When I record, I am old school

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When I recorded my first solo acoustic guitar album in 1979, I had no choice but to work with an engineer in a professional recording studio, paying an hourly rate for studio time as well as tape (yes, reel-to-reel audiotape) costs.

These days, with the availability of great-sounding, affordable home recording equipment, computer software and digital audio interfaces, it is very possible to assemble a makeshift studio in your living room, learn how to use the gear yourself, record yourself, and produce a great-sounding album for a fraction of the cost of a studio project.

I have watched with amazement the advance of recording and sound technology over the past 35 years and the mind-blowing capability it has given virtually anyone who wants to record themselves at home…but when it comes to recording, I have always been old school. My recording method has stayed the same for 35 years and 18 albums: working with an engineer in a recording studio.

Why?

There are three reasons:

1. I want the front end of my sound (the pre-digital audio signal that starts with my guitar, continues through microphones and then through the pre-amps in a mixing console) to stay as “analog” as possible for as long as possible before being digitised onto a hard drive, so I like to record with the same classic, warm-sounding analog gear I have always used and am used to hearing, notably vintage Neumann microphones and, whenever possible, Neve mixing consoles.

(There are now devices, computer interfaces and sound cards that “model” the sound of classic analog gear, but I choose to use the real stuff.)

The studio I am currently using, Ca Va Sound in Glasgow, has that gear.

2. I want to record in an environment other than my home, for the combination of freedom and challenge an unfamiliar environment can offer.

What do I mean?

Recording in an unfamiliar environment can initially feel uncomfortable, but it actually removes the familiar distractions of home you didn’t realise were there and can really help you focus on your music.

If you are out of your comfort zone, in an environment you don’t know, it tends to help you reach further into what you do know…your music.

Another point to make is that studio time, even in the digital age of hard drives where there are no longer tape costs, is still expensive.

There is something at stake when you arrive at the studio for a session.

Knowing the clock will be ticking once you arrive motivates you to prepare diligently before a session to maximise your efficiency while in the studio.

It can also help produce that adrenaline-filled “moment of truth” when you begin tracking that can bring out your best playing.

(I played that? Whoa!)

3. I want the advantages of working with an experienced engineer, especially one who has musical ears.

I cannot emphasise enough the benefits of working with an engineer who knows you, your music, and what you are trying to achieve.

Not only will the engineer be running the gear (a total necessity for tech and gadget-challenged people like me) so you can focus on getting the best performances out of yourself, but a good engineer’s insights, advice, observations and encouragement can actually help you make a better record.

The engineer I work with at Ca Va is Geoff Allan (pictured above). I think he’s great.

Even though I am a solo acoustic guitarist who could be recording in a home studio, recording in a real studio with a real engineer is something the digital age has not changed for me.

It’s not for everyone. But it’s the way I love to work…and I believe it shows up in the way my records sound.

How do you like to record?

What is your opinion about using outside studios versus using a home studio?

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14 Responses to When I record, I am old school

  1. Rob Johnson says:

    Hey Preston, I concur! I definitely agree that with the ‘working day’ structure of a studio it will get the best out of you recording wise. As you say the knowledge that you are in effect on the clock creates a goal pre recording in terms of practise motivation but also enables you to get in the zone during the recording process. I also find that I need the ear of a reliable source as you say with your producer. I find it incredibly important to have someone I trust and who is on the same page musically to assist on the journey! It’s one thing recording demos alone in my bedroom but for the finished product a working studio and a producer are crucial in my eyes too! You can check out the results here should you so wish: http://www.robjohnsonmusic.com. Great blog Mr Reed, as always a great read! Hope you get a chance to check out some of my music! Cheers, Rob.

    • fretgenie says:

      Hey Rob,
      Thanks for your comment. Glad you agree with the main points I made :^)
      I would not go so far as to say the engineers I have worked with were producers. More like a second set of ears helping me (as the producer of my own project) to get what I was after.
      Will check out your music.
      Thanks and best wishes mate!

  2. Matt says:

    I have never recorded anything in a professional sense, just for fun, and this has been on a laptop, using basic software (probably free). I like to watch the making of albums and it seems more and more, that the most successful artists make analog records, on tape etc. I would love to make an album/ep the way it was made before the pro-tools age.

    I like the idea of studio! Being taken out of a comfy place and being on the clock, where your performance must be top notch. Do you think, in a way, recording the way you do, is how you are as performer? You won’t always be in a “comfy” environment for a show but must not disappoint obviously your fans, but also yourself.

    Sometime in the next few years, I will be enrolled in a sound engineering course, and making an pre-digital album would be a treat! I would love to know how its done.

    • fretgenie says:

      Hey Matt,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I must say the earlier albums I made were pre-digital and pre-Protools, but these days I definitely do use Protools for the back-end of the recording process. I am not that much of a purist :^)
      Good luck with your future recording plans!

  3. Gillian says:

    Hi Preston

    Great blog as ever – I like it that you don’t over-blog us all because no matter that we don’t hear from you for a while it is always interesting and perceptive what you have to say when you do and well worth the wait. How marvellous that you think so highly of Ca Va Studios just in the sense that they have been there for EVER and I love to hear of businesses like that surviving all these years no doubt on account of their quality service.

