This year I recorded an album of Harry Potter inspired Sea Shanties, Muggles Ahoy!. This blog post will describe the process and equipment involved in creating an album like this.
One of the Harry Potter shanty re-writes that I did ended up on the great album of Hogwarts Shanties called Hut on the Wrock. Bess, from Wizrocklopedia asked if I would write a ‘how to’ guide for others who are starting out on the home/bedroom-studio journey.
Music produced in the commercial world will often rely on studio equipment that costs well over $100k. Even just a single condenser microphone can set you back US$9k (AKG C12VR), then you need sound proofing, mixing desks, rack-mounted equalizers, compressors, monitors and effects systems. Not to mention the time of a producer and sound engineer. Advances in digital technology and the drop in price mean that home recordings of high quality are now achievable within the sub-$500 price range.
This post will be divided into two parts, firstly the technical equipment and software that I use. Secondly, and equally importantly, I will talk about the songwriting, shanties and performance side of things.
What you Need
Rather than repeat what is already out there, Paul Davids recently uploaded this brilliant video covering all the technical parts you need for a home studio. The only part missing is a camera, which you don’t need for making an album, but you do need for uploading your content to YouTube in a way that will engage your audience.
Like Paul, my set of equipment has evolved over the years, with expansions/replacement occurring when I had a need, something broke, or I had some spare money to invest. The equipment I used on the album, what it is for, and a rough estimate of the current cost in US$ is listed below.
Microphone: If you want your recording to sound decent, then you need a good microphone, the microphone in an iPhone or Laptop is not going to reproduce the sound you make in an accurate way. When I say decent, I am talking about the ability of the microphone to capture the sound accurately across the audio spectrum. Spectrum meaning from the lowest Bass notes you make (E2, 82.41Hz) up to the the highest pitch Soprano squeals (C6 1kHz). If you aren’t familiar with vocal range and Hertz, Wikipedia is a great resource. If you want to get into recording and mixing audio, there are critical concepts to understand.
My Microphone: Rhode NT1-A (US$270)
The graph above shows how the microphone that I use responds to sounds across the audio spectrum. Have a look at this site to see the responses for an iPhone. The important thing is that when the mic introduces noise and cannot pick up parts of the signal, you get a recording that sounds ‘thin’ or like you are speaking into a can. While some of these problems can be slightly improved using software effects, the effects cannot recover sounds components that never got recorded.
A Condenser mic, like the NT1-A requires a pre-amp, which basically means that the mic needs some power to operate, unlike a Dynamic mic, which uses a moving coil of wire over a magnet to generate the electrical signal.
Audio Interface: While your computer probably has an ‘audio in’ port, it is not going to be able to capture the recording in high enough resolution or with enough accuracy to create a song that sounds good. Back in the 60s, audio was recorded and processed in analogue format, but audio production on your computer will be digital. Meaning the wavy lines of air pressure change that make up sound need to be converted to a digital format of ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’. The digital format will have a resolution in volume/level (usually measured in bits, e.g. 16bits = 65536 levels of volume) and in time (usually measured in Hertz, indicating how often in time the signal is sampled, e.g. 44.1kHz is how often CD audio is sampled, meaning signals of up to 22kHz can be captured). The audio interface is what takes the analogue signal from your microphone and ingests it into your computer (often at the same time as playing back previously recorded tracks so you can add new layers of sound).
My Audio Interface: Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 ( US$170)
This interface is useful for me because I can also plug a guitar in and record both the guitar signal and the microphone at the same time (or have two mics plugged in). The Focurite also provides ‘Phantom Power‘ to the condenser microphone.
An important aspect of the audio interface is latency, i.e. how long does it take from when the audio is captured, to when it can be played back through your headphones. It is very disconcerting to try and listen to yourself while recording if there is a perceptible gap in time between when you speak and hear the sound. This is another reason why your laptop/computer built-in audio system is not appropriate for recording. The Scarlet 2i2 has a latency around 3ms (depending on sample settings), humans won’t pick up the latency unless it is more than 10ms.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The DAW is what takes the places of many racks of equipment and the mixing desk in a traditional studio. It is software that allows you to apply effects to audio tracks that you record and also play back the recording while you add new layers/tracks. Most of my Harry Potter album was purely vocals, so I won’t get into the complexity of digital instruments or recording physical instruments.
Of course, you could use very simple free software like Audacity to record your audio, however, you won’t hear the effects in real time, or be able to ‘mix’ the audio with immediate visual feedback.
My DAW: PreSonus Studio One 3 ( AUS$ 160)
I use Studio One because it came with a MIDI keyboard that I purchased from ALDI, I upgrade the cheap version to the Artist license. For the recording that I do, this has everything I need. There are many extra plugins and instruments that can be purchased and the more expensive editions have more features. It can take a while to invest the time to make sense of all the options and interfaces that make up a DAW, but YouTube and most vendors provide tutorials.
