Everything You Never Wanted to Know About a Harvey Girls Recording, Pt. 2: Recording the Album

Below is a list of the equipment used on I’ve Been Watching a Lot of Horror Movies Lately (IBW) followed by our different recording locations.  I’ll get into different techniques and other stuff in the next installment. Melissa is editing and offering her two cents behind the scenes and did I mention I am a giant weiner.

I’m putting this here for a couple of reasons. First, I get asked a lot how we record and how we get certain sounds.  I’m not sure I can cover the how of the way we get a specific sound without knowing the actual specific sound, and then it’s usually a guess, but I’ll tell you some tricks I’ve learned along the way in the next installment.  This installment will deal mostly with the physical details of recording.  Now, whether you want to use these tricks and locations is up to you.

I’ve found that what works for me may not work for others and there’s a lot of convoluted stuff I do that may be easier or more automated that I haven’t spent the time to figure out yet, but that’s the fun of recording your own stuff.  Also, if you haven’t, and you live in the US or the UK, sign up for a free subscription to Tape Op here.  The rest of the world has to pay for shipping, but if you can afford it I would do it.  Also, you can find copies of Tape Op: The Book About Creative Music Recording for pretty cheap in the US.  The book covers the first issues of the magazine and relates info about recording with four tracks and the like and not digitally and is full of great info for budget recording folks.  The later issues deal with people who work in professional studios, so I’ve found the book to be a really great reference.

I’ve also found the boards at homerecording.com to be helpful. This home recording primer seems to be good for beginners, as is UNSW’s music acoustics page, and some of the posts at hometracked.com.  Really, I’ve bookmarked a ton of places in a folder titled ‘recording’ to reference later and those are just a few.  I’ve been lucky enough to be able to talk to people who record for actual money about how to use the software or different recording techniques.  For us, it’s been our pal Steve Squire who has helped us out tremendously and has mastered our last couple of albums (and is mastering IBW as well).

Anyhoo, yes, we’re proponents of DIY culture and have participated in it since the Stone Age, from making hand-stapled poetry mags and zines to recording on borrowed four tracks and crappy jam boxes to growing our own food.  We want others to do so if they feel the need, so I’d say that’s the main reason this is all here–to help anyone with questions try to figure out how to do things.  We’ve got a few more toys now, so our sounds will be a little cleaner–hopefully a lot cleaner–but recording shouldn’t be scary.

The second reason is much simpler: it’s to remind myself of what I did, which is what a recording diary has always been about for me.

Equipment used on IBW

Computers/Soundcards/Interfaces/Recording Devices
We record on both PC and Mac. Why? There are peripherals and programs we like in both platforms. And as should be crystal clear by now, we have built up our studio from castoffs, refurbs, donations, and pure luck or noticeable lack of same.  I’ll explain how this works in practice more fully after the list of gear.

Dell Dimension 4500 (this thing’s about as old as the band); associated peripherals listed below

Macbook Pro with M-Audio FastTrackUltra USB Interface

Field recording

  • Zoom H2 Digital Recorder (also recorded one or two guitar tracks; a wonderful gift from our pal and former HG member Matt Barringer)
  • Sony M-627V Microcassette Recorder (also recorded a few crazy backing vocal tracks)
  • Blackberry Pearl Flip 8220 Black (my phone, also recorded an organ part)
  • Sansa Sandisk m250

Software

  • Pro Tools M-Powered 7.4 (both PC and Mac)
  • Adobe Audition 1.5 (on Dell)
  • MiniHost from Tobybear Productions (ASIO host for VST plugins. This is a fantastic little piece that cost $20 years ago–and is now $30 US– that we’ve used to create effects that would otherwise cost thousands to create.)

Microphones

  • Audio Technica AT-3525 (discontinued model and most expensive mic we’ve got–bought for $130 or so used five years ago–and I’m sure several recording engineers would shake their head in dismay over this fact)
  • Shure SM-57s (a whole handful of ’em)
  • built-in mics on H2, Sony Handheld, and phone

Instruments/Noise Making Devices

  • Guitars:  Acoustic–Fender six string, Ventura 12-string (a gift from former HG Adam Bartell). Electric–Ibanez semi-hollow body, Gibson SG Junior Pro from early ’70s, Kansas Telecaster (this blog’s namesake!). Bass–Washburn bass (with all-important Star Wars stickers from Chris Gladfelter; borrowed back with permission after I gave it to my dad and then started The Harvey Girls with Melissa).
  • Percussion: Yamaha snare, busted snare and kick drum from second-hand kid’s drum kit, Zildjian early 70s ride cymbal, bongos, shaker, tambourine, broken piece of tail pipe (found at bus stop at MLK/Ainsworth).
  • KeyboardsKorg MicroKorgCasio CasioTone CT-640, Hammond H-100 organ. (This was a gift from Adam Bartell and I’m not quite sure on the model number, but H-100 is my best guess. I should say “gift” since I had to help move it and will never do that again, but since it takes up space in the garage, I needed to make it feel useful.)
  • Samplers and ephemera: Free VST instruments, mostly from KVR AudioBoss Dr Sample SP-202Roland Dr Rhythm DR-660Electro Faustus EF-102 Photo Theremin, Fender Princeton Reverb amp (circa 1979 or so).

