Post looks too long? Don't want to read? Here's the summary. Last year Gail McGlinn* and I did the lockdown home-recording thing. We put out at least one song video per week for a year (and counting - we're up to 58 over 53 weeks). Searchable, sortable website here. We learned some things, got better at performing for the phone camera and our microphones and better at mixing and publishing the result.
* Disclosure Gail's my wife. We got married; she proposed, I accepted.
(This post is littered with links to our songs, sorry but there are 58 of them and someone has to link to them.)
In the second quarter of 2020 Gail McGlinn and I went from playing and singing in community music events (jams, gigs, get togethers) at least once a week to being at home every evening, like everyone else. Like lots of people we decided to put our efforts into home recording, not streaming cos that would be pointless for people with basically no audience, but we started making videos and releasing them under our band name Team Happy.
By release I mean "put on Facebook" and "sometimes remember to upload to YouTube".
This post is about that experience and what we learned.
Team Happy is the name we use to perform as a duo at open mic events and the odd community or ukulele festival. We were originally called "The Narrownecks" in honour of where we live, for one gig, but then we found out there's another group with that name. Actually they're much better than us, just go watch them.
Coming in to 2020 we already had a YouTube channel and it had a grand total of two videos on it with a handful of views - as in you could count them on your fingers. It's still a sad thing to behold, how many views we have - but it's not about views it's about getting discovered and having our songs performed by, oh I dunno, Casey Chambers? Keith Urban? (Oh yeah, that would mean we'd need views. Bugger.) Either that or it's about our personal journey and growth as people. Or continuing to contribute to our local music communities in lockdown (which is what Gail says it's about.). Seriously though, we think I called your name and Dry Pebbles would go well on someone else's album.
Anyway, in late March we got out our recording gear and started. While phone cameras are fine for the quality of video we need, we wanted to do better than phone-camera sound. (Here's an example of that sound from one of our first recordings on my song Seventeen - it's pretty muddy, like the lighting.)
Initial attempts to get good audio involved feeding USB-audio from a sound mixer with a built in audio interface (a Yamaha MX10) into the phone itself and recording an audio track with the video - but this is clunky and you only get two tracks even though the mixer has multiple inputs. We soon graduated to using a DAW - a Digital Audio Workstation with our mixer, still only two tracks but much less mucking around with the phone.
So this is more or less what we ended up with for the first few weeks - We'd record or "track" everything on the computer and then use it again to mix.
There's a thing you have to do to audio files called mastering which means getting them to a suitable volume level and dynamic range for distribution. Without it loud stuff is too quiet and quiet stuff is too quiet, and the music has no punch. This was a complete mystery to me to start with so I paid for online services that use AI to master tracks - kind of but not really making everything louder. At some point I started doing it myself, beginning the long process of learning the mysteries of compression and limiting and saving money. Haven't mastered it yet, though. Mastering is an actual profession, by the way and I'm not going to reach those heights.
In May, we got a new bit of gear, the Tascam Model 12 an all in one mixer-recorder-interface that lets you track (that is record tracks) without a computer - much easier to deal with. A bit later we got a Zoom H5 portable recorder with built in mics and a couple of extra tracks for instruments so we can do stuff away from home - this got used on our month-long holiday in March 2021. Well it was almost a month, but there was a Rain Event and we came home a bit early. These machines let you capture tracks, including adding new ones without touching the computer which is a big win as far as I am concerned.
After a bit, and depending on the level of lockdown we'd have guests around to visit and when that was happening, we kept our distance at either end of our long lounge room and used a phone camera and microphone at each end.
This new setup made it much easier to do overdubs - capture more stuff into the Model 12 and make videos each time, like on this song of mine They Say Dancing where I overdubbed guitar and bass over a live track.
So what did we learn?
Perfect is the enemy of Done. Well, we knew that, but if you've decided to release a song every week, even if you're away on a holiday, or there are other things going on then there's no time to obsess over details - you have to get better at getting a useable take quickly or you won't be able to keep going for a year or more.
Practice may not make perfect, but it's a better investment than new gear, or doing endless takes with the cameras rolling. We got better at picking a song (or deciding to write one or finish one off), playing it for a week or two and then getting the take.
Simplify! We learned that to get a good performance sometimes it was better for only one of us to play or sing, that fancy parts increased the chance of major errors, meaning yet another take. If in doubt (like my harmony singing that's always in doubt) we're learning to leave it out.
Nobody likes us! Actually we know that's not true, some of the songs get hundreds of plays on Facebook but not many people actually click the like button, maybe twenty or so. But then you run into people in the supermarket; they say "love the songs keep it up"! And there are quite a few people who listen every week on FB we just can't tell they're enjoying it. There are complex reasons for this lack of engagement - some people don't like to like things so that (they think) the evil FB can't track them. I think the default auto-play for video might be a factor too - the video starts playing, and that might not be a good time, so people skip forward to something else.
It's kind of demoralizing that it is MUCH easier to get likes with pictures of the dog.
YouTube definitely doesn't like us. I figured that some of the songs we sang would attract some kind of Youtube audience - we often search to see what kinds of covers of songs are out there and thought others might find us the same way, but we get almost no views on that platform. I also thought that adding some text about the gear we used might bring in some views. For example we were pretty early adopters of the Tascam Model 12. I had tried to find out what one sounded like in real life before I bought, with no success - and I thought people might drop by to hear us, but I don't think Google/YouTube is giving us any search-juice at all.
