Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Neil Sabatino is the owner/operator of Mint 400 Records, lead singer of the NJ indie band Fairmont, and a longtime friend of Jersey Beat. In this article, Neil explains the nuts-and-bolts of home recording for the interested DIY beginner.

By Neil Sabatino

If you had told me back in 1990’s or even up until 2005 that at some point I would be able to record an album all on my own without the help of an expensive studio, I wouldn’t have believed it. In the 90’s I had the opportunity to record an album or two on tape and it was a long arduous task. Recording a record was a task that was expensive, time consuming and it seemed at best any band I was in would only be able to record maybe once or twice a year. Into the 2000’s I was able to record home demos on my computer with programs like Vegas & Sonar but I always found the quality to be subpar. I didn’t really know the process or understand why my demos sounded bad. I did somewhat know that using one USB microphone to record a whole drum set or the other instruments was part of my problem but I didn’t know where to go from there. As I became more concerned with being able to record high fidelity recordings for a cheaper cost I started my journey into building a record label and home recording studio.

First off, let me say this was not an easy journey and I wouldn’t say that just having the right gear will make you an expert. My band Fairmont had started out by going to a cheaper studio and recording pretty low fi records for the first portion of our career and we paid attention to microphone placement and the exact process but in the early 2000’s a lot of gear was still very expensively priced. We were only paying between 300-800$ to record a full length so we didn’t feel any urgent need to buy $10,000 worth of recording gear to try and do it ourselves. Eventually we realized we needed to up our game and put more money into recording. After working with a few different people we met producer Bryan Russell. This was the first producer we met who answered every question we had about recording in a very logical easy to understand way. By this time we were averaging a recording budget of 3,000-4,000$ per full length. The first time we worked with Bryan he started out first by doing pre-production and then moved through the process of engineering, producing and then mixing our 2008 album Transcendence. I was extremely happy with everything about that record except my goal had always been to record a record a year, plus side projects. I knew eventually I wanted to get into producing other bands, which I had done a little bit of.

It was with our next recording that we took the reigns and tried engineering the entire recording ourselves and just having Bryan record vocals and mix 2009’s “The Meadow At Dusk”. By our next release, 2010’s “Destruction Creation”, we were going to engineer 100% of the recording and just have Bryan mix the record. This time in the mixing process I asked a lot of questions and figured out the wonders of compression and EQ. We had done three records now all while holding hands with this amazing producer but felt it was time to let go and try it all on our own. At first we were doing most everything on borrowed gear. As my record label, Mint 400 Records, started up and more bands needed help with recordings and I knew I was going to need my own set up.

Originally, I had one good condenser mic and that was pretty much all I needed to record acoustic-ish tracks. However, I quickly learned that the switch from USB microphones to XLR ones would make a big difference. As well the single most important piece of equipment was a preamp that would work with my Apple Computer. When I first started recording bands Pro Tools was still pretty expensive because it required a purchase of an entire suite of hardware and software. I chose to start with Logic Pro because it was cheap and it was more user-friendly than anything I had seen. This was the most expensive part of setting up my home studio. First thing was that if you are going to use a laptop, then you are going to want something with sufficient power. In the past I have always used a Mac Book Pro and my current Mac Book that I run everything off of is a 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7, with 16 GB of memory and a 1 terabyte flash hard drive. Roughly this cost around 2500$ but even with the 1500$ Mac Book you could yield similar results. As a preamp I purchased the PreSonus Firewire Preamplifier with 8 XLR ports and this ran around 400$ but is the basis of how I am able to track drums with up to 8 microphones at a time. Finally Logic Pro, for the money, I feel is the best of the cheaper recording suites and costs under 200$. These three tools got me started.

At first I was recording in the bedroom of my apartment and as I moved to a house in 2012 I was able to create a space that was conducive to recording. I’m no carpenter so what I did was create a faux room using carpet and moving blankets. Basically I created a box made of blankets that was big enough to hold a drum set and all of the drum mics and stands. Underneath the drums was a large carpet and surrounding the drums on all sides including above the drum set were thick moving blankets. Using a close mic-ing technique, you would never guess that our records were recorded in a basement instead of a studio like our previous releases.

