Tag Archives: the lowest of fi

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 1

The way country people kind of, being so isolated, they have to kind of improvise with things they have access to. I always thought that was a really admirable trait of country people, you know. I think that’s why a lot of music seems really boring and sterile to me now because a lot of it’s just, seems like most of its being made in LA or New York, or Seattle or whatever. And you have, you know, a guy who’s the engineer, and that’s his job, or a producer and his job is a lot of times to stand over the musicians and say – like standing over a painting and saying, you know, ‘Use green now!’ And one good thing about owning your own studio is that you’re not on the clock and you can experiment all you want, so this record was mostly done at home in Static King, alone, because I bought my own little baby studio.

Mark Linkous is Sparklehorse, Lotje Ijzermans, Lola da Musica, VPRO, 1998

Mark Linkous in 1998 was a man convinced of the upsides of home recording. His first album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, had been partly recorded at his own Static King studio in Virginia, but Dennis Herring had been on board as a producer and much of the work on the record was done at Richmond’s Sound of Music and Seattle’s Bad Animals, owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (and a proper A-list studio in which virtually every major 1990s alt. rock band had logged time). The above quote makes it clear that working in this way, with Herring at least, was not an entirely happy experience for Linkous. We can reasonably infer he didn’t like taking outside direction from a producer, and he comes right out and says he didn’t like working to an externally enforced schedule. Maybe it’s going too far to suggest he was unhappy with the way his record had sounded, but nonetheless Good Morning Spider, Linkous’ second album as Sparklehorse, was entirely recorded at his own studio, which by now was a sixteen-track facility equipped with an arsenal of old, clapped-out and discarded equipment: organs, keyboards, samplers, drum machines, intercoms from a dentist’s office and a CB-radio microphone. Not lo-fi, in the hiss-ridden-Portastudio sense, but certainly not state of the art by the standards of the late nineties, and more than a little eccentric in equipment choices. Image
Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous)

A cover I recorded of Happy Man, the centrepiece track of Good Morning Spider:

Advertisements

Experiment, part 4 – Conclusions

I undertook this experiment to see what level of fidelity a Portastudio was capable of, if used by someone with a bit of knowledge about tracking, which I definitely wasn’t when I was using a four-track recorder regularly between 2000 and 2006 (strange to think I’ve been recording digitally longer than my analogue period lasted).

I should clarify at the start that I am not particularly ‘pro’ digital or ‘anti’ digital, and neither am I ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ analogue. There are a few things I have observed in relation to the debate and that for me are truths:

1) Modern records do not, speaking generally, sound very good to my ears.

2) The problems I hear are not necessarily related to the fact that the songs were recorded to hard disk rather than tape. They have more to do with persistent and unmusical use of tools such as compression, EQ, pitch correction and quantisation in a manner that would be close to impossible in the analogue domain.

3) Continued use of 16 bit/44.1 as the digital standard in this day and age strikes me as daft. Ditto MP3s. As hard drives get bigger and bigger, lossless files could easily replace MP3s (they could have done already). The sticking point seems to be the replacement for many people of the dedicated MP3 player with multi-purpose smartphones, with smaller hard drives and more kinds of media content competing for the limited space. I don’t know the size of the hard drive in my Samsung Galaxy, but it sure ain’t the 120GB in my iPod Classic (a form of iPod that Apple now seems to consider entirely obsolete, damn them), which allows me to carry around a significant percentage of music in WAV format.

4) Most of my favourite records sonically were recorded to tape. But not all. I can think of many digitally recorded albums/songs I think sound very good, some of them going back to the Soundstream days (my beloved Tusk).

5) I recognise the flaws digital has as a long-term data-storage solution (the main point Steve Albini makes against digital nowadays – it’s a point well made).

6) My attraction to lo-fi when I was younger had (I now think) a definite self-conscious, purist aspect to it, but also grew genuinely out of a conviction that simple presentations allow the song to shine through.

So to specifics, then. Funnily enough, the thing I’m least satisfied with about the four-track version of Find Out In Time is the 12-string acoustic sound. The drums do their job well enough. The snare drum doesn’t have the focused crack I look for at the front of the stroke, but that’s probably to be expected since there was no close snare mic. The floor tom gets lost a little bit but it’s only hit during one fill – the placement of the kit mic at the front and middle of the drum set, pointing at the snare, was always one that would lead to compromises. I made the choices I thought best given the part I intended to play. Overall the drums sound decent enough.

