After years of touring and making several indie CDs, singer-songwriter Ari Hest's career was on the rise. He signed with Columbia Records and cut a CD's worth of tracks with vaunted producer Mitchell Froom. But then, the label suddenly soured on the project. “I wasn't sure if Columbia was going to put it out, and I just didn't know what the future held for me and the label,” Hest says.
“I was thinking that I'd better make something positive out of the situation,” he recalls. So he decided to record new material on his own, figuring that if it all fell apart with Columbia, he'd have something to put out himself.
Hest's plan had a couple of potential pitfalls. First, his only engineering experience had been recording demos for the Froom project. Second, his studio gear was minimal: a Mac G4 running Apple GarageBand, a Shure SM57 mic, and an M-Audio Fast Track USB audio interface.
He initially thought about switching to Apple Logic Pro for the project but decided against it. “I'm not a very computer-literate person,” he explains, “and I didn't have a lot of money to spend on this either. So I thought, ‘All right, I've got this computer, it has a program in it, everything sounds all right — I'm just going to continue like this.’” One factor in his favor was that his studio, located in his Brooklyn apartment, has just one window, which faces the living room rather than the street. Thus, noise wasn't an issue.
The songs Hest recorded blend elements of rock, folk, and pop. He sang all the vocals and played acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and electric bass. The only drum sounds were loops from GarageBand. He overcame his lack of engineering experience through trial and error, creativity, and musical savvy. “I had to figure out how to make each instrument distort or not — depending on what I wanted. And I kind of played with the GarageBand plug-ins, which are better than you would think,” he says. His biggest frustration with the program was its limited punch-in features.
The Green Room Sessions/Ari Hest
Hest got surprisingly good results on his vocals and acoustic guitar through the SM57. He also did a superb job of mixing, considering his lack of experience and that he was listening primarily on a pair of Sherwood TV speakers — not exactly studio reference monitors.
Soon after Hest had finished up ten songs, a management change at Columbia brought him back into favor. The label put out six of Hest's self-recorded songs on an EP, The Green Room Sessions, last year and will soon release the CD that Froom had produced (The Break In, which is due out this month).
Mastering revealed one flaw with Hest's mixes: his TV-speaker monitors had caused him to overly hype the bottom end. But the mastering engineer was able to reduce the tubbiness, and the sound of the EP is impressive. The understated Hest is modest about his accomplishment. “I definitely feel lucky,” he says. “I certainly worked hard at it. But I know it's not supposed to be that easy to come up with something that sounds good.”
Despite his obvious engineering aptitude, he has no plans to move up to a gaudier sequencer anytime soon. “I'm actually afraid to graduate to a program that would require me to figure out things that I'm not accustomed to,” he says. You can't argue with success.
Home base: Brooklyn, New York
Sequencer of choice: Apple GarageBand
Microphone: Shure SM57
Web site: www.arihest.com