I met singer-songwriter Shari Archinoff at one of my meetup groups. Shari plays piano, guitar, sings, and lives in the same neighbourhood I grew up in.
The first time we met, I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano. Shari developed lyrics and a melody for a song about moving on from a relationship with a winter theme. We also threw in a little joke about the debate over the naming of Canada’s national bird. We completed a draft of the song in one afternoon.
Something I’ve been playing around with recently is trying to write in different modes. For the verse, I developed a chord progression in C major, but started the progression on D minor (the II chord). The mode reveals its slightly unusual nature when the G major chord turns up in the verse. Normally, if the song were in D minor, the IV chord would be G minor, but using a G major instead keeps the song in the key of C major, even though it doesn’t start with a C major chord.
A couple of weeks later, I had developed a more interesting chord progression for the chorus and some greater melodic interest for the piano verse part. Shari had completely re-written the lyrics with much greater attention to poetics and melody details.
We performed the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup in January. Feedback from the group was largely positive, and we ended up taking a suggestion to transpose the song a whole step higher. We found the higher key resonated a bit better with Shari’s voice.
We recorded the final version in my home studio. Shari added some wonderful melody variations to the final chorus.
It was a joy to work with Shari and we’re hoping to do some more writing together.
If you’re just starting out your home studio, or looking to upgrade your audio interface, there are many factors to consider in order to make an informed decision that gets you the best bang for your buck. An audio interface is the traffic cop of your home studio, controlling all the physical inputs and outputs.
Using an audio interface is always better for a home recording studio than the built-in soundcard on your computer. An audio interface:
will allow you to connect guitars, synthesizers, and professional microphones
can achieve lower latency, so you don’t hear a delay while recording or playing a software synthesizer
is designed to record and playback at the same time; a soundcard, not so much
With the right feature set for your home studio, you can improve your workflow and focus on the creative rather than the technical. Don’t get me wrong, though – you still have to understand the technical, so here we go.
Number of inputs
The first and potentially most important thing to consider is the number of inputs you have. You need as many inputs as things you’ll be recording at the same time. Interfaces generally come with 2, 4 or 8 analogue inputs. Manufacturers usually state the number of inputs in the model name, and almost all of the time, it’s the first number. For example, a Focusrite 2i4 has 2 inputs (and 4 outputs, but we’ll get to that in a bit). A Presonus AudioBox 44VSL has 4 inputs and 4 outputs.
What’s crucial to understand here is that you only need enough inputs for one recording pass. For example, if you record guitar first, then vocals, then bass, you really only need one input. If you’re recording all three at the same time, you’ll need three inputs. Simultaneous recording not only captures the magic of musicians playing off one another, but recording them on discrete channels also gives you isolated tracks in your software for better mixing. (Note, mic bleed is a topic unto itself.)
Types of inputs
Inputs for microphones are XLR inputs – an XLR mic cable has three large pins in a circle on one end. Often, audio interfaces feature “combo jacks” which can take an XLR (mic) cable, or a standard ¼” cable, like a guitar patch cord. Other inputs may only take a ¼” cable.
Typical XLR mic cable
XLR combo jack
1/4″ guitar patch cable
Inputs are usually designed for one or more impedance levels. The definition of impedance doesn’t matter – just note that microphones, guitars (or any stringed instrument with a ¼” output), and synthesizers all have different types of output, and require three different setting for inputs. Mic level is the weakest of the three, instrument level (for guitars) is higher, and line level (synthesizers, CD players, your mobile music device) is the strongest signal. While most combo jacks automatically detect a mic or line level signal, only some feature a switch or option for instrument level. Activating the instrument level switch (sometimes called Hi-Z), if it’s available on your interface, ensures you get a good signal level from the instrument. This is about the same as patching your guitar through a DI box.
Input channels may also features a 20dB pad. This switch cuts the signal by 20dB, which is a significant drop. This is useful if you’re recording anything particularly loud, like a guitar amp or a drum, and ensures you won’t distort the signal. This feature is usually not found on the least expensive interfaces.
Some interfaces also include 5-pin MIDI input and output. While not strictly part of the audio system of your home studio, this can save you from investing in an additional USB MIDI interface if you have some older synthesizers you want to use. Most modern synthesizes and MIDI controllers connect directly to your computer via USB.
