Pursuing Paul McCartney: My Little Home Studio

b&w studio view
No T-Shirt, No Lonely Kid, No McCartney

Back when music used to come on large circular pieces of vinyl, I had a copy of one of Paul McCartney’s solo efforts entitled McCartney II.  Now isn’t the time to get in to the debate of Paul vs. John as songwriters, or the relative merits of their solo/post-Beatles work.  Suffice to say that I had (and still have) a huge soft spot for Wings Back to the Egg, a fetish that led me to the purchase of the above-described McCartney solo effort.

There are a lot of things I could say about that album, a fact that is probably itself suggestive that the recording has some merit.  For instance, I could tell you that this was one of the first times I ever bought a record by an artist expecting something rather specific but found, after purchase, that the record differed substantially from my expectations (we didn’t have HMV back then, you whippersnappers – you didn’t get a chance to listen first and buy second;  every purchase was a bit of a leap of faith).  I remember being taken aback by the album’s sound, and initially a bit put off by the distance between my sonic expectations and the actual product.   The entire record, you see, was recorded by McCartney at his home studio.  He played all, or substantially all of the instruments himself and recorded the thing to a (in relative terms) small multitrack tape recorder.  The result was – in many places – a spare and very reflective album that challenged my youthful and juvenile musical tastes, but one that that I came to love after spending time getting to know the songs.

I mention this album because it had this awesome photo on the inner sleeve.   In it, McCartney (wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, I think) stood with his back to the camera in front of the cabinet-sized multi-track recorder, looking down at the front panel of the machine and twiddling a knob with one hand.  The image is black and white, and there is a palpable sense of heat and humidity, of long days and hard work accomplished.  In  my mind’s eye, I remember the photograph showing a young child standing to McCartney’s left, next to his leg, reaching up and tugging at father’s shirt in a desperate bid for attention.

I loved that album and I loved that photograph;  among other things, the photograph gave a glimpse into the home life of one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and it showed – much to my excitement – the studio gear in his home.   I’ve written before about the fact that my DNA is deeply and genetically imprinted with the tech bug.  I got thinking about this again the other day when I listened to my brother Doug’s first attempt at putting together a podcast (Doug talked a bit about how my granddad’s fetish for audio and recording equipment was passed down through my father to my brothers and me, and some of our early recording escapades).   I was thinking about how much I used to hold that inner sleeve and stare at the picture while I listened to Waterfalls, dreaming about having access to the kind of gear that was shown in that picture.

Testing 1,2, 3 - IMG_9521
Testing, testing - can you hear me in the back? (SCREEECH!)

That album was released in 1980.  We’ve come a long way in 29 years, and the truth of the matter is that I now have access to – in some ways, anyway – arguably much more powerful recording equipment than Paul used to put together that record.  The computer I’m typing this entry on has software in it that allows me to make multi-track recordings, to treat the signals I capture with an astonishing array of digital effects, treatments and modifications, and to synthesize entire portions of an audio track – summoning drums or strings where there are none in the house.   It’s difficult for me to imagine how the 14-year old me might have reacted, had someone told me back then that – in time – I would have the very technology depicted in that photograph at my disposal, and contained in a machine the size of a small suitcase rather than occupying the same amount of space as Grandma’s china cabinet.   The pace of technological achievement has been, in relative terms, rapid and consistent but in terms of the human scale of time gradual enough to become almost imperceptible, a phenomenon occurring in one’s peripheral vision but requiring careful attention to otherwise perceive.  Consider that the iPhone you might be carrying in your pocket contains a computer that is many times more capable and powerful than the computers that guided the lunar lander to it’s destination on the moon in 1969.  Consider that the same device is capable of almost instantly accessing a very large portion of the collected wisdom of the human race, or at least that portion of it that has been digitized to date.

All of that advancement and innovation, collected in softly humming piles and wired together in the physical embodiment of an electrical engineer’s psychotic break with reality was put to some use earlier today.  Doug and I hooked up via Skype to test a technical concept: we wanted to see if it would be possible for us to carry on a conversation over the ‘Net, to locally record our own half or end of the conversation, then sync up the two halves to produce a presentable recording suitable for use in one of Doug’s podcasts.  It worked like a charm.  We each used a microphone and Audacity to digitally record our side of the conversation;  when we were finished talking, Doug zipped his audio file and transferred it to me via Skype’s file-sharing capacity.  A few minutes of mucking about later, I was able to not only sync up Doug’s track with my own, but to also clean up my own file by gating the audio to prevent some of the talkback signal that had spilled into my microphone from cluttering the sound.  I also added a quick musical intro and end tag and compressed the whole thing into .mp3 format and shot it back via teh Intarwebs to Doug for his inspection and perusal.

I think that – had he found out about all of this – that 14 year old kid holding the inner sleeve to McCartney II would have been so excited, he would’ve had some trouble sleeping for quite a while.

Update (November 23, 2009): My brother Doug has, courtesy of the all-knowing Intarwebs, found a copy of the photo in question and passed it along to me (see below). My memory of the photo gets a “B”, possibly “B+”, I would say. In my mind’s eye, the photo was taken from directly behind Sir Paul, and he was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt; the photo seems considerably less tropical in mood than I remember it, as well. In fact, it looks kind of cold and clinical, if you get right down to it. Odd how memory plays tricks like that.

mccartney ii photo
The photo that sparked my imagination.

