Necessary Gear Part 3

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software

This is the software that actually allows your computer to record your singers, use a guide track, set up a tempo map, etc. All things that I will explain in future entries…

The industry standard is Pro Tools but many engineers use other DAWs. I’ve personally used Digital Performer and Pro Tools and saw benefits to both… All these DAWs are equally easy to learn. The main differences are in work flow. Spend a couple hours reading about each DAW and customer reviews to see which might make the most sense to you. Additionally, check with the editor or mix engineer to whom you may choose to send your tracks. They may have a DAW they prefer and using the same DAW may make transfers easier (SAVES MONEY).

Recommendations:

  1. Pro Tools 12
  2. Logic Pro X
  3. Digital Performer
  4. Studio One
  5. Reaper

Invest in Your Growth

If you are reading this blog, you are interested in growth... of your knowledge, your talent, your ability, your skills, your business, etc.

All too often these days, everything you read or watch in the online education space is trying to get you to learn something faster, better, CHEAPER, etc. You've heard the expression "there's an app for that?" Well, it is true that technology can help you do things cheaper and faster BUT it's not always going to lead to you doing it better or understanding it better.

If you are trying to learn something that involves creativity like recording music or you want to have a career in recording, rarely is there a quick or cheap path. You have to invest the time. And more importantly, you will have to invest the money.

Invest in quality tools and education that will support you on your journey. All too often we are tempted to find the free or cheap way to accomplish something... OR find an illegal copy of something in order for us to try out this hobby that we might want to turn into a career. I'm not going to say I haven't tried cracked versions of software before, but I always had to buy the full version to make things work consistently and to get the full benefit from them.

I believe that going for the cheap or free option is the wrong path to take. You need to spend money on quality proven tools and on quality education from professionals. While this will likely save you some headaches, I believe there is a more important psychological reason for spending good money on quality.

If you don't invest good money, you are communicating to yourself that you aren't serious. You're dipping your toe in the pool and saying that if it's too cold, you aren't jumping in. You can't succeed that way. You have to jump in the deep end and take some risks in order to be successful.

 

Necessary Gear for Recording Your Group #2 - Microphones and Headphones

We left off last time with what you need in a computer and digital interface. Head to http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/8/10/necessary-gear-for-recording-your-group-1-computer-and-digital-interface to read that article.

Microphones

You can accomplish 99.9% of the recording you'll need to do with a Large Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser Microphone with shock mount, microphone stand, and pop filter ($200 – $400)

  • Large diaphragm = the part of the microphone that “catches” your sound. Vocals are usually best recorded with a large diaphragm because it tends to help pick up more detail and have a warmer sound.

  • Cardioid = the pickup pattern of the microphone (the space and direction where the microphone best picks up sound)

  • Condenser = the type of microphone

Recommendations:

1. Rode NT1-a (comes with shock mount, XLR cable, and pop filter) = $230

I made a video about it a while back. Go to http://recordingacappella.com/blog/2016/1/7/the-acappella-microphone

2. Blue Microphones Bluebird (shockmount included) = $300

3. Aston Origin = $300

4. Audio Technica AT4040 (shockmount included) = $300

 

Headphones

You have to be able to hear your singers and they have to be able to hear the guide track and you don't want the microphone to hear the guide track or playback so, you need headphones. Key features.

  • Closed Ear (“Bleed-Proof”) = sound doesn’t escape from the earpiece

  • Spend more money on the headphones for the engineer because they need to be able to hear more of what is going on/being recorded

Recommendations:

1. AKG K240 = $70 – Industry standard. Semi-open design. Best used by engineer in another room.

2. Sennheiser HD280 = $100

3. Audio Technica ATH M3X or M20 = $30 - $50

The coach has failed more times than the student has tried.

I love this quote. It sums up why it is so important to have a coach or mentor. Or why it's important to bring in a qualified professional to do something that you might not have experience doing.

You may have also heard the cliche don't reinvent the wheel. Similar idea. When we start to learn something new we often don't want to listen to someone with more experience. Maybe we think we're going to do it differently or figure out some new way of doing things. You might, but most likely not.

