I Need You

February 1, 2010 6:06 PM

A cover of the Beatles song by the informal band I'm in, recorded very poorly at our last basement jam session.

If anyone has any tips for recording in really small spaces cheaply and quickly at some quality better than this, I'd love to hear them. (We like to record our rehearsals so we can refer back to them, but our existing means are, well, crappy.)

The band: Nancy (vocals - 1st verse and anything fancy), me (vocals - 2nd verse), Sandy (guitar and harmonica), Stu (bass), and Ted (drums).

posted by ocherdraco (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

What do you have to record with? Are you willing to spend a little money on this, even granting that "cheaply" remains a key goal?

You can get a lot out of a few mics and a small mixer, getting a mic on each person at least and doing a sound check to put a decent mix together by adjusting the level on each person and then just send that mix onto a tape into someone's laptop or whatever.

You can also just try and work it with one mic, if you've got an omnidirectional condenser or some such, by setting up the mic roughly in the middle of your space and physically moving each person to a decent distance to adjust their relative levels that way. It means people having to be careful about really staying put, but with some care it can work.

Field recorders like the Zoom H2/H4 can also be pretty good for simple live recording -- you're doing the one-mic thing again in terms of placing your input device in one central location, but the Zooms have multiple mics in them facing in different directions so you can actually record four separate mono tracks of audio and have someone sit down afterward and mix that more actively instead of being stuck with whatever the mix live was.
posted by cortex at 6:55 PM on February 1, 2010

Okay. Keep in mind that I know basically nothing about recording equipment. (But I'm willing to learn! Teach me, cortex hocam.*)

We're currently using one of those digital recorders that people use more often for recording lectures or interviews, which is just totally unsuited to the task. A multiple mic solution would probably be best for us; our space is so tiny that any one-mic solution is probably going to be overwhelmed by the drums or the bass (we're in a basement room so small that there is only one place each of us could possibly stand). I'm willing to spend a little money, but not very much. (I dunno, less than $100 would be great, and I'd love it if I could spend something more like $50. However, I'm not averse to spending more if I can see that I'll be able to use it for things like recording myself in my apartment where I can't be loud just as easily as I can use it in a basement where I can be). I've got a Macbook I can feed things into, and a few different bits of audio editing freeware, but nothing on the level of Pro Tools or somesuch.

Currently, we've got three mics for vocals, each hooked up to its own little amp, and then the bass and guitar are both hooked up to amps as well. The drums aren't miked at all. (Getting the levels right has been a big problem; the drums are always going to overpower everything else in that space, and the amps for the vocals aren't powerful enough.)

*hoca (HO-jah) means teacher in Turkish. "Hocam" is "my teacher." "I" am a "pedant."
posted by ocherdraco at 5:07 AM on February 2, 2010

Needs more cowbell!

hey, there is one in the original
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:41 AM on February 2, 2010

If I can find one, I'll totally break one out. Jaunty!
posted by ocherdraco at 6:14 AM on February 2, 2010

It sounds like your simplest cheap-cheap-cheap solution would be to either buy or borrow a small mixer and run all your existing mics into that to record a mix of the room to tape/laptop/whatever, then, yeah.

You can get a small mixer for around a hundred bucks new, less if you go shopping; if there are enough mics to go around for y'all already, whoever owns them may well have one sitting around though and small mixers are pretty darned portable.

You could skip the vocal amps and run the vox direct into the mixer; depending on what you want out of the guitar and bass you could either mic their amps (which means another mic or two) or run them direct into the mixer (or through the amps and out from THOSE direct into the mixer via a patch cable, results may vary depending on the amps you've got).

Then set up one mic nearer the drums to catch those. And play and have someone mix until things sound pretty good out of the board into headphones or onto a recording. Tweak that until its as good as you think it's gonna get, and then take notes on your setup (mic placement, volume/slider levels on all the mixer channels) and you've got a repeatable setup whenever you want to do a recording.

Note that this all assumes that for the sake of cheapness and simplicity you're willing to sacrifice in-room sound quality for the sake of the recorded mix. Standing around in the room with the vocals not amplified and possibly the guitar and bass not either, you're going to be shouting and strumming in the face of drums that are winning even more than they normally would be. That may or may not disorienting to the point of being a problem for y'all.