The bass (Fender Jazz through Laney amp), is OK, although boy would I have liked a little bit of compression on the track. The vocal’s mixed too low, as is my habit when mixing my own songs, but it sounds OK – listened to in solo, everything’s audible and the vocal sits way above the noise floor without getting into crunchy territory (accomplished by recording the verses first, then resetting the gain levels and doing the choruses separately).

But the guitar? It sounds kind of warbly and has an unpleasant hardness to it in the upper mids that really doesn’t sound like my guitar sounds normally do. The mic, the instrument, the room and the player were the same as I would normally use – the only different element was the Portastudio. I’m not saying that those unpleasant qualities are definitely from the four-track, and if they are, with practice I’m sure I could develop techniques to get around them and find a way to get something closer to ‘my’ acoustic sound, but of all the elements on this recording, the acoustic guitar is definitely my least favourite.

Of course, tastes vary. Some people might hear this and prefer it to the digital version I made last year. While that version’s sure not as good as it could have been (I recorded it in D after trying and failing to hit the harmonies satisfactorily in E. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed in E and either persevered with the high harmonies or found someone else to sing them), it better captures what I want the song to be than the four-track version does.

I don’t know whether I was expecting to find the Portastudio capable of greater or lower fidelity than I encountered during this experiment. I think it unlikely, though, that I’ll be recording much on analogue tape again until such time as I can work on some real-deal gear.

soundstream

This is the Soundstream digital recorder, invented by Thomas Stockham in, would you believe, the late seventies. Stockham also played a crucial role in bringing down Nixon. Good dude (Stockham, that is. Not Nixon).

Experiment, part 2

A couple of years ago my computer was being fixed (blue screen of death, unmountable boot volume – it was a grim) and was in still in the shop when, one evening, I wrote a new song I quite liked and decided I wanted to demo quickly. Without a computer, I had to dig out Old Mr Four Track, who nowadays makes disconcerting clicking, clacking, groaning noises whenever you ask the thing to play something back.

Nonetheless, within ten minutes I was outgroaning it, when I got to the end of a flawless guitar performance, only to have my brain freeze on me. Unable to recall where my fingers should go, they tried to go in a couple of places at once, and I played a chord never before heard by mankind. It dawned on me that – in the analogue domain and with this equipment – I couldn’t begin to make a seamless edit of the correct chord. That kind of edit, on tape, in such an exposed piece of music, would certainly be audible. At least, with my level of skill. Ken Scott could probably do it easily.

I’d only been recording digitally for a few years – five at most – but already I was thinking like a digital recordist. And couldn’t believe how unfair it was that I had to play a whole perfect take all the way through in order to get something I could live with later. That’s the most insidious thing digital recording does to you. But after a few minutes of cursing, I decided to knuckle down and get on with playing the take over, as many times as needed, and that in future I’d work harder on actually playing good parts and resist the temptation to use digital editing like a crutch. My guitar and bass playing have improved a lot from that: a simple, unglamorous improvement that probably no one but me notices.

Boy, has all of this hit me again in the last couple of days, as I prepare to record the drum track of this song for a third time. The first take: solid, but too slow. The second take (to which I already added guitar and bass before deciding I couldn’t live with it): speeds up.

For the third one, I’m resorting to the horror of a click track. So maybe my time hasn’t improved so much after all.

Image

Despair, Edvard Munch. Four-track recorder not pictured

A little experiment

I’m going to spend a decent proportion of my free time over the next week kicking around some ideas regarding lo-fi music.

It’s a wide term – lo-fi – more difficult to pin down than I imagined before I began this post. Some folks will happily define, say, early 1980s hardcore as lo-fi, or the records Jack Endino made for Sub Pop at Recriprocal. Others will say ‘lo-fi’ and mean the sort of home-recorded cassettes released by folks like Robert Pollard and Lou Barlow. I’m happy to work with a pretty wide definition of lo-fi and will use it to refer to any music made on equipment below that of professional standard (in any given era), and if a song or record under discussion is a marginal case (mid-fi, so to speak), I’ll say so. But it’s worth acknowledging that when a lot of people discuss lo-fi music, they refer exclusively to home recordings made using Tascam Portastudios and the like.

These were/are machines that combine some of the functions of a mixing desk and multi-track tape machine into one small box, allowing the user to record two, four or sometimes even eight tracks to metal cassette tapes. Once recorded, the user can alter the volume and EQ of the tracks independently, and even add effects, to create the desired balance. (Digital Portastudios are still manufactured, and many people hang on tenaciously to their old analogue machines.)

