All you need to know to start making recordings at home that don’t suck.
I’m going to lay out a ton of very basic information on you about recording, gear, and a little personal philosophy at the end. You can go in depth with anything written below with a google search. The majority of this is structured in terms of signal flow – the path audio takes from your instrument to the computer and the back out through your headphones or speakers. In order they are room treatment; microphones; preamplifier; converter; DAW; and monitoring. So let’s get started.
This is the #1 most important part of recording. Studio recording, home recording, all of it. It’s not sexy, but if your room sounds terrible, your recordings will sound terrible. Sound loves bouncing off walls, floors, windows, and ceilings. If you’re just recording vocals, guitars, piano… instruments without a ton of volume or bass, you can get away with putting thick blankets up on bare walls. Rooms with lots of furniture are much better than bare rooms as the furniture absorbs sound. Some points to consider:
- Hard surfaces cause sound to bounce around and give your recordings that “singing in a tiny bathroom” feel.
- If you’re recording (or monitoring) anything with a good bit of bass to it, corners are the biggest culprits for messing with your recordings. Blocking off corners (where 2 walls and either a floor or ceiling meet) with dense materials will dramatically improve your results.
- There are a zillion online forums and resources for acoustically treating a room, and they all say pretty much the same thing. You can take the info you find for professional situations and scale it down for your own purposes.
- Record in the center of your room, away from walls and low ceilings if possible.
- Reflection Filters are acoustic devices designed to go around a microphone when you’re recording to absorb sound and prevent reflections from the room from getting into your mic. They sorta work.
There are 3 main types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon, and for interfacing high impedance instruments (guitars, electric pianos, etc) there are DIs.
Dynamic Mics are generally low to medium output, not particularly sensitive, and handle a lot of abuse (both sonically and physically). Dynamic mics are very generally used for recording drums and electric instruments.
Condenser Mics are a little more fragile, have a much hotter output, are generally brighter and more sensitive than dynamics, and require phantom power to work. Most modern preamps have phantom power, so this isn’t an issue, but you can’t just plug one into an amplifier – it won’t work. Condensers are very generally used for recording vocals and acoustic instruments.
Ribbon Mics are extremely fragile (by comparison) and typically have a smooth, warm sound without a lot of treble. These are not a good choice for your first mic, but make an awesome addition to your mic collection once you get started.
DIs change the impedance, or resistance of the incoming signal. Guitar pickups, for example, have a much lower output than a microphone and much higher resistance. Plugging your bass into a DI will lower that resistance to approximately the same as that of a microphone so it can now be amplified (via the preamp) and recorded properly.
If you’re just recording vocals and acoustic instruments, an inexpensive condenser mic is the way to go. The Avantone CK-6 is a good choice for $139 as it sounds decent and has some very useful features.
If you’re recording electric guitars and and loud rocky vocals, a Shure SM57 ($99) is it. You’ll literally have this mic for the rest of your life. I have like 12 of them.
If you want to spend a little more and have a desert island mic that pretty much sounds excellent on everything, the Shure SM7b is the way to go ($399). This is another one you’ll likely never sell. Everyone needs one of these at some point.
Better yet – Rock n Roll Rentals is a fantastic resource of all kinds of awesome microphones that can be rented for next to nothing. You could skip purchasing a mic and just rent a few and find the one(s) you like and just rent it when needed.
MIC PLACEMENT: There are a zillion resources (and opinions) on the web for mic placement. Just google what you want to mic and you’ll get good advice if you stick with trusted sources like Sound On Sound or TapeOp. Just avoid discussion forums like Gearslutz at all costs. There’s more disinformation on there than truth. More importantly, beyond the basics you’ll learn anywhere, use your ears. Have a friend play your electric guitar at low volume and move your ear around the speaker. Do the same with your acoustic guitar or piano. When you hear something you like or that resonates with you, put the mic there. It really is that simple.
PREAMPLIFIER AND CONVERTER
You’ll plug your mic, via an XLR cable, into a preamp, which is basically just an amplifier that makes it louder so it can be recorded.
A converter converts the analog signal (from your mic or DI) into a digital signal that can be recorded by your computer. It also does the reverse and converts the digital recording back to analog so it can be played out your speakers or headphones.
Many budget converters have preamps built in (and DIs too), so that’s definitely the way to go at first. They come in a myriad of configurations, so figuring out the maximum amount of microphones you could see yourself recording at once will help you decide what you need. If it’s just vocals and guitar, you need 2 inputs. If it’s just vocals, you need one. If it’s a full band, you’ll need more.
The other major consideration with converters is what sort of connectivity they use. If you’re on a PC, you don’t want to buy a converter with only Thunderbolt.
I recommend not spending less than $100 on a converter. A crappy preamp with a crappy converter is going to sound noticeably bad. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo ($109) and 2i2 ($159) are good solid starter converter/preamp combos.
You’re gonna have to learn how to use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation… ie a computer program for recording) at some point, so the sooner you get on that the better. They all pretty much do the same thing: some are more user friendly than others, some have more features than others, but they all record audio and they all have stupid quirks that will frustrate the hell out of you.
Here are some options for DAWs right now:
Pro Tools: The industry standard forever – ever studio has Pro Tools. The biggest benefits are being able to take your session practically anywhere and load them right up, and once you learn how to use it you can work anywhere.
Logic: $199 – User-friendly and widely used, probably the most common home recording software but not something every commercial studio has. Good for MIDI and digital instruments (like making beats).
Cubase: $99 – easy to learn and an all around great program that’s very popular with home recorders. Also good for MIDI and digital production.
Reaper (PC): $60 – if you’re on a PC and want a cheap, user-friendly program, Reaper is a good choice.
