There has been a sea change in the music industry over the past several years. Recording has become more of a do-it-yourself component of the creative process, and less an end achieved in a professional studio. This shift has, on one hand (and rather sadly), signaled the demise of the studio industry, putting several legendary recording facilities out of business; on the other, it has put more creative power in the hands of the musicians, where many would agree it belongs.
Whereas previously even top artists were likely to have only “demo” or “project” studios at best, the amateur or beginner can now easily operate a home studio capable of turning out broadcast-ready master recordings on par with much of what we hear on the radio. But, owning the gear is barely the start of it – you still need the know-how to achieve professional-sounding recordings, and a lot of that still comes from time-tested techniques that professional engineers have developed over decades of crafting the art. Alongside these, however, the new breed of home recordist also needs to know what to do to get the job done, and that often means shortcuts, workarounds, and technical violations that would have been major no-nos for the old-school professional engineer.
In a new series, Vintage Guitar will equip its readers with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve successful, professional-sounding home recordings. Since you, as a guitarist, are not only responsible for recording guitars, but often must play the role of engineer and producer to capture the rest of the band, as well, we will cover subjects like miking and recording drums, vocals, bass, keyboards, and other instruments, as well as mixing and mastering techniques, in addition to several methods for recording great acoustic and a electric guitar tracks.
To kick it off, this month, we guide you through the basics of setting up your own home studio, a starting point that applies to everyone entering the brave new world of self-recording.
The term “home studio” covers many and varying configurations, and there isn’t one right way to set one up, but certain “standards,” if you will, apply to the majority of them.
As with many ventures, this one necessarily starts with a question: What do I need to get a functional studio going? The answer depends on your intent. The equipment in a home studio can be as sparse as the bare minimum of ingredients necessary to plug in and record a voice or an instrument, or can be expanded exponentially to include the wherewithal to simultaneously track a full band. Even the most basic setup, it’s worth saying, can be used to make “professional” recordings if you use it right, so it’s worth emphasizing from the start that technique matters more than gear – and we’ll cover technique extensively in subsequent installments – as long as you have at least the basic minimum equipment required to record music.
If you are working purely with digital virtual and/or MIDI instruments, and recording only instrumental compositions, you can survive on the bare minimum and keep your recording truly “inside the box” (a phrase usually used to describe a recording process during which no audio signal ever leaves the computer after it has been recorded, until you burn it to a CD or share it as a digital file). But this is a guitar magazine, so we’ll assume you’ll occasionally want to record at least some external “live” sound source, and will need, at a minimum, a microphone and related accessories with which to do so.
So, the simple answer to our initial question is this: one computer loaded with digital audio workstation (DAW) software, one hardware interface or mic/instrument preamp (“mic pre” for short), speakers or headphones on which to monitor sound, one microphone, one mic cable, one mic stand. That’s it, and that is really what’s at the heart of this series: if you have just invested in your starter bundle of recording gear, great – get to work! If you really need a bigger setup to achieve your ends, though, such as enough mics and to record a full drum kit with at least a guitar, bass, and vocal recorded alongside as “guides,” you will need to invest more time and money, and the sky really is the limit. Even so, it’s just more – and perhaps better – of the same thing, so the basic “What will I need?” question still applies, but in multiples (be aware, though, drum tracks on several major hits have been recorded with a single mic, and we’ll show you how to do that, too, later in the series).
Most home studios consist of these basic “work station” ingredients, in some form or other. These are the hardware and software components that work together to form the recording system that formerly comprised a tape deck, a mixer, and a selection of outboard processors in the good old days of analog recording. They will be referred to throughout this series, so it’s worth laying down some basic definitions at the outset.
This is whatever system you work on – PC, Mac, desktop, laptop, or tablet. System and software requirements often differ, and we won’t usually specify because the variables are too extensive.
An audio interface (“interface” for short) is the piece of hardware that translates analog audio signals from a microphone or a line-in from an electronic instrument into digital signals that your computer and DAW can work with, which it feeds to them via a USB or FireWire port. They invariably include a set of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog (AD/DA) converters, and often have mic and/or instrument preamps with level controls so you can plug mics or instruments directly into them without need of further external preamp units. Basic, entry-level, small-box interfaces might have two channels (that is, two inputs with preamps, and two sets of AD/DA converters), while mid-level units might have eight analog inputs (with preamps on a pair or more of them), plus other digital inputs that can be used simultaneously. Rather conversely, high-end interfaces often have no onboard preamps, because they are intended for use in better-equipped studios that are likely to use superior external mic pres anyway.