When you plug in a microphone, the gain knob controls the volume of the input and engages the preamp. Ideally, these knobs are laid out beside each input, so it’s easy to know which knob controls which input. For most home studio setups, the preamps in modern audio interfaces are low-noise and transparent sounding. While some interfaces feature premium quality preamps (for a premium price), you need to keep in mind you should also have a premium microphone and an acoustically treated recording environment to really take advantage.
Phantom Power, or 48V
Every audio interface will have a switch or button for 48V power, also known as Phantom Power. This is required for using condenser microphones. Just remember to always switch on Phantom Power after plugging in your microphone, and switching it off before unplugging your mic. Phantom Power will not affect your dynamic microphones.
Some interfaces put the switch for 48V on the back of the interface. Ideally, the switch is on the front and has a light to indicate that it’s on. Some may even have the switch as part of the software interface, which in my opinion, is the least desirable place for it.
Most audio interfaces will have balanced TRS (tip, ring, and sleeve) connections for outputs. The TRS cable looks similar to a ¼” patch cord (unbalanced TS cable), but it has an additional ring on the connector pin, indicating that it can be used for a balanced TRS connection, or carries a stereo signal, like your headphone cable. Generally, balanced TRS connections are less susceptible to introducing hum or noise in your signal path over longer distances.
Outputs are normally reserved to connect your studio monitors. This takes two outputs – one for the left speaker, one for the right. Interfaces with more than one output pair can be used to connect additional speakers, or connect to a desktop mixer. Connecting to a second set of speakers can be useful in testing your mixes.
Don’t discount the value of a big honking volume knob. Some interfaces feature this, and personally, I think it’s a great value add. Volume of your playback is one of the most frequently used controls in your home studio, and sometimes you need to adjust it quickly; you don’t want to be mousing around to find the control. Some interfaces also feature a mute button, which is ideal (i.e. you don’t want your monitors sounding while you’re recording from a microphone).
Digital inputs and outputs
Some interfaces also include digital inputs and outputs. These are used if you have a device with a corresponding output (S/PDIF or optical). The optical (sometimes called ADAT) signal can carry 8 discrete channels. For example, you could expand your two-input setup with an 8-channel preamp with an optical output, for a total of 10 microphone or instrument inputs. The S/PDIF connection only carries a 2-channel stereo signal, and is usually found on synthesizers or CD players.
Sometimes audio interfaces are marketed as having 10 inputs, while only two mic inputs are visible. That’s because the manufacturer is also counting the 8 digital inputs via an optical connection.
All interfaces have an option for zero-latency monitoring. Generally, if you want to include a reverb in software for your vocalist while recording, you’ll introduce latency while the computer processes the signal, applies the reverb, and sends it back out to be heard. A zero-latency switch (often called direct monitor, or input) allows you to hear the input in real time, without latency, along with the computer playback. Some interfaces allow you to adjust the relative levels of input and playback material.
Some interfaces include on-board digital effects processing. This allows you to record with very low latency and still apply a reverb or other effect to the monitored input. In my opinion, this is only an issue with older or very budget-level computers. With most modern systems and non-DSP audio interfaces, you can get latency down to a few milliseconds and use a software reverb. It’s best to use a low-CPU taxing plug-in for this. It’s important to note that the reverb in this case won’t be recorded; it’s only used for monitoring. You can still use a better reverb plug-in after the recording is complete. Many singers prefer a bit of reverb in their headphones while recording.
Many of the two-channel interfaces are powered by their USB connection to your computer, making them ideal for a mobile recording studio. The larger interfaces, with four or more inputs, usually require a separate power supply in addition to the USB connection, and a power switch. This is something to consider if you’re planning to go mobile with your studio.
The fact is, there are a lot of interface options out there, especially in the two-channel range. One way to decide which one to buy is to look at their bundled software. Many manufacturers include a light version of recording software, like Cubase or Abelton Live. If you prefer one software choice over another, but you haven’t invested in it yet, sometimes getting the light version with your interface gives you a discount when upgrading to the full version. You can check with the software companies to find out more, or download trial versions if you haven’t settled on one yet.
Ultimately, I can’t tell you what interface to buy. If you want to know which one I have, and which ones I’ve had in the past, check out my blog post about the history of my home studio. You have to assess your needs and come to your own conclusion. Hopefully, this article has armed you with the knowledge to make a good choice.
