With These Tools?
Sending out an S.O.S.
November 6th 2018
There’s a scene in The Terminator where Sarah Connor asks her returned-from-the-future saviour Kyle Reese what are their chances, and Reese says, “With these tools? I don’t know.”
I’ve been thinking about that scene for years now, and about the story of a time-travelling rockstar. This traveller comes from a future in which digital recording has been outlawed for crimes against nature, but his only way of communicating with that future – of sending an SOS – is digitally.
In 2003, when I first thought of the story, I’d just acquired my first recording rig: a Tascam 788 digital 8-track and Rode NT3 condenser microphone. The sound of the Tascam, I quickly realised, was brittle and harsh. It lacked the warmth of the borrowed analogue 4-track tape recorders I’d used in the past. But it was easy.
Let me qualify that. It wasn’t easy to record a band, that’s for sure, since with no tape saturation to cushion the signal the unpredictable dynamics of live music could easily spell disaster. And getting a decent, or even a passable, drum-sound was no joke either, for the same reason. In other words, once-simple things were complicated. What was easy? Filling 20-30-50 tracks with improvised doodles then cut-and-pasting the best bits into a semblance of a song. Which is to say, things that I probably never would have bothered doing if it wasn’t for the Tascam. Or my friends and I would jam, and knowing the recording would be sonically compromised I’d encourage them to get crazy, then I’d edit later. Meanwhile my “real” songs sat on the shelf, because I knew how they should sound, but all I’d learned to produce with the Tascam were accidents, happy or otherwise.
In 2006 I put the 8-track in storage and took up residence in a series of small apartments, moving often from city to city. Now and then I’d demo my real songs in real studios, or tinker with the countless half-finished less-serious songs I’d saved up from ’03-’06. Then in 2015 I bought my first decent laptop.
These days I use Reaper, the open-source Pro Tools and/or Logic equivalent. Aside from the laptop, everything is done on the cheap. Focusrite Saffire audio interface, Gap Jr transistor pre-amp, MXL-V67 condenser microphone (the Rode bit the dust long ago), SM-57 dynamic mic. The weakest link? My monitors: I have none, just a couple of portable bluetooth players and a nineties AIWA stereo, plus headphones and earbuds. I try to “triangulate” the mix by listening on various devices, since no single device sounds transparent. I gather free drum samples from the internet. My bass guitar is a “Legend” Fender copy, given to me by a friend. Even my much-loved Vantage acoustic guitar is battered and worn. My amp – a Vox Pathfinder – is currently broken. Two years back, I rented a decent tube amp for two days and recorded about 30 songs worth of overdubs. Oh, and I have an effects pedal: Hotcake distortion.
My laptop, though a beast (a 17-inch MacBook with 16GB RAM and a 1TB SSD), dates from 2011. It’s temperamental, and given that I’ve never invested so much money in an artistic tool before (not even my 2003 US Telecaster comes close), I’ve learned to be a kind of DIY IT guy, spending literally hours on the internet searching for workarounds and hacks. I won’t bore you with details. Let’s just say there have been at least three occasions when I’ve feared all was lost, and since in the meantime I’ve recorded over 50 songs, almost all with elaborate multi-part arrangements, as well as transferred at least 30 from the 8-track, I will not be happy when the inevitable occurs.
I had a foretaste of the chaos that would ensue from such a crash last year in London, when the original HD failed and a technician pronounced my second HD, a 500GB SSD, in poor health. So he installed my current 1TB SSD, but in so doing reshuffled the file structure such that every link to a sample in any of my tracks was broken. A lot of squinting at file-paths and mouse-clicking ensued. (Each drum, remember, is a sample, and some are more than one sample: open hi-hat, closed hi-hat, semi-open hi-hat, loud hi-hat, soft hi-hat; three velocities of snare-hit; two velocities of tom; etc.)
Where am I going with this? TIME. It takes TIME to do what I do - a LOT of time. And I’ve hardly even touched on the mixing. In a recent song, “Star#2: Falcon Falling”, this was especially difficult, because of the nature of the arrangement. Unlike with the earlier version, “Star Destroyer” (“Star #2 is the sequel), I had nothing planned out, just a concept: I would invite guest guitarists to each take a solo, like rappers in a posse track. The backing would be slower, spacious, layered with riffs like the ones I often thought up and as often forgot. And – the hard part – I’d try to make it sound like a jam session.
So I set the click-track, played the acoustic-guitar introduction (which was planned), sang the verse and programmed a drum-beat. I liked it, that beat. It was good to play to. It sounded natural, more natural than most beats I’d managed to program. Yet still – as usual – it was the last thing I kept tinkering with before the final mix. (Add a fill here, subtract one there, try to do whatever I can to make it sound real, which of course it never will, not quite.) Then I played the bassline, cut it up, made some loops from it, and arranged the results to sound like live-playing. I threw a bunch of guitars at it - and I mean a bunch. Though I try not to let more than three guitars play at once, there are probably fifteen to twenty guitar-takes cut up and scattered across the seven-minute arrangement. Some play for only four-to-eight bars or so, but each has its own track requiring its own effects since they were played on different amplifiers (some direct through the Hotcake) with different settings at different times. (The trick here was to try to make the guitars talk to each other, which is difficult to do if you’re layering one and then another.)
My process: at the end of each session I “render” a mix, in case the computer crashes. Meaning Reaper drags together all the samples and instrumental tracks - each of them a WAV file - and blends them to form one playable WAV file (a memory-intensive process which often heats the MacBook to worrying levels). So I have over 30 mixes of this song. Sometimes you might struggle to hear the differences, but I hear them. That snare sample that starts in bar 16 needs to come up a bit. The panning is wrong: that guitar should be on the left and that one on the right; the track suddenly overbalances, forming a lopsided stereo image. The bass needs a cut at 200Hz, or so I theorise. (On the AIWA speakers it sounds fine, but on the JLB portable bluetooth player it farts and bottoms out.) The snare drum’s too harsh. What should I do? EQ it? Compress it? I take a guess, or consult the internet.
Once I have a mix I think is finished (a relative term, since statistically the odds are high I’ll revisit it), I master it. In the past I’ve paid mastering technicians, but now I use online mastering software. Why? It’s cheap, but you get what you pay for. Advantages? You can tinker with the mix after you’ve heard the master. Disadvantages? You have to tinker with it to exploit the algorithm.
Incidentally when you’re mastering online, uploading and downloading WAV files of over 50MB each, you need a better upload speed than 300kbps, which is roughly what we were getting when I finished this track at our house in the jungle in rural Australia. So I went to the “local” library, 40 minutes drive away on abysmal roads, and used their wi-fi. And even once the mastering was finished, I still had to re-upload the files in order to distribute them.
This is my life I’m using up here! And sure, maybe all this just sounds like whingeing. I read somewhere the other day that practical concerns never stopped a true artist – that those who make excuses are bound to fail. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up.
The SOS? The message to the future? Hell, I don’t think reaching anyone in the future is the problem. It’s reaching people in the present I’m worried about. My mixes take so long I’ll need a time machine to finish them before I’m fifty. They’re sounding better and better, sure. But can I do them quicker? With these tools? I don’t know.