Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Home Recording The Scott Cooley Way - My Method in 2024

Things.  I basically do two things:  1)  write songs;  and 2)  record them.  Well, I also 3)  release them publicly.  If anything at all, it's the third thing that makes the content of this blog potentially interesting.  If I just wrote and recorded songs that no one ever heard, it wouldn't make as much sense to write about doing those things.  It was more interesting earlier in my "career" because I was among the first wave of DIY artists to release home-recorded CDs on Amazon and downloads on iTunes back in the days when such things first became possible.  Now, of course, everyone and their brother has things like a computer, a microphone, an audio interface, and a little money to distribute through an aggregator to the streaming services without the need for a record label contract.  Since my last public release of music in 2022, as has been the case for over 20 years now, I've continued to write and record.

I'm getting ready to release another album soon.  The target "drop" date is June 21st - my birthday - as usual, and I'll probably include 13 songs, again as usual.  Every two years I weed out about half the songs I write, record the rest, and I typically record a song in about an hour.  So it's not like it takes me a ton of time to record an album - it could be done in a couple days, but I spread it out as free time allows.  I usually average writing about one song per month, but they come in spurts.

I generally write a song and then record a first take on my phone's audio recorder app with just my voice and acoustic guitar.  Then if after listening back to those first takes I like them, I record them on my computer and add additional parts.

The phone recorder app is easily scrollable and shows the record dates organized by month.  Looking back at my writing/recording productivity since the last album released in June 2022, here's how it broke down:

  • Jul. 2022:  Wrote two, only recorded one of them
  • Aug. 2022:  Wrote two, recorded both
  • Oct. 2022:  Wrote one, recorded it
  • Apr. 2023:  Wrote six, recorded all of them
  • Aug. 2023:  Wrote two, recorded both
  • Oct. 2023:  Wrote two, recorded both

So, this time around, I only weeded out one, and that gave me 12 songs recorded since the last album, within the last two years, but I haven't written any since October of last year.  I have several recorded that were previously weeded out, so I'll be choosing one of them to include...unless I write & record more between now and June.

Evidently, there was no activity in Sept. 2022, then a huge gap of 5 months time between Nov. 2022 to March 2023 with no activity, then another 3 month gap in May/June/July of 2023, another no activity month in September 2023, then nothing in about the last 6 months.

I don't know why I wait 2 years between albums, and I don't know why I choose 13 as the number of songs on my albums, but as you can see, it just sort of works out that way.

I usually have way more to choose from in a 2-year span of time, so I'm a little nervous about that. Also, I usually weed out way more of my first takes on the phone, and never record digital multitrack versions of them.  You might think the song quality will suffer as a result, but one never knows.  I like to keep a low bar for myself, yet it feels like my hurdles have been higher this time around the track.

The writing may take only a few minutes per song, but sometimes I'll recycle old scraps of lyrics, and sometimes I'll sit on musical ideas for a while, so there can be a long span until finalized.  Then I really do crank out the recording part fast once I have a finalized song ready to go.  Obviously, I'm not a perfectionist.  I just like to keep things fresh, get each song recorded close to how I imagine it sounding, get 'er done, then move on to the next.

How do I record my songs so quickly?  How do I get the sound I get when recording in my little home "studio"?  What order do I do things in when recording?  What equipment and software do I use?

The short answer is I have a desk in a spare bedroom now in my house, and on it is a computer, a small midi keyboard, and a small audio interface that allows for software insert effects.  On a shelf above it are two small speakers, a single microphone and a printer.  Next to my desk is an acoustic guitar.  That's it.  I use software for everything else.  Pretty simple and low footprint.

Most people wouldn't want the Scott Cooley sound, but people have asked me how I do it over the years.  I am completely self-taught.  How you record can be thought of by some people as almost being like a proprietary trade secret.

I don't mind sharing my approach, but the overall sound I get is probably well below the level of quality anyone else would want to strive for.  Also, it's important to note that my approach has evolved over the years, and there are always variations depending on the song.

As a home recording person who does everything alone with zero training, I've just figured out through trial and error what works for me.  That, and reading the user guide and/or online help that comes with the DAW software.  I've googled how to do things, watched a couple youtube how-to videos, and learned from a few online forums too.

If curious at all, you might like to know this abbreviated sequential list of steps that I usually follow:

  1. turn on the metronome in the DAW and set it to desired click tempo
  2. while listening to that in one headphone with the other off my ear, record the rhythm guitar track into a microphone clean, angled from neck to soundhole about 6 inches away
  3. record a scratch vocal track into a mic, clean, while listening to the rhythm track with one earphone off, so I can hear my own voice too
  4. record bass track, used to always do a mic'd acoustic, but sometimes a direct electric bass, and more recently, just play a MIDI keyboard, tried a mic'd amp w/ electric, but never got good results, and the DI electric into audio 1/4 input can have bass eq/comp and/or bass amp sim plugin with mixed results, the keyboard way offers the best sonic quality so far, but this one is always a challenge to get a good sound
  5. record kick, then snare, then toms, then hat, then crash each separately, all with midi keyboard and virtual sounds, used to mic a djembe and use a nylon brush on a snare various mics, but virtual on keys is my preferred method now
  6. record percussion - tambourine, shaker, etc. into mic if desired, also mic'd congas/bongos if desired, or cowbell ocasionally (never enough)
  7. mix the drums, muting other tracks, adjusting volume and pan for each, doing the kick centered, each of other panned wider as desired
  8. mix the bass volume to fit in with the drums, panned center
  9. mix the rhythm guitar to fit with the bass while muting rest
  10. record backing vocals, usually 2 takes, then pan L & R
  11. record lead vocal, with large diaphram condenser, usually takes many tries, then I pick the best, I've comped before, but prefer do-overs until I get it as good as I can all the way through in one take
  12. record lead acoustic guitar into mic, doing intros, fills, instrumental break solos, outros, etc. as desired
  13. apply effects processing to each track, and by this I usually mean EQ, but sometimes a little compression, and sometimes reverb.  I have presets and saved scripts for a lot of these, and I usually leave the bass and kick pretty clean.
  14. mix down to stereo wav, listen on speakers, car speakers, etc, take notes, then return to make volume/pan adjustments (pre-mastering)
  15. master the wave with some overall eq/compression - again, I have some saved scripts I run for these
  16. done!