Project Squawk Begins

My work as a recordist on Saturday evening and Sunday morning (part of the Founders’ Day festivities) has inspired me to attempt to learn a little more about the voodoo magic that can be accomplished in a home stuido with one of these little fellas.   KORG D16 Digital Recording StudioOne of my co-workers is married to a fellow who also likes to mess around a wee bit from time to time with bleeps, blorps and squawks. A few years ago, when I was still a footloose and fancy-free bachelor with nothing better to spend my hard-earned dough on, he sold me one of these second hand.  I had quite a bit of fun fooling about with it;  I demo’ed one or two songs I had written that were to be recorded by the band (back in the days when it seemed like my bandmates were still interested in that sort of thing), and I did another couple of little parody songs (à la Weird Al) in honour of certain special occasions at work(a mentor’s fiftieth birthday, a colleague leaving for a new and better job, etc.).  I have now purchased the KORG D16 (pictured at right) from the same fellow;  I gather from the emails we’ve traded back and forth on the subject that he just hasn’t been using the equipment in the last year or two.

You may recall that I am the Reigning Monarch of Project Commencement;  finding myself with a new piece of equipment and an insufficient number of distractions (this blog, computers, digital photography, doing stunts on yard machinery*), I have resolved to learn how to become more technically proficient at engineering, mixing and producing audio recordings.

The first tentative (and admittedly very decidedly non-technical) step towards that goal was taken last evening;  I waded in to the storage area of our house (a small storage locker sized room behind the garage that permits us to store our accumulated curiosities and whatsits in a non-subterranean manner, unlike those of you with basements) and began searching for my DigiTech Studio Quad 4, a multi-effects processor that offers some cool fully programmable tools and effects like compression, reverb, a rotary speaker simulator and others.  Three hours – and a very large pile of discarded packing material – later, I managed to excavate the storage unit to the point where this particular relic could be recovered (as thrilling as this process sounds, I do not believe I will be anxious to add “storage unit archaeology” to the list of things at which I am a dilettante).

What a surprise I got when I opened up the little box into which I had secreted this most useful little gizmo.  Sitting there on top of it was a piece of equipment that I had forgotten I purchased – a Behringer MDX 1400 Compressor (pictured below with the DigiTech Studio Quad 4).   I had to sit and think for a second about how and when I acquired this thing.  digitech and behringer After a few minutes’ careful reflection, I recalled that the very weekend of my first real “date” with Spouse, I had been hanging out at Long & McQuade in Burlington;  I had, the very Saturday of our first date, purchased a companion to the Apex 460 Large Diaphragm Condensor Microphone I already owned.  All the better to record a stereo mix in  a spaced pair configuration.  While heading to the counter to plop the cash down for the second Apex 460, I passed a stack of the MDX 1400’s:  Messrs. Long & McQuade were having a sale.  The MDX 1400 was (and still is, unless its undergone a radical transformation while in storage) a stereo compressor – i.e. it is capable of processing two separate signals at once, typically one from a left channel microphone and one from the right.  As I was imminently about to become the owner of a matched pair of recording microphones, and the device needed to further enhance and beautify the signals they would be sending down the signal chain was sitting right there in front of me at a reduced price, I recall the spatial, economic and technical symmetry of it all being a little too much to resist.     I may have blacked out for a moment;  perhaps it was non-insane automatism, I don’t know.  All I can tell you is that, despite the fact that 460 #2 had very clearly taken my little studio well over its prepared budget for equipment capital expenditures in that fiscal quarter, I ended up standing at the cash checkout with a box containing the device tucked comfortingly beneath one arm, while the other arm extended a hand bearing a credit card groaning under excess strain.

A few minutes later, I was standing outside in the Saturday afternoon sun waiting for a taxi.  I was warm and somewhat euphoric from the spasm of gear acquisition.  The telephone rang and it was Spouse, inviting me to a barbecue at her place, an event which marked the beginning of our courtship.   The 460’s and the MDX 1400 did get unpackaged, set up and taken for a trial run or two – once or twice over the next couple of weeks.  They mostly stood idle, though, while Spouse and I negotiated the beginning of our path together.  When I moved in with her, they were packed into boxes and stored in the basement, as our little house in the City was far too compact to accomodate any home recording projects, as these have a habit of generating a considerable mass of wires, cables and cords, the various ends of which are distributed with entropic inevitability towards walls (and their power receptacles), cabinets and desks (on which effects, recorders and control gizmos stand flashing with input and output ports waiting for precious signal path) and a metallic forest of instruments, microphones and their stands.

Some months and years have passed now, and Spouse and I are happily settled together.  I always knew that I would come back to recording music;  that’s one of the reasons we were determined to end up in a rural area (all the more difficult to annoy neighbours in the course of the creative process).  It is time to set up this gear (in Mission Control at least initially) and see – or perhaps more properly, hear – what can be done with it.

I am going to attempt to incorporate two of my interests in this way:  as I explore the technical issues and experiment with the gear, I am going to attempt to document my results here.  I find that I learn things better when I am forced to sit down and concretize my thoughts about such things;  by summarizing and describing my efforts, I hope to reinforce the technical knowledge I gain.

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* attentive readers will note that I did NOT mention either my “lawn mower video” or the account of July’s fishing shenanigans, both of which are still in the mysterious project queue of my mind and both of which would quite obviously qualify as Part of the Kingdom of Inchoate Projects;  each of these undertakings bears some thematic relation to the more generalized list of  “Time Sucking Things I Piffle About At”, so I thought I’d try to keep the list – and the sentence – somewhat shorter.  You know, quibbling about such things might itself qualify as a time-wasting obsession – maybe you attentive readers share a bloodline with the Monarch.