A recording studio in my living room

18 12 2009

One of the coolest applications I’ve run across for the iPhone is FourTrack, which, for about $20, turns your iPhone into a four-track recording machine. It’s easy to use: you just pick the track you want to record, press a slide button to start recording, and then press the stop button when you want to stop. While it (apparently) can be connected to fancier recording equipment, you can record with the built-in microphone that comes with the latest generation of iPhones. The recording quality isn’t great, but it’s serviceable – and it’s way better than the cassette recorders that were all that was available when I was a kid.

Earlier this week, I tried FourTrack out. After a few false starts, I realized that the only practical way to record multiple tracks was to create a guide track of myself singing and playing guitar. I then created a separate track of me just playing guitar (with the guide track playing through my headphones), and then another track of me singing. I then recorded a second guitar track to accompany the first.

The results were nowhere near professional, as I had a lot of background noise. (And, to be honest, I wasn’t always able to keep in time with myself. I’m nowhere near professional level as a musician.) And the strings on my electric guitar are old (and, again, I’m not that good a player) so there were a lot of squeaking sounds as I changed chords. But it wasn’t bad for an hour and a half spent in my living room.

FourTrack provides two ways for me to work with the finished tracks: I can either mix the tracks in FourTrack to produce a single recording and upload it to my computer, or I can upload the individual tracks to my computer. Uploading the individual tracks allowed me to use Audacity, an open-source audio editor, to turn the tracks into a stereo mix: I put one guitar part over to the left a bit, the other guitar part over to the right, and added some echo to my singing voice. I then exported the result as an MP3 track. The finished product is nowhere near studio quality, but then again I was using the iPhone mic in my living room, and it didn’t cost me anything other than the original investment in FourTrack. And I was able to listen to it without flinching too much (note to self: I need to sound less breathy when trying to hit any higher notes). I may try to see if I can use Audacity to get rid of some of the background noise.

The possibilities when using FourTrack and Audacity are almost limitless: FourTrack allows you to “bounce” your recorded four tracks down to two, which means that you can then record two more tracks. Another approach is to keep a single guide track in FourTrack and repeatedly record new tracks and upload them into Audacity – using this method, I can have as many recorded tracks as I want. And I always have the original imported tracks to work with, so I can experiment with different effects in Audacity if I want to.

I may try seeing if I can harmonize with myself – though, given my musical abilities or lack of same, I don’t plan on inflicting the results on anyone else!

In a way, tools such as these bring the world around full circle. Before the invention of the record player and the radio, and before people were regularly attending concerts, the only way anybody could gain access to music was to play it: popular songs would sell a lot of sheet music. Now, anyone with an iPhone and a computer can record themselves. And playing and recording your own music – even if badly – has got to be better than listening to some of the heavily packaged dreck that is being forced on consumers by the major record labels.

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