Hey! Mr. Engineer Man


Roger McGuinn reaps the rewards of
recording in his own studio

By Mike Levine

photo: Bill Kollar

Roger McGuinn has seen his share of recording studios. From his days as a sideman and Brill Building songwriter in the early '60s to the heyday of the Byrds and his subsequent solo career, the singer and guitarist has been in and around recording environments all of his professional life. So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that McGuinn has put together his own studio and is now using it for virtually all of his recording activity. (Find out more about McGuinn from his Web site, www.mcguinn.com.)

McGuinn's surprisingly modest setup is located in his 4-bedroom house in Orlando, Florida. It was there that he recorded 12 of the 13 cuts for Limited Edition (April First Productions, 2004), his latest CD. In addition, McGuinn has also used his studio since 1995 to record songs for a Web site called Folk Den that he founded in conjunction with the University of North Carolina. Starting that year, McGuinn has posted a new recording of a traditional folk song every month. "It's kind of like the oral tradition," he says, "where I'm singing them to people and they can learn them. They've got the chords and the lyrics. And I'm getting great email from people. They sing them to their kids and the teachers use them in school."

I had a chance to speak to McGuinn by phone from his Florida residence. He talked about his studio and his enthusiasm for personal-studio recording.

How did you get into doing your own recording?
Terry Melcher was the Byrds producer, and he invited me to play on a Beach Boys album, I guess around 1991. [Melcher died not long after this interview was conducted.] So I flew out to California and expected to go to a studio with a 24-track and a board and everything. Instead, we went to his house and he had a Pro Tools setup there, and I'd never seen one before. And I went, "Wow, this is great. I need to get this." So I did some research and I found out that they had things for the PC that did things similarly. Over the years I assembled my system, piece by piece.

What are you using in the way of gear?
I have a Dell Laptop, it's an Inspiron 8200. I used it to record Limited Edition. I kind of did it on purpose on a laptop just to prove a point-that it could be done. And I used a couple of external 7200 RPM USB 2.0 drives because the program that I use, Adobe Audition, caches to the drives and it gives you more tracks that way.

Did you use Audition in its previous, Cool Edit Pro incarnations?
I got into it when it was Cool Edit, just a 2-track editor. A friend of mine was putting together the Forrest Gump CD-ROM, and that's what he used, and he turned me on to it when it was a shareware program. I stayed with Syntrillium until they sold out to Adobe.

How many tracks can you record with Audition and your laptop?
128. It does everything you need. It records at 32-bit, 96 kHz.

Did you record the tracks at that quality for Limited Edition?
No, I didn't. I recorded it at 32-bit, and then I dithered it down to 16-bit for the CD. It gave me more resolution while I was working; probably less loss when I was doing bounces and things.

What sort of external gear do you have?
I'm using a Lexicon Omega USB I/O. It's got eight potential ins. It's got two mic pres with phantom power, and a couple of line ins. It's got a jack on the front for electric instruments. It comes with some software, but I'm using it with Adobe Audition. I actually have another PC that I built from scratch that's a 3 GHz Pentium 4; it's like two processors. And basically just the standard chipset that came with the motherboard, it's setup for that. I'm using the same external hard drives. I just plug them in wherever I happen to be.

So you have Audition loaded onto that, as well?
And I use that with two [video] monitors, so I can put the mixing board on one monitor and the track editor on the other monitor. It gives you more space to work with instead of having to toggle between the mixing board and the track editor.

But for Limited Edition, you basically recorded everything on the laptop?
I did, but its got two monitor outs, also.

So the Lexicon served as your soundcard.
Right, I didn't use the built-in soundcard, which could be problematic; internal noise and all that. The Omega is very clean.

Did you use an external mixer at all?
At one time I was using a Mackie mixer, but with the Omega it's not necessary anymore. I just use it [the Mackie] for playback. I use the output of the Mackie to power a couple of Genelec 1030A powered monitors.

