Adventures in Solar Powered Recording – Part 2


Back Wall of Live Room during a take.

Not Your Typical Recording Studio

There was nothing typical about the Willow Smoke sessions up at the Motherpine Camp – Except maybe for some of the recording gear we used – other than that, this session was a straight up anomaly as far as recording music is concerned.

The first and most obvious difference is the building itself.

This was a solar powered log cabin out in the woods (The advantages of solar power are covered in Part 1 of this Blog).

The lack of sound treatment – other than my hand-crafted, portable “vocal/drum booth” shown in the pics – was more than made up for by the geometry and materials of our chosen ‘live room’.


View of Front Wall

View of the Front Wall – Also the view from my desk for the week – it was hard to leave.

Rockin Room Geometry

We decided to set up camp in the second floor loft. The back wall was flat, but the roof angled down on either side of the rear windows to create a trapezoidal room cross section.

This was great because it meant a lot of the left/right (as opposed to front/back) direct reflections would be bouncing around at all kinds of angles, and would create a live sound without the danger of standing waves or room modes being created.

In addition, the front walls came to a point in the centre of the room, creating a concave wall opposite the flat rear wall – again, this was great because it meant another “non-parallel” surface in our live room, and the front/back (as opposed to left/right) reflections would not be an issue either.

Better yet was the fact that the front wall was a good 12 feet beyond the edge of the loft, so alot of sound got pulled down into the kitchen area – in fact it sounded so good on the main floor that we decided to set up our room mic down there!

The Wood Makes it Good

Not only was the room geometry extremely conducive to recording, but every single non-glass surface was 100% locally cut Canadian Red Pine. It was like recording inside of a giant acoustic guitar.

This is definitely one of the best sounding rooms I’ve had the fortune to record in, and it has a very distinctive character compared to the relatively “controlled” sound of my carpeted, dry-walled, drop ceiling-ed studio live room.

Audio Technica Room Mic  – the pop filter on top was to block the wood dust falling from the constantly rocking floor/ceiling beams.

Monitoring Systems

Monitoring was between the nearfield monitors – which are pigs for power and will not be used next time – and the 4-channel headphone amp pictured below – I monitored from the board. I sincerely believe we could have rocked for an extra couple of hours each day if not for the draw from those monitors.

The headphone amp was also critical in ensuring that the bass player and drummer could play and record together without any bleed,  with a click for the drummer, but not for the bass player, and with both of them able to hear each other at appropriate levels.

This was our solution to not having separate isolation booths or live rooms for different instruments and it performed admirably. Guitars were typically recorded at ear shattering volumes with an SM57 after the bass and drums (not always, sometimes bleed sounds good), but those two were always together, to keep the Willow Smoke vibe fully intact.

My Control Room – Monitoring was done with the nearfields during the day when the juice was flowing, and with a headphone amp later in the evening when we were in conservation mode.

Not Your Typical Recording Process

I don’t necessarily mean the placement of microphones, gain staging of the preamps, effects in the signal chain or any of that stuff – that was all pretty much standard issue:

SM57’s on the snare and guitar amps, B52 on the kick drum, small diaphragm pencil condenser mics spaced equidistant from the snare with Roxul panels to block near wall direct reflections, and bass amp with a DI – all vocals were overdubbed with the Audio Technica LDC which also served as our room mic.

The creative process is where this session really broke the mold.

“Creative” Recording

When we got out to the camp, we had a whole lot of gear (and booze), and a tonne of ideas, but very few fully assembled songs. The whole thing was basically an experiment, as the solar power system had not yet even been tested for a situation like this.

Trapped in the Vocal Booth – Reflections from the Roof added a bit of “room sound” to Vocal Takes.

In a typical recording session, your band is tight, practiced, and ready to lay down tracks as quickly and efficiently as possible. In general, you also have no issues with electricity running out.

In our case, the recording was more-so a means of capturing the creative process. Once the mics were set up, arrangements would be tested, tweaked, and many takes would be done with discussions in between and changes being made between subsequent attempts. People not actively recording went off to the woods to write lyrics or practice acoustic guitar parts. We averaged about two (2) song’s per day this way.

This was writing, arranging, practicing and recording all rolled into one – as the planning for this session had been going on for well over a year (all members of the band live in disparate parts of North America) we had no other real choice.

Song fragments were fleshed out into full arrangements, long-forgotten lyrics were revived and sung by anyone but the writer, and a general good time was had by all. We also pulled together a huge amount of new material in a relatively short amount of time.

Just a Little Taste

I’m still actively working on the mixes and the band is working to get a single released in advance of the album.

Update: January 31st, 2013 – the First Single from this Session has now been digitally released – Check out both the A-side “Video Diplomacy” and B-side “Rattlesnake (The Ballad of Bill Tilden)” at the link below!!