Common solution for that would be to get a headphone splitter and plug a bunch of sets of cans into it so that everyone playing can hear the mixer output together. But that's a little more money (headphones for everybody who doesn't have 'em, the mic splitter itself) and a little more setup.

Another way to approach this is to do recording in two takes -- mic up the drums and bass and guitar and lay down the rhythm track, and then once you've got a solid take there go ahead and record vocals as a separate take. Advantages there less equipment needed, a lot more ease getting levels balanced; main disadvantages are losing the pure live take element of playing and singing all at once as a group (and whether this is a problem is again dependent on you guys as a group), and spending at least a little more time putting any recording together.

So, again, this is all assuming that your goal here is to make some better recordings of your practice-space run-throughs. If your goal is primarily to find a better way to record your practices as they normally occur, some of this may just be too disruptive to fit the bill, but I don't have enough experience recording live performances on the super-cheap to have any other ideas there.
posted by cortex at 7:28 AM on February 2, 2010

I should clarify that the two-take approach makes another assumption as well -- that you have some kind of multitrack recording hardware or software.

In cheap cheap cheap terms this means either something like a 4-track cassette deck (ideally that someone owns, but you could probably find a little 4-track Tascam for fifty bucks used) or some kind of multitrack recording software on the macbook.

Garageband is more than sufficient for this (it's not a perfect piece of software, but I've done plenty of serious recording on it myself), so you're probably already good there with your macbook. If for some reason you don't have that, there's a free program called Audacity that gets a lot of use, though I haven't spent any time with it myself so I can't say much there.
posted by cortex at 7:36 AM on February 2, 2010

Great, that's super helpful. I've got both GarageBand and Audacity already, so I'm set there. I'll talk to the others about which method would be best for us, but this all sounds totally doable for me.

posted by ocherdraco at 8:09 AM on February 2, 2010

Oh and the other other thing about the two-take approach is that you will want headphones for whoever is doing the second takes, since they'll need to be able to listen to playback to perform against. Which means, if you're going to do all the vox together in a single second take, you need to get multiple headphones and some sort of splitter after all.

The upside is that you can do this as more than two-takes, if you have the time and you guys are comfortable laying down vocal tracks one at a time on top of each other. That may or may not work well for you, depends really on how comfortable you all are with moving away from the live feel to overdubs like that. It can be a little disorienting at first for some people, so expect to need some time to acclimate. It gets faster once people are comfortable with the process.
posted by cortex at 8:12 AM on February 2, 2010

I think the priority now is to capture what we sound like live. I'll focus on that and then we can move to the two take approach later if we get that far.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:19 AM on February 2, 2010

this is pretty interesting, because the overall mix and sound is great except for the (pervasive) overdrive artifacts. Which is to say you guys sound great!

For better results,
Given your already well-balanced sound, Multi-track recording (while optimal) may not be necessarily necessary (you heard me) for what you're trying to do.

One or two mics into a laptop with an eye on overdrive would give you a passable 'practice review' sound.

I'd also like to throw out that old camcorders often have surprisingly excellent stereo condenser mics built in. Pretty much everything I've ever posted on the big grey has been doctored tracks recorded with a Sony handycam. If you have anyone with ears in your band (and it sounds like you've got that in spades) I'd suggest looking into some lofi alternatives to multi-track recording.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:07 PM on February 2, 2010

I like that song. Never heard it before. Thanks ! (sound distorsion excepted, I find your cover very enjoyable).
posted by nicolin at 3:39 AM on February 4, 2010

Never heard it before.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:22 AM on February 4, 2010

*fans flapjax furiously to free him from his faint*

I know, I know; it's surprising to me, too, but not everyone has listened to the entire catalogue of the Beatles.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:47 AM on February 4, 2010

ocherdraco, I'm digging your alliteration.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:49 AM on February 4, 2010

I'm glad. Most people find alliteration and puns to be the lowest forms of humor. I think they're delightful.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:44 PM on February 4, 2010

Wow, ocherdraco is a triple-threat. (I'm pretty sure that she's demonstrated at least two other threats around here.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:48 PM on February 14, 2010

The threats of hardcore nerdism and undiluted silliness perhaps?
posted by ocherdraco at 7:06 AM on February 15, 2010

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