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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Building A Home Studio, Revisited

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

Once upon a time, not too long ago, mind you, building a respectable home studio' required a rather substantial investment in time and money.

Back in the day, so to speak, we were still recording in analog, and a decent eight track tape machine cost a few thousand dollars at a minimum. Then there was the console (desk, mixer, etc.) consisting of perhaps twenty-four channels, which cost another couple grand. Of course, no home studio was complete without at least a couple racks of outboard gear. We had doozles and raddoids and multiple compressors and delay devices, each guaranteed to muddy up the mix. All of this was then routed together with cables and wires and strewn about in disarray. Getting it all to sound good was never an easy task.

Nick Gill in Studio A

These days things are little different. The advent of digital technology has changed much about how we record sound and music. Oh, we still have our share of doozles and raddoids, but now they are called add-ons' and they are included with the recording software. Most of the clumsy cables have long been chucked into the trash. We like to run a clean shop

Over the years, I have designed and overseen the construction of countless studios. It's one of those things I do. From coast to coast, from sea to shining sea. Big rooms, little rooms they are all the same. The trick is to create an environment conducive to the recording process. The best advice I can give is learn to keep your sound pressure levels under control. Deafening volume levels are not a good idea in small enclosures. When in doubt turn it down.

There are numerous companies offering digital recording software at reasonable prices. The choice is yours. For starters, I recommend Sonar for the initial recording process and Sound-Forge for the mastering process. It's really not as hard as it sounds, and these days even a caveman like myself can afford it.

In any studio, a bad headphone mix is as inexcusable as it is predictable. How in the name of Marilyn Manson can anyone expect to lay down strong basic tracks if you can’t hear what the other musicians are doing? The same holds true for the overdub process. A musician is only as good as his (or her) ears. If the sound in your cans doesn’t rock, your not apt to perform at your best.

For this, I recommend Samson 4 C-que 8 headphone amplifier, ideal for small studio applications, addressing many of the problems associated with typical inferior headphone mixes.

With a retail price of around $149.00, the Samson 4 C-que 8 is a safe and affordable solution. It fits nicely on the desk or console, and my unit has yet to throw me any curves. This is a quality device with no apparent drawbacks. I would recommend the Samson 4 C-que 8 to anyone serious about their workstation or studio headphone mixes.

Obviously, you will also need reliable headphones. Again, you are only as good as your ears can hear. I suggest a couple pairs of Sony V600’s These are a fine offering by Sony, a sturdy set of headphones, with firm, comfortable ear pieces and a warm, desirable frequency response. In simple words… a good investment for anyone looking for a reliable set of headphones.

You will also need an array of dependable microphones, but this subject is covered in great depth in a separate article. Also available at Helium. If you are new to recording, take a few minutes and read a few articles on the subject. You just might learn something!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Recording Keyboards and Synthesizers

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

Over the years, I have learned not to be surprised by people who go to great lengths pontificating on subjects they no nothing about. Unfortunately, this happens far too often, and the subject of recording synthesizers has proven no different.

For starters, it is very rare to record a synthesizer running through an amplifier during a studio session. I have known exceptions, of course, but not many. This is simply bad science, and is not indicative of the process. Put away your microphones, we are running this baby direct.

B. Thomas Cooper
B. Thomas Cooper

As a staff producer for the legendary Power Station, I worked on an array of projects, ranging from standard Jazz to Meat Loaf. Most of the Meat Loaf keyboard arrangements were recorded meticulously over a period of many months. This was usually assigned to a studio wizard by the name of Jeff Bova, who worked in his own facility, with no other musicians in the room. He would have little use for an amplifier under these conditions. A good set of headphones however, were of priceless value.

Live recording is somewhat different, but even then, a direct signal is tantamount. Unless the sound you are trying to achieve can only be accomplished through an amplifier, why would we even haul the amp out of the closet?

Furthermore, and like it or not, when a major act records live, you can bet the bank the recordings were brought back to the studio, where entire parts are added or re-recorded. A keyboard part run through an amp would likely be replaced for fidelity reasons alone. This is big business, folks. We don't make junk when we don't have to.

Still, feel free to experiment as you wish. There are no hard and fast rules that can't be broken. Recording should be fun, and the results artistically satisfying. Approach each aspect of recording with an open mind, and again, by all means, enjoy the experience.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fresh As a Daisy - Chasing Unique Sounds

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

For myself, one of the more intriguing aspects of the recording process is the merging of art and Science. When the two work in tandem, the results can be magical.

