Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On a shoestring project part 13

  Christmas is heading our way with unstoppable determination, but I feel like mine came last week :-). I will go through here what will be the heart of my home recording set up, Zoom R16.
  First things first, credit where credit is due, I purchased mine in dear old Dublin in the good old Goodwins music shop. I mentioned them before, and probably will in the future as well. Every musician in Europe knows of the German super store Thomann, they have been a music shop for a long time, but they came about six or seven years ago and took over the market. They had a great website while most other shops were still only thinking about it. They bought everything in large quantities, often they have bigger stock of particular product than the suppliers have. So they became the cheapest place in Europe to buy musical equipment, and as the delivery was free if you spent over certain amount, it was a good deal. But times are changing. The Goodwins music shop on Capel Street sold me the Zoom R16 cheaper than the Thomann:-). Now that is what I like. Also again their customer service was just brilliant. I went in the morning and the Zoom was out of stock. They ordered it straight away and got to pick it up the same afternoon.
  I have here in front of me a brand new R16 still in its box. I open the box and my first impression is the size of the unit. It is roughly about the size of a laptop. It is well built, I must say. I think the only worry I would have would be the actual faders, if I was to transport it without a proper case (and with the size of the unit, I can see me bringing it with me quite often). It comes with a power supply, but can also be powered with AA batteries or in interface mode it can be powered by the USB cable. There is a dissent length USB cable and a 1G memory card. Also you get Cubase LE 5 with it, very capable recording software. I have worked a lot with Cubase in the past, so I'm pretty sure this one will be put to use. The set up and syncing of Cubase and the Zoom took a while, and the registration of the Cubase took me a few goes, nothing like bit of patience and persistence would not sort out ;-)
The basic operations of the unit are well explained in the manual and easy to learn. In fact, I was up doing a test recording in less than half an hour. The unit has two built in microphones, eight microphone inputs, two with phantom power. I am sure in the next month or so, I will be testing this little bad boy to its limits, and I will keep coming back to it as we move along. But I am really impressed, the quick test recording gave me a rough idea of the microphone preamps, and I really liked what I heard. I mean, it is not an Avalon or Neve, but it is better than lot of dedicated mic pre units I have tried for more money than what I paid for this whole unit. All of the controls have nice feel to them and I am really looking forward to getting down to some real work with this unit.
  In next weeks blog I will still go through my initial impression of the AKG Perception 220 condenser microphone, and that will be the last of the reviews before we will actually get in to some serious recording.
As you know I have mentioned on the side few times about the Christmas single. Here is bit more info. The track is and Acoustic version of one of the album tracks “Glory to the world”. It will be available at iTunes and all the major online retailers as a download only and will be coming out on the 8th of December. Closer to it I will set up all the links on my website. The lyrics are bit tongue in cheekbut hopefully it'll stop you to think for a while before maxing out your credit card this Christmas :-)
  Also as we have been rehearsing the songs for the album, there have been more tracks than we want on the actual album. As a result I will put out a free download EP as soon as we have the tracks ready, at the moment looks like January. You will be able to get your hands on the EP by signing up to my Email list and if you already have, you will be the first to get it :-). Then of course we have the Album coming out later in the spring, and this will be available as a physical CD as well.
  For now, thanks for dropping by. Leave comments and I will talk to you all more next week :-)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On a shoestring project part 12

  The day has come :-) I took the plunge and committed to the purchase of some recording equipment. And here I will give you a small rundown of what I got and what it is like. First: I changed my mind on a last minute about my Studio speakers. The Esi near 05 was hard to come by in any shops in Dublin, and as I have not used these companies’ products in the past, I would at least like to see them in real life before ordering them online. There were some M-Audio speakers in the Music maker in Dublin. Friend of mine in Denmark has an older pair of M-Audio speakers in his home recording set up, and while I was visiting him, I was very impressed with them. So the new M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 was the way I decided to go. They gave me a great deal, they matched Thomanns prices :-).