Someone who is a professional or expert at something has already made hundreds of mistakes while learning to do what they now do so well. And for some reason, those same mistakes occur when anyone else starts to learn how to do the same thing. It saves a lot of time to listen to those people when they warn you about mistakes to avoid. Trust me, they know.

That's the main reason I started this site. At first it's a place for you to learn how to avoid all the mistakes I made as I learned my craft. And as it grows, I want it to be a place for you to learn from each other and share your own mistakes.

And remember, sometimes mistakes lead to some new idea or technique. So, listen to me, but don't be afraid to make your own big mistakes and find out something new.

Less is More

In design, there's a concept known as "Less is more." Basically minimalism.

It's defined by Google as...

  1. That which is less complicated is often better understood and more appreciated than what is more complicated; simplicity is preferable to complexity; brevity in communication is more effective than verbosity.

The basic premise is that that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. Focus on the following ideas...

Don't use a lot where a little will do

Lower quantity means more quality

Make elements purer, more direct, and more potent

And this can be applied to many things in music...


DRUMS

Most often, I use it when talking to vocal percussionists (who often refer to themselves as beatboxers) which I will henceforth refer to as drummers. I find that drummers who started learning their instrument using their mouth and just creating sounds rather than sitting behind a kit playing along with Billy Joel albums or slogging through methods books by Carmine Appice have missed THE essential building block of being a great drummer. LESS IS MORE.

1. Focus on the form of the song and come up with simple patterns that support the form of the song (Don't use a lot where a little will do)

2. Focus on the groove and make sure it supports on enhances what the bassline is doing. You are part of the rhythm section. (Make elements purer, more direct, and more potent)

3. Less fills and only at transition points (Lower quantity means more quality)

If you want to understand how this principle applies to drumming, go listen to Steve Gadd (Paul Simon and pretty much everyone else), Liberty Devitto (Billy Joel), Larry Mullen (U2 and in particular Sunday Bloody Sunday)


MIXING

You often hear the term less is more used in mixing as well. If you have too many parts/things in a mix, they end up competing for the listeners attention. Mixes have limited room for stuff and if you overload it with too many parts or plug-ins or tracks, the resulting clutter will just make your mix confusing and cluttered. Adding more stuff to make something sound big can actually have the opposite effect. Those competing frequencies can just end up making your mix sound small. The best mix engineers in the world have actually mastered the art of using the MUTE button.


Less truly is more

In our modern world, it's hard to practice the less is more principle. We're indoctrinated by our consumer culture that you should always have more, want more... MOAR EEZ BETTAH!!!!

But instead of doing more and assuming it’s better, if you focus on doing less and doing it really really well, you will be more deliberate, less scattered, more mindful, less flustered, and more present.

Why Double Track Background Parts?

For decades, acappella recording engineers have double-tracked the singers who perform the backing parts in an arrangement. All the tenors, altos, sopranos, harmonies, auxes, adds, trios, and even the basses end up with two (or sometimes more) separate and unique tracks of their entire part. Why? Danny answers that question with this video.

BONUS: he even shows you how the pros handle a divisi/split in a part when recording.

Done is Better than Perfect

Do you have a personal project sitting around at home. You know the one I'm talking about. That song that you just can't get right... that you work on every few days in your free-time after work.

Maybe you're a group who's recorded a song 3 times and still don't like the energy.

What about that mix that you've been working on for 3 months but just aren't satisfied with...?

STOP and just GET IT OUT THERE!!!

Why?

1. You're stealing your creative energy from future projects and getting frustrated. Frustration is one of the worst things you can go through as an artist. I know it's your baby, but you have to let your baby leave the nest at some point.

2. You need feedback to grow and you won't get feedback until someone hears it. Yes, even negative feedback. Both criticism and praise will help you learn more about what your audience wants to hear from you.

