After about a year of rehearsing and gigging, The Missing Persians decided to record their first album. It was released (or as our singer/songwriter Chris likes to say “escaped”) on Saturday 19th July 2014 at our Thamesfest performance – you can also hear and/or buy it from The Missing Persians Bandcamp page, either as a digital download or a physical CD.
We’ve all paid good money for recording time at studios, but there is something about the clock ticking away which can change the mood of a performance. Some people cope with the pressure better than others, but it only takes a technical problem with an instrument and you can lose a whole morning. That time has to either be paid for, or you are going to have to compromise on how much time you have to mix.
As we all had some previous experience with home recording, we recorded and produced it entirely ourselves (with a couple of exceptions in the last stages). I’m pretty pleased how it turned out, so I thought I’d note down some of the things we learned:
Admittedly, we did have a rather motley selection of microphones that we’d all gathered over the past 20+ years of being in bands, but most of these were good ol’ Shure SM58s. Not hugely expensive, but robust and decent quality. Vocal mics were Seinheiser. We set up (two guitars and one bass) in our friend JJ’s living room, with the drums set up in an adjoining room. The drum room was padded a little with duvet/sleeping bags to reduce some of the echo of the room, and I set up in the doorway so Nick and I could have eye contact while we were recording. We also had a set of drum mics which cost about £200. One contraversial thing we did was use a small mixing desk to mix the drums down to a stereo pair. This was done because we only had 8 inputs in our sound card, and we did live to regret this choice as we were unable to use a few takes because the drum mix had changed at some point without us noticing. The whole lot went into a reasonable spec desktop PC running Reaper – I’m more of a Cubase fan myself, but Reaper didn’t take long to learn how to use and was a cheap, useable solution (we did it this way as a) we couldn’t fit in my small studio at home and b) I didn’t want to move my studio 25 miles up the road while we recorded the album).
We wanted to have a “live” sound, so we recorded the songs pretty much live (without vocals), then did a few overdubs for vocals, guitar solos and fixes. Often there was a really good sounding take (but with a number of mistakes) versus a slightly less exciting take which was note perfect. I’m sure it’s always better to choose the one that sounds liveliest and try to fix it, rather than choosing one that’s “technically” correct but doesn’t have the feel. Listen carefully to some Beatles or early Bowie on some really good headphones and you can hear things which were clearly mistakes, but recording again might have never got the same feel as the version that made the album.
I don’t mean take months over it, but if you’ve not done much of this before you need to accept that to get the sound right you are going to have to do a lot of experimentation. Listen to the song and keep gently refining it. Remember everything you hear affects everything else you hear (we kept using the phrase the “three stooges affect” where it sounded like everything is trying to get out of the same frequency range in the speaker). We all took turns at rough mixes and some of the first attempts were quite surprising (not always in a good way!) We explored how to control levels of instruments with a little compression (to make the louds not SO LOUD) and then use EQ, volume and panning to find space in the speakers for everything to sit. In the end, it worked out best for one of us (somehow the job fell to me) to sit in a room and work on the mixes, then share (Dropbox) works in progress for comment (digital recording means you can keep multiple mixes – just remember to name them sensibly so you can tell which is which!) We then got together at mine for final tweaks just before we finished the mixes.
Just stands to reason; you don’t know what people are going to listen to it on (earbuds, audiophile equipment, massive PA, laptop speakers) and you should try to make it sound as good as it can on all of these. You’ll be surprised how the bass can overpower some systems and be completely missing from others.
Just because you know how to play an instrument, and know how you want your songs to sound, it’s tempting to look for some digital software with a “Make it sound awesome” button on it. I don’t think that’s going to happen; just spend a few hundred quid on getting someone trusted to have a listen with their ears. You may be amazed at what they pick out that you hadn’t noticed, and it will sound all the better for it. We used Tim Turan in Oxford and I think he was worth every penny.
Even doing most of the job ourselves, it did cost us quite a lot of money (£2000+) to produce 500 CDs (PC, audio card, microphones, mastering, duplication) but recording at a studio would have meant we couldn’t have done it over the course of several weeks, couldn’t have decided after listening back to rough mixes that a particular song didn’t have the feel and let’s do it again, and couldn’t have experimented quite so much with sounds and overdubs. We were also able to stay relaxed through the whole process, and I think that was one of the most important factors in making music we are proud of.