That's generally "how" I do it, but here's "what I use" to do it with:

I used to do all of the above in Adobe Audition v.3.1, then I tried Cakewalk for a while for just the recording part only because it was free and supported the new MIDI keyboard I purchased, and now I use Logic for just the recording part and some of the effects, then bounce and export/import into Adobe Audition for the mixing and mastering still.  I still love Adobe Audition because it has outstanding noise reduction features that just don't exist in other DAWs, and these are necessary when recording everything into microphones from real instruments, and the mastering tools are also on par with out-of-box Logic or even Ozone, which I've also experimented with.

I've purchased and experimented with about 5 or 6 different microphones over the years - dynamics, condensers small and large, but have now replaced them all with a Townsend which has simulation settings to make it sound like any mic, and integrates well with my Universal Audio Apollo interface and Logic.

I've purchased and experimented with about 4 different audio interfaces over the years - a Roland, a Focusrite, a Tascam, but now replaced them all with a UA Apollo Twin lightning bolt.

For years, I used a Dell running Windows 7, and still use it for mastering with the Adobe Audition, but now I use an iMac with Logic for the recording steps.

I've had two MIDI keyboards, but the one I use now is a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol because it integrates really well with Logic.  It's the smallest one they make, and has software that lets you play a piano or organ chord with a single key, and also to make the keys sound like drums, bass, etc.

The Mac/Logic/Townsend/Apollo/Komplete is the ultimate setup for me, it all plays well with each other and makes things efficient and easy.  If Logic had good noise reduction, it might replace the need for Adobe Audition, but I also have all these batch scripts that run customized effects processing sequences I created in there, so that's a big time-saver.  Spent hours of my life A/B testing them all 'till I found combinations I liked, so I keep the AA for now until my old Dell dies on me, then I'll have to consider other options.  There are so many options in Logic I've never even tried, so might experiment in there further someday, but I like my process the way it is for now.

I have a Fender Jazz bass, which I love playing but hardly ever use anymore for recording, and a bass amp that is totally unnecessary, and a Martin HD-28 acoustic that is too bassy/boomy, but still great.  I have a Takamine non-upright acoustic bass guitar, but hardly ever use it anymore.  I have several electric guitars, a multi-effects pedal board, and an amp.  Similar to the various ways to record electric bass, I never seem to get a good electric sound no matter what I try, and I just prefer the sound of an acoustic.  However, it's fun to crank it up to 11 sometimes and jam.  I have the percussion stuff, the bongos, a set of Hohner special 20 harmonicas, a ukulele, and a hawaiian weissenborn for acoustic slide playing, and still have the old snare drum, the djembe, and cymbal I used to use.  Small JBL monitors and Sony MD headphones.  Oh yeah, I've got my wife's marimba I record with quite a lot too.  I've borrowed my friend's mandolin a couple times, but just can't get into it due to fat fingers.

Now, I've evolved to not needing much to get the sound I get.  I pretty much do songs with the full (acoustic) rock band treatment with only my voice, my Martin acoustic, and my keyboard for the bass, drums, piano, etc., so almost all in-the-box now.  All the other crap is in the basement storage now, awaiting my death after which my nephew will likely take it all to his basement and possibly use and/or sell some of it.

As you can hear with my studio recordings, I don't use many effects at all, just some EQ on most tracks a little reverb on the vocal.  I like to keep it clean, real and acoustic sounding, even though I've embraced virtual instruments.  No racks of hardware, no preamps, nothing like that.  It's all done in the software.  Everyone says I should use a preamp, but the ability to do "on the way in" insert effects on my Apollo interface combined with the virtual microphone simulation and insert channel strip effects on my Townsend mic negate the need for one.

Where the magic happens:  My dusty home studio 

You can see earlier incarnations of it here:  I don't like a cluttered room.  No room treatment either.  I do also have one of those acoustic foam things behind my microphone, but I don't know that it makes any difference or not. I don't really have any desire to add any equipment or software for recording.  As long as nothing breaks, I have everything I need and want already.  Took a long time to arrive here, a lot of trying out different things to see how they sound, a lot of mistake making and learning, and quite a bit of money.

Future Plans Beyond This Year:  My next thing will be to try to get a good electric guitar sound with software only and just directly plugging it into the audio interface.  I'm not much of a fingerstyle player, and realize the types of songs I write would probably lend themselves well to being electric guitar rock songs instead of acoustic.  Also, I can now appreciate the value in releasing singles - so I might try the staggered release of one song at a time approach in the future.  For the few fans out there who enjoy my music, and crave hearing more, they wouldn't have to wait as long to get their fix.

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