Recording and Mastering for Beginners

(Or How To Create Next Year's Hits on Last Year's Budget)


So ya wanna record, huh?

Sounds pretty good to me. But what do you know about recording?


Well, before you start here, you should already know about making music.

I briefly touched on digital recording last month. As I said before, you

are a musician, so I'm assuming you know about different forms of music-making.

These days a lot of people, me included, are into MIDI (actually, it's been

a standard for a long time, but not everyone fully understands it). It's

quite easy, but if you aren't into it yet, that's alright. I have a lot of

respect for the traditional musician anyway. After all, we have to keep sight

of the fundamentals, right?

 'Nuff said.


Let's move on.


     There are several ways to get your music recorded. But you know that already,

right? You just open up the Yellow Pages to "Recording Studios" and pick

the one with the best equipment list. Or the best sounding deals. You get

to these studios and sit and listen to the engineer hype his gear, take a

tour of the facility, be awe-struck and wide-eyed at the expensive sound

board, processing gear, DAT decks, keyboard stacks, guitars, mikes, air-conditioned

sound rooms, and 150 channels of noiseless audio.

    You sit and talk deal with an arrogant engineer who spits huge words at

you, taking you for some witless idiot that will settle for whatever he decides

to give you in the way of "expertise". After the deal is made, you start

your project by allowing him half the session time to set up his gear, tweak

buttons, fool with faders, heat up the gear, etc., etc. You start to play

your masterpiece, and he stops you because he has to make "a few more adjustments".

You proceed to play your song all the way through, and when you're done,

he asks, "are you ready to record it now?"

     You finally finish the takes. You listen to the playback, and it just doesn't

sound like the song you had in mind, so you direct him (or her) to make some

adjustments to the sound. You get a 20-minute explanation about why what

you want can't be done, and how much more it will cost you to get it. So

you settle for less than you expected, and they tell you to "come back again."





    I know a lot of you wannabe engineers out there are foaming at the mouth

wondering why I'm knocking your craft and dissin' your skills. Simple. YOU

DON'T LISTEN!!! And those of you that do listen don't have any skills! You

just wanna make money. I don't knock that concept. But if you must rob somebody,

rob the people who HAVE the money to waste in your studio waiting for you

to develop your chops on the board.


 Now back to the REAL artists.


     You know, it IS possible for you to do this without those wannabes. But now

the work starts for real. This will take a little money, but now we're talking



I hear some of you saying, "what is he talking about?" Easy.



    The reason I say that is because I have seen a lot of people go to a studio

to record that have not truly perfected their product beforehand, and look

like fools when they find out too late, after they have spent hundreds of

dollars in studio time and materials. And those engineers and studio owners

aren't gonna tell you your music sucks! They just want to put it on tape

or DAT or CD because that's what you are paying for, no matter what it sounds

like. Oh, you may run into one with a conscience, maybe. But with that conscience,

he also has an EXPENSE! If it takes another two hours to complete the task,

he may give you a half hour for free, but after that the meter is running.

     The average cost of recording, say, five songs is about $3000.00. And that

is for a so-so result. Remember, time is money in a studio, and unless you

have an unlimited budget, you won't be able to handle it. But with that same

amount, you can record yourself regardless how much time it takes to get

it right!


Let's say you have that money handy.

Ready to bargain-shop?

OK, here goes.


What equipment do you really need?


How much of it do you have now?


Now we get busy.


     Let's break it down. As a musician who does the melodious portion of your

material, I assume you are a guitarist or keyboardist, so you more than likely

have your own instruments. You probably have an amp, too. So you need a drummer.

No, not a person playing drums, but a decent quality drum machine, or as

they are professionally called, rhythm programmer.

     I personally own a Yamaha RX-15 that does exactly what I need it to do without

a lot of unnecessary extras that the average person can't decipher. The manual

tells me how to set it up for writing patterns and putting them together

as a whole song. A similar programmer can be had for about $200.00. Check

the want ads for it, people are buying and selling them dirt cheap, and they

work quite well.


     If you only play one instrument, then once you have a programmer, you are

pretty set for the moment on that. Now you want to record tracks, so you

will need a multitrack recorder. A decent four-track recorder will start

you off on the right track. (Get it?) Depending on your own skill level,

and the features you desire, you can get one for anywhere between $200.00

and $600.00. This covers most four-tracks from cassette types to digital

recorders that actually record CD-quality tracks. The basic cassette type

could be something like a Tascam Porta-02, which goes for around $200.00,

and that's new!

    The top of the line four-track digital recorder is the Boss BR-532, which

sells for about $400.00 new. The advantages to having a digital recorder

include not needing tapes, being able to "bounce" tracks (recording multiple

tracks to one track to save recording space) without any loss of sound quality,

and being able to create a CD-quality mixdown (mixing all recorded tracks

into a stereo master). My suggestion is that you get a recorder with separate

outputs for each track so you can EQ (equalize the tone) on individual tracks.

For that a mixer is needed, and we'll cover that in a minute.

