From microphones to playback, follow these tips for better home recordings.
Modern musicians are both incredibly lucky and unfortunate at the same time. On one hand, technology has reached a point where any hopeful can produce high quality recordings from the comfort of their bedrooms. On the other, the economy is in a constant state of shit and so everybody is trying to spend as little as possible and accomplish phenomenal things on a threadbare shoestring budget.
Fortunately, good home recordings aren’t exclusive to those with a lot of disposable income. In fact, the barebones essentials needn’t be too expensive at all – but once you have them, then what?
Here are five tips to help musicians get the most of their kit, regardless of the pricetag.
Mics and miking (and general audio interfacing)
The first step to making the most of your equipment is setting it up properly and ensuring that what you’ve got is the right tool for the job. There are a million different models of microphone, for example, and there are a lot of ways of categorising them – condenser, dynamic, crystal, etc. When starting out, it makes most practical (and financial) sense to invest in a large diaphragm condenser microphone. The main reason is that it is a versatile piece of kit, capable of working just as effectively on string instruments as it does on vocals. Alternatively, buy a different mic for each instrument – chances are, that would work out more expensive.
Next, naturally, is setting it up. Positioning of microphones is an important factor in the end quality of a recording, so it’s important to spend a lot of time researching the best approach for vocals and for each instrument that will be used. It’s far too meaty a topic to fully put here, but a quick google for each particular set up is vital prior to recording.
However, miking alone is not going to get that killer sound. If possible, look to directly connect instruments to the recording device (which, for the sake of argument, we shall assume is a DAW). Midi keyboards, for example, are a far easier way to record keyboard sections rather than miking it. Guitars prove slightly more challenging, as there is typically nothing akin to a ‘midi guitar’.
One of the most effective ways to overcome this problem comes, surprisingly, from a video game. Using a Rocksmith real tone cable, it is possible to connect guitars directly to PCs without much latency or system noise (both of which are problems prone to occur if too many wires are involved in a connection). Also consider potentially using a preamp to beef up the guitar tone, making it easier to work with later on.
DAWs and mastering software
DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are the best and most common way to record, edit and produce music in the home recording studio. If you have a macbook, you’ll be one step ahead – they handily come with the free availability of Garageband, which is an admirable DAW in its own right. However, other DAWs such as Avid Pro Tools or, slightly cheaper, Ableton Live are more expensive but a very worthwhile investment.
Play around with your DAW a little bit ahead of recording. While trial and error during recording is certainly the best way to pick up habits and knacks, going into a session blind to the possibilities that the software offers is a recipe for disaster. Put together a plan of what you can achieve within the confines of the DAW and then set out to build on that – but never forget to prepare.
Audio playback – part one
One of the biggest blunders new bands often make is not checking the quality of their sound effectively. The first step to doing this is to ensure that you have some decent – not phenomenal, but decent – monitors to playback the recording and each mix. A decent monitor doesn’t have to be a bank-crushing purchase, but it is essential in discovering how your song really sounds.
Similarly, don’t rely on monitors alone. Good headphones are important for whoever will be mixing the recording together and making adjustments, ideally ones that are noise cancelling so that they can listen to the input during recording itself without mics detecting sound leakage. With all that in place, play back the track on monitors, headphones and standard laptop speakers – just to make sure the balance is right.
Audio playback – part two
So it sounds all good to you, but do you know what the real sign of a killer track is? If other people think it’s fantastic.
Don’t be afraid to have a trusted third-party listen to each ‘finalised’ version of a track and give their honest verdict. While the home recording studio is a wonderful environment for outpourings of musical talent and inspiration, it’s not necessarily always the best it could be and bands rarely learn this until after it’s been shared (endlessly) online. Find somebody unafraid to give their opinion for the sake of your feelings, let them listen and see what they suggest.
Nothing good comes to those who are not willing to wait for it. Room acoustics can be unpredictable and, unless you fancy paying extra to soundproof your room, this is just something that must be dealt with. Likewise, mishaps happen and sometimes band members don’t always nail that verse rhythm. Chill, it’s fine.
As great as home recordings are, there is often a self-imposed pressure by artists to get everything done quickly and have it be phenomenal. Pick one. Be patient with the process, take your time to get everything perfect in both recording and editing, and then – with all that in place – you’ll find your ears blessed with the sound of a killer home recording.