What you monitor with is probably the second most important aspect to your recording after room treatment. You need to be able to trust what you hear, and you need to know what what you’re hearing will sound relatively the same on other systems. Ideally you would be able to have a set of studio monitors (speakers) set up, but not everyone can do that at home. There are headphones you can use for recording, but it’s important to know that with both headphones and speakers, they all sound different and many of them have specific purposes.
The big disadvantage to headphones it they lack bass. Some headphones compensate for this, but it’s fake. The laws of physics don’t allow you to hear 40Hz out of a 2” speaker. Luckily, your brain can hear the harmonic series of a bass instrument and will actually fill in the bass sound in your mind. Crazy, right?
For headphones, there are basically 2 types: open back and closed back. Open back pretty much always sound better and more accurate as you don’t have sound bouncing around inside a plastic shell. However, you can’t really use them for tracking because sound bleeds out the back of them (and into your microphone) like crazy. So in very general terms, we use closed back headphones for tracking, open back for mixing. There are some industry standards in both of these, and while a lot of them are very expensive, luckily there are a few that are excellent and relatively cheap.
Here’s a few budget headphone options that will serve you well:
GRADO sr80e $100 new. Very accurate and a studio standard for a low price. Open back and great for mixing, but not for tracking due to bleed out the back.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO – $179 new; $100 used and easy to find (Craigslist, eBay). Closed back but great sounding – a studio standard for tracking but good enough to mix in. Also super comfy with velour pads! So luxurious!
If you’re able to have speakers, these are the cheapest reliable monitors (in my opinion) available:
KRK Rokit G4 $107 – $125 each for demo models. Tiny but powerful, extended bass for such a small speaker.
Yamaha HS5 $199 each. Pretty standard home studio speakers – fairly neutral sounding with forward midrange.
Adam Audio TS5 $199 each. First foray into low-priced monitors from a company that makes really expensive studio monitors. These have a ribbon tweeter, meaning the treble frequencies will be smooth and fast and very pleasing to listen to.
This is a big one, and a place where I see most home recordists make irreversible mistakes. If you record something too hot – as in you have the preamp up too loud and it distorts – that (usually) sounds terrible and can’t be undone. Most preamps have some sort of metering on them, be it a VU meter, LED lights, or a single color changing light. Learn how that meter works, and keep everything out of the red. Play the loudest thing you’re going to play or sing real quickly and see if it lights up red. If so, back off a good bit. Do the same with your DAW: make sure the incoming audio isn’t too hot that it lights up the whole meter on the track you’re recording to. And for mixing, a good rule of thumb is to never have any of your faders above 0. I know they go way past 0, but remember that all those channels are getting summed together and if things get too hot, the whole mix will suffer. Simply turning down the master fader is not a good option – sure it will (sorta) work, but you’re still summing information that’s too hot and with your fader down you’re kind of shooting at a moving target. So keep your master fader at 0 and your track faders below 0, and if you need more volume, just turn up your monitors or turn down other tracks.
RESOURCES FOR LEARNING MORE
The two best resources for furthering your skills, outside of getting a BA in audio engineering from an actual university, are recording other people and interning at a well established studio. The more you record your friends and the more you put yourself outside your comfort zone, the better you’ll get at recording. Closely observing and asking questions from someone who’s really good at what they do is also a tremendous way to improve and gain insight.
Publications like TapeOp, Sound On Sound, and MIX are all excellent resources.
“Trade Schools”. There are plenty of recording schools around, and I have very strong opinions about them. They cost a lot of money, set you up with unrealistic expectations, don’t offer a well rounded musical education (if you know how a compressor works but don’t know what the notes in an F# scale are, you’re not going to be of much use in the studio), and I’ve known enough kids who’ve gone through them and wound up giving up on recording shortly thereafter to form the opinion that these aren’t worth your time or money. If you need advice or want to further your knowledge and skill set, talk with someone who actually does this for a living. We love talking about ourselves.
PREPARING TO GO INTO THE STUDIO
Whether you’re going into a professional studio as a musician or engineer (or both), I wrote an article on exactly this topic that I (obviously) suggest you read. It’s long, I know, but some parts are funny, I promise. HERE’S the link to the full article, and HERE’s the link to the version TapeOp published (same thing, but they took out my super hilarious footnotes. Bastards.)
JUSTIN’S SUPER OPINIONATED THEORIES AND THOUGHTS
Recording should be fun. It’s work, and can be frustrating, but if you’re not having fun you’re screwing something up big time.
Pay attention to your arrangements: try deconstructing a piece by removing the main instrument and see how it feels. Watch out for too much information in any given frequency range.
Experiment a TON. That’s how all of this started in the first place. And it’s fun.
Trust your first impression, because you never get that back, and most people will only listen to your song once so that ALL they’ll get.
Don’t listen to ANYONE on discussion forums like Gearslutz, unless their names are Michael Brauer, George Massenburg, or Sylvia Massy.
Don’t copy and paste techniques just because someone famous did it. I don’t care if Glyn Johns only used 3 mics on Bonham’s kit – he was recording Bonham, of course it’s going to sound amazing. You do you.
Speaking of, above all else, be you. There’s a reason you’re doing this, and it’s probably not a superficial one. Those parts of your personality that don’t quite align with whatever the hell “normal” is, the parts that maybe you’re nervous to let people see, those are what make you special. That’s your secret weapon that no one else has. Identifying those and stepping out of your comfort zone is (in my opinion) the only way you’re going to really be yourself and make the best art you can make. Think of all the great artists and songs you love, the ones you really connect with on a deeper level – across disciplines from Kendrick to Vonnegut to Tarantino – they all identify, exploit, and stay true to the awkward quirky uniqueness that only they possess.
You do you, and have fun doing it.