Basic Home Recording Tips
Home recording has come a long way since I got my first four-track cassette recorder when I was a teenager. It’s advanced so much, in fact, that many artists are using home recording rigs, in conjunction with a good mixing and mastering engineer, to put out albums that are getting played on the radio and streamed all of the time. You can do the same thing and there are a handful of simple things that you can do to make your home recordings radio ready!
Home Recording Basics
First, I want to talk through some recording basics to optimize what you’re doing at home. A lot of these things may seem like no brainers, but honestly, there’s so much you can from the comfort of your own home and I wanted to relay some basic information that you could find helpful.
Get It Right in the Room
When I start a tracking session in our studio, we spend a large amount of time just getting things to sound right in the room before things like microphones or a DAW are even introduced.
First, take inventory of what you’ve got. When we do an album, we’ll have the drummer bring in all of his drums. What kick sounds best for the project? What snare? What set of toms? What cymbals sound best? How about guitar sounds? Which guitar and amp combination do we like the best? What amp could we add to that guitar and amp to get an even better sound? What about an alternate guitar setup with a different guitar and amp combination? All of these decisions are made before I even open Pro Tools or setup a mic.
Second, tune and intonate everything properly. I know it’s basic, but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had issues in a mix with a guitar that had intonation issues on certain chords or a tom that’s flubby because it wasn’t tuned. Make sure your guitars have a fresh set of strings on them and are intonated properly. Make sure the drummer tunes the kit and continues to check it during the tracking process. Remember, the goal is to get the best sound possible in the room.
Microphone Selection, Placement, and Phasing
You may be limited in the amount of microphones you have available, but, in all honesty, even though I own a large commercial studio with a large number of mics, I typically only use a dozen of them for every album we do.
First, try the different mics you have on each different source. When we do a vocal, for example, we will bust out half a dozen microphones to see which one sounds best on that particular singer. Most of the time, one tube mic we have wins out as it sounds great, but you’d be surprised how many times a dark horse has been our favorite. We do that on every source instrument we record.
Second, make sure the mics are placed correctly to achieve the sound you’re going for. For example, where is the kick mic positioned? Does it sound better inside the shell close to the beater head or on the outside of the shell? What about a combination of the two? Are you using a top mic or a bottom mic or both on the snare? How about the guitar amps? Are you close miking them or using a room mic or both? Ultimately, your goal should be to try as many things as possible until what you’re hearing on playback is what you hear in the room.
Finally, make sure your microphones are in phase. Drums overheads tend to cause phasing problems for a lot of people. If you look up the Glyn Johns technique, that is a good one to use, but I’ve always found that approach to be a bit uneven in terms of the stereo field.
I always use a spaced pair because I dig the stereo width you get from it. What I typically do is aim one small diaphragm condensor straight down between the hat and the left crash about 20” above the crash cymbal. I’ll then aim a second matched microphone straight down between the ride cymbal and the right crash above the floor tom. I’ll then use a normal instrument cable, measuring from the center of the snare drum to the microphone above the hi -hat/crash and assure that length of cable is the same from the center of the snare drum to the ride/crash microphone. This will require the microphone above the ride/crash to be lower than the mic above the hi-hat/crash, but because the distance from the snare is the same for both mics, there are no phasing artifacts.
Remember, the easiest way to check for phasing issues is to monitor in mono. If the sound disappears when summed, you’ve got a phasing problem.
The vast majority of songs you hear on the radio were recorded in an isolated studio environment. Due to the amount of processing that’s applied in post, nothing can ruin a mix like drum sounds on a vocal part or guitar amps on your drum sounds.
Isolation can be a challenge on home recordings because you’re often limited in the amount of space you have and the isolation between those spaces may not be optimal. However, even if you’re recording in one room, you can achieve instrument isolation by planning tracking sessions appropriately.
For example, let’s say I’m recording a drummer, a bassist, an electric guitar player, and a vocalist in one room. The first two things that I’m going to do are mic up the drum kit properly and run the bassist through a DI. I’m then going to close mic the electric guitar amp, set the amp at a relatively low volume level and put a, microphone on the vocalist. If I can use a closet for the guitar amp and a hallway for the vocalist, I’m in even better shape. I’m then going to have all four musicians play and sing through the song one or two times to a click to get good guide tracks. I’m then going to have everyone else stop playing and get one good clean vocal guide track.