Digital Audio Workstation
Called a “DAW” for short, this is the software that provides the “virtual studio” in which you work. It allows the interaction of your hardware interface and your computer’s hard drive, gives you essential tools such as an on-screen mixer window, editing window, and virtual processors for mixing and treating your recorded audio tracks. In short, the DAW provides everything needed to go from audio input to finished product – it is the gateway for sound coming into and going out of your computer. Some basic DAWs, such as Apple’s popular Garage Band, can work directly with your computer’s sound card, eliminating the need for a separate interface. Popular DAWs include ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic, Cubase, and several others, and many major makers offer renditions of their systems at varying cost and skill levels. Many audio interfaces (at least those offered by makers which are also software developers) will include a basic DAW with their hardware, which is often good enough to get you rolling until you know what you want from a more advanced system.
Several units still exist – at the time of writing, at least – that take the place of the old analog cassette-based “portastudio,” and might be used instead of the computer/DAW/interface combination. These usually incorporate some form of internal hard-disk-based multi-track recorder, with a multi-channel mixer that includes mic preamps for audio input as well as facilities for mix down of recorded tracks, along with onboard digital effects and processors. These workstations can offer a lot of features in one place for a reasonable price, and might be a good alternative for a recordist who can’t invest in a good computer around which to base a home studio. The flipside is that they will often pose limitations when compared to a computer-based recording system, which is inherently more expandable.
Microphones, Outboard, and Hardware
If you mainly plan to record your own guitar and vocals to backing tracks assembled from samples or MIDI-triggered instruments, you can probably get by with one decent microphone run through the XLR input and mic preamp on your interface. If you want to record anything from acoustic guitar or piano in stereo, multi-amped electric guitar, or full drum kits, you will clearly need more mics, and your interface will need two or more preamp channels to accommodate them – or, to further increase the quality of your recordings, you might consider adding an outboard mic preamp to the gear list. A push toward professional multi-track studio capabilities will find you bringing on other outboard gear too, such as compressors, possibly an EQ, maybe a good old-fashioned multi-channel mixing desk to handle your routing, and so on.
The proliferation of Asian-made microphones designed and manufactured along the lines of many classic European and American professional mics makes this a golden age for the budget recordist. While these might not equal the expensive originals, they are often pretty impressive for the money, and can yield great results when used right. Do your research, read the reviews, and you can put together a decent collection of mics suited to a range of applications for the price of a single high-quality studio mic of yore.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll cover the three major types of microphones – dynamic, condenser, ribbon – and their uses, many of which will naturally cross over. A selection of something from each category (and a matched pair of condenser or ribbon mics if you intend to make true stereo recordings of any instrument) will usually do a small home studio proud, but if you really only need one mic to get your work done, you’ll need to put some thought into what you need from it. In brief, consider the dynamic mic sturdier, the condenser mic more sensitive and more high-fidelity, and the ribbon mic, well, fatter and more “vintage” sounding, perhaps (if delicate to handle), but those are just ballpark characteristics.
A microphone preamp is anything that takes the low-level signal input directly from a microphone and ramps it up to a line-level signal, adding an amount of gain according to where you set the Gain or Level knob. This can be done by a mixer and/or any interface with built-in mic pres, though better quality is derived from stand-alone units that specialize in this function. We use these units to get one or more channels of audio input of a higher quality than the preamps in our interface; or, if tracking several mic inputs simultaneously, we might need a multi-channel mic pre (which could also be a decent mixing desk) to send line-level inputs to a multi-channel interface without its own multiple onboard mic preamps (“tracking” is the term for recording individual instrument or vocal tracks as part of the overall process of “recording,” although you can also “track” multiple instruments – or multiple mics on the same amp or instrument – simultaneously).