  I took my knife and carefully sliced the box open. And in it I found another box. So the anticipation builds up again, and second time I run my blade along the tape. I am greeted with two booklets, M-Audios Overdub volume 1, a guide to studio monitors and a Glossy user guide. The speakers are resting between two polystyrene trays. Between them is a bag full of leads and a power lead. I knew from reviews of these speakers that one of them is the power speaker and the other is a slave. So I detect the one with more connections on the back, and lift it up. It is heavy for its size, I like that. There is a foam pads with one sticky side at the bottom of the box. They look like you can attach them to the bottom of the speaker for avoiding scratches and for a little separation from the table, again a nice extra. I lift the other slave the box, and to my surprise this one is heavy as well. In the bag full of leads I find a stereo mini jack to phono lead, not any mind blowing quality, but still pretty sturdy. Some good quality speaker cable to connect the two speakers together and for some reason here is also a stereo mini jack to stereo mini jack lead. I assume it is for the auxiliary in connection on front of the power speaker. Also on front of the speaker you can find a volume control and a phones input -nice extra. The speakers have 4” woofer and a 1” tweeter. Also at the back you have a bass reflex port. At the back of the master speaker we have TRS and line inputs, bass boost switch, power switch, fuse and an AC selector (Leave this alone!).
  So I connect the speakers together, connect the power lead, and as I am still waiting for the Zoom R16 unit, I connect the speakers directly to my laptop. At this point it is good idea to play some music that you know really well through the speakers and get used to what they sound through the speakers. And today I feel like Foo Fighters “The Pretender”. Lets Rock!
Wow! The sound is big! I can't turn the speaker past half way in my small room. This just proves that my choice to go for a bit smaller speakers was the right one. There is no point to get massive speakers if you are mixing in a small room. The bottom end is massive, but I noticed that the bass boost was switched on, so I flip it off and presto. The detail is great; I can really hear the whole stereo spectrum in front of me very clearly. Also the top is clear. Everything seems surprisingly well balanced even before I spent any time positioning these correctly. So far I am very happy with my purchase. I will let you know more on the performance after I get some serious work done on these.
  As mentioned I still need to elevate the speakers to my ear level on my desk, and make sure they are equal distance from where I sit while doing my mixes. This will take some trial and error, I'm sure. Also I need to be extra careful in my small room that the speakers don't reflect of the walls. So lots of testing, moving, listening, and repeating the three before ;-)
  I also got an AKG Perception 220 microphone and the Zoom R16 and I will go through these as well in the next few weeks. Let me just say, this experience has restored my faith in local music shops, the service was great and they matched the big online monsters prices. And if something happened to be faulty, the stores are just up the road.
  To my delight my submission to AWAL (digital distribution company) was accepted few days a go. So it looks like I will have the Christmas single out in December, but more on that later. So far AWAL have proved to be great. Fast and efficient, but still very approachable and down to earth.
Now I have one favour to ask: Those of you who have not done so yet, please do sign up to my Emailing list by clicking here :-)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On a shoestring project part 11

  The winter is really making its self known here, temperature dropping near zero and floods bashing the coast line. Also the winter bug is running wild all around me, we had to cancel last weeks rehearsals as some of the musicians were out of action. This just made me realize how much I have grown to love the project. When I got the call in the morning, my heart sank. But everyone is back in form, and we made up some time :-)
  The past week I was focused on research and song writing. I noticed I am writing songs more for the project now. It's like I have two song writing hats, and when the first few lines of the song came to my head, I get a feeling straight away if the song will be a song for my solo project or for Sliotar. I can't even say why or how but I just know... Anyway, as you know Sliotar keeps me busy on weekends and now we are talking to do some recording with Sliotar as well. So it will be busy few weeks a head of me. I might be wearing one hat in the morning and another in the afternoon.
  Its funny how in the beginning of this project I had an acoustic guitar and few songs, but as soon as we had the first rehearsal, I just knew the album was going to be very much a rock album. Now the rebel in me (yeah there is one in there...) is trying to see how far I can push the boat. But at the same time, as I mentioned last week, I want this to be very much an album that works as a unit, not only as individual songs.