    I have an unguitaresque query – I play the piano, both cover tunes and my own compositions. I have been wanting to record myself so I have it all on CD to keep, hand out to family and friends. The only thing is I would get terribly nervous if I played in a studio with the pressure to get it right. When I play on my own I am perfect of course, you might know (and obviously the old piano is there and not too portable!) – like perfectly reversing a car into a space when no-one is watching. Is there any simple digital home recording gear I could use that I could more or less press Play, go for it and re-record easily again if not so perfect first time? Fortunately, the piano has a good quality old sound in any case. And not too expensive? Or even a good person to ask? I live up in Stirling area.

    Many thanks for any ideas – Gillian.

    • fretgenie says:

      Hi Gillian,
      Thanks for your comment :^)
      To address your question: I don’t really know what to tell you. I use the voice recorder on my iPhone to record musical ideas. For anything more serious, it’s off to the studio. There are many inexpensive home recording devices out there, however. There is a good music store on Otago Street in the west end of Glasgow called C.C. Music. You could check that out. Ask for the knowledgeable and helpful owner, Steve Caban.

  4. Rob Smith says:

    HI Preston,
    I was thinking the same thing the other day. I’ve never recorded in a studio (as I’m 19!!) but I already know that no technology no matter how advanced, can take away the pleasures of working with classic equipment. Tools that were built specifically for recording by dedicated passionate musicians will always be ahead of “apps” or home studio software. I think that technology has already taken away some of our traditions, those days are gone when if you wanted an outstanding photograph you would need to hire a professional photographer who is educated in the art, now we have phones with high quality cameras and easy to use editing tools. It isn’t bad but, in my opinion, it isn’t good!
    However, as I said new-age tech will never reach the same standards as old school musical equipment … when was the last time your pre-amp got a virus?!?!
    Well that’s my view on the subject!
    Happy playing.

    Oh and please, feel free to return to The Linenhall in Castlebar, County Mayo, you’ve always managed to blow our minds!!! 😉

    • fretgenie says:

      Hi Robert,
      Yes, there are things to miss about the old, analog world…but camera phones and easy editing are not among them for me :^) It is part of my business as a musician to connect with people by creating and sharing content, so my phone (and especially the camera) has become the most powerful device in my life.

      I do think you can hold onto many of the best things about the pre-digital age if you want to. Working with another person on a project that these days you could do alone is one of them.

      See you next time I play in Castlebar, I hope! :^)

  5. Paul Lynas says:

    Preston – I recently discovered your music a few years ago and saw you perform in Pacifica CA on your recent tour there. You did not disappoint to say the least. You’ve are an inspiration for an old rocker who’s been composing acoustic finger-picking music for years and who is finally started recording at home using Apple [Garage Band – Logic] and Apogee products. I can’t tell you what a joy it is when one does not have the weight of making a living at it hanging over you.

    In response to your question regarding studio v. home recording, I think the topic has been over thought. I took the time to record in studios years ago [20 and 40 years ago] using analogue equipment both with a band and as a solo guitarist. My conclusion is that the only time one can really hear the true “warmth” of a recording, whether it’s analogue or digital, is in the studio control room. After the mastering is finished we are at the mercy of great home stereos playing our music in horrible rooms or vice versa. iTunes, iPhones, ear buds etc., all fabulous, but it isn’t as good as when we got religion in the control room. The last time I heard a mind blowing analogue recordings beautifully played was of Frank Sinatra recordings made in the early fifties in a jazz bar that had a sound system built for it. The bottom line for me is to play with emotion and let the rest take care of itself.

    I am recording at home digitally now and am hard pressed not to feel the warmth. I look forward to final mixing and mastering in a studio. For what it’s worth, the quality of the recordings on your albums are indeed outstanding. I listen to them as a reference – so there may be something to your “old school” approach. Looking froward to your next collection of works.

    • fretgenie says:

      Hi Paul,
      I hear what you’re saying about digital vs. acoustic. I think “warmth” ultimately has more to do with the the ears of the person mixing and mastering the album (there is so much they can do, even with a lousy recording, if they’re good) than whether the gear it was recorded with was analog or digital…but I like to think I’m giving that person every advantage I can by using as much analog gear as possible in the early stages.
      Thank you for your kind words about the sound of my albums. Honoured that you refer to them while recording :^)

  6. Rick fornalski says:

    Hi Preston.
    I saw you in Sudbury, Suffolk a long time ago and was sad my company never took up using your music on our promo video.
    I worked at the BBC and ITN as a broadcast Engineer and my feelings are that when you remove the qualified Engineer, you lose standards, such as level, noise and other production values that can be lost once you lose the ability (or knowledge) to appreciate that JUST because you have a high dynamic range you don’t have to use it.
    Reel to reel?, got one, (Revox A77), Neive desks?, used to fix them.
    The fact is that even with digital technology, without the analogue front and back ends, you have nothing.
    Love your music. Was enthralled at Sudbury. I do hope you will play locally again some time.
    Best wishes from the UK.

    • fretgenie says:

      Hi Rick. Thanks for your comment. Yes, digital needs a lot of analog “personality help” to sound right. Glad you like my music. Hope to see you in Sudbury again soon :^)

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