Topher home recording studio, Part 4: Synthpop rules with Caffeine Sunday.
Enter the computer age, stage right.
Max Rolland Studios 1996–2001 Edmonton, Alberta
For a few years after high school, my bedroom MIDI recording studio was humming right along, producing multiple albums and side projects of original material. So you might have been fooled into thinking I was content with the setup and its capabilities. It was working so well, right?
Free tip: People with home studios are NEVER satisfied with their setup. They always want more, better, bigger, smaller, faster, and upgraded. Anything and everything you have can be and should be replaced by something that’s a step up from what it is. That’s a general rule of thumb, and we can later debate the merits of recording consumerism, but at this period of my life — the young, broke, passionate college years — my creative learnings gathered through these projects were making me grow as an artist and as a person. So there was an ongoing tension between me and my own studio. It was what I had to work with, but the more I used it, the more I was outgrowing it.
By the time my next band came to life, my studio would begin the slow, sometimes painful process of transformation into its next, more mature version of itself — like onset adulthood to a preteenage kid, it was just unavoidable.
Step 1: Caffeine Sunday begins, and pushes my existing studio past its limits
After university, Ryan and I formed a new band to further explore the synth-pop side of our earlier work. It began as a couple of short demos with four-on-the-floor dance beats, and vocals recorded on location in stairwells and bathrooms at the University of Alberta, because we couldn’t afford a digital reverb unit. For a while, we had this idea for our dream band: Ryan and I on synths, with a gorgeous girl singing lead.
There was just one problem with that dream (you know where this is going). Maybe where you were from in 1996, it was raining sexy women with angelic voices and who longed to be the next Pet Shop Boys or New Order. In Edmonton in the late 1990s… yeah not so much. In those days of Soundgarden and Live and Hole and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, saying you were in a synthpop band was the world’s safest way of repelling everyone, including dream female singers.
Fortunately we ended up abandoning our wait for that perfect vision that would never materialize, and just went with what we already had — us.
I moved to Edmonton, studio in tow, and moved into one of hundreds of old two bedroom walkup apartments in the city’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood, a couple of blocks south of Whyte Avenue. We had a pair of transvestites living above us, clomping around clumsily in newly acquired heels, and a couple of complete jerks living below us who would openly mock our recording sessions by laughing at us through the floor, and giving us a slow clap after singing sessions.
(For some reason, their favourite music to crank was Manhattan Transfer. Several times, out of the blue, we’d hear “Boy from New York City” booming through our floor at midnight. So weird.
The song still gives me flashback nightmares to this day.)
Back to the music. We set up the studio gear in our kitchen’s dining nook instead of my tiny bedroom, because when you’re a musician, who needs a kitchen table?
We started writing and recording a new album of songs that were deliberately short, synthy and poppy. Lead vocals would usually default to me, sometimes to Ryan. Soon, the songs we were writing were chaffing against the technical limitations we had at the time. Chief among them: the four audio tracks of my cassette recorder. We desperately wanted more tracks for recording, but couldn’t afford to buy anything else, so we rented a recorder from a local music store.
We recorded our first album, Detox, by renting an eight track cassette Portastudio for one month, which meant our recording sessions were timeboxed. We had 30 days until we had to return the recorder, because I couldn’t afford to rent it for another month.
I was so excited to have double the tracks to work with, and while they were handy, that excitement was offset by the audio quality of the recorder. Squeezing eight tracks onto the same cassette format which was only designed for four meant the sound quality was actually a little worse than before, and anything recorded on the tracks located on the edges of the tape (1 and 8) would suffer from little audio dropouts and crinkles because the edges of the tape always had little physical imperfections that weren’t as exposed in your songs when the tracks weren’t as skinny.
We also rented a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) machine to record our final mixes. We could only afford to rent that unit for a weekend, so I mixed 16 songs in two days. Not a lot of time to discuss the panning of the guitars or EQ of the hi-hats that weekend. We did it, though, and self-released it on CD.
Here are a couple of examples of what we recorded with the rented eight-track cassette:
Detox audio examples
With that first album under our belts, the band and its sound were about to expand much, much further.
Going digital — the first Digital Audio Workstation
Still not satisfied with the studio capabilities, or the sound quality, we pushed further. Over the next two years, Ryan and I moved to a house with third Caffeine Sunday member Kirk, still near Whyte Avenue, and my rickety collection of used gear was upgraded to give us a more professional setup.
By 1999, I finally bought a (used) Mac G3 desktop computer off my brother, and Mark of the Unicorn’s Digital Performer 2 software which acted as both MIDI sequencer and audio recorder, using just the built-in sound card of the computer. We had entered the digital age.
This was the bedrock of our recording setup for the next decade.
Computers introduced so much we take for granted now: all the alternate takes your hard drive could store, plug-in effects for reverb, delay and distortion, mix automation, easy copy and paste for loops and MIDI patterns, and even the ability to save copies of entire projects to work on as separate remixes. All phenomenal features. All impossible on my cassette recorder.
