Thursday, March 6, 2014

Learning to record

Published in The Alliance Review February 1, 2013
A new folder sits on my computer desktop. It contains four digital audio files of tunes I recorded in 2012, rough drafts serving mainly as forums for arranging. I will record each of them again to improve them and make them suitable for CD release, but they represent, on the desktop, the next step in learning the technical side of recording.
These four tunes are stored in my Tascam eight-track digital recorder in multi-track format, but I had to learn how to make a two-track master and transfer it to the laptop. So Thursday morning I played “Welcome Here Again,” set the volume levels and pans (the controls that place instruments to left or right in the stereo mix), and learned how to convert the multi-track mix to a two-track master, how to prepare the tune for export to the computer, and how to transfer it to the computer.

“Welcome Here Again” is an 18th-century fife march that I found in a book of colonial tunes compiled by Sara Johnson of Cincinnati. It’s found as “Duncan Davidson” in several Scottish collections, including Niel Gow’s collection and James Hunter’s “Fiddle Music of Scotland,” two printed mainstays of Scottish music. I enjoy the technical side of recording, and once I understood the process, which took about 45 minutes of study of the manual and experimentation with the recorder, I created and transferred masters of the other three tunes in my recorder: “Miss Jamieson’s Favourite,” another traditional Scottish tune; and two tunes I wrote in the 18th-century Scottish style. All four tunes are rough — I need to improve the timing and the playing — but I’m delighted with the sound, which has insistently inhabited my brain for more than 20 years, ever since I envisioned my all-string Celtic consort.
I bought the Tascam in December 2011 and had planned to complete my recording sometime in 2012, but my dying mother and the realization that preserving for posterity music of the quality I demand of myself requires reams of practice and recording time brought the tollgate down on the project in 2012. Just when I was getting comfortable with the recorder and making progress on arrangements, my mother learned that she had a large tumor in her lung, and trips to the doctor, visits to the hospital, long stays in the compassionate care center, funeral arrangements after her death in late November 2012, and settling of the estate appropriated time I had hoped to devote to recording. I was glad to do my duty, but it was difficult to forsake my project.
Further, expecting I could knock out a couple tunes on a Saturday and 10 or so during a week’s vacation in an effort to complete the project by spring or summer, I learned that to properly record a single track, when I am the sole musician, the arranger, the recording engineer and the producer, requires barrels of time. I must devise harmony parts and chords for every tune and learn to play every part well, and I’m my own worst critic. It’s an enjoyable process but one that requires I be rested and refreshed, not something I can readily do after working all day. That usually means I must leave recordings for days off, and you know how that goes — sweep the house, cut the lawn, buy groceries, spend time with family — and then it’s evening, I’m tired, and I just want to put my feet on the ottoman and watch a movie.
So here it is a year later, and I’m ready to resume my project. Although the tunes I mastered are rugged, the process of mastering has reawakened my drive to record, and knowing that mastering and transferring to the computer are not as difficult as I feared means I can get busy recording without wondering if I can handle the technical side of things.

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