In today’s day and age where technology is giving people the opportunity to do things they never dreamed of doing before, many people are being given tools to build things without knowing anything about how to use the tools. Music production is high on the list of new technologies that allow people to make music literally anywhere they want. With iPhone apps literally giving people a studio in their hands, many music enthusiasts are investing in home recording studios without the knowledge of what to buy and how to use the studio equipment.
Let’s first take a look at the idea of a recording studio and how it can be made to live in the hustle and bustle of today’s modern family.
A recording studio is a very controlled environment which is typically treated for sound isolation as well as optimized for multiple instruments recording at the same time. Most people will not be able to set up their homes to have multiple instruments recording at the same time effectively but it is possible to set it up for multiple instruments being recorded one at a time in a way that will allow for a high quality recording.
For this example let’s assume we are going to be recording a typical pop band with drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, and singer. Although with the addition of soft synths and MIDI it’s possible that you’d never have to use an actual microphone in your home studio other than recording vocals.
The most difficult of these to record is the drum kit. It will require multiple microphones and a room in your house that you can alter with acoustic treatments. These acoustic treatments don’t have to be anything more than blankets hung up in front of windows and pillows stuffed in corners to absorb sound. What you’re trying to do here is keep the sound from bouncing all around the room and getting back onto the microphones that are set up to record the drum kit. In an ideal setting you’d have a microphone for every drum on the kit as well as a stereo pair of microphones for the cymbals, or overheads. Each microphone on the drum kit should be a dynamic microphone which will allow close proximity placement without the worry of the microphone picking up to much sound from the other drums.
However the overhead microphones should ideally be condenser mics and are very good at picking up subtle details from the cymbals. Each microphone will need its own input to your recording interface which will either be USB or Firewire and that will of course feed the input to your computer. So for the drum kit you will need a mic for every drum, plus two mics for the overheads, a mic cable for each, a mic stand or mic clamp for each, and an interface that can handle multiple inputs, probably up to eight. In addition your interface will have to have phantom power to be able to power your condenser microphones that you’ll be using for your overheads.
Electric guitars can be tricky in this type of setting because most high quality guitar amps sound better when played loud. However it’s easy to resolve this issue in several ways. The first is to just simply empty out the bottom of your closet and shove your guitar amp in it. Microphone placement is important but just start with the microphone (a dynamic mic like a Shure SM57, Audix I6, or Sennheiser E609) pointed directly at the front of the amp and go from there. If you don’t like the sound just move the microphone a little bit to the left or the right and don’t point it straight at the speaker. Try turning the head of the mic a little at an angle and you’ll notice right away that you’ll get a different sound. The other way to negate the loud volume of an electric guitar is to run it direct without an amplifier using an amp modeling device. This is a very popular technique and can give you fantastic results without upsetting your neighbors. An amplifier modeling device such as a Vox Tonelab or a Line 6 HD500 has great sounds and you never have to use an amp. Guitar plugs into modeling pedal, pedal plugs into interface, interface plugs into computer. The only thing you’ll hear is the guitar coming through your recording studio monitors.
In a home recording environment bass guitars are almost exclusively recorded through the use of a direct box. aka D.I. box. There are many to chose from and each will give the tonal qualities of your bass a different sound. I recommend and active D.I. with eq and other parameters so you can tweak the sound of the bass before it actually gets into the computer. It’s very important to make the sound of your instrument sound as good as you can before you actually record it. Using a direct box is very similar to using a modeling amp like we talked about for an electric guitar. A direct box simply sends the bass straight to the recording medium without the use of an amp but does so in a way that retains the quality of the original audio signal.
Next is the most important element of any song, regardless of the genre; the vocals. It’s very important that when recording the vocals you are in a very quite room. A converted closet can work great. Take everything out of the closet and put a blanket around the walls to keep the vocals from bouncing off the drywall and getting back onto the microphone. It’s also very important to make sure that your air conditioner or heater is turned off during the recording as well. Believe it or not, that condenser microphone that you should be using to record your vocals can hear the air coming out of the vent even if you can’t. That air noise will end up on your recording and ultimately be one more issue you’ll have to deal with during the next part of the process, the mixing. Another way to get a great vocal track at home is recording out in the living room or if you have a vaulted ceiling in the dining room that can work great too. Sometimes allowing the natural reverb of a room to be apart of the vocal recording can enhance the audio quality as well as the dynamics of the performance.
In this example you really just need to walk around the room singing out loud. Make sure you are listening very carefully as you walk around. At some point as you move through the room you’ll hear what we call “a sweet spot”. This should be the place where you set up your microphone for the vocal take.
So now that you have a very basic understanding of how to effectively use your house as a recording studio, what type of equipment is really needed? Well there are some absolute essentials and then some “I wish I had’s”.
Here is what you need in order to make all this happen.
A computer. I highly recommend a Mac but a PC will work just the same. Max it out with as much RAM as you can afford or as it can take.
An external hard drive. Recording to the internal drive of your computer will fragment the drive very quickly. Using an external drive is HIGHLY recommended.
A recording interface. Either USB or Firewire. An interface acts as a digital converter turning your analog audio signal into something the computer can understand. The more inputs and outputs your interface has, the more versatile your home recording studio will be.
Microphones – You’re going to need both dynamic and condenser mics. If you outfit your drum kit with a drum mic pack from Shure, Audix, or Sennheiser you’re sure to have everything you need. You can use the snare drum mic for your electric guitars and you can use the overhead mics from the mic package for acoustic guitars, hand drums, tambourines, or any other instrument. Then you’re going to need at least one large diaphram microphone for your vocals.
Pop filter – this is to be used with your vocal mic to ensure that sibilance and bursts of air from the vocal performance doesn’t get into your recording. It also protects your condenser mic from moisture which can damage the mic.
Direct Box – this is used for your bass guitar to get into your recording interface. It can also be used for keyboards. If you have keyboards make sure you have at least two direct boxes so you can record your keyboard in stereo.
Microphone stands – one for every drum mic you have room for
Headphones – You have to have headphones so the musician recording can hear the music that they are recording to. You can’t play it through a loud speaker or the microphones will hear it and it will bleed over into your recording
Studio monitors – Traditional computer speakers or using speakers from your home entertainment system is not going to cut it. Critical listening speakers are absolutely required and don’t skimp on this.
Recording Software – It’s possible that the interface you purchase will not come with adequate recording software. It’s important that you understand the in’s and the out’s of the software you purchase. Some are better at different types of genres of music than others.
The last thing I’ll talk about here is the use of what’s called “soft synths”. A soft synth is a virtual instrument. Simply put virtual instruments are most commonly used by controlling them with a MIDI keyboard. MIDI is a digital protocol that allows an instrument to be played from a controller surface. A MIDI keyboard can trigger sounds in a software package that will allow the user to simulate the sound of a drum, guitar, bass, piano, horn, or any other instrument. Thus allowing the user to add elements to the music production that otherwise would be almost impossible in the home recording studio environment.