Do you see anything on an interface that I haven’t covered here, or have any questions? Comment below and let me know, and I’ll get back to you. I also accept heaps of praise and accolades.
Last year (late 2015), Adi contacted me with a request to have his songs produced as an album. We had a brief meeting during which I got to know Adi a bit more, and really saw his personality as a generous, people-loving individual, and how that shone through in his songs. We came to an agreement, and began work shortly thereafter. The plan was to produce 12 songs for an album.
Adi would send me his demo recordings, along with lyric and chord sheets. For most recordings, I would set up a session in Sonar with a simple drum loop (of my own creation, of course, since I am a drummer). He would then come over and record guitar and vocals to the beat. Often he would ask for extra “guitar licks” tracks and/or vocal doubles.
The producer brain
For some of the songs, I would make melodic suggestions for the guitar licks, or arrangement ideas for when to include instrumental breaks. I also added drums, bass, piano, strings, and other instruments using my keyboard and MIDI. Of all the aspects of producing, I enjoy this arranging process the most. It takes a careful listen to each song, finding creative ways to supplement the original performance, and at the same time, taking it up a notch. My piano and bass parts were often quite understated, providing a foundation for Adi’s performance without overpowering it. I think this is a key point for any successful production.
For one song, Midnight, Adi had written a lovely arpeggio pattern on the guitar for the intro. The rest of the song rocked out. I suggested a break in the middle where he would repeat the intro pattern at tempo. This served to open the song up and provide a breath before the final chorus.
Adi had a neat riff and chord progression for a song, but no lyric. We worked together as I made chord suggestions (on piano) and a key shift for the bridge. Adi worked out lyrics about racial diversity and inclusion, with some tweaks from me. We share the songwriting credit for Colours.
For Who I Am, Adi had written it as a medium-tempo guitar rocker with harmonica. He wanted to try it out as a piano ballad, so I took his chords and developed a piano, strings, and drums arrangement. We had to re-record his vocals, as the rocker style didn’t really fit with the more ballad-esque piano arrangement. We also forewent the harmonica in favour of a cello solo. I think this song helps to open up the variety on the album.
Adi wasn’t entirely happy with his song Eden. I made a suggestion for chord changes in the chorus, which opened up the song to sound bigger. Interestingly, this song is almost entirely comprised of major chords (only one minor chord). In some ways, it’s my favourite track on the album, as it has elements of progressive rock.
Mixing, mastering and fine-tuning
I spent a lot of time going through each song with a fine-tooth comb, fixing notes in the MIDI tracks and tightening up the timing. For some, I used a fixed tempo grid to quantize all the tracks, and for others, I used Adi’s guitar recording as a tempo map. Since they were mostly recorded to a fixed drum loop, they were fairly consistent, but minor tempo variations still occur, and sometimes it’s better to embrace them rather than forcing them to fit a fixed tempo.
I also mixed and mastered the songs. I wanted punchy, clear drums and bass, and forward vocals to ensure all the lyrics were well heard. My new best friend became Native Instrument’s Transient Master.
Ironically, the sonically simplest song, She Now Flies, presented the greatest mixing challenge. It’s actually easier when you’ve got 6 or more instruments in the mix, with guitars, piano, bass and drums, than mixing a song with only guitar and vocals.
For the mastering process, I suggested to Adi that we each come up with a sequence for the album, then compare notes. He then arrived at a sequence that was a combination of my list and his. I made minor tweaks to the EQ of some songs, and applied the final volumes. There’s some finesse here too, as I didn’t want the softer ballads mastered to the same volume as the rockers. Hopefully someone out there still listens to complete albums!
It’s been an absolute joy working with Adi on this record. He had a very balanced approach to owning his songs and being open to suggestions for changes. As the producer, I would always take the approach of allowing Adi the veto power, to reject any suggestion I made. As it turns out, he took most of them. You can’t be too precious about your ideas, and understand that the vision for the record should be the artist’s, not the producer’s.
The latest Song Talk Radio backup band jam session was for my own song, I Never Write Her a Song. We rehearsed for a couple of hours, and then performed about three takes for the video recording. Thanks to the guys who put their hearts and souls into the performance, especially David St Bernard who took on the vocal part with great verve! Phil (bass) also took us through an exercise to ensure all four instrumentalists knew each other’s parts well, and worked together to create a unified groove.
