In the dinosaur days of recording music, the only way to get clean and crisp audio was to rent a professional studio and hire a grey-haired, chain-smoking sound engineer to lay down your album’s tracks. But today, to get your music out in this creator-driven world, all you need to do is invest in some audio recording equipment and improve your technical know-how. The key is to actually balance your lack of resources with time and a little bit of imagination.
Before you start mapping out your sound infrastructure, you need to ask yourself the following questions: ‘What will I be recording?’ and ‘What is my budget?’ If you haven’t thought about this yet here are some suggestions to help you set up your own home recording studio.
Don’t Mic Drop
Your first purchase should probably be that thing you drop, figuratively speaking, after making an epic joke. But you don’t want to drop the real thing – the condenser microphone – because it’s actually quite fragile, costly, and the most essential piece to your home recording studio.
If you want to record middle and high frequencies like voice, strings, room reverb, cymbals, we recommend going for a large diaphragm condenser mic. For vocals, you’ll also need to put on a pop filter or windscreen so as to reduce sibilance and plosives, the ‘ess’ and ‘puh’ and ‘buh’ sounds. Bear in mind that condenser mics require phantom power, an external power supply that comes from an external source or mixing board. Though industry experts say 48 volts is for best performance, most condenser mics will work well within the 12 to 48 voltage range. You could first try with a lower voltage just to see how (and if) your mic works. Doing this won’t damage the microphone at all.
Dynamic mics, on the other hand, aren’t particularly sensitive and record low frequencies like those instruments which rumble, thump, boom, and punch. They’re great for home studio recordings as they pick up sound from where they’re pointed to – their polar patterns are unidirectional. Dynamic mics do not require phantom power and are more durable. You’ll often find them used for live performances, lying around backstage at heavy metal concerts looking like they’ve been used and abused by some Cookie Monster vocalist.
Again, this is dependent on your budget but try experimenting with a combination of both dynamic and condenser mics. Place a dynamic mic near the source of the sound you’re recording and a condenser mic at one point in your home studio, “far” from the source, to pick up room reverb. Then, you could play around on your DAW with whatever sound you prefer, maybe even deleting the reverb recording altogether. As a last note on mics, a good stand or shock mount go a long way in preventing vibrations from reaching the mic’s diaphragm. Remember, there are many different mics on the market for a variety of prices and used to record different types of sounds. Sometimes it’s even better to buy two mics at a lower price to experiment with your sound recording rather than one expensive mic.
To get your music out in this creator-driven world, all you need to do is invest in some audio recording equipment and improve your technical know-how.
Cables are Key
The condenser mic and the XLR cable – like a husband and wife till death do them part – is the paired industry standard when recording studio sessions. The XLR cable has a low signal to noise ratio and ensures that sound is transferred unabated to your recording device. In other words, the XLR cable keeps the good signal in while keeping out unwanted interference, even when the cable runs for what seems like a thousand miles snaking around drum sets and occasionally tangling in the feet of inexperienced singers.
Mic Position & Room Acoustics
None of this really matters unless you understand the science of soaking up sound in a space you have little control over. A bit of Physics 101: sound is made up of vibrations that travel and bounce around and reflect wildly throughout physical space. Knowing this, you’ll want to cushion these waves with acoustic foam because, if not, it could come back harming your recording in the form of reverbs and distortions – all the things that make metal sound awesome but classical music, horrible.
Make sure you have a big room with carpeted floors and little noise interference from outside. Before unloading all your equipment, make sure the room is clear, removing paintings from the wall and other items that won’t serve any purpose to your recording.
So, moving downstream the signal chain – you’ve got your microphone, XLR cable, and probably a microphone stand. What then connects your instrument or vocal recording to the computer? That device is called an interface, what can be considered an external soundcard to your computer. Using an external interface is highly recommended to obtain better results as it prevents your computer’s CPU from interfering in the recording. If you go chintzy on an interface, then forget about facing an international crowd someday.
