Tryna Be A Rockstar Part IV – Finding Your Voice in a Homebrew Studio

Dispatches from the front lines of the music industry.

Some people like to talk in grand terms about the history of music, how particular human advancements had certain types of effects on music. I am going to be one of those people (briefly). I would argue that the single most significant change to music since the development of sound recording has been the democratization of high-quality recording capabilities. For millennia, music had to be performed in person. Then the phonograph brought the symphony into your living room. But now, you can bring the recording studio into your living room – we masses can produce our own music now. “Composing” is no longer about putting notes on a page or needing to perform whatever is in your head. You can immortalize it. Carve out your own Hammurabi slab of sound. Sing for your great great great great great great grandchildren. Or sing for anyone anywhere in the world, right now.

If I were born fifteen years earlier, I have no doubt that I would not have decided to move to Austin and pursue music. The core of my musical journey has been my own composing, songwriting, and being able to record whatever I write. My music is not confined to the vacuum of my own brain. I can put it out, listen to it, reflect on it, share it, improve upon it, and put more out. Just fifteen years ago I would have had to struggle to find musicians willing to play exactly what I wanted them to play. Then it would have cost an absurd amount of money to go into the studio and spend the amount of time I do fiddling around with sounds. Instead, I have a magic music box two inches from my bed and everything else I need closer than the bathroom.

Technology opened up a universe of composition, but for the longest time it confounded me with too much possibility. Only recently have I found-……

Well, here’s the story:

Getting into sound engineering reminds me of when I was little and really wanted to be the catcher on my baseball team. I went out to the sports store and bought my own catcher’s mitt, helmet, mask, chest pad, shin guards, and a big enough bag to carry it all. As a nine-year-old with a four-dollar/week allowance, you really have to go all-out buying a whole bunch of stuff. At twenty-three as a musician, it’s being a catcher all over again. You need mics, cables, stands, headphones and speakers, a good computer, a big-screen monitor, a device to plug all the cables into, soundproofing in the room, expensive software, and whatever instruments you want to record. In the past, the current quality of equipment would require a small business loan, but now it only runs up to a couple $k. Of course, you can still spend around a thousand on just one microphone, but the differences at that level are very subtle. With decent, affordable equipment, really the only missing ingredient is sweat.

And, like with catcher’s gear, where other players would discuss the merits of various helmet and chest pad styles and manufacturers, there is an endless amount of product comparison you can do. Some people seriously nerd out over this and sound like they’re speaking a robot language. “Try these AT2020s, space them using the 3-1 rule, run it through good pre’s, and probably a solid compressor, though your ADC can also color your sound. Watch out for clock jitter. At the end, sum to mono and check for phasing.” And that’s not even nerdy by engineer standards. I have personally learned enough to navigate the conversations, but I have never been a person to have strong opinions about manufacturers or models.

Instead, the most important aspect of the studio for my purposes is multitracking. You can record one instrument, then add another instrument. Then another. You can manipulate them all independently to shape the sound however you want. With unlimited tracks at your disposal, it’s like being your own orchestra.

This capability is endlessly empowering, fascinating, and full of those blissful moments when you finally listen back to all the tracks together and say, “WOW! That sounds AWESOME!” But it has put me on a very long and confusing journey of searching for the music I truly wanted to create…

The journey began when I was about fourteen years old and in eighth grade. We were given some creativity-oriented assignment in english class. A friend of mine and I, who were in a rock band together, had the idea to record a song. We picked Green Day’s Brain Stew, because it was simple, but changed the lyrics to be about a utopian island called Islandistan, to fit the assignment. We went to his house one weekend and set up in his bedroom. First we laid down the instrument tracks together with one mic. Then for the vocals, I had my bandmates leave the room as I nearly whispered the words into the mic. I was so shy about it.

And the teacher loved it. What a fun and easy A.

So as the years went on, I would frequently use english projects as an excuse to record a song. The recordings quickly became more and more elaborate, involving all sorts of instruments and effects. And – I could do it all with just a computer, a $20 microphone from Best Buy, and a program a friend gave me. In college I upgraded equipment slightly and bought a couple nicer microphones and better software, but the process did not change all that much.

For the longest time, the songs I recorded began with some idea I wanted to try: an instrument combination, a little riff to develop, or a style to examine. They were experiments, not expressions of my feelings about the world. So if you listen to them as a collection, they sound rather all over the place. Steel drum one minute, viola the next, a folk song followed by a latin jam. I had tons of instruments at my disposal and they all offered various fascinating textures, why would I not use them? Why wouldn’t I pry into all corners of musical possibilities?

I loved experimenting so much that I did not even realize or acknowledge that I was on a journey. “Why be limited to a singular “sound?”” I stubbornly asked the world. When I graduated college all I knew was that I wanted to record more of these concoctions. I was embarking on a perilous road – a musician avoiding a style.

Well, kind of. My stubbornness was mostly a matter of not knowing what I wanted yet. Clearly I needed to keep experimenting until I found my voice. So I began by developing a couple formats that would be a bridge between my laboratory tests and whatever it is that normal people expect from a songwriter.

The first was an “albumlet” which was a collection of four songs where I would try out three or four ideas across each song in different ways. On one, for example, I wanted to try: beer bottles played like flutes, sustained organ notes, and parallel ninths. On another, drums would be important and piano had to be percussive. But these limitations weren’t enough – I still couldn’t help throwing in several other instruments and traveling across too many styles, from bhangra to aggressive rock.

On the albumlets, it took me about a week to develop and record a song. A couple days would involve writing and honing lyrics, instrument parts, and structure. Then, because I was videotaping everything on a camera with poor batteries, I could only do a couple hours of recording per day. So I would practice and get down the drum part one day, the bass and other instruments the next day or two, and vocals the last day.

So I was getting good experience with the routine and techniques of recording (microphone placement, effects to use, hot keys to navigate the software), but it took a month to write just four songs. I really needed more frequent songwriting practice. So I moved onto “Song A Day’s.” I had run into a couple people online who wrote a song every day, and I figured it could help me move through ideas much faster. It was clear that in any creative endeavor, you begin with some decent ideas and some bad ones and that it takes the time of producing a lot of material to get the bad ideas out, notice they are bad, then focus on the better ones.

In this, the Song A Day’s were incredibly helpful. I used different instruments each day, tried out several musical ideas that had been rattling around, and finally worked two bad habits out of my system. The first was my tendency to want to show off that I could play a bunch of instruments. I finally acknowledged that wasn’t very good at most of them and that I had just been adding arbitrary color. The other bad habit was that of slap-dashing songs together. No longer would I let myself put out unpolished, sloppily-performed work.

But I was stuck. I still hadn’t found what I wanted, just a lot of things I didn’t want. Plus I had used up the bank of creative juices over the two marathon weeks of nothing but eating, sleeping, and songwriting.

So over the next three months, I thought. I reflected. I listened to everything I had made already. I agonized. I tinkered around. I listened to bands I admired. I wondered what caused me to admire them. I worried because I wasn’t writing or recording anything – how could I get better unless I put out more songs?

Then one day, I finally found it. After almost a decade of not even knowing I was looking. A very specific approach. A particular group of instruments. A style of playing. Something distinct. Something Me.

And because I found it, I’m making a whole album out of it. A real album. No more experiments.

This. Is. What. I. Want. To. Make.


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