You also need a way to listen to what you create, I have a cheap set of computer speakers but also a more expensive set of headphones (Audio Technica ATH-MH45), the thing to remember is that people listening to your work may have a $10k High-Fi system, or they might be using $3 headphones on their android tablet. The best you can do is make it sound good to you across a few different mediums that you have access to.
I also haven’t spoken about the computer. Any modern laptop/computer will be able to process your audio and there are plenty of DAW alternatives for Mac and Linux. It is just important to make sure that your USB Interface is compatible with your Operating System.
The other obvious thing I have omitted is a space to record. My ‘studio’ is just a corner of my bedroom, fortunately I live in a quiet enough street that background noise is not too much of a problem and the rug on the wall limits the natural echo.
Song Creation Process
I should caveat, that I have been singing folk songs and sea shanties for over 30 years. I have also been playing many musical instruments and singing in choirs or performing as a solo singer for most of that time. It is unreasonable to expect to have great musical intuition if you have never sung before in your life, so be prepared to make some terrible creations before you start making something you like the sound of.
I grew up listening to Weird Al Yankovic and was in awe of his ability to take a pop song and create new lyrics on a totally different theme. Now having written my own songs for many years I am constantly shuffling words in my head to make a rhyme, or else shuffling the grammar in a sentence to fit a syllable count. So the process of taking an existing sea shanty, like Rolling Down to Old Maui or Sam’s Gone Away and thinking about what words could be replaced is a process that naturally goes on in my head.
It helps of course to know the song your are trying to write a parody for reasonably well before you try and do a re-write. All the songs on Muggles Ahoy are parody versions of genuine sea songs, all shanties (work songs) except for Dobby’s Farewell. The shanties have a unique cadence and repeated refrain. The rhythm related to specific tasks on the ship, whether raising the anchor, pumping the bilge or shortening sail. The purpose being to make sure everyone pulled, heaved, lifted or pushed together. It also broke the monotony of the work, which could go on for hours, as the shanty-man would often mix the lyrics up, the dirtier the better.
The shanties also owe a lot to land based work, whether agricultural or on the canals. In fact many songs that we call ‘sea shanties’ still have leftover parts from their land-based origins, for example, Roll the Woodpile Down.
Once the words to a parody are written, it is simply a matter of recording the main vocal and then overlaying a few harmonies or additional voices on the melody. Historians still debate about whether sailors actually sang harmonies, but my feeling is that harmony naturally emerges from thousands of hours of singing the same boring melody. Sailors also didn’t live in a bubble, they would have heard harmonies in musical theater and in the many cultures around the globe that they spent time with.
I learnt some basic harmony singing from the shanty group Forty Degrees South (formerly The Roaring Forties). They did a singing workshop in our town about 15 years ago. Once you can confidently follow the melody, it is then possible to sing a 3rd or 5th (a major chord is made up of a root note, then the notes at positions 3 and 5 in a scale, for example in the C Major scale the notes C E G make up a C Major chord). These 3rd and 5th notes will always sound ‘good’ against the melody. Things can get much more complicated with drone notes, 7ths, and many other musical theory things that I won’t go into. For me it is a process of trying a few takes that sound horrible until I get the harmony sound that I am after. As each layer is added, it gets easier to include more variations, just as it is easier for a crowd of people singing to ’round out’ the edges.
When recording the tracks I usually add some Compression to get a bit more loudness, an Equalizer to boost the base and high treble range and some Reverb to simulate a more ‘echoey’ room. With a DAW you can overlay twenty or more voices to get the sound you are going for. These effects, which would have been done by $20k analogue equipment, are now done in software within the DAW.
For songs with a few different voices, I use the Pan feature to position the singers across a stage from left to write, which adds some interest/presence for a listener (assuming they have a stereo listening device). It is also important not to let the accompanying voices drown out the main melody, a DAW lets you visually watch the levels as the song plays through and manually lower/raise the level of each voice.
There are many tutorials on YouTube describing how to use these features of any DAW. For me, as an Electrical Engineer and with some sound/video production experience I found I was able to teach myself relatively easily on 3-4 different DAWS.
The final step is to export a *.wav file from your DAW and upload it to whatever your distribution platform is. I have not gone into the process of Mastering here, which is another whole art. The main goal is to make sure that if a listener plays your album from start to finish, they don’t hear sharp differences in volume or ‘atmosphere’.
I use Bandcamp for my less serious albums and Distrokid to publish my ‘proper’ folk albums to sites like iTunes, Spotify etc. It is worthwhile thinking about what the right platform for you is. The major streaming platforms offer more coverage/exposure, but I have found people much more willing to fork out $5 for an album on Bandcamp.
Do your own research into how much each service costs and what percentage of the sale goes to you. I initially made the mistake of distributing my albums through ReverbNation, which was costing me over US$50 per album each year just to keep them published. An amount of money I was never going to recoup in sales/stream revenue.
Most importantly, don’t expect to make a living from your music. Not everyone is going to be Billy Eilish, your first goal should be to enjoy yourself and share your creations. Making music is good for the soul!