Cassette multi-tracks provided a means of recording home demos several wide notches above playing into the built-in mic of a boombox, but several notches below older consumer reel-to-reel machines like my grandfather had. These sounded quite a bit better (because of their higher tape speeds) than Portastudios, but the most common ones among home users were mono machines, which precluded overdubbing. But what cassette multi-tracks did was allow musicians, whether amateur or professional, to record home demos and try out arrangement ideas at the same time, because of the overdubbing facilities.* Famously Bruce Springsteen used an early Teac (Tascam) machine to record what became Nebraska – just his voice, guitar and harmonica, and a few touches of organ, tambourine and glockenspiel, all played by Springsteen himself.**

All this is quaint by today’s standards. For the same sort of money my Tascam 414mkII cost in 2000 (by which time these analogue machines were being superseded by digital multi-trackers), today you can buy a USB audio interface, capable of recording 24bit/96k, with four mic/line inputs. It will be theoretically capable of zero-latency monitoring. A ‘light’ version of a DAW (digital audio workstation) will probably be bundled with the hardware, and this ‘light’ software will give you at least 48 virtual tracks (possibly more, maybe even unlimited), bussing capabilities beyond the wildest dreams of anyone using a 414mkII 15 years back, the ability to work with virtual instruments and MIDI, and 8 inserts and sends per track (yes, per track).

It’s a very different world now.

Yet something very like lo-fi still exists. People still make music that sounds like lo-fi. People still self-identify as lo-fi artists. Which leads me to wonder how much of the lo-fi-ness of lo-fi is actually an aesthetic choice, how much is a product of letting the untutored loose with equipment they don’t really know much about, and how much is a product of the equipment’s limitations. I’m planning a series of posts on lo-fi, some focusing on specific artists and engineers, others more general or philosophical, but I wanted to begin with a little practical experiment.

Since I moved over to digital recording for home demos in the mid-noughties, I got bitten hard by the recording bug. I’d always been interested in it, I’d always recorded friends as well as myself, but in the last four or five years I’ve worked a lot harder at recording and mixing. I’ve learned a lot about the history and theory of recording, interned in a local digital/analogue studio, done some freelance work out of another local studio, picked the brains of every engineer I’ve met, studied other people’s records for hours on end and generally tried to pull myself up to a level where I could make respectable recordings of any sound source put in front of me. So I’m in a much better place now to evaluate what a cassette four-track machine is actually capable of, given a bit of know-how, some moderate musicianship and a bit of care and attention, than I was when I actually used these things regularly (when really I was fumbling around cluelessly in the dark).

To that end, I’m re-recording an old song of mine on my 414: bass, drums, guitar and vocal, no bouncing (so that everything stays in the same generation). This is a song I’ve recorded a couple of times before: once with my old band and once on my own playing all the instruments. And since this song is around seven years old, I’ve even got my original, very slapdash, four-track demo, recorded in Marsala Road, Lewisham, late summer of 2006. It’s one of the last songs I wrote before going over to the digital domain.

I’m a geek, so I find the process of recording – whatever the medium – endlessly fascinating. If you don’t, check back in a week or two, when normal service will be resumed. If you’re interested, I hope to have finished the Portastudio recording of this old song by the end of the weekend. Let’s unravel the mystery of lo-fi together!

If you want to hear it for context, the one-man-band, mid-fi, digital version (I’d call it hi-fi but for the horrific lossy MP3 compression and the addition of Soundcloud’s own artifacts), is here: https://soundcloud.com/rossjpalmer/find-out-in-time-acoustic-mix

414

My precious… It was old tech even in 2000, but I was devoted to my Tascam 414

*In his recent South by Southwest keynote speech, Dave Grohl demonstrated a means of ‘overdubbing’ with two tabletop tape recorders he used as a teenager in his bedroom. I’m sure he wasn’t the only kid doing this back in the day, but it’s pretty sweet in its ingeniousness. The video’s on youtube. He demonstrates the technique about 10 minutes in.

**Bruce was a wealthy man even in 1982, and he could easily have put together a studio space in his house that was semi-pro or even genuinely pro, with proper 16- or 24-track analogue machines and a real desk, but perhaps the novelty of this little Portastudio appealed to him, or perhaps he wanted to take it on tour to demo new songs on the road.