The most basic mic pre might have nothing more than a knob that you turn to add a certain number of decibels (dBs) of gain, as required to input a signal of an appropriate level into your interface, and thereby your DAW. Most stand-alone mic pres will also include a few, or several, extra features, such as a phase-reverse switch, a low-frequency shelving switch to cut the response below a certain frequency, a pad to cut the overall input level of particularly hot mics or loud instruments, a source for phantom power to run condenser mics, and possibly more. In terms of connectibility, any useful pre really needs a low-impedence (a.k.a. low-Z) XLR mic input (some also have a high-Z 1/4″ input to connect other instruments or use as a DI), and balanced line-level outputs on XLR and/or 1/4″ stereo TRS jacks, or possibly both of these, including perhaps an unbalanced 1/4″ option.
Usable mic pres are more affordable than ever, though the cheapest aren’t likely to sound better than one included in basic interface. But there are plenty of decent stand-alones that provide good service, decent sound, and useful features at a reasonable price. Read the reviews, shop thoroughly and carefully, and discern what might work for your studio.
Compressors, EQs, and Outboard Effects
Many instruments recording in professional studios are done so with mics run through compression and EQ during the tracking process. These days, it’s a breeze to apply such processing after the fact, “in the box,” as an early part of the mixing process, although the more advanced your home studio, the more likely you’ll want to own at least an outboard compressor to record certain things through, and a decent outboard EQ, too. In the real world, engineers often apply several layers of compression to some tracks, recording them through a compressor patched between the mic pre and the recording deck (hard drive, tape, whatever), then treating them with further compression in a drum or guitar group, or in the mix as a whole. Using the compression and EQ software plug-ins included with most DAWs, you can usually work around these in a basic studio setup, so outboard units aren’t a priority from the outset (a “plug-in” is processing software loaded to individual tracks in your DAW’s virtual mixer, providing compression, EQ, myriad effects and even virtual instruments on individual tracks, or on your mix as a whole).
Fans of vintage analog recording might also like some analog outboard effects for authentic flavor: a spring reverb unit, tape echo, or what have you. You’re even less likely to track through these since recording through an effect ties you immediately to that sound, but if you use an outboard mixer or have an interface with auxiliary send/return capabilities, you might bring your mixes out of the box and run certain instruments or groups through analog effects for a retro flavor. Otherwise, and for the resolutely “in the box” recordist, such effects can generally be put off until future expansion demands.
Mic stands, mic clips, and/or shock mounts, pop screens, speaker stands… these aren’t the sexiest components of your studio, but need consideration nonetheless. Ask any aspiring recordist who has made do with inferior, malfunctioning, or cobbled-together hardware until frustration drove him or her to take the plunge on the good stuff and they will tell you the investment is worth making now, rather than later. Consider what you need at-hand to get the job done, investigate what’s available, and plan your studio budget.
A Room Of One’s Own
In addition to the gear, you also need a room in which to work, and the way you set that up can often be as much a factor in your success as a recordist (or lack thereof) as the gear you put in it. In her 1929 essay that carried this title, Virginia Woolf famously declared the need for “a room of one’s own,” in an age when women were unlikely to have a private space in which to gestate creative thought. These days we’re more likely to say “you need your own space,” but the same principle applies to recordists today as it did to would-be female writers of the early 20th century. This space might, of necessity, be a shared family or communal space, and if that can’t be helped then that’s just the way it is. Even so, you will – with your cohabiters’ permission – want to make it “your own” as much as possible in order to get it working for you as a recording venue. Whether large or small, the room that will henceforth be known as “your studio” will need to fulfill certain requirements.
First among these is the ability to have at least the core essentials of your recording system permanently set up. That means a desk or table on which your computer or laptop (or other recording workstation) sits, monitor speakers correctly set up either side of it, any mic/instrument preamp or recording interface within reach to the right or left of your computer keyboard (or mixer), and your mic and its stand and cable easily accessible. And, of course, you also want whatever instrument(s) are your main stock in trade to be readily to hand, too. Insist on this kind of accessibility, and you are making it easy to get something done in whatever spare time your life affords.
Aside from this priority, the three main requirements from this room have to do with sound. Namely, that the space works to:
• Keep internal sound in.
• Keep unwanted external sound out.
• Allow music produced or monitored within to sound as natural as possible.
