From the comfort of your own home


Home recording makes putting out albums more affordable for artists

Paul Bogdan
A&C Editor

Walking into the studio where These Estates recorded their upcoming full-length this past weekend was a somewhat disillusioning experience. Absent from the walls of the studio were the gold records, the photos of famous musicians, even the control room and giant soundboard. This is because the studio the band was recording in wasn’t a recording studio in the traditional sense – it was a nondescript house in south Regina. With the rise of affordable recording gear, many bands are skipping out on the studios and recording in their homes.

Stepping in through the front door, microphones are scattered about the room with cables vining about the floors, and a bag of various bottles lies next to the amps in the corner opposite the drums. “We forgot a cymbal stand. We remembered the booze, but we’ve forgot the cymbal stand three times now,” bassist/baritone guitarist Mason Pitzel tells me. Things seem to be placed haphazardly throughout the top floor of the south-Regina home, but there is somewhat of a strategy to the set up. “Basically, if I can set it up how I want it to sound, you can work with the bleed,” said Pitzel.

Instruments bleeding into any number of the other microphones is something more or less inevitable when makeshift baffles constructed out of pillows and chairs separate the amplifiers in someone’s living room. For as improvised and low-budget as the whole operation is, the results may sound like a bit of an anomaly.

The now-defunct Architects and Builders, whom both Pitzel and guitarist John Cameron played in, recorded an EP, Shit Don’t Change Much When You Die, and a full-length, The Joy of Cooking, in the same manner this past summer, with the latter record costing a grand total of $80. Notwithstanding the minimal budget, “That did not sound like an $80 record,” said Cameron.

But These Estates are sparing no expense with the upcoming full length, doubling the recording budget of The Joy of Cooking to a staggering $150. If it’s not clear already, one of the biggest attributes of abstaining from the professional studios is cost.

“Money is actually a huge part of it, frankly,” said Cameron.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s 90 per cent of it,” added Pitzel. “If we’re not spending money on a studio, we can spend money on pressing or touring. If we just record at my house, we don’t have to drive out to Winnipeg to record.”

But, recording this way hasn’t always been possible for bands. Until recently, attaining the calibre of recording equipment for endeavours like this wasn’t something feasible for smaller bands.

“If we were making a record in 1999 or 2005, we’d probably just save up and go to a studio, but home prosumer gear has gotten crazy good in the last couple years, and if you have someone in the band with a tiny bit of know-how (I mean I’ve plugged mics into stuff before), it makes a lot of sense,” said Pitzel.

Recording at home isn’t something that’s limited to These Estates. With the boom in prosumer recording gear which makes attaining quality equipment to record easier and easier.

“Most people I know in Regina who are in bands and have recorded in the last five years did not do it at any of the major studios in the city; they’ve done it at their bro’s who has a set-up in the basement. Now, those set-ups can be nice and be acoustically treated, but it basically comes down to … a shift in recording in the last decade and a half where people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to decent recording stuff now do because home recording stuff isn’t a TASCAM four track cassette; it’s a thing that runs eight or sixteen mics into a laptop at pro quality,” said Pitzel.

Given their previous experiences with home recording, renting nicer equipment, and little things like recording on the main floor with higher ceilings as opposed to a basement, These Estates expect further improvements in quality with the upcoming LP. Pitzle said it “will parallel basically anything you get in a low or mid tier studio. It’s just that you have the convenience of doing it at your house where there are beds.”

Being in a familiar space may seem like something to overlook when thinking about recording, but things like beds and ovens play a bigger role in the process than one might originally think.

The familiarity of the space enjoins a much more relaxed feeling when recording, which is important, given that recording is stressful. Just being in your own home helps with the stresses of doing yet another take while the rest of the band glares at you for messing up your part again.

“I can be drinking brown spirits whenever I damn well feel like.” — John Cameron

Anyway, recording in either your home or one of your friend’s homes really doesn’t have much more of a different feel than going over to hang out or jam. “It’s more relaxed. We have an oven here,” said Pitzel. “It’s your friends coming over to your house.”

“It lends recording roughly the same vibe as practice. You’re hanging out, you’re joking, having a good time, and playing some songs,” said Cameron.

“Vibe is really important,” drummer Matt Carr added, awakening from his nap on the couch.

“It’s in a place that’s largely familiar and comfortable that isn’t a sterile studio somewhere in the midwest,” said Pitzel.

“A weird converted warehouse in the middle of New York where there’s a bunch of pictures of the famous people who’ve recorded there hanging on the walls,” added Cameron.

Even if you’re not at a studio in a foreign city and you’re recording somewhere like Soul Sound in Regina, you’re being charged for your time there. Like a taxi, stopping doesn’t mean you’re not being charged. Being at home changes that.

“If you’re not having a good day, you can just say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s go eat pizza,’ and that’s not a problem,” said Pitzel.

While These Estates rented a large portion of the gear they used to record, home recording is more ideal if the band owns all their gear. This way, artists can work entirely on their own schedule; if they feel like only working for a few hours, they can, or if they want to hammer out the bulk of the album in one session, they can do that too. There’s always a certain amount of scheduling freedom when home recording, but artists who are renting gear “are still limited by the fact that [they] have to get all this shit back by Monday,” said Pitzel.

Can you turn the track up in my monitor, Steve?

You’d think that getting the material recorded would probably be the most important part of the recording process, but equally if not more important than that is mixing the recordings. As well, Pitzel says this is the most difficult aspect of the entire ordeal given that high-quality monitors to play back the recorded tracks are by no means cheap. Problems in the mix can slip through undetected, not out of carelessness or negligence, but because the speakers used in mixing may not be good enough to accurately play back those mistakes.

