First off, I’d like to mention that I entirely wrote, recorded and produced my first demos alone at home. Therefore, I believe I have a few comments to share with people out there, like me, that are one-man bands of the studio: essentially multi-instrumentalists that have a precise goal of becoming a single musical entity on recorded material.
However, these tips were crafted around my personal experience and are not designed to be taken professionally. They might not suit everyone but I’m sure it can apply to many musicians.
So let’s get started.
The truth is, sound engineers at professional studios probably hate us due to the tedious workflow we offer them. Not to mention that if you want to land a record deal, you probably need to start somewhere down the ladder, and that is the home studio.
Due to the tragic yet simple fact that we cannot play multiple instruments simultaneously, we are obliged to repeat the entire song for all the required tracks. And all this just for one take of each instruments… Let’s assume you have drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano in your song (which is at least what I usually feature). Then this takes up to four times more tracking than a quintet. Essentially, it’s all overdub. Hence, not cost-effective for studios.
So what’s the solution you say? Record yourself at home.
This might sound silly at first sight but it would be wise to know what to record prior to starting. Since you have all the time and space you want in your (wo)man cave, you might be tempted to figure out the material you wish to record as you go. From my experience, it is always better to be clear of your goals before even thinking of booting up your computer.
Have your songs rehearsed and completely written like you would if you were to have a studio session anywhere else. Your recorded performance will be much tighter and you won’t have to throw away your first arrangement just because you changed the last chord of the third chorus.
In my case, I had part of the storyline, words and music written before. As for the segments written during the recording, I really wish I’d had them laid out in advance.
So if your music is ready, move on to the next section. Even if it’s not, read on…
One of the most annoying parts is to get all the necessary instruments at your disposal. Borrow equipment from a friend (or buy it if you really have the money). And trust me, it doesn’t need to be that American Standard Jazz Bass.
In terms of recording equipment, again, I’m not going to delve into specifics as this is not the main topic here. I’m sure you’ve read tons of other articles dealing with microphones and mixing techniques but you don’t need that U87 condenser mic.
The most important here is not so much the equipment or recording techniques (they are demos after all). Focus on the performance. You will need to groove with yourself. How does one groove with oneself you ask? It’s about musicianship.
As much as it can be hard to develop chemistry with other musicians in a band, you will inevitably struggle with self-jamming. If you ever played with a loop pedal you can already guess. What is challenging is not so much to stay on the tempo of the loop, but rather the fact that it is rigid.
When you play with bandmates, you adjust to their feel and groove but most importantly they adjust to you as well. There’s a conversation forming whereas here, it’s comparable to playing with a wall or a robot. Your previous selves don’t adjust.
In order to achieve the best grooving results, I found that the best friend to a one-man band is the click. I know, everyone hates the click but he’s not a bad guy. He’s here to help. I’ll explain later how to make the best use out of him but in the meantime we need a chord progression guide.
The click may become the tempo guideline in order to prevent you from dragging or rushing. But you are also susceptible to lose track of the song progression (especially if you play the drum part first but I wouldn’t recommend it).
Start with a melodic instrument such as the guitar or the piano to lay down a base track. This is where the choice of using the click comes along. If you wish to have a less rigid and more free form song, you may want to omit the click in order to keep an authentic groove. In other words, the tempo of the base track becomes the click.
The problem with such a scenario is that the final result may not end up as tight as expected since it is hard to predict tempo changes while overdubbing the other instruments. In some of my songs, I deliberately chose not to use the click because I wanted to keep some kind of rawness to it, just as a classic rock band would do in the ’70s. In the end, I concluded that it was better with.
Now that you have chosen whether to use the click or not, you have to record the cleanest base track as possible. What I mean is that even if you don’t use the base track in the final mix of your demo track, it will become the backbone of your song structure and tempo fluctuations that all your other overdubs will be based upon.
Another important decision you have to make is whether you want to keep the click during all the other tracking phases or not (if you decided to use it on the base track). The choice can essentially be resumed as, do I want to have the guitar or the click as a reference?
On one hand, relative reference (which involves following the newly made base track without the click) can be beneficial if you feel like your performance is not that tight. It allows you to play as close to the base track as possible in order to keep the performance coherent with the base track tempo. However, you have to make sure you don’t drift apart with every supplemental instruments because then your tower will collapse, as in Jenga.
On the other hand, absolute reference (which involves always following the click along with your base track) also has its benefits and drawbacks. Although, you can never shift too far from the reference (your Jenga tower will never collapse if you stay centered), you might lose the groove with yourself. So you choose the compromise.
The closest example I can think of is the distinction between an orchestra where musicians follow the conductor, as opposed to a band with members following and looking at each other. As much as an orchestra would have a hard time playing just by looking at each other without a conductor, a band would struggle to groove if they all only had the click in their headphones without hearing each other.
I personally prefer recording with relative reference except in one specific case. When it’s time to record the drums, it’s always preferable to be on the absolute reference of the click. Otherwise, it just doesn’t cut it.
All in all, my order of recording instruments is pretty much the same starting with acoustic guitar then bass and drums followed by all the other instruments to arrange the song. Make sure you don’t fluff up the arrangement too much, which could be tempting if you know how to play many foreign instruments.
So you’re ready to record but somehow you’re not sure whether it will sound great?
If you don’t believe one-man band recording is efficient enough, I highly suggest you check out Pete Townshend’s demo recordings or Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? record as inspirations for your own work. I am amazed at what these two multi-instrumentalists achieved alone, with analog equipment back in the days.
As the main songwriter for The Who, Pete Townshend was the brain behind the band. He used to record entire album demos such as Tommy and Quadrophenia by himself at his home studio. He would later present them to the band members in order to rehearse and record the songs in the studio again. It sounds so powerful you won’t believe it.
Demo of “Pure and Easy” by Pete Townshend.
Something/Anything? is a masterpiece born from Todd Rundgren’s frustration to find competent musicians to record with. He decided to play all instruments on the first three sides of the double album. It is quite grooving in my honest opinion.
“Couldn’t I Just Tell You” by Todd Rundgren.
From this point on, I would suggest you to try out the different strategies presented in this article and find your own comfortable workflow with the experience you will gain. There is no right way of doing this as long as you manage to groove with yourself.