: you've gotta give the recordists credit for trying (and the archivists mad props for cataloging everything; I don't think there's been a better-documented improvisational ensemble in the history of music), but in the end there are simply too many variables to ensure that every recording is a technically good recording.

About ten years ago an acquaintance introduced me to the music of The Mermen, an improvisational instrumental trio from San Francisco. Although The Mermen's musical style - with its roots in surf and psychedlia rather than folk and Americana - is quite different from the Grateful Dead's style, their commitment to the improvisational form is every bit as strong.

Like the Grateful Dead, The Mermen also allow tapers to record and distribute live performances. The Mermen, though, perform in environments more conducive to careful and effective live recording techniques; as a result, the audio quality of most live recordings of The Mermen ranges from very good to excellent.

One of the keys to recording a good live performance is having an ensemble that can actually perform well. That seems like a tautology, but it's not. Far too many live music acts simply can't function without "the man behind the curtain" to pull the strings and levers on cue to make the performance "work". In its most benign forms, this behind-the-scenes intervention may involve nothing more than a live mixer who ensures that the audience hears appropriate changes in the band's dynamic balance. A band that needs that kind of intervention can't turn in a recordable live performance on their own. But a band that can control their dynamics, emphasize what's important to the listener and deemphasize supporting instruments all without the unseen hand on the FOH faders: that band can record live.

The Mermen are that band. Their live performances, like the tapes of those performances, are well-balanced and dynamic. In fact, one of their CDs was recorded in the studio straight to stereo. I learned about this by reading the liner notes; frankly, I had a hard time believing it. I simply had no reference for such a simple and effective recording process at the time.

Once I was convinced (following a Q&A session with Mermen guitarist James Thomas when I saw him at Burning Man) that one could in fact record a quality performance direct to disk, I set out to emulate that capability.

LCW has been playing improvised music together for three years. We've been recording ourselves - mostly using a Zoom H2 in the rehearsal room - since the beginning. We have hundreds of hours of recordings. More important, we've all listened to those recordings. Not only do we pay attention to the seeds of musical ideas to be developed and to poor musical choices to be rethought or avoided, but we also compare our experience of having played "in the room" to what we later hear on the recording. That post-rehearsal listening (which we do individually) has been an important part of developing our sense of improvisational timing and of musical balance. From hearing these room recordings, we learn how our varied sonic choices affect the overall impact of the music.

It's vitally important to listen with a fresh set of ears when not actually performing. We've all learned that what we think we sound like and what we actually do sound like can be surprisingly different; the room recordings have helped us to bridge those gaps between intention and reality.

Along the way, I've been supplementing the room recordings with an occasional live multitrack recording session. In these sessions, the guitar and bass are recorded direct (through their respective processors) while the drums are recorded acoustically. Our performance levels are low enough that bleed into the drum mics is not a significant problem despite the limited confines of our room. In fact, the size of the room means that we don't record any noticeable ambience for the drums; I've been adding ambience when I mix the multitrack recordings.

I haven't been doing a lot of multitrack recording sessions because they create too much technical overhead and interfere with the flow of our sessions. Given that we only have a few hours a month to play together, any distraction from simply making music becomes unacceptable. (The H2 room recorder, because of its set-and-forget nature, does not impose upon our sessions.)

After having done a couple dozen multitrack recording sessions, it finally dawned on me that my workflow was essentially invariant. I'd set the mix from a minute or two of our opening jam, patch in some reverb for the drums, apply a compressor to the stereo bus, master the entire session to stereo, then (in cases where I'd recorded more than one performance per session) split the stereo mix into individual tracks before burning a CD. Given the fixed nature of that workflow, I figured: why not get rid of the multitracker altogether...?

The idea is simple: do exactly what we've been doing all along, but create the stereo mix in real-time. I prototyped the idea by moving the drum mics from the multitracker to our PA board and using a group bus to create a stereo mix for recording. The guitar and bass still drove the mains, the drums remained acoustic, and all the instruments got funneled at equal levels into a Zoom H2n plugged into the group bus.

All that practice in learning to control our own dynamics paid off. The recording balance was outstanding on our first try. I was a tad optimistic about setting levels, so there were a few overs during the more enthusastic sections, but the balance remained perfect; just the way we heard ourselves in the room.

I even managed to mimize the work needed to isolate tracks by using the H2n's level-sensitive start/stop and new-track features. This wasn't perfect, but the principle is proven. With more careful setting of the start/stop levels and better discipline about silencing our instruments between musical pieces, the amount of prep work needed to burn a CD from the raw tracks will be minimal.

Hot on the heels of our first experiment, I'm preparing an improved system to record our performances live. I'll add ambience to give the recording a feeling of having been done in a larger room, and will use dynamics processors (sparingly) to further improve instrumental balance and to eliminate digital overs at the recorder.

In addition to recording our performances, I'm also building the capability to stream our sessions to the `net. Room mics will be leveled for balance and gated off when we're playing our instruments. That way our listeners will be able to hear what's going on the room between musical pieces.

This approach is at once low-tech (when compared to the workflow of a normal track-at-a-time multitrack session) and high-tech (when compared to just hanging a mic in the room). My expectation is that we'll be able to print recordings of demo quality (at least) within minutes of wrapping up our evening session. I'm looking forward to this...

April 28 2012 07:06:27 GMT