Music production from the ground up

Successful student musicians weigh the risk of self-recording cheaply against the cost of professional-quality studio recordings

The Moonshine Ramblers' banjo player Mark Gallant at work on the band's second attempt at recording an album. Photo by Adam Miller.

Money can be tight when you're a student musician, which is why many stu-sicians turn to the cheaper alternative of self-recording.

Yet this approach can have its disadvantages when stacked against the reliable equipment and experience of a professional recording studio.

Local country-rock band The Moonshine Ramblers learned this lesson the hard way in the spring of 2009 when they attempted to make their debut album.

After days of recording their material, they looked on in horror as their computer system crashed - deleting their entire musical livelihood.

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The Moonshine Ramblers' lead singer and guitarist Andrew Sneddon rerecording the band's music. Photo by Adam Miller.

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Local country-rock musicians the Moonshine Ramblers recording their album in their house on Windsor St. in Halifax.

"It was really hard to deal with at first," says banjo player and King's College graduate Mark Gallant.

"We invested so much time into that album that when it happened and we were so close to finishing, it was almost surreal that such a silly technical glitch took all of that away."

Lead singer and former King's College student Andrew Sneddon says the experience completely changed the band's approach to recording.

"We're doing it a lot differently this time. We've backed it up on four hard drives this time and borrowed some gear from friends to record on almost no budget."

The band has been hard at work over the past few weeks rerecording their music, which surprisingly turned into a completely different album with new songs and different arrangements.

Gallant says this tragedy might be a blessing in disguise, since rerecording the album allowed them to start fresh with new material and taught them a harsh lesson.

"I think this album's going to be a lot stronger because of it," he says.

"In terms of material the album is pretty much all new ... there was no question that we were going to do this better than the first effort. So we sucked it up and we're really happy with the outcome."

Sometimes bands can get lucky and pull off a quality album for next to nothing with rented/borrowed equipment and cheap recording software.

Guitarist Adam Shier recorded an album in his house with his bluegrass band The Strangeboys last year. Their goal was to create a cheap and usable demo of their original material - titled Shoot First in honour of their first attempt.

"We decided we'd record the album piece by piece and try to layer it together, to get a kind of pro-sounding recording done," says Shier.

"Basically we did nothing live, and you make a lot of sacrifices when you do it that way because it takes a lot of the life out of the performances and takes the music out of the same space it was in before energy-wise. But it gives you a lot of editing capabilities, and a more pro sound on less pro equipment ... we needed to get a recording done and we didn't really have that much money and we weren't prepared to go into debt."

The Strangeboys Fiddler and King's College graduate Daniel Latner is happy with the result of Shoot First but feels recording live can have its advantages.

"I think we did a good job, but until you hear it afterwards you don't appreciate what kind of care goes into each specific sound on the album," says Latner.

"It's much harder to play to a click (of a metronome) than it is to play to a band, and editing on paper can be a bit of a shock after listening to it on the recording."

Some artists figure it's easier to just pay the extra buck to get an album pressed at a professional recording studio.

Local rapper Matt Kliffer (aka Expedyte) of the popular rap group Three Sheet, says the quality of a professional studio recording is more important than putting out a sub-par recording quickly.

"Getting things out there fast is nice but the response will not be good if your music does not have quality sound, and therefore it will be hard to get peoples attention the second time around," says Kliffer.

Dalhousie graduate and music producer/rapper Tyson Wachter (aka Metropolis Votary) took a different approach by learning the ropes of audio engineering and slowly building his own collection of studio-quality equipment.

"To rent studio time, and hire an engineer, then have it mixed by a pro can be super time consuming and expensive," says Wachter.

"I took an audio engineering course about four years ago and have been doing my own recording since then. I've invested in a lot of studio gear and really put my time into learning how to engineer vocals .... For my new album, I recorded myself, since I have a better setup and knowledge, and was able to save money and take my time with the recording process.

"The real issue is quality though. I've learned that unless you have the knowledge or a real interest in recording and mixing, it's worth it to go to a local studio and practice like hell before you go into the booth so you can get through recording quickly."

Mark Cwajna (aka Markit) is another Dalhousie graduate and rapper who was one of the founding members of the Halifax hip-hop group Fax 4. His self-recording approach has resulted in critically acclaimed recordings over the years on a budget.

"With the affordable good quality microphones and recording consoles available these days, all you need is an ounce of knowledge in terms of how to set up an acoustic-friendly recording environment at home and you can come out with very good quality material," says Cwajna.

"You're better off staying at home in a pressure-free and financially free zone and taking all the time in the world ... Paying for recording time often compromises creative output.

"In the end my album was very well received, got nominated for a 2007 Nova Scotia Music Award for Best HipHop album and was named one of the Top 50 albums of 2007 by Halifax's The Coast," says Cwajna.

"Which just goes to prove that you can release industry standard quality material from home studio recordings."

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