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Home Music Recording, And The Album That Launched It

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In 1983, Pete Townshend released a double-album called Scoop, the first of a trilogy (plus a best-of set) of releases featuring his home recordings.

Townshend used home recording technology beginning with the first songs he wrote for The Who in the mid-1960s. Townshend may have been one of the first musicians to actually “write” songs on multi-track recorders and present them to his band, rather than simply relying on paper and pencil, or simply strumming a guitar and singing. (Townshend can’t write music, which made the recording process doubly important for him.)

The recordings on the Scoop series are notable for a number of reasons–they highlight Townshend’s sheer love of music and the recording process, and they allow him to release material too different (either stylistically, or because it’s too light or ephemeral) to appear on any of the Who’s albums, or his regular solo albums.

As David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone in 1983,

Scoop, of course, is more than just a chance to hear gritty pre-Who versions of “Magic Bus,” “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” Like Bruce Springsteen’s stark cassette-recorded Nebraska and Phil Collins’ subtle integration of home demo tracks on his recent solo LPs, it is a stirring celebration of the do-it-yourself ethic, a lesson in how little (tape machine, acoustic guitar, a wobbly but intimate vocal) can achieve so much (the brief, exquisite 1966 sketch of the glowing ballad “So Sad about Us,” later cut for the Who’s Happy Jack).

Scoop also provides a panoramic view of Townshend’s ambitions as a songwriter, from the moody, adolescent clump of the “My Generation”-era “Circles” to the epic pleading of Quadrophenia’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and the 1967 moddish Motown pump of “Politician,” one of the album’s eighteen newly unearthed Townshend originals.

But what makes this artfully programmed collection of home demo antiques and studio curios one of the best Who-related records since Who’s Next is that it presents a pure, expressive Pete Townshend free of the responsibilities of being the Pete Townshend, communing with his muse away from his image and the emotional politics of the Who. A pre-Tommy track never cut by the band, “Melancholia” captures in his solitary whine and the whirlpool sigh of his tape-phasing treatment of the guitars and drums an acute solitary sadness that the Who would have turned into an angry punch out.

Perhaps most importantly for many Who fans, they show how radically the group could transform his songs, as each musician’s style was often very different than Townshend’s natural tendencies. He deliberately kept the bass and drum lines very simple, and he sang his early recordings in a much higher and less macho-sounding voice than Roger Daltry. Daltry, Keith Moon and John Entwistle thus had plenty of room to crack open Townshend’s songs and deconstruct them (long before that word became part of the postmodern lexicon) into music suitable for the Who. Obviously, Townshend knew his fellow musicians better than anyone, and wrote for the group’s sound. But he also knew enough to give them plenty of room to make the material their own.

The Revolution Will Be Recorded

Purely coincidently, Townshend’s first Scoop set arrived virtually simultaneously with the first affordable four-track cassette recorders from companies such as Fostex and Tascam.

What’s a four-track cassette recorder? It’s not half of the eight-track cassette deck that was inside of your 1975 Chevy Nova. It’s simply a cassette recorder that instead of playing the two stereo tracks on side, only plays in one direction, but it allows recording on all four of those tracks either individually, or simultaneously.

When they began showing up in the mid-1980s, suddenly, for less than a thousand dollars, the average musician had access to multitrack recording equipment to write songs or experiment with overdubbing. So a drum machine could go on track one, a bass guitar on track two, a rhythm guitar on track three, and a lead vocal and guitar solo (when there’s no singing) on track four.

The Golden Era of Home Recording

While four-track cassette recorders are being produced today, for about the same money as a four-track cost in 1983, a PC can be fitted with the software and hardware necessary to record virtually unlimited tracks. (Most commercial music of the 1970s and 1980s was recorded on 24-track recording decks, and 24 tracks is child’s play for a program such as Cakewalk’s Sonar.) The only real limitation is the amount of RAM a computer is equipped, and the size of its hard drive. Beyond that, any computer with Windows 2000 or XP, and ideally, at least a gigahertz-speed processor can be pressed into service as a home recording platform.

The result is a paradoxical time for musicians: while the music industry is in the worst slump it’s faced since before the dawn of MTV, and the industry tries to further crack down on the recording of legally purchased music, home recording is experiencing its golden age, as the technology is affordable enough, accessible enough, and easy enough to allow any serious musician more powerful recording technology than George Martin ever had with the Beatles at Abbey Road.

Would You Like To Learn More?

But there is a learning curve to home recording via PC, which I personally found to be steep, when I made the jump from the hand-on experience of the four-tracks of the 1980s, to the GUIs of today. While most recording programs have decent built-in help files, they only go so far, so it helps to have some guides for assistance.

Sonar is the flagship home recording program of Cakewalk, a company that has been producing recording software for the PC-platform since the late 1980s. It’s tremendously flexible, but that flexibility comes at a price: it can be a fiendishly complex program for the beginner, no matter how much experience he had with analog recording.

Fortunately though, Scott R. Garrigus’ Sonar Power is real help, explaining how the entire program works, and naturally uncovering little known features-for it’s such a sprawling program that there are bound to be little known secrets for anybody using it!