David St Bernard – vocals
Neel Modi – piano, songwriter
Joe Romasanta – guitar
Phil Emery – bass
Gary Duke – drums
Bruce Harrott – consultant
I captured the room audio, and the vocal audio to separate tracks so I could mix them in post-production to get the best sound quality and ensure the vocal sat nicely above the mix.
This summer, I wrote a little progression on the piano which was intended to be a gently flowing chord progression and melody. I repeated it twice in the recording. Having nothing more to do with it, I sent it to my friend Sonja to see if she would be willing to put a lyric and vocal melody to it.
Later on, we got together to hash out some ideas. Sometimes ideas can come from the strangest places. The piano sound I used was from Native Instruments “The Giant” and for lack of a title, I thought of “Giant…” and what’s something that’s NOT giant? “Giant Caterpillar.” So when we got together, we decided to write lyrics that reflected paradoxes or contradictions in nature, where the reality of things in nature may not be what they appear to be. Sonja came up with a gorgeous melody and beautifully poetic lyrics.
The final recording was done in my home studio, and we added a cello part to complement the piano and vocal. We also showcased the song on an episode of Song Talk Radio.
I had the opportunity to be interviewed by one of the journalists at The Scope at Ryerson last week. Alexia Kapralos hosts her weekly podcast, The Plug-In, around the latest in Canadian and international rock music. I sat with her at the Ryerson studios for a short interview on my musical journey over the year and Song Talk Radio. She also featured my song “One Great Mistake” on the episode. It starts at about the 8:50 mark of her show. Thanks Alexia!
We practiced and developed our individual parts for about 90 minutes, then recorded several takes. Once again, I recorded both audio and video, and captured the vocals as a separate track and mixed them in during post-production.
All in all it was a fun afternoon, and I feel honoured to play with such talented guys.
For several months in 2014, I worked closely with singer-songwriter Dom Ventura, aka Hyphen dom, on producing several songs for his albumfree-dom in chains?. Arrangements included drums, strings, bass and piano parts to fully round out his songs.
One of the biggest challenges I found as a producer was being able to embrace Dom’s loose attitude towards tempo. His songs would meander, sometimes adding extra beats to a measure, or rushing through a phrase. This meant that I could never record his guitar and vocal takes to a metronome or drum loop. Adding a lush string arrangement was usually not a problem, but adding bass and drums after the fact became a bigger challenge. I solved this by redefining the timing grid in the recording to match his performance, rather then trying to alter his performance to match a regular tempo. This allowed me to quantize the added MIDI tracks to the new grid.
In the end, I produced six of the songs on his album free-dom in chains?. I’m most proud of The DSM-5, as it rocks out the most with my arrangement of drums, bass, and small dashes of tambourine and organ. I also really dig the intro on The Name, which at the time, Dom didn’t get why I asked him to play the base chords for an extra 8 measures.
I got producer credit for these tracks, on which I also arranged and performed all the strings, bass, drums, and piano parts:
Michael Gee is a musical chum I met at the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group. He had an idea for a parody of Walking in a Winter Wonderland, entitled Working With a Wookie on a Plan. He brought along a karaoke track where the only singing present was the part starting “Later on, we’ll conspire…” which, because of the pick-up on the first line, I couldn’t edit out. This was fortunate, as Michael’s revised lyric also had the line “Later on, we’ll conspire,” only he followed it up with “Against the evil empire.” So, after quite a bit of cutting and pasting, we had a base track to record his vocals too. I suggested he not sing over the “Later on, we’ll conspire” vocals of the original. Then I added a virtual sleigh bell shaker sample to the track, and we had a complete song.
By the next morning, Michael had created a video to go along with his song:
There’s nothing like devastating emotions to spur on a new song. After going through some recent hard times, the lyrics for the bridge came to me several days after the incident, and certainly they reflect the exact state of my inner experience at the time.
From there, the title came to me, and then the verses and chorus upon some objective reflection of the incident. I made the conscious choice to create lyrics that are open enough to interpretation, that really could be meaningful to any relationship.
The music began with simple piano chords to accompany the melody. I then produced it with the synth and guitar driven sounds. Feedback from the Songwriter’s Cafe meetup group resulted in only a small tempo increase. Hope you enjoy it!