“The weakest link to this day is my mixing set-up, ’cause I would way rather make a record with a Shure SM57 on a broken mixer and then mix it in an immaculate studio where I can hear every detail than rent Neumann mics and move to an actual studio, but mix it in my room on my IKEA desk through headphones because it doesn’t matter how you record it if you don’t know what it’s going to sound like,” said Pitzel.

Even still, there are ways around this.

“Play back your masters on multiple sources. If you have a shitty set of headphones, play it in your car, or give it to your friend. If you have any access to a real recording studio to even listen to your track once and take notes, you have that. But, just play back from multiple sources because whatever you have is going to have faults,” said Pitzel. “That what’s been a big improvement for me, learning how to mix and learning what mic techniques and what the space translates to on a record.”

Reading up on mic techniques for things like micing drums with only four microphones or what mic works best on particular guitar amps is definitely a way to help you get the best sounds out of your DIY recording projects, but the most effective method of learning is achieved by doing. Sometimes, you’ve got to jump in, fail, and learn what does and doesn’t work.

"If you’re not having a good day, you can just say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s go eat pizza,’ and that’s not a problem.” – Mason Pitzel

Evidently, home recording is something that takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to be satisfied with the results, but there are some aspects that are incredibly easy – chiefly, playing the songs.

“The easiest thing is playing. You’re just standing in a room, playing. It feels more low-stakes in this environment, and it’s easier to get a good take out of it,” said Cameron.

Because simply playing the songs is the easiest, one of the best ways to be efficient in the process is to hit record and play the songs live, with exceptions for vocals and a few overdubbed tracks.

“Because we’re doing it in somebody’s house, it means we have to find a way to efficiently use our time. The most efficient way happens to be playing live off the floor, which turns out to be the most fun and interesting way to do a record anyways as a rock band. Just get in a room, play together, enjoy yourselves,” said Cameron.

“It turns out recording a dozen songs gets really easy when every single take takes you three minutes, so you’re spending fifteen minutes on each song. You spend fifteen to twenty minutes on a song, and you have as good or better a take as if you were all sitting down and individually trying to hammer out your parts.”

Not to mention things are just more fun when everyone is playing together, and individually tracking can be a long and drawn-out process.

“It’s agonizing because you’ll go to a guy’s house, and you’ll watch your drummer do drums for, like, three hours while you sit on your phone, and you get to the mixing stage a month later,” said Cameron.

“There’s nothing less musical than that, honestly,” added Pitzel. “You’ll get people who will come in and do the drums on Saturday and then Tuesday will come in and do guitars, and that’s never made sense to me in the context of a rock band who plays shows. If you play shows, why would you not just perform the songs?”

No one knows a song better than the band who wrote it

Like any collaborative creative effort, writing music in a band requires compromises in order to work with the other members. Adding outside members to the creative process can offer insights those involved may not notice, but it can also convolute the process.

“You have to learn how to negotiate with the other people and work together to make the song come out – you act as a group,” said Cameron. “Throwing a producer into the mix adds another aspect, or it can depending on the producer you go with.”

Pitzel seems to disagree.

“Producers, like capital ‘P’ Producers, are garbage humans. No one knows how a song should sound better than the band who wrote it and performs it.”

Regardless, DIY recording lends itself to keeping the creators of songs at the helm of the creative process with minimal outside input.

“This way we sit down, we hit record, we play the songs we’ve come to play the songs, and that’s it,” said Cameron.

All this isn’t to knock the results you can get from saving up and going into a studio. Obviously, going into a room that was built to capture sound in the most accurate way possible can make it much easier to get a quality recording than you would in a living room. Being able to “just set up and bang out our tunes” is much more relaxed and preferable to some, but at the same time, “I think everybody in this room acknowledges that it would probably sound much nicer in a venue built specifically for it with high ceilings and actual baffles that aren’t pillows,” Cameron added.

So, what would it take These Estates to go into an actual recording studio?

“$10,000 and a trip to Chicago or Montreal,” said Cameron. “It would take a pretty big change in our current circumstances, but at the same time I’m pretty happy with our current circumstances.”

“As a wildly unpopular DIY band home recording is by far the best solution,” Pitzel said. “I’d love to record in a studio, but I don’t see the reason for it. There are a lot of things that I’d love to do that I don’t see the reason for, such as having a snowmobile. It’d be dope, but really?”

While the band jokes that this is an effort to trick people into thinking that this album will be recorded for more than the cost of buying beer for the friends they’ve borrowed equipment from, recording an album a decent sounding album for the price of a few cases of beer is something that’s absolutely possible.

Turning to his bandmates, Cameron asked, “I think the joke’s on the other guys, because did you buy them beer yet?”

Arts Radar Jan. 31 – Feb. 7

Jan 31
A Winter’s Evening of Stories in Word and Song
The Artful Dodger
$10 adv/$12 door
Doors at 7

Feb 1

Coldest Night of the Year w/Young Benjamins
The Artful Dodger
$10 adv/$15 door
Doors at 7

Feb 2

Mid-Winter Celtic Festival
The Exchange
$20 advance tickets
Doors at 8

Mike Tod w/Chris Gheran
Creative City Centre
$10 at the door
Doors 7:30/show 8

Feb 3

Songwriter Sunday w/Kayla Luky and Rebecca Lascue
Creative City Centre
$10 at the door
Doors at 7:30

Elizabeth Shepherd
The Artful Dodger
$10 adv/$15 door
Doors at 7

Feb 6
Mark Berube
The Exchange
$15 adv/$25 door
Doors 7:30/show 8

Electric Mother
The Artful Dodger
$10 adv/$15 door
Doors at 7

Feb 7

Whitehorse w/Daniel Romano
The Exchange
$20 adv/$25 door
Show at 8

Photo by Paul Bogdan

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