Those are nice monitors.
They're great.

Is that the only set of monitors you use when mixing?
I have some JBLs that I use just to see what it would sound like on somebody else's home system. Then I try it in the car and on an MP3 player, different things. But basically, I mix with the Genelecs. If it sounds good on those it's going to sound good on anything. That's my experience with them.

What are you using for mics?
I've got a Stedman 1100B tube condenser; a beautiful mic. And then I have another Stedman. It's a C15, a phantom-powered condenser mic. And then I have some Audix condenser mics that I use for guitars.

Which ones?
The VX-10, that's a nice little mic. The other mic is an SCX-ONE.

Some of the tracks on Limited Edition had live drums. Did you track those in your studio?
Yeah, I did that in my family room. I set up the mics in the family room and ran the mics back into my "control room."

So you just ran cables into the other room for the mics?

How many mics did you put on the drums?
Actually, I just used two. And I did it in mono. And I didn't use cymbals. That was a trick I learned from Brian Wilson. He didn't like the sound of cymbals.

You used no cymbals at all?
On "If I Needed Someone" there are [cymbals]. Stan Lynch played that in the studio in Nashville.

So your mic setup on the drums was what? One on the kick and one overhead?
Yeah, maybe I had three mics. I had one on the kick and two on the overheads.

But why run it in mono rather than using a stereo pair? For simplicity?

Were you pretty happy with the quality of the drum tracks?
Yeah, I felt pretty good about it. It was fun and it was pretty easy, and basically made the tracks work.

Roughly how many audio tracks were you using on a given song?
I got up to 50 on a couple of songs.

That didn't max out your computer?
No it didn't. The computer handled 50 very well.

Do you use a lot of plug-ins when you're mixing?
I just use the plug-ins that come with Adobe Audition, like the Studio Reverb, some of the other delays and things like the hard limiting.

What about EQing? Did you have to open a plug-in in Audition in order to EQ a track?
Audition has this built-in EQing setup.

What about your 12-string acoustic, how did you mic that?
I used the 1100B for that—the tube condenser—to get the full spectrum of it.

I know on a 6-string it's generally best to put the mic near where the neck meets the body. Do you do the same for the 12-string?
Yes I do. There's a sweet spot there, right around the soundhole. More toward the fretboard than the soundhole. If you get over the soundhole too much it gets a little boomy.

How do you record your electric guitars? Do you use an amp, or do you go direct through a processor or plug-in of some sort.
I plug my electric guitars into the instrument jack of my Lexicon Omega. I've preferred going direct since my work in the Byrds. All the Rickenbacker parts on Byrds' recordings were recorded in the control room using a DI.

Have you ever done any engineering work in conventional studios?
No, but I hung around studios since the '60s and watched people work, and I have a pretty good overview of what's involved in recording. There's a lot of hocus-pocus. A lot of things that people do that aren't really necessary. I have a simple approach to it.

What do you mean by hocus-pocus?
Well, some of the outboard gear that people will assemble. They'll have like a 6-foot stack of outboard things that may or may not help.

So you're not an audio purist who feels like you need to have really high-end mic pres and that kind of stuff.
Right, I kind of shoot from the hip when it comes to recording.

You just kind of learned by doing it.
Yeah, trial and error.

[laughs] We've all done that.

How about your mixing process? Is it quick? Does it take you a long time? Describe it.
It takes days. It's not real quick. I do a rough mix and listen down and see what needs to be adjusted and finally fine tune it down to a final mix. My mixing process is very similar to what we always did in the studio.

Since you're doing it all in the computer, you can save and recall everything.
Yeah, it's all there; it's nondestructive.

You can automate volume changes and panning in Audition, as well?
Yeah, it's got all that.

