House Rules: Home Studio Savvy from Alex Lifeson, Adrian Belew, Larry Carlton, David Torn & Warren Cuccurullo

By Pedersen, Greg | Guitar Player, July 1996 | Go to article overview

House Rules: Home Studio Savvy from Alex Lifeson, Adrian Belew, Larry Carlton, David Torn & Warren Cuccurullo


Pedersen, Greg, Guitar Player


Since the dawn of multitracking, guitarists have had to cough up a king's ransom for the privilege of using commercial studios. But the recent growth of home studios is plugging up this fund drainage. Do-it-yourself recording dens let musicians make affordable studio-quality demos and albums in a creative environment that allows complete control - once you get comfortable with the equipment and techniques. To fast-forward your studio experience, we gleaned invaluable advice from five guitarists - Alex Lifeson, Adrian Belew, David Torn, Warren Cuccurullo and Larry Carlton - who have extensive experience in home brewing.

Bucks and Boards

Budget constraints are a reality for most players, and since manufacturers realize this, it pays to do some research and shop around. Remember, your studio equipment doesn't need to mirror Compass Point's to be effective. "I understand budget constraints - I'm not rich," says Belew, the King Crimson axman who has lent his visceral lyricism to work by Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and Nine Inch Nails. "You don't have to spend a ton of money on gear to make an album. I've done it with a $5,000 Fostex 16-track tape machine, two little Alesis boards, an AKG C24 microphone and not much else." Belew recommends sticking with essential gear that's not likely to become outdated quickly. He also notes the importance of budget priorities: "I asked Frank Zappa once how he got all his stuff and he said, "Simple - I don't do coke.'"

If you plan on recording an album at home, a grin-and-bear-it approach may be best for the initial investment. It's a gift to yourself that will keep on giving, says Duran Duran's Cuccurullo, another Zappa alumnus. "Sure, you'd have a layout of about $10,000, but you'll make the next album for free. Things are a lot better than they were 20 years ago when I was struggling. You couldn't buy a 24-track recording system for your house." Carlton, a solo artist and session kingpin for Steely Dan and others, has reaped the benefits of home recording since the late `70s. "Having my own studio has always been cost-effective. I remember buying my first two big pieces of MCI recording gear in 1977 for $130,000. I had two productions plus my own record to do that year, so cutting at home paid for my gear in twelve months." [For comparisons of systems of different price levels and formats, see "Clearing the Deck," pg. 87.]

Digital vs. Analog

If you rely on a 4-track machine, it may be time to consider upgrading to a more efficient recording platform such as a tape-based digital format or, if you're an analog lover, an 8- or 16-track open-reel deck. Belew prefers digital systems for their storage accuracy and capacity. "With analog, you get a lot of deterioration," he says. Avant-guitar trailblazer Torn appreciates the fact that digital systems mirror the information they're given without coloring the sound as analog would. "When I record something with Digidesign Sound Designer II software and Tascam DA-88s, I know it's going to sound exactly the same when I roll the tape back." Though Cuccurullo lays down guitar parts onto hard disk, he trusts final mixes to the "human" characteristics of analog: "When you're in a studio listening to a half-inch playing a mix or a DAT playing a mix, the difference is shocking. The guitar sounds so much fatter and warmer on a half-inch." For Carlton, Alesis ADATs are ideal for preproduction work and overdubs. He claims not to care much about the sonic contrasts of analog and digital: "Whatever the subtle difference is between the two, it doesn't stop me from making music. I'm more interested in how well I played."

Consolation Prizes

Once you've settled on a recording platform, the next purchase should be a mixing console. Rush's Lifeson recommends Mackie consoles for their affordability and noise-free operation. "Mackies are very quiet, which is essential if you're working digitally," Lifeson says. …

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