3. You're depriving your audience. You are creating things in order to entertain them. No matter who they are, that's why your audience is there. TO BE ENTERTAINED BY YOU... Why are you keeping them from being entertained.

I've devoured plenty of books by veteran artists and engineers, heard too many interviews to count, and listened to many panels at conventions. If Grammy winning engineers feel like they never get it 100% right, how are you going to get there? Trust me, you'll never get that last 5 - 10% towards perfect. Perfect is impossible. 

As long as you've done your best and what you created has integrity, you can be happy to let the world see what you've done. 

Done is better than perfect. Get it out there.

Necessary Gear for Recording Your Group #1 - Computer and Digital Interface

Hey everybody! Over the next few posts, we will discuss, investigate, and price the equipment you’ll need for your recordings. There are so many opinions about gear these days. You live in amazing times though because you can purchase high quality equipment for hundreds of dollars that used to cost thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. 

For what you are doing, you can get by with a recording rig that will cost you under $1000 total and likely less than that.

First things first, you need a computer. I'm not going to count this in your $1000 budget because many people will already have this vital piece of equipment.

1. Computer  

All you need is a Macbook Pro, iMac, Mac Mini, Macbook, Macbook Air, etc or PC equivalent made in the last 4 years ($800 – $1200 new or used). Even an iPad or equivalent tablet could be used these days.

I recommend using a Macbook Pro. I'm an Apple person and a lot of recording software is built with Apple products in mind. 

Why a Macbook Pro (a laptop) versus the other suggestions?

Portability, stability, better CPUs for recording, more ports, bigger screen than other Apple laptops and tablets, etc. You'll be happier and more comfortable if you go this route.

Make sure that you also have the following on or with the computer.

  • Enough available USB and/or Thunderbolt ports for an external hard drive and your digital Interface to connect directly to the computer (not through a hub). 
  • A dedicated External Hard Drive for Audio - NEVER EVER EVER EVER record audio to the internal hard drive on your computer. Besides most internal drives being too small these days, your internal hard drive is very busy running your computer's operating system. Recording your audio and playing it back is very taxing and if you add that workload to the internal hard drive, you are asking for trouble. Don't take my word for it, most if not all audio software manufacturers recommend you use a dedicated drive for your audio.
  • A mouse to save on wrist/hand/finger fatigue. You will be doing A LOT of clicking/scrolling/moving.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Digital Audio Interface with at least two microphone inputs ($200 – $400)

A Digital Audio Interface is the device that takes your recorded audio and makes it into something the computer can understand. It has 2 components that are crucial to making your recording possible. 

1. Microphone preamps. These guys amplify the signal coming from your microphone and make it usable. 

2. AD/DA converters. Analog to Digital and Digital to Analog converters first convert the analog signal coming from your microphone into a digital signal that the computer can understand and then convert the computer's digital output signal back into an analog signal that your interface can send to your headphones or studio monitors (speakers) can play. 

Here are a few interfaces I recommend. They all sound great. Some have slightly nicer preamps. Some have nicer converters. Some come with recording software (Digital Audio Workstation like Studio One from Presonus), and some have name recognition. All sound great and will work well. 

Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 - $350

 

Presonus 44VSL - $250

 

MOTU 4pre - $450

 

Behringer FCA1616 - $250

 

Steinberg UR44 - $300


If you can, spend the most money on the interface. You can get $100 interfaces but I wouldn’t recommend it. The interface is the piece of equipment that converts your recorded sound to digital information. IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT!

Setting up your in/out routing in your DAW

All DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations - Pro Tools, Logic, Studio OneDigital Performer, Cubase, Reaper, Garageband, etc) are a little different in terms up set up and workflow but they all require you to route the audio you are recording so that 1. it gets recorded and 2. you can hear it playback. 

In this video I demonstrate some of the basic terminology and procedures for getting your routing set up.

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Why do it yourself?

What are the benefits of recording yourself? Here are a few...

SAVE MONEY!!!!

