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Making Music During Quarantine: Collaborating on No Budget

It’s nearly the school year. Depending on where you live and what school you attend, the next nine months could look vastly different from normal. Your school may be having in-person classes or staying online, but either way, casual music-making is probably not on the menu.

But consider this: what if it could be? Music can be so much more than what you do in a room together. In-person music is deeply important, but for the moment, we have to make do with alternatives. This is the start of my three-part series on making music with others during lockdown, whether you have no budget, a shoestring budget, or a stimulus check to spend.

No-Budget Collaborative Music-Making

If you have no free funds to spend on music supplies, don’t worry. You’re by far in the majority here. Music has been hit hardest out of just about every industry - there aren’t a lot of musicians out there with a ton of money to drop on new gear right now.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make music without anything you don’t already own. Here are my top four tips for getting yourself up and running with online collaborative music-making without spending a dime.

Get Audacity

Before you do anything else, you need to get Audacity. Making music with other people online is all about mixing a bunch of audio files after the fact. Audacity is going to help you do that.

Audacity is a no-holds-barred, no strings attached, absolutely f r e e audio editing software. It’s simple, without many potential effects or built-in instruments, but who cares. It works, it’s free, it is surprisingly robust, and it’s free. I have an entire degree in music recording, and I still do 95% of my sound editing in Audacity. Go download it.

If you don’t have any experience in sound editing, that’s okay. This is a great time to learn! There are tons of tutorials for Audacity on Youtube. I personally like the one below as a quick but thorough overview. If you have specific questions, there are plenty of other videos and written guides to help you figure stuff out.

Build a No-Budget Recording Booth

Next, your goal should be to make the absolute most out of any recording equipment you currently have. Don’t have recording equipment? Surprise! Yes, you do!

Do you have a smartphone? You have a mic!

Do you have a laptop with a webcam? You have a mic!

Do you have a headset for playing video games with friends? You have a mic and monitors!

Now, none of these are going to be top-tier professional equipment. That’s fine. Unless your goal is to win a Grammy with your recordings, you don’t need Super Professional Stuff right away. When you’re working with no budget, you take what you have and you strategize to get more out of it.

That’s where “building” your studio comes in. A lot of the annoying noise, hiss, or crackliness present in low-quality recording equipment is actually the mic picking up stray static or background noise. You can “build” a recording booth with nothing but blankets and furniture.

The goal of your no-budget recording booth is to destroy the chance of echoes or other room noise. WIthout echoes and room noise, you can record further from the mic. By recording further from the mic, you cut your risk of the recording clipping. It’s a win all around.

The most common bedroom recording booth is a converted closet. It’s simple: take one (1) closet. Push any hanging clothes to either side, then hang a blanket on the back wall (duct tape can be your friend here). If your closet has doors, great! Drape a blanket over each door, plus another to hang down behind you. Otherwise, hang a blanket from the upper frame of the closet and record entirely inside it.

The goal is to be Completely Encased in Fabric. This is what all your practice building blanket forts as a kid has led to. Blankets, clothes, and not-flat surfaces absolutely devour sound. This will keep outside sound from entering your Recording Cave, and keep the sound that you’re making from bouncing off of stuff and leading to weird echoes or unwanted reverb.

Note: this will be warm, especially with your laptop in there with you. Please bring water and take recording breaks to air it out. Heatstroke is no good.

Bringing a small table and chair into your recording cave is a good idea. You need a place for your laptop and mic, and a place for you. The mic especially needs to be somewhere where it will not move even a little bit. Weird vibrations from bumping the mic stand can and will show up on your recording otherwise.

Congratulations! You’ve “built” your no-cost recording studio.

Choose Tempos in Advance

Once you have your recording equipment set up, you can work with your collaborators. This is honestly the hardest part of collaborating over a long distance. There’s a certain groove that you find in-person that keeps everyone locked into the same tempo and mood during a piece. Getting all of your solo recordings synched up online can and will be a problem unless you make some decisions in advance.

If you’re working with no budget, then you have two choices: either record the rhythm section first on its own or decide on a single tempo and strictly follow the metronome.

Both of these work out the same way. The goal is to have a solid audio cue for how the piece is going, so you can listen to it while recording your part. You’ll have the rhythm or metronome going in one ear while recording your own performance.

If you’re doing a relatively strict piece, then the metronome is both easier and more effective. Baroque pieces are going to lend themselves to metronome-based recordings, as are other strict-time genres. On the other hand, jazz, pop, or anything with tempo changes will work better with a recording of the rhythm section.

Either way, once you have your rhythm and tempo figured out, you can get to recording other parts. When I’m recording with no budget, I use my laptop to record and play the backing track on my phone. I listen through earbuds or headphones, but I only use one side so I can hear the backing track and myself equally well. This gives me a clean track, without the interference of the backing track or metronome. It’s much easier to mix clean tracks!

Embrace the Freedom of Multiple Takes

Finally, no-budget recording and collaborating is by nature an imperfect experience. There will very rarely be one “perfect” take. Instead, accept and embrace the idea that multiple takes will be necessary.

Multiple takes are great! They give you the freedom to make different choices each time. When you’re working with equipment that’s not necessarily designed for music recording, you’ll get interesting imperfections in each take. When you’re mixing the audio, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to pick and choose which experiments you like and which aren’t your favorite. The more takes you record and keep, the more options you’ll have in the end.

Collaborating online is a tricky business, but it’s worthwhile. The more frequently you play around with this kind of recording and music-making, the more you’ll learn. Even if you decide it’s not your favorite way to make music, you can still learn valuable things about recording and mixing audio and managing the music process.

No matter where you end up in the music business, those are important things to know. By working things out without a budget, you’re also learning resourcefulness and, more importantly, saving your grocery money. It’s a great choice all around.

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