Once I began to get a handle on home multitracking via Sonar, I wanted to incorporate synthesizers into its equation. While there are still plenty of hardware-based synthesizers, home recording benefits by keeping as much as possible inside the computer. But using synthesizers with Sonar was problematic for me, probably more so than other PC-based recordists. I’ve always been a guitarist who fiddled with keyboards, and wanted an easy solution that still sounded good. I began hearing about a program called Reason, produced by a European company called Propellerhead, whose GUI was a virtual equipment rack, that several different synthesizers, samplers and loop-playing programs could be plugged into and rearranged at will. You could even hit a computer key, and flip the rack over, to rearrange virtual wires from unit to unit.

Debbie Poyser and Derek Johnson’s Users’ Guide to Properhead Reason 2is a slightly more straightforward book, perhaps because Reason is a simpler program than Sonar. There are occasional flashes of political correctness (“The Reason name comes from a cyberpunk novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Reason in the novel is the name of a firearm, but we’ll pass quickly over that!” Right–guns are ever so icky, aren’t they?), but clearly the emphasis is on learning the program, partially by creating sounds not included in the presets, which Poyser and Johnson give several examples of.

Of course, there are a lot more software synthesizers than Reason. And in the brand new book, Software Synthesizers, Jim Aikin, the former senior editor of Keyboard magazine edits (and contributes a few articles to) a broad overview of what’s out there.

Scoop Yourself!

Each of these books thoroughly explains what sort of hardware is needed to run each program, which these days, as I said above is fairly basic. A PC with Windows 2000 or XP, a Soundblaster Audigy card with a LiveDrive bay to plug a mic or guitar and these programs is capable of producing astoundingly sophisticated recordings.

Which is why I wrote that home recording is in its golden age, and the technology is far beyond what was available in the 1970s to Pete Townshend when he made the recordings that make up the first Scoop.

Turn on, tune up, and start making some music-all the tools are waiting for you!

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    Good post, Ed.

    The technology has also been good for not-so-serious musicians such as myself. I found Reason very easy to learn and very hard to stop using. I just downloaded the 2.5 update from the site and am having a blast with the new devices.

    The tutorial CD that Propellerhead (I think) puts out is very good–it has lots of tricks that a non-pro probably wouldn’t already know (I didn’t).

  • nicky wire

    i d like to kow how to record at home with limited accesories

  • andy

    Nicky, if you have a PC, purchase a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Platinum card(i found mine here at http://www.shentech.com for $160). It has 2 line ins and other multiple inputs and comes w/ Cubasis, an easy to learn easy to use recording and midi program. It doesn’t have all the powerful editing tools that say, Sonar 3.0 has, but it’s a great starter program. Also, you’ll want to buy a mixing board. It’s important to run mics and things like that through a good mixer before going into your soundcard to really control the sounds you’re getting. When I started, I got a Beringer mixing board. They’re powerful little mixers and they’re inexpensive. Check out http://www.musiciansfriend.com for that. You’ll also want a good set of studio monitors or studio headphones. They can get a little pricy, but you can find them on musicians friend as well. Then for mics I would recommend Sure’s SM57 and SM58. They’re around $100 and under, and they’re probably the most versital mics ever made. I’ve never worked in a studio that didn’t have them laying around! So, plan on spending around $500-$600 and you can be off to a good start!

  • frost@work

    andy: there are easier ways of handling home recording. Consider purchasing the full version of Acid Music and an external 1/4 input device (something like DigiDesign Digi 001).

    That way in combo you can have unlimited tracks for recording, Acid Music allows you to do mixing and mastering VERY easily, you can even edit unbelievably easily. Plus, many devices like the Digi 001 will record at 4-5 times the quality of CD’s. If you have a good PC already then you can probably do it for under $1,000.

  • http://www.thesuburbansound.com andy

    well dude, my was was under or around $600 and included mics and mixers so PLLLLLLLL! hehe. I started out w/ my roommate’s computer, a Tascam 4 track recorder that I used for my mixer, and PC516 soundcard haha! I was given Cakewalk homestudio 7, and found a way to get around the limitations in tracking(except…not being able to access more than one input at a time).

    I’m saving up for a midi controller to control my mixes, and I still need some studio monitors. Hopefully by the end of the winter I’ll have a nice control room set up! Then I’ll focus on buying expensive mics and crap.

  • frost@work

    nice setup. However you didn’t buy Cakewalk… so if you x’ed out the price of Acid Music (which you should REALLY check out if you are using Cakewalk!!!!) then you only have to figure on the input device.

    Acid allows you to mix, edit, duplicate, delete, move, master, etc. 10 times easier than cakewalk.

  • andy

    Now I’m using Sonar 2.0. It’s an amazing program with loads of mastering plug ins and stuff. I don’t master usually however. I would encourage people to take their project to fresh ears for that. In reality Mike, all these programs are pretty much the same. ACID, Sonar, Pro-Tools, it’s just a matter of what fits you best. I know Cakewalk products well so I stuck w/ what I know. Sonar is Cakewalk’s professional line. I’m learning Cubasis now(it comes w/ the Audigy 2 Platinum card, which is why I didn’t figure in the price of recording software…it’s included w/ the soundcard!). It seems clumsy and messy compared to Sonar, but it’s easy to learn(good for beginners who don’t need as many editing tools yet. Just want to learn basic recording).