Other issues that may arise really depend on where you live. I try to always track drums between 8am and 6pm and not really much later then that. The reason I say this is because I did not professionally sound proof. Basically we stuffed a piece of insulation between the windows of the basement and the storm windows and then we added a little bit of acoustic foam on top of each window on the inside of the basement. We have never got a complaint because of the moving blankets, I assume. The sound is pretty dead outside and never reaches more than 10 decibels once you get to the property line.

Once the expensive parts of building my home studio were in place it was time to purchase the mundane things that you may not think of until you are in the thick of it recording with bands. The studio is completely mobile and for certain bands such as Jersey City’s The Old Glorys we were able to use just this basic gear to create their 2010 release Brunswick Street Demos. However as I upgraded it has been more difficult to move everything to accommodate bands but it still can be done and the whole studio fits in my mini van if need be.

So once I had actual full bands ready to record with me, I usually liked to record drums with 8 microphones. This would be possible through purchase of the CAD drum mic kit which I got for 135$. In addition I would need my condenser mic. Originally I had purchased an Audiotechnica Condenser for 100$ from a friend but have since moved to the Blue Bluebird Condenser which was 225$ used. Through a set up of a mic on each individual drum as well as overheads and a room mic I was able to get some really great recordings. The PreSounus Preamp worked well with Logic and it was easy to set up tracks. With a recent purchase of CAD drum mics I had realized that the ones I wanted only came as clip on mics, which was horrible for recording purposes, so I was able to take the mounting pieces apart and combine them with standard microphone clips so they would mount on a normal microphone stand.

Just a few hints on the boring stuff like mic stands and XLR cables. For microphone stands I have found straight stands to be almost completely useless and have switched to all boom stands which I was able to purchase a 6 pack of for 80$. Now these stands are lightweight and I would not recommend the cheap ones for any sort of live situation where the heights need to be constantly adjusted but for a home studio I am finding that they are completely fine. As far as XLR cables I have found that 20 feet is the magic length that is not too long and not too short. I have purchased them before in bundles of 6 for 25$ and have daisy chained them if I ever needed longer ones. Additional mics like a Shure 57 are always good to have around as well because you can use them on a snare drum, guitar amp or even for vocals if you are running low on mics because you are doing a live setup.

Once I started working with other bands besides my own was where I realized the need for things like a mixer or headphone amp. Let me run through a few situations where you might need additional gear like that. Most of the time I actually use seven drum mics and skip the room mic so that a guitarist or bass player can play direct and it can all be heard by headphones by that player and the drummer. I recently recorded a project with a solo artist who plays everything on his records and had come to his session with the click track, guitars, bass and vocals already on a demo track and he was able to use all 8 inputs to record drums. However most bands don’t come prepared like that and some bands can’t play their songs without hearing everyone in the band playing along. For 105$ I was able to buy a Berhinger Mixer and for bands that need to hear everyone playing along I could use one channel to mix in four additional scratch tracks. So for instance, my first seven tracks on the preamp would be all drum mics but track eight would go out to the Berhinger. The Berhinger would then be able to have bass, two guitars and a vocal all mixed into the headphone mix the drummer was hearing. Now you also need to get the other members of the band a headphone mix to hear. Headphone amps are generally cheap and you can find them for under 20$. However you also need headphones and a handful of headphone adapters just in case, so everything works. Don’t forget you also need the correct adapters so that your headphone amp works with the headphone input of your laptop. It’s best to just purchase five to six 1/8 inch to ¼ inch adapters and five to six ¼ inch to 1/8 inch adapters and than you have it all covered.

