The Songwriter's Guide to Home Recording
Working with the room
Its natural to think that the quality of our recordings is the total result of our recording chain (i.e. our instrument, microphone, preamp, interface etc) but the most important factor which is often overlooked is our recording environment. You may have a very expensive microphone and microphone preamp but if your room sounds bad these will only emphasise the different resonant frequencies and unwanted echo that are present in your room.
There are many ways to improve the sound of a room and some of these can be very expensive but in the end it all depends on the purpose your room is designed for. If you mainly work with headphones and aren't aiming at having a perfect listening environment for mixing and mastering, you may be able to improve the sound of your recordings significantly by reducing the amount of unwanted reflections which cause your recordings to sound extremely bright and undefined. In the following video I demonstrate how to improvise a vocal booth using common household times such as blankets, towels and mattresses:
Choosing the right microphone
Now that we understand how to work with the room, its important to understand a couple of things about microphones so that we can choose the right microphone for our task.
In general, all microphones can be divided in to 2 main categories - dynamic microphones (these also include ribbons) and condenser microphones.
Dynamic microphones are known for having a warm sound and condensers on the other hand are known to be more detailed sounding but when it comes to how they work with the room the main difference between the 2 is their sensitivity or how they pick up sound vibrations. In the video below I discuss the differences between the condenser and dynamic microphones and give specific examples on when one would be more suitable than the other:
After you optimised your room and chose the right microphone, its very important to set your recording level correctly so that you end up with a low noise, distortion free recording.
When setting the gain on your microphone preamp (either in your interface or on an external preamp) its important to find the optimal level which gives us a loud signal and at the same time doesn't distort it. In other words, we're looking for the right amount of gain - not too little and not too much and for this task, you will need to check your meters.
If you are using the microphone inputs on your interface, you will find your input meters in your software mixer which is usually installed together with your audio interface. in that case make sure to keep your input signal at an average peak level of -9dB to -12dB as demonstrated on the image on the right (the peak level is the small green stripe at the top of the meter, right next to the fader). If you are using an external, analog preamp the workflow is the same but in that case aim at an average peak level of 0dB (indicated on the physical meter of the preamp).
Now that you have a better idea of the technical aspect of home recording, it would be wise to make a recording plan before you start recording. This will help you manage your energy and get better results from your recording sessions. Planning your session means to decide which parts to focus on, making realistic goals when it comes to how much you're actually able to do in one session as well as figuring out which recording techniques work best for you. I the video below I discuss how to plan a successful vocal session but these tips can be applied when recording instruments as well:
Click or no click?
Recording to a click seems to be the default choice these days and it definitely makes a lot of sense.
Recording this way allows you to work with loops, copy and paste different parts of the arrangement (for example a verse or a chorus), synchronise your effects (delays, LFO etc) to the tempo of the session and in general I would say that it is a much faster way of doing things.
This method might be extremely effective but every now and then I also find it a bit limiting and end up recording without a click. Recording without a click allows you to randomly speed up and slow down which makes the song more dynamic and adds a feeling of movement. I also find that sometimes focusing on the click can distract you from hearing your instrument and from my experience some musicians actually play much better and tend to improvise more without a click.
One of the most important factors in getting a great take is performance. Good performance requires confidence, focus and comfort and these cannot be achieved if you can't really hear what you're doing.
Using headphones can be a bit uncomfortable (especially if you like to move around while recording) and this is beacuase headphones can make you feel isolated and prevent you from hearing yourself in a natural way.
If you feel that you can't really hear yourself or that you are having problems preforming well with headphones I'd recommend trying one of the following techniques:
1. Use your headphones only on 1 ear and keep 1 ear free - this will allow you to hear yourself directly and will also enable you to sing or play over fairly low playback levels which is much healthier for your ears.
2. Don't use headphones and listen through your speakers instead - this technique gives you a lot of freedom if you like to move around and from my experience is ideal for recording guitar, bass and keyboard. If you're going to use this technique I highly recommend to keep your microphone gain and speaker playback level fairly low in order to prevent feedback and reduce the amount of bleed that goes in to the recording, there's no way to avoid bleed with this technique but its definitely worth it if helps you preform better.