ASK AN EXPERT: Brett Van Donsel (At-Home Music Recording)

Multi-talented Chicago musician Brett Van Donsel has been doing at-home music recordings nearly his entire life. He gives us the low-down on some of the basics.

Brett Van Donsel
Brett Van Donsel at Electrical Audio in Chicago, 2016

Q: For the novice — where does one start? What kind of gear do you need to do the basics?

A: You really can do good things with even the most modest of setups nowadays. If you are completely new to recording, just play around with GarageBand or some sort of PC equivalent. There are lots of other more powerful programs available too, but GarageBand is good because it’s not intimidating. There are USB mics and inputs that you can get to plug straight into your computer, but I would recommend getting an inexpensive 2-channel audio interface at bare minimum. This will at least allow you to get a stereo spread on something at the tracking level. If you are planning to record full ensembles, you will need something with more inputs, and that can get a little more pricey.

If you are mostly working alone, I found the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 to be a good starter tool, and I’m sure there a lot of other good options out there as well. In order to take advantage of all the virtual synth/sampler toys, you will need some sort of MIDI keyboard controller. Try to find one that can go directly to USB for ease of use. Once you get that running, you are opened up to use tons and tons of sounds: drum sounds, virtual synths, samplers etc.

Q: What about soundproofing and optimizing the acoustics of your environment? What is the best approach to this process?

A: I have a very “fly-by-the-seat -of-my-pants” approach to this, largely because I don’t have an acoustically optimal space. Ideally you would build a room inside a room for soundproofing and line it with some sort of acoustic foam to control the environment, but I’ve gotten decent results in an unfinished basement with little to no muffling.

I actually like a sort of “bleedy” sound, rather than a super controlled/isolated sound. If I’m working on something for myself and want it to have a real distinct sound signature, I’ll record that way because it gives you a more lively sound, even though it’s harder to control. It might not sound as “hi fi” but it brings an earthiness to it that I’m fond of. If I’m trying to mimic a production style for a parody or soundtrack or something like that, I usually do most of the drums using virtual drums and keyboard instrument entirely in the software world, and I plug my bass and electric guitars directly into the interface and use the virtual amps and pedal. So basically no mics at all except for vocals, if applicable. You do lose something in sound quality doing it that way, but the flexibility is amazing, and to the layperson, (and even sometimes to more technical listeners) it sounds really good. It’s just not magical the way it can be when you capture a live band in a high end studio. Sometimes if I get really obsessive about the sound on one of these, I will rout the guitar sounds out of the computer and into an actual guitar amp and then mic the amp. Logic has speaker and mic simulations that are good, but sometimes they sound a little sterile. If I really want it to sound like it’s existed in the real world, I’ll take that extra step and rout it through a speaker and mic it.

Q: Do you recommend any particular recording and editing software?

A: I’m currently using Logic Audio Pro X, and I’d recommend it to almost anyone. I think it goes for about $200 and it comes with enough stuff to get you going without any extra plugins. I’ve expanded my software a little, but I still often go to the on board stuff first. If it ain’t broke….When I was working on a PC, I used to use Reason, which I sometimes miss, just because I found it to be really intuitive for syths and effects. The interface is just like a virtual rack and mixer, so it was an easy transition from the old analog days of racks, stomp boxes and analog mixing boards.

Q: What about microphones — do you have favorite brands? And microphone placement — are there any specific tips can you offer in this regard?

I don’t really have a dream mic closet or anything. I’ve basically tried to cover the basics in a very utilitarian kind of way. In my opinion there are two very basic categories of mics. Those for close isolated recording and those for capturing a broad spectrum in a room. Some can cross over a bit. Condenser mics, even inexpensive ones, can give you a pretty full spectrum of frequencies that really adds space to a recording. I have two cheaper ones (under $200 at the time if I remember right) —  I have an Audio Technical AT813a and a Rode NT1 which are both condensers that I use as drum overheads. I pan them left and right to get a stereo spread. If you do this with a matching pair of mics, you get a more natural sound. The way I do it with an unmatched set gives you a more jarring, unbalanced stereo effect, which I don’t mind. I set one near the crash and hi-hat, and one on the other side closer to the tom and ride. I’m only using a 4-piece kit, and the rack tom seems to get picked up on the overheads just fine. The Rode makes a decent but not awesome vocal mic too.

Ribbon mics can function this way too, and have a smoother warmer sound in my experience, but they tend to be more pricey. I only have one, and it’s a Beyer M160, which is a mini ribbon. I find it’s great for mic-ing acoustic guitar, guitar amps, and I’ve used it as a distance mic on drums. It gives you a cool trashy effect that is still warm sounding when used as a distance mic. I mix it in with the cleaner sounds. When you solo a track recorded with this mic (like close-micing an acoustic guitar or something) it doesn’t sound that amazing on its own, but it always seems to sit beautifully into the mix when it’s put into context. It’s a nice smooth sound that blends well but still has good definition.

I use dynamic mics for the rest of the drums. They are more directional and don’t pick up as much ambient sound. I have an AKG bass drum mic, and I close-mic snares and toms with Shure SM57s or sometimes mix it up with other dynamic mics I have laying around.

Q: What is the funnest and/or most rewarding part of home recording for you?

A: For me, the “funnest” part is when a sketch first takes on a life of its own, and you realize that you’ve really got something. Sort of the moment of conception. Where once there was nothing, there now is something. I often get the premature urge to share it with people even before it’s finished. After that it can be hit or miss. Sometimes it’s a joy to “raise”(finish) them, and some are a chore.

When things are coming together well, I can get really lost in the editing and mixing stage without it feeling like work at all. And sometimes you get a problem child that you know has potential but doesn’t want to “apply itself” and that can be hard. But sometimes one of these will suddenly transform, and that can be really rewarding as well. So I’d say the initial birth, and then being able to look back at what I fine young song they’ve grown into are the most rewarding parts.

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