As such, it has long been the desire of many an artist or producer to create fresh sounds, something indeed unique. Predictably many long studio hours have burned away during such pursuit. Guitar tone, drum sounds, even vocal treatments are fair game, but just how much of this is really necessary?

For starters, let's try to focus on the song. When the song is right, it will usually tell you what it needs. A good producer will often recognize a songs strengths or weaknesses rather quickly. It's all about the song. A good song will always outshine the production sensibilities.

Of course, over the years there have been a number of songs that greatly befitted from unique recordings. Early examples include Do the Mess Around, written by producer Ahmet Ertegun and recorded by the legendary Ray Charles. The recording itself is of very poor quality, but the performance is truly and purely magical.

Another example of a unique recording comes to mind. Telstar, recorded by English producer Joe Meek, represents some of the most imaginative techniques ever applied to recording. Of course, Joe himself was more than a tad unique. I strongly recommend his work to anyone interested in the history of recorded music.

There are many more. Crimson and Clover, by Tommy James, and more recently, the early recordings of Nine Inch Nails, and industrial genius, Scraping Fetus From the Wheel. In each case, the uniqueness of the recordings were tantamount to their appeal.

The question as to how one should approach such a process is subjective at best. Obviously, if creating fresh sounds was really that easy, everyone would be doing it, which is far from the case. Let the song dictate what it needs and try to keep an open mind. Most of all relax and enjoy the ride. This is your experience. Make the best of it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Choosing Furniture For Your Studio

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

During my thirty plus years of recording, the subject of studio furniture has never been the hot topic of conversation. Understandably, of course. Who can really say for certain what kind of furniture is appropriate for a recording studio?

Still, myths abound. As such, I see where room for some clarification may be in order. For starters, very few studio settings are alike. There are basic rules governing sound re-enforcement, but frankly, the door is wide open. What you do once inside, is really up to you.

Admittedly, there are aesthetic considerations, but these are always trumped by the sonic properties of the room. Black leather couches are all but standard in most major studio lounges, but one must learn to differentiate the studio from the lounge. Even with a digital workstation such as mine, neither the gear, nor the most comfortable furniture will greatly effect the performance of the musicians.

Remember, these are the same cats sleeping on some drum riser in Fresno, or on a table backstage in Detroit. I kid you not when I say I have seen a clean, well organized studio throw some musicians into a funk, not unlike a fish out of water.

True, it’s nice to feel at home when recording, but let’s be practical, shall we.
Wood paneling provides a soft, warm sonic solution. Carpet, bass traps, baffling, etc. should also be realistic considerations. As for the couch, I suggest you leave it in the lounge, as most musicians do not play their best when sprawled out. It’s simply bad science.

I recommend tables close to the ground and away from sensitive equipment. Trust me on this. Spills will happen, and they will happen often. Ash trays and beer bottles topple with regularity. You can keep some stuff out of the room entirely, but something always slips through the cracks. Just be prepared.

In closing, choose you studio furniture based on your pragmatic needs rather than aesthetics. Be confident, be comfortable, and by all means, enjoy the experience.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sampling Vs. Stealing

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

Sampling Vs. Stealing.

Although I have never had the success of say, Madonna, Montana, or Metallica, I have written my share of tunes, some which have charted. As such, I may offer just a tad of insight on this subject.

Over the years, I have been confronted with a variety of these situations, in a variety of settings. I have been sampled, borrowed from, quoted, and mentioned by name. On multiple occasions, I have even had the opening act feature my songs in their set-list.

I for one, find the process amusing, and artistically satisfying. As a musician, I started out as an artist first, and my interest remains primarily at the creative level. The business end cannot be neglected, but hey, business is business.

Although I have always been the principle lyricist in my projects, I have never been under the allusion that those words belong to me, and can never be uttered in that particular order again without my consent. Lifting an entire chorus line sounds artistically intrusive, but each situation is unique.

The record companies, however, are somewhat less concerned about my artistic integrity and tend to focus on maximizing profit margins. In fact, they are contractually obligated to do so. Although my attitude may seem relaxed in comparison, the bevy of attorneys minding my books have very little sense of humor.

Keep in mind, the one thing Madonna, Montana and Metallica all have in common? Money, the most important ‘M’ word other than ‘mother’.

