For their debut album, Leave a Message, the Bay Area-based band the Watermarks wanted to spend as little money as possible, yet still make a high-quality CD. While getting a lot for a little is a theme common to musicians and the world in general, the band felt that if the price tag was low enough and the end product still lived up to their high expectations, no recording or production idea was too outlandish. In the end, the trio of John Chapman (guitar and vocals), Bill Weygand (guitar and vocals), and Jim Schroeder (drums) were able to make a full-length CD for just $400. Of course, that figure doesn't include money spent on gas or rehearsal-space rent.
"The concept of making a record came up because Jim was going to be away for two months on tour with another band. We figured we could get him to lay down his drum parts before he left, and we'd finish recording while he was gone," says Weygand. "John and I recorded all of our songs on my 4-track cassette machine, with our guitars on tracks 1 and 2, vocals on 3, and a click track on 4. That way, Jim would have the music on headphones to play along with, but we could record the drums on their own."
The three bandmates went to a friend's loft space and set up their drums, four borrowed microphones, the 4-track, and Chapman's 8-channel Digidesign Pro Tools III system. After spending two days at the loft, which they had traded for carpentry work, the band had the raw drum tracks they needed to work with while Schroeder was away. They recorded only the drum parts of each song, except for "Tree Surgeon," which depended on Weygand's tremolo guitar for its rhythm.
Over the course of the next eight weeks, Chapman and Weygand spent their usual rehearsal time recording overdubs. Chapman would faithfully schlep his computer and other equipment back and forth from his home to the band's practice space twice a week. "It worked well most of the time," he remembers, "unless another band was practicing next door. That would usually shut us down for the night." Adds Weygand, "We wanted to record overdubs in a space like that instead of at home, so we could let loose with our vocals and turn our amps up really loud. With the drums on four tracks, we had four left to record the vocals, guitars, samples, and other incidental noises."
They recorded the rest of the tracks, such as Weygand's keyboard solo on "The Ghost Song," at Chapman's home, a relatively simple process that saved the band a lot of money. "I drove over to John's house with my Casio CZ-101 and plugged it in to Pro Tools," Weygand relates. "I recorded my part in about ten minutes, then we went out to have dinner." Chapman and Weygand did have to spend some money to back up their audio files to data DAT, however. "When you're working with older equipment, the potential for heartbreak increases exponentially, so it was worth the extra $50 in tapes," says Weygand.
Once they had recorded all the tracks, the album was ready for mixing. Chapman had been making rough mixes at home during the process, but he and Weygand were able to do the final mix in a single night for free at the San Francisco studio where Chapman occasionally works. "They had an evening that wasn't booked, so we went in on short notice and stayed up all night mixing the record," Chapman recalls. "The only real money was spent on the CD replication, and even then we got a break for a limited run. We did the cover with a laser printer, and the jewel cases were leftovers from other bands we were in."
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