easy is right
As with all equipment, I like preamps and I-O interfaces that run smoothly and don’t disturb the creative flow. My Universal Audio ‘Apollo Twin’ ticks all my personal boxes for home recording. The audio quality and onboard effects are impressive, and two channels are all you need for the kind of music I do. In fact, not having more helps me keep things simple.
The Apollo runs smoothly with Apple Logic, my favourite DAW. Apart from the ease of use, I also like the way Apple don’t keep charging you for updates. So far, I’ve never had issues exporting WAV files to a ProTool studio environment.
a question of wavelength
Of all the factors that determine which studio works best for you, the most important is probably wavelength. By that I mean how well you get on with the person who’s going to be recording you. In my experience, all the gear in the world can’t compensate for poor personal skills. And if someone doesn’t ‘get’ and like your music, I guarantee you won’t be happy with what you hear in the control room.
The second most important factor is experience. If possible, work with a professional – not someone who’s basically going to be practising on you. We all make mistakes, but when your best takes get lost or repeatedly interrupted due to operator errors (‘ooops!’) it sucks all the atmosphere out of your performance. Plus, it’s amazing how quickly an expert gets things done in post-production.
Ideally, book a single session with someone you find promising and record a track you know inside out. By the time you’ve got your pilot down, you’ll know a surprising amount about how they work and whether that works for you. Headphone settings, click-track-yes-or-no, flexibility, general demeanour (especially patience) – all these parameters make a huge difference. If things are still going smoothly after an hour or two, chances are they’re in control of their setup. And if you like the end result (and enjoyed your session), you might just be in the right place.
In my opinion, home recording is a dangerous drug. Before you know it, those innocent, playful sessions turn into dark, serious all-nighters fuelled by endless cups of coffee (gasp). Instead of playing music, you spend all your time deliberating which gates and compressor settings might work best – only to delete them later on when you realise that actually, they don’t.
Financially too, it’s a bottomless pit. There’s always a New Shiny to covet: the one that will transform your recordings and make everything ok at last … and somehow never does. You can spend a lot of money chasing rainbows.
Or, as in my case, you can just stop. These days I use home recording for two things only: as a quality control tool for my singing and playing (tape don’t lie), and to mess around with new songs in a lo-res, what-do-we-have-here kind of way.
Once I’ve got all the rocks out of the road (and only then), I go to a professional studio and do it properly. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? I think so – but only if you find a studio (person) who’s completely on your wavelength. Read my studio posts for more on that.
tunings for tunes
Not all the songs below are available on CD, but I play them live. Note: I often use a capo too.
- Standard : often tuned down 2 – 3 semitones
- DADGAD : on about 40% of my songs
- DADFAD : Autumn Leaves / When / Summer Rain / Follow / Help (Prayer)
- DADDAD : Talk To Me / Whistleblower Blues
- Open D : May
- DADDAC : Dark Eye Dog
- DGDDAE : Traveller / Stand My Ground
I discovered the Rode NT-R ribbon mic a couple of years back, and it’s now my go-to studio mic for vocals. I just like what it does to my voice, especially the mids. Being active, it gives you a decent signal and you can’t accidentally blow it by activating 48V phantom power. The bottom end can be boomy if you sing up close, but the mic is very IQ-friendly and the higher freqs are all there too. Just don’t drop it.
The Fishman Ellipse setup on my Boucher guitar has a piezo, plus a tiny directional mic on a bendy stalk. In the studio I just use the mic, angled away from the vox mic so I can sing and play simultaneously without too much bleed. My producer Al Scott puts up an affordable dynamic mic to add some body and air, then blends the two guitar signals. Perfect!
tune to your voice
It took me years to realise I didn’t have to sing in the same key as the people I used to cover. Once I learned it was ok to adapt the guitar to my voice, not vice-versa, everything relaxed – especially my vocal cords.
Obviously you can just play in a different key to go lower. But when you’re picking in a non-standard tuning, that can change your guitar sound completely. If it does, consider tuning the guitar down instead. My Boucher sounds fine at D or even C# instead of E in standard tuning. Often, I take DADGAD down a semitone too.
Just to be clear: I normally leave the guitars tuned lower, then use a capo if I need to go higher. Particularly on stage, frequent twiddling is not a good idea. Especially when the G-string goes ‘ping’.
Slightly thicker strings are a must if you’re tuning down to stay. They help with intonation, and will usually prevent string buzz. I generally use Elixir 12-53s or thereabouts on the Boucher and Martin 11-50s on the Martin Backpacker. For many fingerpickers that’s probably too thin anyway; to each his own.
Speaking of intonation, I use SOS plastic spacers at the zero fret on all my guitars. I like to think they help, especially in weird tunings.
boucher all the way
My main guitar is a 6-string Cherry Goose acoustic made by Boucher in Canada. It’s the first decent guitar I’ve ever owned and I love it to bits. I’d never heard of them until the guy in the music store gave me one to play. I spent two hours trying to persuade myself I didn’t need a guitar that good (and expensive) … and failed.
less is more
Guitar number two is my secret weapon … a Martin Backpacker steelstring with a MiSi piezo pickup (no battery, which is good because there’s no room to fit one). It’s cheap and compact, yet sounds huge when you plug it in. The neck is clunky but I don’t mind. Martin says to use 10° strings max; I use 11°s but tune them low – either to D standard / DADGAD, or a semitone below.