Here’s the low down. Chances are, unless you are seeing a substantial profit, no-one is apt to notice or even care if you have sampled without permission. Furthermore, some work like parodies for instance, are above the fray, protected under constitutional right of free speech and expression.

In closing, let’s just say this isn’t your normal cup of soup, folks, I’m afraid we’ve opened a can of unknown substance, frothing just below the surface. My advice, approach with caution. Sampling isn’t a crime, but stealing is unconscionable. Ultimately, you must make the call. Make it a sound one.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Merchandising for Musicians

Sound and Recording
B. Thomas Cooper

Listen up kiddies, this one is real important. I want you to step away from your TV remote, turn off your Ipods and cell-phones and pay close attention to what you are about to read. It’s about your money.

Being a musician carries an air of romanticism unlike any other profession. People tend to think of musicians as something special. I have my doubts.

Reality reminds me of the countless musicians sleeping on other peoples couches and smoking other peoples cigarettes. I can recall a parade of fellers arriving at rehearsal, some call it band practice, with a six pack of brown ale and no drum sticks, or guitar strings, etc. Most of these cats talk a big game, but can’t walk a straight line. My advice? If your going to talk the talk, you really might want to consider walking the walk.

Are you paying attention? I doubt it.

I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but contrary to mythology, it is not raining money in the music business. Oh, of course, if you add up all the numbers, it appears big, but by the time you divide it all up there isn’t much to go around. There is even less for the independent acts.

The exception is the live gate, which is attracting huge dollar signs and some remarkable liquidity. A big chunk of that change comes from merchandising. Of course, you aren’t apt to sell as many t-shirts as Hanna Montana, but you can certainly sell your share, providing you have the good sense to approach it as a potential revenue stream.

There are some basic rules you need to follow when venturing into the realm of merchandising. Break these rules and you will severely compromise your chances of being successful. Ignore these rules, and suffer the consequence.

I’m going to focus primary on t-shirts, but the rules apply to all products.

Rule number one: set your standards high. When designing a t-shirt, think quality, and be prepared to take a substantial hit to the wallet. Two dozen poor quality t-shirts distributed among friends is a cop-out. That is not merchandising. For starters, I recommend no less than four or five dozen. The old adage about spending money to make money generally holds true. Don’t throw away your investment. Spend the money necessary to produce a quality product.

T-shirts are available in a variety of quality and price range. A higher quality t-shirt will obviously cost more, but is also well worth the difference. A hundred percent cotton is advisable.

Be sure the artwork and graphics you have chosen are worthy of printing and distribution. Don’t let your shirts look like every other band shirt circulating.

Either hire a pro to do the job or find someone capable of producing the work of a pro. Trust me on this. Bad artwork will come back to haunt you. no-one wants to wear a t-shirt that makes them look trashy. That shirt won’t get worn.

Rule number two: Don’t give away your t-shirts. Are you insane? You just spent a bundle on those shirts. Who do your friends think you are? Are these same friends who are pushing for free t-shirts going to shell out hundreds of dollars so they can give free stuff to you? Of course not! Don’t be a sucker!

Likewise, before you give a shirt to some blonde back stage, reach into your pocket. If you don’t have enough money in that pocket to pay full asking price for the shirt, you are robbing yourself and your band-mates. This is perhaps the biggest mistake. Where are all those t-shirts you gave away now?

Rule number three. Don’t just leave your t-shirts lying around in a milk crate stage left. “ Hey man, like we got these cool t-shirts for sale, you know, so if you’re interested come see our drummer after the show.” Not! How in God’s green earth are you ever going to sell shirts with that pathetic shtick?

Set up a merchandising booth. Buy your own folding table if you must. Drape the table with a black cloth or what not. Set your booth up in a brightly lit spot, and display your shirts in a positive manner. You’ll need someone you trust who is willing to stay with the booth throughout the event. Keep a ledger, and store all monies in a locking cash box. Keep track, dang it!

Here’s some advice. Fix your price and stick to your guns. You can always ask more than your fixed price, but you should never accept less. Furthermore, don’t spend your merchandising money on beer, pizza, or anything else for that matter, other than for re-investing in more shirts. This is not beer money. Merchandising requires serious commitment. If you don’t think you are ready for such a commitment, perhaps you shouldn’t bother.

Well, my friends, stand up, take a deep breath and stretch a little. I’ll pick this up again next week and we will go ever a few tricks for optimizing sales. I know what your thinking, but relax. It’ll all be worth your effort!




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