Since you have the recall, you can go from one song to another and then come back.
Right, I do that. And as a final touch [on Limited Edition] I decided to segue the songs, crossfading them all. That's something we did on the Notorious Byrd Brothers album in the Byrds. I always like the effect of it. It was kind of flowing, like radio used to be where they would play a song and another would come up underneath it. So I did that by building a session of all the songs and then I kid of put them to where the first one would overlap the second and the second overlap the third and so on. And then I made a mixdown into 2-track of that.

Did you get it mastered somewhere?
I did it all here. And I mastered it to a CD-R and I then I sent it up to Oasis and they printed them for me.

Did you do any processing when you were mastering?
I just hard-limited everything to make it all come out even as far as levels. And then listened down to it, and I did it several times to get what I liked. My wife was in here with me helping. Another pair of ears. She co-produced it.

The affect of technology on the music business is a subject that generates a lot of ink. What's your take on the impact of digital recording and the Internet on music?
I feel very good about it from an artist's point of view. It gives me a lot of artistic control that I didn't have before, where you kind of had to sell out to the company store in order to get a CD produced. Now the equipment is accessible on a very low financial scale, to where almost anyone can put it together and come out with a CD-quality product. The results may vary, you can probably get a cleaner sound from a big studio [laughs].

But you'd have to spend a lot more.
Yeah, you do. I figure I saved about $75,000 on the production costs [for Limited Edition]. Because I recorded the one track [in Nashville] with musician costs and studio time and everything-it was $6,000 and the rest was nothing. Well, I paid some musicians. I paid them scale, like $300 to do sessions.

Of course, there's the cost of the gear, but that's spread out over more than one project.
The gear I already had. So I negate that, really.

Have you sold a lot of copies of Limited Edition through the Web?
Yes, it's selling quite well. We have two ways to sell: one is on Amazon.com and the other is through our own April First Productions.com. And both of them are selling briskly. And it's all profit.

You get to keep it all. [laughs]
Yeah. I get to keep it all. It's been in the black ever since the first month I think. Compared to my Arista CD, Back from Rio, it sold about $500,000, and I never saw one penny of royalties from it.

No kidding, when was that released?
In 1991. It never recouped, technically. And it's suspiciously always like $30,000 in the red. And they keep selling; you can see sales on Amazon and everything. But it's never paid any royalties, which is typical.

That's what I've heard. Creative accounting.
I don't mean to "sour grapes" the industry, but having artistic control really levels the playing field, when artists can do their own do-it-yourself stuff and come out with a decent product.

Do you think that the industry is being shortsighted when it takes its antagonistic approach to file sharing?
I do. I think the RIAA suing college kids for their college money is criminal. It's awful. They're claiming that the poor artist isn't getting his money when they're stealing from the artist anyway.

That always cracked me up. All of a sudden the record labels are worried about making sure the artists get their money.
Like Janis Ian put it, "yeah there's music piracy, and the record labels are the pirates." Have you ever seen Courtney Love's "Do the Math"? She did the math where this band would be better off working at the 7-Eleven than having sold a million copies [of a CD].

Talk a little about the Folk Den project.
I started it in 1995, I put up a song a month, and I've been doing that ever since.

And you record them yourself?
I record them the same way I recorded the CD. With the same equipment.

FIG. 1: The Folk Den site (www.folkden.com) features recordings of public domain folk songs performed and recorded by McGuinn.

But you're sharing the Folk Den music from your site, not selling it, right?
I've put MP3s up for free downloads. I wanted to get the songs known by people. I had a feeling they might get lost in the shuffle. The singer-songwriters were doing a great job, but the traditional side of folk was getting neglected, I thought.

And you're getting a lot of activity on that part of the site?
Oh yeah. It's very popular. And it's on ibiblio's main page (see Fig. 1). It's hosted by ibiblio, which is the University of North Carolina's Web site. Originally it was in Real Audio, but Real Audio's kind of seen its day. I do degrade the MP3s, so that people don't make bootleg albums out of them. I do them at 32 kHz. It's very audible, but it's not CD quality. It's FM quality, it sounds like FM radio.

Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM.