Back in the 90s, I was in a band called SQUELCH hailing from Chicago Illinois. There were other bands and a DJ with that name and at some point we received a cease and desist from one of them. I’m not going to drag them here, because that’s not why I’m writing this. I still have that letter at my parents house somewhere and when I inevitably find it, I’ll frame it and hang it somewhere in my home studio. We changed our name to Stargazer, which is what I believe most of the handful of fans we had knew us as.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you probably have a pretty good idea what we sounded like. Kind of psyche rock, kind of noise rock, kind of shoegaze. We recorded our first album in a home studio in the suburbs by the recommendation of my old guitar teacher. He was in a band with the singer and did some of the engineering on the album. Needless to say, we weren’t happy with the final product. I don’t think any one person was entirely at fault and I’m not going to throw the engineer(s) under the bus, because we were probably the second or third band to record there. We were also outside the realm of what he was into and I could tell he didn’t dig it — and that’s fine. I hold no grudges against anyone.
The studio set up was pretty common for a home studio 1997 —
Mackie 2404 (with the meter bridge!)
3 ADAT XT machines
Alesis Studio One monitors (and I’m assuming an Alesis power amp)
Alesis Quadraverb FX unit
Digitech Vocalist (which we didn’t use, because “you need to know what key you’re in, bro.”)
No compression, no outboard EQ or preamps. For a bunch of kids who’d never set foot in a studio of any kind, this felt pro-as-fuck. But really, it was a pretty standard home studio. If we were recording a 7″ or a demo tape, it probably would have turned out fine. If more experienced hands were on the desk, it would have turned out fine. If we as a band were more prepared and had realistic expectations, it would have turned out fine.
Friends, the most important thing to keep in mind when entering a recording studio is the final product will only be as good as the source material. The source material wasn’t that good.
OK, that isn’t fair, because the songs were good and still are good, but the musicians who performed those songs weren’t as prepared as they should have been.
When the sessions were done, mixes complete and final DAT tape in hand, we payed our final payment and picked up our masters. (editor’s note: ALWAYS KEEP YOUR MASTERS. ALWAYS. If you’re recording in a digital studio, bring in a hard drive and ask the engineer to give you a copy of the session masters as well as the individual tracks bounced as “stems.” Then, back them up onto another hard drive and pay for a service like Backblaze to back up your masters in the cloud. Trust me when I say, this is absolutely vital to your existence as a band.)
We couldn’t afford proper mastering, so I did the best I could with my limited abilities and whatever software I had on the ol’ Gateway 2000. We spent HUNDREDS of dollars on the recording session. HUNDREDS. Possibly around a grand, which in 2022 dollars is about $1900.00. His rate for the studio was $25 an hour, which was comparable to some higher end project studios, or lower end pro studios. Comparatively, my first studio gig at a pro studio after college, our rates were $25 an hour or $500 lock out per day (editors note: “lock out” means you have full access, uninterrupted, starting and ended your “day” when you feel it’s done. So $500 could equal eight hours, twelve hours or twenty four hours. But when you go home or the sun comes up, your day is done.) That was 2001, a mere four years after the album was tracked. More comparison shopping, my last band locked out a studio for a week for a grand. We tracked the entire record and had the final mixes in about six days. That was 2010. One last comparison, my day rate right now is $200.00 as a freelancer. If you want to go into a studio, it’s $200.oo on top of the studio’s day rate. The space I most often work out of has a day rate of $150.00 without a house engineer, $400.00 with a house engineer (last time I tracked there — prices might have gone up.) Albini’s day rate is a grand (last time I checked.)
So the point is, we probably overpaid on the session, but we can’t travel back in time. It probably would have cost a lot less if we had our shit together. It might have even sounded better (spoilers it would have sounded better.) It was a very expensive lesson to learn. There were also a lot of personal tragedies that the engineer dealt with during the sessions too, but I’m not going to get into it.
This brings us to right now. Even though I was working in a studio that had ADAT machines and I could have remixed this record in 2001, the technology wasn’t quite there to fix a lot of the issues with the recording. We had a full Pro Tools set up, a very nice Neotek console, tons of great outboard gear and monitors, but the amount of processing power needed to correct many of the mistakes wasn’t on tap.
Flash forward to 2022. I’ve been in the process of building out my basement into a living space and recording space. My control room has been built out for some time and I have a lot of great gear and plug-ins at my disposal, because of decades of wasteful spending. :p The one piece I was missing though were ADAT machines. You can’t rent them, buying ones that work is a crapshoot and finding them in the wild is rare.
I put out a call to my Facebook friends asking if anyone in the Chicago area had at least one I could borrow. A friend contacted me saying “why yes, I do have an ADAT you can borrow,” so I drove out to the northwest suburbs and picked it up. I connected it to my interface via ADAT Lightpipe and got that fucker into my computer. The whole album, one tape at a time, recorded in real time. What could go wrong? Well, a lot.
For starters, ADAT tapes have a short shelf life. Like, FIVE YEARS short. This was recorded in 1997 and it is now 2022. All logic dictates that these tapes should have been useless and unplayable. Even the backup tapes should have been garbage, but after importing all the tracks in to Reaper, I let off a very loud sigh of relief.
Next, one machine means three tapes need to be imported one at a time. Each ADAT tape can hold eight tracks. So doing this in real time, means you’re introducing a margin of error. Every time you hit play on the machine and record on the computer, your timing WILL be off. Our album was recorded on two sets of three tapes, so it’s a total of six tapes. I created two separate “tape stacks” in Reaper, or in other words, two different sessions. Session One, which was the first set of three tapes, which equals the first half of the album. Then Session Two, which was the second set of three tapes, which equals the second half of the album. My source of anxiety was worrying about aligning the tapes, but fortunately there was an artifact on track four of every single tape, so I was able to align each tape to the little blip of electronic noise at the very beginning.
When this was all done, I had a beer, smoked a bowl and had one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in a very long time.
A few days later, I dug into the mixing process, but that my friends will be in the next installment.