RPM Challenge #1 – It Begins

Since the start of February, I’ve been spending just about as much time and energy as I can muster working on a project for the Trent Radio RPM Challenge. If you’re not familiar, the RPM Challenge is an exercise in rapid music production, where participants aim to make a full-length album of new music, start to finish, in the month of February.

I’m no newbie when it comes to music production, but apart from a few tracks here and there, all the recordings I’ve made have been group efforts – most significantly, with someone else (usually Michael Grundy at Leadfoot Studio) sitting in the engineer’s chair doing all of the heavy lifting on the tech side.

My main goal for this month, then, is to test drive both the home recording setup I’ve put together, and an approach for working on my solo projects. For the rest of February, I’ll be blogging about my progress, the techniques I’m developing, and the challenges along the way.

For now, I’ll briefly outline the project I’m envisioning, and the equipment & software I’m using.

The project

The RPM Challenge came on my radar at a great time, as I was in the planning stages for a solo recording project already, albeit one with a much less aggressive timeline: I had a vague “sometime in 2017” target for completion, certainly much later than February 28. Not that the project I envision is too big to finish in a month, but as with any personal creative project, I planned to get caught up in endless puttering around rather than actually finishing anything in a timely fashion.

In that sense, it’s a match made in heaven: I can take a project I wanted to do anyways, finish it sooner than I planned, as part of a community that’s near and dear to me.

The jist of the record I have in mind is reinterpreting some traditional songs, most of which have been in my repertoire for some time now, as an excercise in expanding my horizons in music production. Rather than just sticking to voice and acoustic guitar – or even just voice and acoustic instruments in general – I’m going to bring into place all manner of electronic music production: think synthesizers and drum machines. I like the idea of taking some of the oldest songs I know, and animating them in very non-traditional style.

I was using the phrase “electro-folk” to describe it, but my man Jonny Bigbeers coined the term “Astroturf” as a riff on “bluegrass” – I think that’s too good of a name to pass up.

As an example, at the end of January I tracked a quick’n’dirty demo of Peggy Seeger’s Song of Choice. I’m sure things will change as time goes on, but it should give an indication of what I have in mind:

The setup

The heart of my recording setup is pictured above, but I want to quickly outline the gear I’m using. Part of the ethos of the RPM Challenge is to prove that you can make a record with no specialized recording gear – I’ve got a bit more than nothing, but it’s a pretty minimal setup compared to the world of pro audio.

On the gear side:

  • Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 interface for I/O
  • Kenwood KR-4400 receiver, though some half-decent Logitech computer speakers, for monitors
  • Blue Snowball USB microphone
  • Two other cheap dynamic mics of dubious vintage: a Sony F-500, and a Laxmax with the model number long worn off
  • Korg Electribe ER-1 drum machine
  • Alesis iO Dock II, for iPad MIDI and audio I/O
  • … and a beleaguered iPad 2 in the ioDock.
  • Alesis Vortex keytar for MIDI control
  • Sundry “real” instruments: a frankenstrat, Squier P-bass, acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo, autoharp, etc.

And on the software side:

  • Reaper – if you’re looking for a DAW, and the free options don’t do it, look at Reaper. Seriously, it will blow your mind how much you get for your money with that program.
  • A decent handful of plugins. Apart from BIAS Amp, they’re all gotten for free: either freeware, or through Focusrite’s awesome Plugin Collective program.
  • A few iOS soft-synths, mainly Arturia iMini, and Yonac Magellan and Galileo.

That’s a decently big pile of gear, I suppose, but for the most part it’s been scrounged together over the years. The latest addition to this setup was the Focusrite interface, which brought everything else I already had together into a practical recording setup.

That’s all for now. I’m working on finishing up my scratch tracks now, and when that’s finished I’ll post again outlining how I’m approaching tracking for this monster and what the project actually looks like.

Are you working on something for the RPM Challenge? I’d love to hear about what you’re working on, or hear some work in progress!

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