A Brief History of Home Recording

“Let It Grow” – E. Clapton arr. by PL Kleiman

Back in the 70s and 80s, if you wanted to record music, you either did a scratch track on a cassette, or shelled out a lot of money to record in a studio. My first studio experience was in a very nice home in a bucolic, wealthy neighborhood on the North Shore of Long Island. The owner/engineer had long hair, a mustache, and an 8-track studio in the basement.

It was a beautiful studio, from what I could tell (having never been in one before), well soundproofed, with a control room window, a good drum set, the whole nine yards. I recorded vocals, guitars, bass… everything except the drums (the engineer was a drummer) and got about 7 or 8 good recordings of original songs for my demo, at 25 dollars per studio hour, which for a 22-year-old working part time as whatever I could find to support my music habit, was a lot of money, especially when I realized how many takes are needed to get one usable track, let alone 8 (more if you double tracks on vocals, for which I seemed to have a nascent talent). But the guy was a pro, and I was impressed.

Now, in retrospect, I see that this young man, who was just a few years older, was what we would now call a “loser living with his parents.” He was running a studio business from his parents’ house in Dix Hills. Not to say I wouldn’t have done the same thing, given the opportunity. I moved back in with my folks for a bit after college before I got my own place, and my band even rehearsed in the family room sometimes, but I didn’t open a business. Nor would my parents be okay with me commandeering a room or two and renovating. On the bright side, if you live rent-free and have no overhead for your business except equipment and audio tape, it’s kind of difficult not to turn a profit.

Since then, I’ve had only the occasional studio experience. My 80s bandmates and I recorded a few tunes in a studio, and we also self-recorded, as my songwriting partner-piano player delved into the Fostex universe early. But there was a lot to figure out, too much for my general laziness, so I just went along and played my guitar and sang my lines and let someone else do the mixing and mastering. I went up to northern California in the 90s with a band to do a demo. I was the band’s token non-lesbian. The bass player’s dad had a home studio. Quite an adventure. It was kind of like going to Appalachia somewhere, to some farmhouse, and there’s a studio in a shed or something, kind of makeshift but with all the necessaries. And the Dad wanted to tell me how to play guitar. I get record producing, but you gotta nudge the guitarist in the right direction without bruising his or her fragile ego. That was my last “studio” experience, and it was strange, though we got 3 tracks out of it. I haven’t heard those songs in ages, but my guess is they probably don’t stand the test of time. Oh, and the bass player’s dad billed us afterwards. I thought we were getting a freebie and I already quit the band anyway. Screw him. Wants to tell ME how to play the guitar and make me pay for it? Why, I oughta….

Sorry. Got a little sideways there. My only other experience with home recording was when I bought a nice looking Tascam 8-track digital thingy. I know people who use those successfully to this day. I tried it once and got a couple of tracks down, but realized I needed some additional equipment. I put it away and forgot about it for a few years, then stumbled upon it in a closet and figured to give it another go. I plugged in the AC adapter, heard a POP, followed by a whiff of burnt wiring. It was dead. I guess I used the wrong adapter? If you know how to fix one of these, let me know please because as my wife will confirm, I don’t throw anything out. I also have a cute Mouse amp that needs a battery that they don’t make anymore.

So that was it for home recording, at least until this year. The GarageBand app is on all the iPhones. So I played around with it, using my USB mic, and got a couple of fun recordings of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and a couple of original ideas, but mixing and all that on the tiny phone screen is dumb, and so I tried it on the iPad my dear mom bought me for my birthday.

I thought for some reason the iPad is good for recording. Well, sort of, but it turns out to be quite limited. I realized that I should have gotten a Mac instead, but now I don’t want to pay for a Mac, so I got another home recording app that would work on my PC.

Still, I did try recording on the iPad, and as long as I use only a mic or directly plugged-in guitar and use their onboard instruments and controllers and sounds and drum loops, it’s possible to get a decent song out of it.