So now you are pretty ready for most any situation a band can bring you. On occasion I have had a live recording and lucky me got to record a nine piece band. With this sort of situation you are going to want those extra Shure mics on hand. For drums on these types of recordings you are going to have to back down to a three mic set up, usually kick, snare and overhead or check out the specs on how 60’s producers used to record drums with a three mic set up. Then you are going to use your condensers on loud guitars and vocals. For keys and bass you always want them to use a direct box into your preamp even if they are going out to an audience through their own amps. My only other big issue that has come up has been with bands who don’t use a click track and then later need to make edits. This always makes things easier and if you have the setup listed above it will make it easier for a novice drummer to play along to a click. Or at the very least by recording the whole band on a scratch track through a mixer you will have tracks for the rest of the band to play along to later.

As you get into the mixing process it is important to really learn about compression and EQ. You also have to be aware of panning and how certain effects work. An engineer will never be able to get good at this if you don’t have the right equipment to listen back on. My process for mixing has always been first to mix the track on studio monitors, I started at first using Fostex Monitors but saw they were too bass-ey and I moved onto using M- Audio monitors at ear level. Once I completed a mix that way, I then re-listened using really good Sony noise cancelling headphones. I advise you own at least one pair of 50-150$ headphones to use for mixing. Once I got something I liked, I would check it out on multiple stereos. I have done some mastering on my own but at this point am still learning about the process and paying a mastering engineer to help with the finishing touches on all recordings. Hopefully this will be something I can do on my own in the future but as with everything it takes baby steps to make sure everything is getting done correctly.

If you are an indie rock artist I do advise that unless you are spending 10,000$ or more and using Sterling in NYC to master your record that there is rarely a difference between the cheaper mastering guys. I have used a guy in NYC who cost me a 1,000$ for a full length, I have used a guy who charged me 35$ a song and I have used a guy who charged me 50$ an hour and took 2 hours to master a record. I found the same result with all three so I now use the cheapest. I suggest trial and error to find someone you like and that understands that your first recordings at your home studio might need some extra love and attention to clean them up.

Recently Diana Nardolilli a solo artist and Mint 400 intern had this to say as she witnessed Mint 400 artist Joe Stroll and his project Future Fires tracking his debut album at The Forest Of Chaos:

"In the past years, new audio technology and software have made it easier than ever to record music without paying large amounts of money to record in a professional studio. Those who are up to date with advances in music technology are most likely aware of the growing trend of home studios. However, for someone such as myself who had never really looked into recording music, the ease of a home studio and the technology involved, I found very eye opening."

Industry veteran, AJ Tobey of Bank Robber Music, had this to say about his listening experience with tracks produced by Neil Sabatino at The Forest of Chaos:

“It's funny, some people spend all this money in big studios trying to create a "raw, home recorded" sound, and Mint 400 Records have figured out that you can achieve the same high quality music, with the realness that many bands strive for, by recording in an actual basement on less expensive gear.”

As Mint 400 Records, a New Jersey Indie label, moves forward we are always interested in keeping costs way down in order to be able to do this for many years to come. The focus on building this home studio has been to benefit all of the local bands on the label and for our bands around the world we are offering this information freely as they build their own home studios so they can be as prolific as possible. This trend in home studios would benefit anyone who is looking to record their own band or start their own label. Why pay someone 10,000$ for an indie sounding record when you can buy all the gear for under 5,000$ and make a comparable sounding record with just a little research. The new shape of the music industry has everything to do with DIY and learning to do things without the outside world telling you it’s only good once you put X amount of dollars into it.

My studio, lovingly titled The Forest Of Chaos by Sam Carradori the bass player of Fairmont (based on a painting she made), is a place I built out of love for music. The studio is a necessity for someone like me who wants to record constantly all year long. I want to record my band, my side projects, other bands and their side projects and I don’t want to see anyone break the bank or hold off on writing because they have no way to record it. The Forest Of Chaos & Mint 400 Records will be the face of what future labels will look like. As technology gets better and cheaper there will be no reason for labels to constantly lose money on expensive albums. It will also even the playing field for the small guy just trying to make records, the same small guys who 20 years ago had to save up for a year and sell their car or a kidney in order to make a record. is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 30 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.






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