Most groups I record spend 3 – 6 hours (or more) tracking a song. Most great a cappella recordings these days are created by tracking each singer individually. This process gives you the in-your-face presence that you hear on those records. It also allows for ultimate quality control and flexibility. The average singer takes 15 – 30 minutes per song to record their part a couple of times at high quality with tons of energy. Do the math.

At $50 – $150/hour for most studios/producers and 3 – 6 hours tracking per song, that equals $150 – $900 in tracking per song. That’s a $900 – $5400 tracking budget for a 6 song EP or an $1800 – $10800 for a 12 song album. Tracking is usually the most time consuming step in the production process.

Flexible recording schedule

The most common hurdle I experience with high school, college, CAL, and professional groups is finding time to get all the necessary people to the studio. People are busier than ever and even finding a 2-hour window of time can be challenging. If you track yourselves, you can set up on your own turf. You can record every day with different members of the group. Record during regular scheduled rehearsals since you only lose 2 - 3 people from rehearsal at a time. Doing it yourself prevents needing to book one weekend and then cramming everything in… Less stress can lead to much better performances.

Time for experimentation and creativity

Maybe your group hasn’t recorded much in the past. DIY recording allows you to make mistakes and learn as you go. It also prevents you from making mistakes on the clock. You can also avoid having to settle for the performance that you could afford. Why not try out new ideas or get the best performance possible without having to watch the clock?

Interested yet? Read on…

TO BE VERY CLEAR, I am only recommending tracking on your own and only if you really have to save money. Most experienced a cappella producers have knowledge, skills, experience solving problems, and a track record of being creative during the tracking process that usually results in a better end product. If they are a professional, they might have recorded hundreds of a cappella songs ( I have). Additionally, they will probably be much faster than you in all aspects of tracking. The other steps in the production process, editing, mixing, and mastering are best done by a cappella engineers. Mixing and mastering in particular should be reserved for the experts in my opinion. Those steps require much more experience and knowledge of the physics of sound and recording technology to create amazing productions.

 

If you are still reading, I’m guessing you might want to try DIY recording. Stay tuned for future posts. I will give you a list of all the equipment you’ll need including prices and shopping recommendations.

Great A Cappella Arrangements

There’s one step in the recording process that is more important than any other in making sure that the final product is awesome and uses the human voice most efficiently to create an awesome final product. THE ARRANGEMENT.

I’ve heard both pro and amateur arrangements that were amazing!

I've also heard many bad arrangements as well...

What do the great arrangements have in common?

  1. They are singable. For all voice parts. They can be sung easily. They make sense vocally. New arrangers often get stuck in transcription mode. Transcribing is great for learning and developing your ear. Once you know what's happening in a song, stop and try to sing what you just wrote. If you can't get it in 2 or 3 tries, try changing the syllables or simplifying the rhythm. You might even have to rewrite the phrase to make it fit in the singable range of the singer. The voice has problem areas like other instruments (breaks, extremes) and might have trouble doing everything you write.
  2. They use the voice as an instrument effectively to create essential elements in the song and help move the song forward. Motion and direction of energy is very important in a song. Energy flow is often what gives you goosebumps or makes you cry. Good arrangements harness this energy.
  3. When recorded, they need very few modifications and they frequently mix themselves requiring very little help from the mixing engineer. Great arrangements create natural balance between elements as they support the direction of the song.

 

I’ll share more about arrangements in the future, but for right now, as you begin to think about arrangements for next year, consider contacting a professional a cappella arranger and buying a couple of arrangements or having them edit a couple of your arrangements so that you can see the difference between what they do and what you do.

Here are a few arrangers I work with regularly who exemplify the things I shared above.

Tom Anderson - http://www.random-notes.com/

Ben Bram - http://www.thebenbram.com/

Robert Dietz - http://www.human-feedback.com/

Nick Girard - http://www.nickgirard.com/

Erik Bosio - http://www.ebosio.com/

Clare Wheeler - https://www.facebook.com/Clare-Wheeler-428253824014901/?fref=ts

Ed Boyer - http://edboyeracappella.com/

Christopher Diaz - http://www.heychristopher.com/