Go for an audio interface that has a minimum of two channels to start, and be sure your interface has a built-in preamp. The number of Input/Output on your interface also depends on what you’ll be recording and how many different sounds you’ll be sending to your computer. For example, if you’re just doing vocals, you might want 2 – 4 but if you’re a band, then 4 – 7. Get an interface that also has a MIDI input, this allows you to record virtual instruments like drums or strings, especially useful if you’re lacking space or a decent budget to actually have the instruments in your studio. Interface connectors to your computer also vary. USB connectors are the cheapest and slowest while higher-end connectors like Thunderbolt get the job done. Firewire connectors are great and work with any OS. Make sure your interface is also compatible with your…
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
How do you mix, record, and add sound effects on your computer? Maybe you want to isolate a weird sound or merge a bunch of channels? Well, this is done with the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). And chances are your interface comes with software to do all this, so you might not have to worry about picking up software separately.
You might have discovered Garageband on your Mac, but there’s also Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro (Mac Only) which have become the primary software to mix music. Other programs ideal for studio recordings include Cubase and Steinberg Cubase. Ableton Live is good for direct recording and looping sessions; Reason, electronic music; Adobe Audition and Steinberg WaveLab, postproduction and mastering. Audacity is one of the best free DAWs to check out but still nothing to compare to the ones mentioned above.
By recording quality audio at home for a fraction of what recording audio used to cost, artists are taking full control of the creative process.
You’ll have as many opinions on what kind of computers to use as there are tattoos on Adam Levine’s body. Mac or PC? Laptop or Desktop? Macbooks are portable, making it perfect if you’re a DJ. But if you’re gonna go with a desktop PC, you probably are the builder-type who can construct massive towers with serious processing power, making the MacBook look puny and turtle-slow. If you want to keep things simple, just stick with the Mac, the industry stands by your decision to do so. One thing for sure: most computers nowadays have enough RAM and hard drive space to record studio music at home, so you’re likely to be in the clear on this subject.
There are speakers that enhance the listener’s experience – booming the lows and exaggerating the highs. There are also speakers which play as accurately as possible the sounds you record. As a DIY artist, you probably would opt for the latter because you could hone in on noisy or distorted signals and do your best to eliminate or attenuate them.
Also, try listening to your mix with different audio players like with your car stereo, on your laptop – everywhere. If the mix sounds good across all listening units, you did a good job.
Studio monitors that have a built-in amplifier – called active monitors – are highly recommended. Studio monitors where you have to buy an amplifier separately, making your speaker ‘passive’, might be an added yet avoidable expense.
If you’re really ambitious, and if you really want to focus on certain frequencies, you can split frequencies by having separate speakers to play them. For example, you can use a woofer which is designed for low-frequency sounds and a tweeter, for high-frequency sounds.
A good pair of headphones will allow music lovers to pick out nuances in recordings, like when I listened to Radiohead after upgrading to a set of Bose headphones. In the studio, we want the same experience, to pick out certain signals and subsequently make adjustments.
There are basically two types of studio headphones: open back and closed back. The former is mostly used for mixing while the latter, for recording. Like acoustically treating your home studio, with headphones you also want to keep sound in, isolating it as much as possible.
Just be aware that headphones have a smaller diaphragm, which means that you’ll get less low frequencies than when listening to your mix with good studio monitors. Switch it up. Also, give your ears a break and take off your headphones occasionally so as to avoid headaches. Take it easy. Don’t burn out like Avicii and other greats.
After you’re done recording your first few tracks, you can register your work with a CMO or upload the songs free of charge to BMAT.com, a neutral, third-party music tracking company. There, your tracks will be identified using audio fingerprinting technology so that if they’re ever played anywhere in the world, you’ll be able to claim royalties from their users.
The music industry is changing in leaps and bounds. Artists are starting to embrace technology on their own terms. By recording quality audio at home for a fraction of what recording audio used to cost, they’re taking full control of the creative process, even applying this mindset to the business side of music distribution and promotion. With more and more artists becoming tech-savvy musicpreneurs, I could hardly imagine what the future has in store for recording great audio at home.
Marius, StorytellerWhat is music to your ears?