While in theory this meant unlimited tracks, built-in effects and digital clarity, it soon became clear that we were still pushing the boundaries of what our studio could handle. “As many tracks as your computer system and hard drive can handle” turned out to be 8–12 tracks in the real world. Soon I found myself constantly fighting against the limitations of that computer (slow speed, limited hard disk space, not enough RAM).
I also suffered a classic “AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!!” moment where you lose everything you have, and don’t have a backup:
Back then, affordable data storage was an issue. This was back when companies used to use tape to backup their data, and computers still had 3 1/2" floppy drives built-in. Iomega Zip drives held a whopping 100 MB of data, but were far too slow to record computer audio on. Instead, I used a newfangled attachment called an Orb SCSI drive. It was a removable disc that could hold up to 2.2 GB of data, and because they were removable cartridges, whenever I needed more space, I could just buy another reasonably-priced Orb cartridge.
The Orb hard drive crashed during the middle of a recording session, simultaneously losing five whole song projects (!) that were on the disc and giving me an irreversible tick at the sound of the word “Orb drive” that survives to this day (unlike the Orb disc company Castlewood itself, which went out of business shortly after our incident). Even worse at the time, none of those song projects was backed up, so we literally had to start from scratch after months of prior recording work.
Even with this setback, it was incredibly exciting to be recording in a digital studio after so long with cassette-based tape machines, which now felt like real dinosaurs.
Graduating to a computer Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) wasn’t the only major upgrade. There were new, more serious pieces of gear throughout the studio (including the list here for any studio geeks out there):
- I bought two modern synths: A new Yamaha CS6x (my go-to workhorse for the next 10 years) and a used Kurzweil K2000, plus I also borrowed a beautiful Korg 01/W ProX, with full-length weighted piano-style keyboard, from a family friend for a couple of months. I was swimming in amazing synth sounds.
- I bought my first (and still my only) large-diaphragm condenser mic — a Rode NT1. Still using it today. Also bought an actual mic stand and pop filter. No more hockey stick for a mic stand — crazy!
- I bought a pair of real studio monitors, 6" Event Project Studio active near field monitors, and a pair of stands for them, too. Still using them today.
- Ryan bought a Mackie mixer, which wasn’t huge and didn’t have fancy moving faders or anything, but did the job well and sounded really clean.
So, just a few years after starting out with my bare bones studio, I was now in a band and had the bones of a modern, real, honest-to-God grown-up’s home studio: A Mac running the MIDI synth tracks and CD-quality digital audio tracks, effects and automation, a real microphone, real studio monitors, a real mixer, and a bunch of great sounding synths.
It was a lot to learn and get used to in a relatively short amount of time. But that’s how we recorded our album Karmaland in 2001 (available on iTunes), and for the first time in a decade, I got that feeling again.
I was making music that to me sounded as good as the music “real” artists were releasing. And that’s a very satisfying sensation.
Here are some samples of the songs we wrote and recorded in that first computer-based studio:
Karmaland audio demos!
Lessons Learned: Studio Setup Takeaway Tips
Pushing the limits is good for you, but know that growth isn’t free. As an artist, you are always growing and learning. At certain times, you’ll be faced with the need to change your comfy zone. Most of the time, this is necessary. Just remember that the growth comes at a cost of your creative energy and personal time. Sometimes you have to just do it. But prepare yourself mentally (and sometimes schedule-wise) for the inevitable price you will pay to make that growth happen.
Timeboxing is a very good thing. It’s totally uncomfortable, especially for creative types such as songwriters, to have a hard deadline. It’s stressful and can make you feel like you’re putting out substandard work just to meet some stupid date. Something I’ve seen again, and again, and again, is that timeboxing your projects is the best thing you can do to make those projects shine. Back in the Beyond Belief days, the time box was: “we are all getting together in Wainwright to work for the summer. We have these 3 ½ months to do everything, because fall semester starts and we can’t change that.” With Caffeine Sunday, it was: “We only have enough money to rent this eight-track for one month. So if it doesn’t get recorded this month, it doesn’t happen” AND “We only have enough money to rent this DAT for one weekend, so start mixing, pretty boy!!” And by putting those deadlines on ourselves, we shipped. And in the end, shipping is what matters.
Back it up, back it up. Did I mention we lost five freaking songs in one second on Karmaland? We dealt with it, but I can’t tell you how much that sucked. Now that we’re pretty much all computer-based studios, and projects can be copied and backed up easily, you need to copy and backup your projects. Easily.
No, I’m serious. Back it up! Hard drives are super cheap. Online storage is easy. If you don’t have both, make that your very next project. Your computer should be disposable to you: you could throw it out the window, buy a new one, plop it onto your desk, and not have lost any of your work. Dropbox is your friend.
Perviously in this series: Part 3 — ’90s college days — learning the craft with a pile of cheap used gear.