Hello. I’m Xeno. If you are new to this site, here’s a bit about me: My uncle George was the bass player for the band Steppenwolf. Since high school I’ve been writing and performing original songs. My now defunct band, Xenophilia, played several shows with Jason Mraz before he became world famous. We toured in Hollywood with a comedy troupe and I made only one CD years ago, Cafe of Love, which featured a few members of the band Cake, but the CD never did well and the band broke up. While I’ve played for crowds of over 1,000 people and have won some awards for songwriting, I have never had that superstar voice or vibe. Since the band, I’ve gone back to the drawing board on my quest, not to make it big, but to create music that, to me, stands up to my favorite songs, the ones I consider the best ever written. As I’m slowly losing my hearing, I’m in a race against time. I’d love it if someone 1,000 years from now was still enjoying what I’m doing today in some way.
For others into home recording, here are some notes on what I’ve learned and discovered so far. Summary of elements for a successful recording project:
- A Great Song: Has a unique mood and great lyrics and/or melody.
- Arrangement: Tempo, instrumentation and harmony support the overall theme/mood
- Musicianship/Performance: Hone your skills. Practice, listen, play live, learn from a crowd what works
- Instruments: Quality, learn to hear the differences. Some MIDI instruments are great.
- Room Treatment: Ability of the recording room to capture true sound
- Microphones: Do I need a $5,000 mic?
- Preamp: Are the REM Babyface interface preamps good enough?
- Analog to Digital Converters: Same question as above for A-D converters
- DAW (Recording software): Cubase 7
- EQ: Built-in to Cubase 7
- Effects: Built-in to Cubase 7
- Monitor Speakers/Headphones: My KRK Rokit 5′s weren’t cutting it.
A Great Song
To answer what makes a great song, I started with a list of my favorites: Yesterday (Beatles), Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkle), Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Imagine (John Lennon), A Day in the Life (Beatles), Turn to Stone (ELO), Help! (Beatles), Scarborough Fair (Simon and Garfunkle), Girl from Ipanema (Jobim/de Moraes/Gimbel), Wichita Lineman (Glen Campell), Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash), Spanish Fly (Van Halen), Wild World (Cat Stevens), Message In A Bottle (the Police), King of the Road (Roger Miller), I’m Yours (Jason Mraz), Stray Cat Strut (Stray Cats), Space Oddity (David Bowie), Rocket Man (Elton John), The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle (Schwartz and Wyle), YYZ (Rush), Welcome Back Kotter (John Sebastien), The Streetbeater (Quincy Jones), Born to be Wild (Steppenwolf), Super Bon Bon (Soul Coughing), Summertime (George Gershwin), The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkle), Nowhere Man (Beatles), Father and Son (Cat Stevens), Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith), Lying Eyes (the Eagles), Georgia (Ray Charles), I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor), What a Wonderful World (Thiele/Weiss/Armstrong), Norwegian Wood (Beatles), Cotton Fields (Huddie Ledbetter/CCR version), Willie and the Poor Boys (CCR), Blackbird (Beatles), Into the Dark (Deathcab for Cutie), Dear God (XTC), Sad Lisa (Cat Stevens), Don’t Know Why (Norah Jones), Mrs. Robinson (Simon and Garfunkle), Chestnuts Roasting (Nat King Cole), The Inspector Theme (Henry Mancini), Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi), Birdland (Zawinul, Manhattan Transfer), The Loneliest of Creatures (Klaatu), Wayward Son (Kansas), Dust in the Wind (Kansas), More than a Feeling (Boston) … and many more.
What do my favorite songs/recordings have in common? I may never figure that out.
Some of my favorite songs are definitely on the list because of the arrangement. The Streetbeater and the Inspector Theme are good examples. I can say of all my favorite songs that the tempo and instrumentation fit the theme/mood perfectly.
Skill, interpretation, energy, feeling/expression, accuracy and tone all come together in this aspect. Van Halen was my first rock concert and I’ve had dreams where Eddie Van Halen is teaching me things on the guitar. Even a poor recording of his “Spanish Fly” instrumental would still be on my list.
You can’t really make excellent music on broken or low quality instruments. With guitars I’ve spent a lot of time searching. I’m still not completely satisfied but I do love my trusty acoustic 12-string Takamine guitar as well as my Baby Taylor. I’m still looking for the right 6-string acoustic. I currently fake my electric guitars using digital amplifier effects on the acoustic Baby Taylor. I also use sampled MIDI instruments. My favorite VST plug-ins are EZDrummer (Nashville/Cocktail and Pop/Rock kits) and the FabFour instrument collection.
You can’t record anything good in a bad room. A good room is quiet (but not totally dead) so you can add effects later. My computer was loud and I finally ended up completely rebuilding it with a fanless power supply and SSD hard drive to make it as silent as possible. I also got the quietest CPU fan I could find. If you clap in different places where you will be singing and playing in the room, the sound should fall mostly dead with no echo. Also, sweep your voice from low to high and listen for vibrations back from the room. There is a free program called Room EQ Wizard that I’ve been using as well as my ear to show what treatment is needed. Auralex is what most people use, but it is expensive and honestly, didn’t do any better job than a couple of $20 camp bed foam slabs from Home Depot. These are flat white 3 inch thick foam, about 2.5 ft by 5.5 ft. Cut that with an electric kitchen knife and find a way to hang it on your walls that need treatment. I also used some curtains. The reverb/echo you hear on clapping results from the sound waves bouncing back and forth between flat surfaces. Anything you have two flat hard surfaces facing each other, you will need to treat one of the surfaces. This also goes for floor and ceiling. I discovered I need a rug in one place as well as mounting some foam and hanging floor to ceiling curtain in a corner of the room where I have my microphones. Now that I know what to listen for, I’m surprised I didn’t give this step higher priority a lot sooner. I had a constant subtle “plate” type reverb in everything I recorded live that was due to my room.