  The research I've been doing this week has been about sound. I am working out a plan for the recording and this includes also what I want everything to sound like. So I am listening to lots of music and analyzing every instrument, also reading a lot about the big engineer’s tricks of the trade. These are all little things (actually pretty big things for me) that will speed up the actual recording process, and leave more time for the actual performance. Also my small office space will be where I'll be tracking most of the vocals and guitars ( I already feel sorry for my neighbours while I try to squeeze most out of my Fender Blues junior), and editing and mixing. Drums and Bass probably will be done in the rehearsal rooms, but we'll see). I have looked in to a little bit of DIY acoustic treatment and how to make the most of my limited space. As I'll be locked up there for days, week’s even months, making it a good sounding room and a pleasant environment to work in will be detrimental. My office really is a small box room, roughly about 1.5m by 3m, concrete walls, tile floor and probably too much stuff... and a pile of guitars. And even before I have got my studio monitors, I can see lots of reflection problems. I am not an expert on the subject, but as hiring a professional to acoustically treat my room, would blow a huge hole in my pretty much non existent budget. So once again I am left with the simple task of research, read and learn. And here is what I need to watch out for. If the sound from the speakers reflects from walls, this can exaggerate frequencies, or even worst cases cancel them out. If you have two guitar amps, and a delay pedal, set the repeat on very fast. When you strike a chord, you hear the direct signal and the delay signal only milliseconds later from the second amp, and you have massive sound. Now basically the same thing happens with the studio speakers, except the second signal is the reflection from the wall. On the guitar, this can be good thing, but while mixing track, not so good! And as to the cancellation, let’s break it down. If you have a guitar amp with an open back cabinet, put it against a wall and play a chord. Now move the amp away from the wall little at a time and play the chord again. Eventually you will hit a spot when the signal from the front of the speaker mixes with the reflection of the signal from the back of the amp that bounces back from the wall. And what you are faced without of face signal (Could not resist...). What this basically is the wave forms from the two signals are opposite and the result of a sound weakening, and in most extreme case disappearing (This is the theory behind noise cancelling headphones). So what I need to do is eliminate these reflections in my office. This is my simple explanation to a very complex subject, the way I understand it. If you want to learn more about the subject, there is loads of great free info on the net. I can recommend also a great recording magazine Sound on sound, and they also have loads of articles online.
  I know the past few weeks have been bit heavy on technical info, but all this is very important when you want to record a professional quality CD on a shoestring budget. So let me finish this one with some thing that really has cheered me up in the past few weeks. I stumbled upon a few good men, who do go to extremes with their time and hard work, who believe in the songs I have written and the music we play together. They get out of their beds 7.30 am on their days off, to head for the rehearsals. They rehearse four hours in the morning before going to work an eight hour shifts. Tomek and Sebastian, you guys rock!
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On a shoestring project part 10

   I survived the Halloween weekend, hope it was ok for you guys as well. Once again it is upwards and onwards. I am getting closer and closer to the start of the actual recording of the album. Rehearsals have been going great, the songs are taking their shape, but more so I can hear an album. I think sometimes people forget this, I have made this mistake in the past... When rock music started to become more and more available in LP format, artists started making albums. Now when home recording has become so accessible for most people ( what used to be a price of a studio for one day, now you can buy a basic home recording equipment), The market has been exaggerated by millions of CD's or download albums ( Not a bad thing in my humble opinion, makes every one work harder to stand out). I did the mistake once thinking more is better. An album that had 14 tracks and a running time of over an hour. I must say, listening back to the album is hard work. Don't get me wrong, individual tracks are good, lots of great moments. But as an album it is little bit disjointed and too long. The standard running time of LP was 45 min. And I still think that best albums are around about this length. Also the collection of songs need to work as a unit, making a good album is little bit like making a film. Set of scenes that put together makes sense, keeps you interested and leaves you wanting more. This is very much what I want to achieve. And dare I say this loud? It would be nice to be able to release it as LP as well some day...