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com/weblog.html Ed Driscoll

    Andy,

    When you say “master”, are you including mixing in that as well?

    Who would you suggest people take their material to for mastering and/or mixing?

    Ed

  • frost@work

    sounds pretty nice. I built a home recording pc for a friend and considered Audigy 2 for input, but we ended up going with an external hardware/input card that I can’t seem to recall at the moment. Yeah, I’ve never heard of Sonar, I just personally found Acid to be more user-friendly and expansive than Cakewalk… but that’s just me dinking around.

  • andy

    Ed, I was just talking about mastering. Usually I like to do my own mixing because I know the feel and sound I want. There are people who will mix for you, but they’re pretty pricy. We went to a studio to record, and the mix was horrible, so I got the Pro Tools files from the guy and took it to someone who knows what they’re doing, and he made it sound a lot better. The key is, how comfortable are you with mixing? If you’re comfortable w/ it, do it yourself. If you’re not take it to another studio to mix. However, you never will feel comfortable w/ it if you don’t try it for yourself.

    Mike, I never used Acid other than loop construction so I don’t know how it handles. Sonar is more user friendly and expansive than Cakewalk ever was. The last version of Cakewalk I had was 2000, so I don’t know how XP or Home Studio 2004 handles, but I’m super pleased w/ SOnar.

  • Aaron

    Hey I have a Dell Dim 2300 wtih only 256mb of ram. I have access to as many mic’s as I could ever need a snake, a mixer rooms and all that good stuff. I want to be able to record enough tracks to mic a drum set and two or three scratch tracks at a time. I gues that would be 10-11+ inputs. I also will need a condensor mic for vocals right? I want to know what is user friendly that will go with me a long way until I’m ready to upgrade? What would work best with my Dell Pentium 4 1.8 ghz computer? Do I need more memory? how much? What is a good cd burner to get for my pc. Is it better to buy the audio card and use the software that comes with it? I am full of questions, but based on the equipment and the the # of tracks I want to be able to record what is the best way to go, and can I do it for less than $700.00? HELP!!!

  • andy

    Aarron you already have all the expensive stuff! You can definately do it for under $700! The thing you may have a problem with is recording 10 or 11 tracks at once, but check out this

    this soundcard will allow you to record 8 tracks at once. You could record drums on 6 tracks(I usually record them on 4 so that to me is a luxury) and still have 2 scratch tracks.

    Then check out Sonar 3.0 for a good recording program. You can get it at a good price here.

    so that’s about $700. I’m sure there are cheaper programs you could go with as well such as Cubase, but I’m not familiar enough w/ that program to recommend it.

    For a vocal mic, I would say that if you have an SM58 or SM57 mic laying around, that will work fine until you want to shell out the money for a ritzy condensor mic. I’ve worked on a few projects and found myself going back to my SM58 for vocals because I just wasn’t happy w/ the sounds the condensor mics were getting. They’re such reliable mics.

    You should have enough memory to get started. You’ll know when your harddrives get full. The cool thing about Sonar is that you can save files as bundle files, so it takes all the fx info, all the wav files, all the track info and puts it into one file, easy to burn onto CD-R so you can delete projects off your comp and have an easily accessable hard copy of everything.

  • Aaron

    Wow, thanks that was fast! Sounds good I’m going to MF website to check out that audio card! I used to have a B-R8, wich I recorded my first home project on. I got really good sound but hated the machine cause it was literally falling apart. The mic I used was a Peavy Condensor Mic with the shock mount and its own pre-amp. I loved it cause it had real live, warm sounds for the vocals and acoustic guitars. I can’t say that I love Peavey in general though! ha! Thanks for the help I post something when I get it all up and running (pending the wife not vetoing the purchasing bill!)

  • FIYA

    DOES CAKEWALK’S SONAR3 PRODUCER’S
    EDITION RECORD VOCALS?
    CAN I PRODUCE TRACKS ASWELL AS PRODUCE MY VOCAL TRACKS USING THIS PROGRAM?

    AND CAN I USE THE PATHELON REVERBS ON MY VOCALS IF THIS PROGRAM DOES VOCAL RECORDINGS?

    I DON’T ALREADY KNOW CAUSE I DON’T HAVE IT.BUT I WANT IT IF THESE FUNCTIONS APPLY.

  • http://www.icanon.com Joe

    Pete is a genius yes, but in addition, a very gritty do-it-yourselfer who had enormous amounts of ambition. Of course his ambition produced some amazing songs, recordings and eventually, matchless performances.

  • http://www.mi.edu/majors/recording-artist/8.aspx Jessica

    Home Music Recording is possible with minimum hardware requirements like mixers, mike and etc…

  • http://www.easymusicrecording.com David

    Certainly home music recording is now available for the average person with a decent computer for under $500. At a beginning level, you’ll need a microphone, interface, software, and speakers. See my website for a great selection geared for the developing musician. Start simple, then grow as your skills, needs, and resources increase. Enjoy the journey!