Once that’s done, I’ve got a clean vocal guide track and a relatively clean guitar track to get the rest of my drum and bass takes. Since the bass is going direct, I’m not going to get bleed on the drum mics, even if the bassist is sitting in the room with the drummer. Then, once I have the takes for drums and bass that I’m going to use for the final mix (whether an actual full take or a comped track because I recorded to a click), I can lay down all of my other guitar and vocal takes independently in isolation.
In the end, I’ve achieved isolation on all of my tracks while, at the same time, had the bassist play along with the drummer to establish a solid groove/feel between the two parts and they’re playing along with good guide tracks too. Because the tracks are isolated, I can process as needed in post.
Kill the Noise
Noise can be another issue when recording at home. For example, the combination of a single coil guitar, a distorted amp, and fluorescent light bulbs can cause an amazing wall of buzz. In this situation, try turning off the lights and see if that fixes the issue. The other thing you can do here is have the guitarist swivel 360 degrees and see where the optimal spot to stand is that has the least amount of noise. We do this all of the time with vintage instruments.
Second, assure that there are no air conditioning or appliance sounds being picked up by your mics. This can often occur with a vocal mic being in the wind path of an A/C vent. Either move the vocal mic or turn off the A/C while tracking.
Machine noise can also sometimes be an issue when recording a vocal as that fan on your old Mac Pro will click on and get picked up. In this case, try to isolate the computer away from the microphone.
If outside noise from a street or airplanes is an issue, try to wait until that noise has subsided or move the microphone as far away from the outside walls as possible.
Finally, reflection can be a real nightmare on different instruments. On vocals, for example, a quick wall reflection can sound terrible when heavily processed in a mix. Consequently, when doing a vocal, try to move it to a small space and deaden that space as much as possible. Some Auralex foam or even a ton of blankets can do this pretty effectively. Also, ceiling reflection on drum sounds can make them sound small because your ears are used to determining the size of a room based upon the ceiling height; immediate reflection makes the drums sound smaller. In this case, try putting acoustic panels above the drum kit to keep the ceiling reflection to a minimum. There are even clouds available for this application. This will make the room sound larger than it actually is once recorded because the reflection doesn’t return to the mics as quickly.
Gain Stage Properly
Gain staging is incredibly important in digital recording. Remember that digital meters in DAWs like Pro Tools and Logic use a measurement called dBFS where 0 is the maximum level before clipping. Analog equipment uses a measurement called dBU. If you look at the chart below, you can see a comparison of the analog scale (dBu) as compared to the digital scale (dBFS):
As you can see, +4dBU is the equivalent of about -16dBFS. Where this really comes into play is in post-production. Let’s say you plan on running your vocal, which you recorded at darn near 0dBFS through an analog, outboard compressor during the mix. You’re going to have to dial the vocal WAY back because that 0dBFS signal you’re sending the outboard compressor is +20dBU and it’s not made to take a signal that hot. The same thing applies to plugins that model analog equipment, like tape machines and compressors. They’re used to seeing a signal around -16dBFS and will operate properly at that level without artifacts.
Normally, when I’m recording a band, I set the kick drum and snare drum with my eyes on the meters, making sure they’re in the -16 to -10dBFS range and then use my ears, not my eyes, to dial in the rest of the levels. If I can get an even sounding mix just by dialing in the input gain around two sources that I know are properly staged, I’m going to be in good shape come mix time.
Home Recording Basics Summary
I’ve worked on a lot of records and I can tell you that I wish I had known all five of these things years ago when I was first starting out. I hope they can help you take your home recordings to the next level! Please contact me if you have any questions!
John Shelton is a recording and mix engineer and founder of Edgewater Music Group and johnsheltonaudio.com. John is a member of the Recording Academy and a voting member of the GRAMMY Awards. As part of Edgewater Music Group, his engineering work is exclusively distributed via RED Nashville, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. John has recorded and mixed a wide variety of music including rock, country, roots rock, and Americana genres. John has worked with a number of artists including National Park Radio, Spacebear, Charlie & the Regrets, the Drugstore Gypsies, Grand Old Grizzly, Blu Swayze, Cody Joe Tillman, Kahe, Jarrod Morris, Electric Heights, and Lane Thomas. John is also a talented session guitarist and has performed for numerous artists, record labels, and production companies around the world