   As the idea of this project is to achieve a professional quality CD with a minimum budget, the home recording rout was always the first option. But let’s look in to this for a minute. The direction that the music has taken in the past few months is pretty solid rock album, drums, bass, electric guitar and vocals. And lot of the tracks would benefit from really classic sounds. I have considered in the past few weeks whether or not I should try to get to a professional recording studio for some, if not all of the recording. But this would blow the budget well out of portions (and possibly bankrupt me). I don't think I would benefit from spending my money on mediocre or budget studio, but the top studios still have some of the "toys" that create that exquisite in the sound. So what would they have? Well... Good studio would have great sounding acoustically treated rooms (never under estimate acoustics!), they would have a selection of microphones that I could not even dream of, and I once had the pleasure to record my own voice for one track with AKG C12. This is probably my favourite vocal microphone; at least I haven't got my hands on a better one yet. This I must say was magic... The detail was just out of this world, it was warm, clear, listening back felt like being in the room during the performance. But this microphone comes with a big price tag... in Thomann it is currently going for €3599... The other great industry standard is Neuman U87, Neuman certainly knows how to make rery nice microphones! The next thing in the signal change would be the microphone pre amp, maybe some nice Neve, Avalon or TL Audio. The smoothest compressors in the world, maybe a good old fashioned analogue tape machine. Selection of studio monitors, and of course an experienced engineer that could take all the stress of recording out of my hands... But as mentioned above, this would come at a big price... Even with the dreaded “R” word hanging over our heads, the studios of this standard would be charging anywhere from €500 up to €2000 a day... And let’s face it, if I had that kind of money to throw around, this blog would not be about recording an album on a shoestring budget.
   So I have a laptop, nothing fancy but OK, Acer aspire 5738Z, I have a Shure beta 57 a, a very good industry standard microphone, I have matched pair of Octava MK 012 small diaphragm condensers and I have access to pair of Shure SM 58. I also have friends who could possibly borrow me more microphones for a short term. I've been doing lots of research in the past few months on recording equipment, trying to figure out what would be most suitable for my needs and what would be the best value for money, without compromising on quality. And this is what I have in mind: I would need enough inputs to record drums, and hopefully something to spare. So minimum eight, and I would need XLR microphone inputs, and at least few with phantom power. And a silent operation would be a bonus. So the winner at the moment is Zoom R16 (follow the link for manufacturer’s site) It works as individual unit, as an interface for computer and also as a controller for your recording software. I think it is a genius of a device, and the feedback and reviews have been great. But obviously I will not know for sure until I get my hands on one. In Thomann they are priced at the moment at €345, Waltons in Dublin are selling it for €385, and for my friends in the states side Sweetwater are selling it for $399. But there is a great little store here in Dublin called the Goodwins, on Capel Street. I have bought lots of equipment from them over the years, and their service is brilliant! About year an half ago I bought a guitar amp from them and it had a problem in the valve sockets, and they ordered a replacement straight away and gave me another amp while I waited for the replacement. And I do like supporting a local shop especially if they try to compete with the internet giants. The list price in Goodwins is €359, and I am sure they can negotiate few Euros anyway, and if there is any trouble, the shop is with in walking distance from me, and I don't need to be posting stuff back to Germany while the project gets delayed by weeks, if not even months. Also I need some sort of studio speakers for mixing. And I have my eyes on ESI Near05 active speakers, in Thoman for €175 for a pair. I haven't found anything in Dublin to compete with them at the moment, but I am also keeping my eyes on Gumtree for second hand studio speakers around that price. Also I would like to get an large diaphragm vocal mic, and as the C12 is out of question, AKG has a budget range of microphones that are supposed to be great value for money. So the microphone in question is AKG Perception 120, and again in Thomann for €85 which I think is a bargain. If I was to invest more money on it, I would recommend looking in to Neuman TLM 102 (€555 in Thomann), Or TLM 103 (There is a second hand one on Gumtree at the moment for €500, a bargain!)
Anyway, that’s enough of window shopping for now; Let me know your thoughts and suggestions on my shopping list.