Our personal favourites
Our Favourite cover we did (and we actually agreee on this - Team Happy is NOT an ironic name) was Colour my World. We'd just got the Tascam and Gail was able to double track herself - no mucking around with computers. We had fun that night.
And my favourite original? Well i'm very proud of All L'Amour for you with lots of words and a bi-lingual pun - I wanted to do that on the local community radio just last weekend when we were asked in, but the host Richard 'Duck' Keegan kind of mentioned the aforementioned I Called Your Name so we did that instead along with Dry Pebbles and Seventeen.
Gail's fave original? I may I might, the song that snagged her the best husband in South Katoomba over 1.95m tall. And she likes the tear jerker Goodbye Mongrel dog I wrote, on which she pays some pumpin' banjo.
Music-tech stuff and mixing tips
For those of you who care, here's a roundup of the main bits of kit that work well. We've reached the point where there's actually nothing on the shopping list - we can do everything for the foreseeable future with what we have.
I have mentioned that we track using the Tascam Model 12 and the Zoom H5 - these are both great. The only drawback of the Zoom is that you can't see the screen (and thus the levels) from performance position. It also needed a better wind shield - I bought a dead-cat, shaggy thing to go over the mics that works if the wind is moderate.
When I bought the Tascam I thought it was going to be all analogue through the mixer stage like their Model 16 and Model 24, but no, it's all digital. I don't think this is an issue having used it but it was not something they made all that explicit at launch. There's a digital Zoom equivalent (the L12) which is a bit smaller, and has more headphone outputs but at the expense of having to do mode-switching to to access all the functions. I think the Tascam will be easier to use for live shows when those start happening again.
For video we just use our phones - for a while we had matching Pixel 4XLs then a Pixel 5 which drowned in a tropical stream. Yes they're waterproof, those models, but not when they have tiny cracks in the screen. No more $1000 phones for me.
Reaper is bloody marvelous software. It's cheap for non-commercial use, incredibly powerful and extensible. I have not used any other Digital Audio Workstation other than Garage Band, that comes for free on the Apple Platform but as far as I can see there's no reason for non-technophobic home producers to pay any more than the Reaper fee for something else.
Our mainstay mics are a slightly battered pair of Audio Technica AT2020s - we had these for performing live with Gail's band U4ria - everyone gathered around a condenser mic, bluegrass style. For recording we either put one at either end of the room or mount them vertically in an X/Y configuration - 90° to get stereo. They're fairly airy and have come to be a big part of our sound. We tried some other cheap things that didn't work very well, and I got a pair of Australian Rode M5 pencil condenser mics, not expensive, that I hoped might be easier to mount X/Y but we didn't like them for vocals at all, though they're great on stringed instruments. We do have an SM58 and SM57 -- gotta love a microphone with a wikipedia page -- which see occasional use as vocal mics if we want a more rock 'n roll sound, or the guest singer is more used to a close-mic. And the SM57 for guitar amps sometimes.
We tend to play our favourite acoustic instruments but when we have bass we use the Trace Elliot Elf amp which has a great compressor and a DI output (it can send a signal to the mixer/interface without going via the speaker). Sometimes we run the speaker and try not to let it bleed too much into the AT2020s, very occasionally we wear headphones for the first track and go direct so there's no bass bleed. I have done a bit of electric guitar with the Boss Katana 50 - to me it sounds good in the room that amp, but has not recorded well either via the headphone out or via an SM57. I get better results thru the bass amp. I don't have any kind of actual electric guitar tone sorted though I have seen lot of videos about how to achieve the elusive tone. Maybe one day.
One thing that I wasn't expecting to happen - I dropped the top E of my little Made in Mexico Martin OOO Jr guitar to D (you know, like Keef) some time early in 2020 and it ended up staying there. Gives some nice new chord voicings (9ths mostly) and it's the same top 4 strings as a 5 string banjo with some very easy-to-grab chords. Have started doing it to Ukuleles too, putting them in open C.
A note on the bass: Playing bass is fun (we knew that before we started) but mixing it so it can be heard on a phone speaker is a real challenge. One approach that helps is using an acoustic bass which out of a lot more high frequency than a solid body electric this also helps because you don't have to have an amp on while you're tracking it live, but you can take a direct input from a pickup (or two) AND mic the bass giving you lots of signals with different EQ to play with. I gaffa-taped a guitar humbucker into my Artist Guitars 5 string acoustic and it sounds huge.
The basic (ha!) trick I try to use for getting more high frequency for tiny speakers is to create a second track, saturate the signal with distortion and/or saturation effects to boost the upper harmonic content and then cut all the low frequency out and mix that so it can just be heard and imply the fundamental bass frequency in addition to the real bassy bass. Helps if you have some bridge pickup or under-saddle pickup in the signal if those are available and if you remember.
I also like to add some phaser effect that gives some motion in the upper frequencies - for example my Perfect Country Pop Song - too much phaser? Probably, but I can hear the bass on my phone and it bounces :). Phaser is Team Happy's favourite effect, nothing says perfect country pop (which is what we are, right?) like a phaser.
Everything I know about music production is from YouTube. Everything I know about song writing is from deep in my soul. Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom. Normal service will resume next week.