Why do I even want to do this? Isn’t it enough to just play guitar and sing and jam with friends and be in a band? Sure. But I have all these things in my head, whether it’s a different version of a song I like, or my own song, and I see all these other musicians making recordings, you know, real musicians who make a living playing music as opposed to a hobbyist such as myself. They record as part of their jobs and it’s a lot of fun.

So, as an amateur I think, why not have that experience? Who cares if the only people who hear the result are friends and family? Most of us just like to hear what it sounds like when we put what is in our heads onto a recording and play it back. It’s like painting or writing or photography or pottery. Or even cooking. You put some effort into something and then later you can look at it, listen to it, smell it, eat it, throw it in the pool… whatever! And share it with friends, or even the world if you want to.

I started recording “Let It Grow” even though I’ve cancelled Eric Clapton. Turns out he’s an insufferable idiot who says dumb shit. But I can’t cancel his songs. Well, some of them, but the late-career ones that suck. But some tunes have taken residence in my brain and there’s not much to be done about that.

“Let It Grow” is from 461 Ocean Blvd., a very solid effort (perhaps Clapton’s best solo album, Tom Dowd produced and some great musicians backing him) recorded after Clapton’s recovery from heroin addiction. Unfortunately, his rehab was more of a detox, and alcohol addiction almost took him down later in life, but I digress as usual.

It’s a song with mediocre lyrics (not Clapton’s strongpoint anyway), but good sentiment. When at the crossroads in life, looking for a sign of which way to turn, you only need to remember the answer: to plant your love and let it grow. Yes, a bit trite and corny, but so what? The thing I like about the song is the melody that goes and comes throughout, not in the vocals but in all the other instruments. I wanted to build on that at the end, because it had a classical music feel where the music motif repeats over and over again, often building to an exciting denouement. Thank goodness for spell check.

GarageBand is made for people like me who don’t know a thing about the technology, although there’s still plenty to learn. For example, how to build drum tracks. Turns out it’s best to lay those down BEFORE the vocals and guitars, and what you need to do is actually count each measure of the song, so you have the right number of measures in the verse, chorus, break, solo… Not ideal for improvisation but that’s generally not what home recording is about anyway. So, I got to know Oscar very well. Oscar is my drummer. He lives in my iPad and I get along with him much better than almost any other drummer I’ve ever played with. He doesn’t speed up or slow down. He doesn’t add frills unless I tell him to, he doesn’t talk back, and he doesn’t drink too much. Where was he when we had a band in ’82?

Another fun thing is that you can add strings and horns that sound kind of real. If you know a little about instruments and orchestration and how, for example, a horn attacks a note as opposed to other instruments, you can have a lot of fun, and you play it all on a keyboard on your iPad screen!

Sadly, after buying an interface and midi to record on the iPad, and then finding out my iPad isn’t compatible with my midi-controller (keyboard), which also uses another interface that also has to be compatible with that and the microphone… you see why this hobby can be frustrating and expensive. So, after I began “Let It Grow,” I realized I needed to move to a new recording platform. But before I did, dadgad it, I was going to finish that darn song!

So it’s “finished.” I could do more takes on almost all the tracks, but you need to finish sometime, and this isn’t my composition anyway so it doesn’t need to be perfect. It was just an experiment to try out the recording thing. But one thing is for certain, recording available to hobbyist musicians today ON OUR PHONES is worlds beyond what we paid dearly for 40 years ago, which means an old guitar player too lazy and thrifty to learn technology or buy ProTools can still indulge his inner recording artist-child and show off for friends. Here’s the link. I put pictures on there just in case you need extra stimulation. Or shut your eyes and just listen. Turn up the volume so you hear all the parts!

“Let It Grow” – E. Clapton arr. by PL Kleiman

And I do hope dear Eric can come to his senses and rehabilitate his esteem. Come on, Slowhand, you’re better than that.

Thanks for listening, and for visiting Kleimansays.com, the blog that gives you more… stuff.

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