Know How Hearing Works
When testing different equipment, you must do blind tests. This is because due to the way the brain works, even if you try, you won’t be able to avoid self deception.
I’m currently using an AT3035 but would like to upgrade… if it would make a difference. I already compared my AT3035 (~$125) to a much more expensive Neumann U87 (~$3,600) and I actually liked the Audio-Technica better… at the time. I also have a Blue Spark studio condenser mic ($199). It is very slighly hotter than the 3035, a little more high, a little less low end. You can hear the AT3035 here.
Could it be that I need better preamps than the ones in my RME Babyface USB 2.0 High Speed Audio Interface? I’m still researching. The point of a preamp is to raise the signal above the noise so the signal is clean. I’m getting noise because the computer still has a CPU fan and that is getting picked up.
RME says, “Both digitally controlled preamps provide individually switchable 48V phantom power. A gain of up to 60 dB, adjustable in steps of 3 dB over a range of 51 dB, exceptional EIN performance even at low amplification settings, and extremely low THD+N values let these preamps surpass those of other devices that cost several times the price of the Babyface. … THD+N DA: <;; -100 dB (<;; 0.001%)”. THD+N is Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise and EIN stands for Effective or Equivalent Input Noise (audio). This is the amount of noise added to the input signal. RME doesn’t give a number, which is suspicious. “Exceptional” is not a measurement it is a value judgement. I probably have a bad cable or something…
I’ve found a few things you should know if you have one. 1) Update the firmware. 2) Learn how the TotalMix software works. I spent a lot of time confused about how the routing and levels work until I found this: RME TotalMix Tutorial 1. Note: AS = ADAT over SPDIF, AN = Analog, PH = Phones. 3) There is an undocumented high-pass filter so if you want a flat curve, set EQ to boost 1.5 dB at 20 Hz with Q of 0.7.
Analog to Digital Converter
To get the analog sound into your recording software, you need a converter. Currently, I’m using a Babyface which is both preamp and A/D converter. The sample rates available in kHz are 32, 44. 1, 48, 64, 88.2, 96, 128, 176.4 and 196. Higher sample rates mean more digital slices of each analog audio sample (a microphone input) and larger file sizes, but one study of 60 people, some of them audio pros, showed that there was no discernible difference between 44.1kHz audio from higher sample rates. For a sound recorded at 44.1 kHz there are 44,100 samples (snapshots) per second of that sound. I’ve been using 96kHz because I heard that this allows less degradation of signal if you apply a lot of effects. I have not A/B tested this assertion, however, and I was told by a studio that recorded a Platinum album for a band that had the number 1 alternative hit in the USA that they use 44.1 kHz. Am I just wasting disk space?
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
I’ve recently upgraded from Cubase 5.5 to Cubase 7. There are many others and the important thing is that you know how to use yours to record, edit parts, handle MIDI (if you do that), adjust bad pitches in audio, create tracks, add effects and EQ, and export your work to finished products.
Equalization is critical to mixing. It is the process of adjusting (if needed) the frequencies (highs, mids and lows) of the various parts of your recording so they sound pleasing together. My recommendation is to get a nice pro mix that you like and lay it down as one of your tracks in a recording you are working on. As you are learning what range of frequencies each instrument in a mix might use, try to match your instruments to those in your favorite mix and you’ll learn a few things by comparing to your initial choices. For example, in one session I followed the example of my mix reference (Jason Mraz, Geek in the Pink – reached #32 on US Billboard Adult Pop Songs – Kevin Kadish was nominated for Best Engineered Album at the 48th Grammy Awards in 2005 for his work on the Mraz album “Mr. A-Z”) and decided to: reduce all but certain high frequencies in my shaker egg, brighten up and widen my snare, take the highs out of the bass, lower the kick drum volume, get rid of the room sound on the kick so it is flat (no reverb), etc.
Any compression, reverb, chorus, phasing, flanging, echos, panning, etc. you use should enhance, not detract from the song.
For a few years I had only some KRK Rokit5 monitors. I’d read about how great they were, but I never did a “shoot-out” with them against any other monitor speakers. Just before Christmas 2012, I finally did that and realized how much sound I was missing. My local Guitar Center beats Internet prices and I got a good holiday deal on a pair of Yamaha HS80M’s which were the best sounding after comparing a bunch of different studio monitor speakers they had set up. I’ve read that you should have a minimum of 6 different speakers for quality mixing. I’m currently using Yamaha HS80M’s, KRK Rokit 5s, my Prius JBL stereo, Sony MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 headphones, and my iPhone earbuds. I plan to set up some super cheap computer speakers as well.
Some final effects are sometimes added during mastering. I’m creating high quality MP3s for listening on my iPhone, but I have not yet compared the quality of the best MP3s to WAV files that are used for CDs.
This page will be updated from time to time. Feel free to leave questions and recommendations, especially if you work at a world class studio.