     OK, you spent $400.00 on the BR-532 and $200.00 on the programmer, How much

do you have left out of the original $3000.00? Still got $2400.00, right?

Let's go on.

     Let's say you've got a group of people singing for you or with you. You need

a mixer to blend those voices together for a blazing vocal track. So get

a decent mixer for about $400-$600. You will only need 8-12 channels, and

there are some good mixers out there, like Mackie, Behringer, and Tascam.

Look for them, you'll find them.


My suggestion?


     Behringer. Actually they make a mixer called the MX1804X Eurorack that is

perfect for the home recordist. It lists for just under $400.00 and it makes

an excellent home studio mixer. Personally, I own a Nady CMX-16A 16 channel

board that suits my style. Remember I told you to get a recorder with separate

outputs? Now you can plug each track into its own channel so that you can

adjust the sound of each track individually. Just like the big boys, only

you're not paying for a lot of studio tweak time, and your sound will be

just the way you want it. Consult your owners manual (ALWAYS!) before you

operate the mixer to become familiar with the controls and what they do.

Play around with the mixer (gently) to get yourself used to the spectrum

of control you have. Man, You're Gonna Love It!!!


     OK, that's another $400.00 taking your balance down to $2000.00. Factor in

another $300.00 for all the cables you will need for hookup.

That's $1700.00 left, right? 

Let's go on.

     Now you've got the basic gear. Having some monetary flexibility (meaning

you still have money left), now you can get some processing gear. What's

that? Well, you know, equipment that makes your instruments sound sweeter,

grittier, fatter, rounder, just straight up different (better) than they

do without it. Flangers, delay, echo, distortion, overdrive, chorus, anything

that makes a plain guitar sound like a million dollar axe, turns a weak female

vocalist into a diva, a weak male vocalist into a heartthrob, or three instruments

sound like a doggone orchestra.

     The only help I can offer you there is to tell you to cruise your local pawn

shops for cheap gear. Why? Mainly because unless you are ready to kick out

some serious bucks for MIDI-based equipment, you won't find very much new

in the way of analog processing gear. Look for closeouts at music supply

stores. Order catalogs from my favorite places, American Musical Supply or

Musician's Friend. Look to spend an average of $300.00 for some adequate

gear. My personal favorite? Alesis MIDIVERB or Quadraverb. In the pawn shops

they go for about $300.00 used. Don't be afraid to use pre-owned gear. I

like it because it's been "broken in" for me already. Of course, make sure

it works before you pay for it. You don't want to wind up with a lemon.


 Take another $300.00 out of what you have left. Say what? 

Still got $1400.00 left? 

Let's continue.


     Now that you have all that, the last thing you will need is a mastering recorder.

There are three main formats that are acceptable in most duplicating houses:

Analog tape (cassette or reel-to-reel), CD's (compact discs), and DAT's (digital

audio tapes). Analog tapes are acceptable, but not really preferred because

they have the inherent problem of generation sound loss. The more times you

copy an analog tape, the more it loses in sound quality. You may have a great

analog master, but after it's been stepped on in the mastering process a

few times, you lose all the little nuances that made it great in the first

place. Analog basically means a magnetic copy of a series of sound waves

by frequency, and when any tape is exposed to the slightest electromagnetic

field, it gets wiped out a little. Every time you play a tape, you run it

across a magnetic pickup of sorts, and it takes a little away from it every

time. I don't use tapes for mastering, but I do use them in multitrack for


     DAT's are digital versions of cassettes, which means there is little or no

loss of sound quality during repeated playback. However, the cost of a DAT

deck is astronomical, the cheapest being about $1400.00 to about $5000.00.

The tapes themselves cost about $5.00 each, making that the most expensive

format in use by the average recordist.

     Then there's the CD recorder. Thank God they finally made them affordable

so we can all get them! One of the affordable CD-R's on the market is the

Sony RCD-W10 which lists for $499.00, although my wife got me a TEAC RW-D200

one Christmas for about $300.00. Easy to use, it is the absolute best way

to create a quality master that's acceptable by not only duplicating houses,

but it is also suitable for radio broadcast. But that's another lesson for

later on, we'll get to that.

     Factor in another $50.00 for a bunch of blank CD-R's (about a buck apiece),

and you are left with about $900.00. 

What do you do with that? 

Bank it! 

     Let's assume that you've gotten all this gear. Now stand back and take a long look.

For less than the cost of recording those five songs, you can now create

HUNDREDS!!! And in your own time, too! You have created your own recording

studio, and with it you can crank out material until you pass out.

     One thing I want to warn you about in the case of CD's, though. Make sure

that the CD-R's you record on are marked with the words "DIGITAL AUDIO".

That tells you that it is for CD recorders, not writers. CD-R's without that

symbol are usually NOT compatible with CD recorders, just CD writers made

for computers. Every once in awhile you may find a batch that will work,

but do you have the budget for experimentation?


OK, you got your gear, you hooked it all up, and you've probably created

some serious masters of your work.


What now?


That, my children, is a subject for next month. Don't miss it!




B. K.


Email Me At -

Archives    Newspage     Homepage