I think that’s it for this album.  Strangely, and maybe sadly depending on who you are, this isn’t even all the instruments we have.  I didn’t put any sax, clarinet, or “real” trumpet on this album.  No violin. No Yamaha Keytar *sigh*.  Et cetera, Et ceter-ah.

Recording Places
There were three main recording locations for this album, all of which are in our house: the dining room (1, 2), the basement (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and the extra bedroom.  The extra bedroom was only used for final vocals on a couple of songs using the portable Mac/Pro Tools setup, so you don’t get pictures of that, but there are links to a few pics on our flickr page about the other two.  The recording locations are separated into two categories, before Mac (BMa) and Anno Mac (AMa).

BMa, the recording was done on our aged Dell.  As I mentioned in the last diary entry, the Dell and our copy of Pro Tools didn’t get along well for awhile.  Then, for no apparent reason, they started playing nice together in spring of ’09.

The Dell also has our copies of Adobe Audition and MiniHost on it.  We’ve recorded everything up to and including Nutate on Adobe Audition or its predecessor Cool Edit so I know it pretty well.  MiniHost we’ve had since The Wild Farewell and has been a big part of getting some of the instrument sounds that we don’t have in real life.  It’s a Windows-based application, so that’s why it’s only on the Dell.  Here’s how it gets used in our stuff: after finding and downloading free VSTs from places like KVR, you open the VST instrument up with MiniHost.  You can then either use a midi in from a keyboard or other midi device to play the file or you can use the computer keyboard to play the file.  MIDI devices are recommended since you can get a better range and more control with them than you can with the computer keyboard.

If you’re wondering why I don’t use another recording program to do MIDI stuff, like Adobe or Pro Tools, it’s because our version of Audition doesn’t accommodate them and Pro Tools generally uses RTAS plugins.  There are ways of doing this stuff with Pro Tools, but as I said before I generally work with what I know and add to it later, convoluted as it may be.  Luckily, I’m recording myself and not someone else, so there are no time or performance constraints.  Oh, and if you don’t know what VST and RTAS stand for, it’s OK.  I didn’t either.  Wikipedia actually does a decent job of explaining both (VST and RTAS).

So, with MiniHost, you can record what you’ve played with the VST instrument.  The instrument can be a keyboard or drum machine or sampler.  Usually, I tend to use keyboards and drum machines.  Generally, after picking a VST to use, I’ll play along with what I have for the track already while recording it with MiniHost.  This usually takes a couple of run throughs because the part is mainly in my head (or doesn’t exist at all) and this is the first time I’ve actually played it.  I’ll then drop the recorded wave file  into Audition for editing.  This may be to cut out parts I don’t like or to add effects.  You probably don’t really need to do this, necessarily, but I do.

Because the MiniHost can only record in 16 or 32 bit bounce (just like Adobe Audition), I’ve found that you can up the bit rate with some free converters online or do it within Pro Tools.  Most people will tell you this is bad.  I agree, somewhat.  However, it also adds some very minor noise to the tracks and that’s part of what I love in recording, so I still do it.  I can then drop the track recorded with MiniHost into whatever program I am using to come up with a final mix.  In our case, it’s Pro Tools.

After finally getting around to getting a Macbook, I moved the operations to our extra room in the basement.  I’ve set this up as a studio before, but have found that the sound isn’t as good as the hardwood floors and taller ceilings in the other areas of the house, at least for vocals.  I added foam to the walls and ceiling to absorb some of the sound and to try and make it sound a bit less like a basement.  The foam was purchased at Fred Meyer, the NW equivalent to whatever chain grocery/miscellaneous/clothing store you have in your neck of the woods.  As an aside for the Kansas people who might be reading this, I found out when moving to Portland for the second time that Freddie’s (as the locals have named it) is actually owned by the same family that owns Dillons.  Man, and here I thought we were getting away from Kroger!  Damn you!  Anyway, you can buy much more expensive bafflers/sound traps if you’d like.  I’ve also left some of the boxes and stuff we were storing in the room, as well as using some table leaves left in the house by a previous occupant to cover the fireplace, to make it less like a four-walled room so that sound has more places to bounce.  I’m no physicist, of course, but I’ve found that these things have made the room sound better when I record in it.  Of course, using a regular living room with chairs and a couch or a second bedroom with books and office equipment have worked fine in the past for us as well.

Each setup is different in terms of room sound and ambient sounds as well.  When recording, I usually use close micing techniques (basically, sticking the mics close to whatever is being recorded).  But, you can put the mic farther away to pick up reverb or room sounds.  Just be careful, sometimes you may pick up noise that you don’t want.  We have a particularly old and noisy refrigerator that comes through when recording in dining rooms.  You can also try recording in the bathroom if it’s tiled.  This is a great way to get natural reverb.  The vocals on our track ‘sherlock jr.‘ were recorded in our bathroom.  It’s also how a lot of Johnny Mathis’s vocals were recorded by Mitch Mitchell, adding to the warmth of his voice.

If you have any questions about our recording setup, please feel free to comment or send an e-mail to theharveygirls AT gmail.  I’ll list some tricks that we’ve used in recording next time.

–H (and M)

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