In truth, the first two are virtually impossible to achieve in any total sense in the home studio. That doesn’t mean you can’t track full live bands or produced broadcast-quality recordings – you certainly can. You just have to work with certain realities.
Real soundproofing involves a lot of construction and expense, rather than simply putting foamy stuff or egg cartons on the inside of an existing room. Considerable noise retention requires layers of solid material, ideally with insulation in between – essentially building a room within a room – and you have to seal gaps, cracks, joints, and fissures between walls and floors as well as ceilings, windows, and doors. The geometric foam used in squares on walls and wedges in the corners is for sound absorption, and isn’t soundproofing in the least. It’s important, and most home studios benefit from it, but it won’t contain sound within any room.
Research correct applications of sound-absorbing room treatments – it’s certainly worth the effort. A totally “dead” room can often sound dull and boxy, but you’ll want to deaden prominent reflections, notable frequency “honks,” or exaggerated bass in order to capture the realistic and reproducible sound of the instruments you are recording. Even heavy curtains, thick quilts and blankets, and furniture padding can work to this end. Since few of us can budget for a room that enhances the sound of any music performed within it, the usual aim for a home studio is aural neutrality. Get even close to that, and you have a room you can work with.
In addition to a neutral room, the position of your mixing station and placement of monitors will have a major affect on accurate perception of recorded sound while seated at your workstation. If your room is extremely small, your options for positioning might be fairly limited. The basic rules to follow here, as far as possible, are to:
• Position your monitor speakers some distance from the wall behind them
• Position your work station as symmetrically as possible within the room, or the portion of the room you are working in
• Place your seat at a symmetrical position between and in front of the speakers.
If you get all of these “as right as possible” within the parameters you have to work with, you’ll achieve two important functions in your listening environment – minimizing reflections of monitored sound and creating an accurate stereo field.
If you are working in an extremely small room and can’t achieve one or either of these objectives, you can partly overcome the handicap by adding more sound absorption to the walls and corners behind the monitors, and to those behind/to the side, if reflected sound is likely to bounce back from behind you and skew your perceptions of frequency and the stereo spectrum. In a medium-sized room, however, one that still allows you to place speakers in an optimum position (at a distance from the wall behind them that’s about half the distance from the front of the speakers to the wall behind you), you don’t usually need to totally deaden things, and ideally you do not want to do so. Also, avoid placing monitors in corners at the end of a narrow room (in any room, really), as this will accentuate bass frequencies, and make it impossible to know how the low end in your mix actually sounds in the average listening environment. The control room in a professional studio isn’t usually an enormous space, and isn’t swaddled in absorption foam. Retaining a certain amount of liveliness in the listening room yields a more natural feel, and will give better results provided there are no conflicting or misleading room tones or reflections.
Set up your available gear and available space following these guidelines as closely as possible, and you’ll be ready to get to work. Future installments will discuss techniques to help you do so.
Digital Recording Basics
The user’s manuals included with any interface or DAW should offer some tips on the basics of digital recording, but it’s worth covering a few essential terms and reference points here. As compared with old analog tape recording, digital systems will do a lot of the technical work for you, but you do need to understand a little something about digital “resolution” and digital distortion in order to get the most out of recording with these new wonders.
Thanks to the proliferation of digital cameras and HD TV, most of us are familiar with the concept of “resolution” as it applies to visual media. Just as the higher the number of elements composing your picture means a better picture quality, increased audio quality is defined by increasing bit rates (also “bit depth”) and sample frequencies (also “sample rates”). “Bit rate” determines the number of decimals in each sample of audio taken in the recording process, and “sample frequency” determines the rate at which samples are taken (as a per-second figure).
The standard for CDs is 16 bits at 44.1kHz, which means a 16-decimal sample is taken 44,100 times per second. Today, the ability of good digital recording equipment to work to higher rates of both parameters means that most projects are recorded at bit rates of 24, with sample frequencies of 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, or even 192kHz, and the result is converted down to 16/44.1 in the mastering process. Higher bit and sample rates require more processing speed and more memory, though, and recordists using fairly basic starter systems might not want to go to unnecessary extremes for this reason. With audio recorded with the intention of CD-quality release at best, 24-bit/48kHz is a good basic standard, with the second figure upped to 88.2kHz or 96kHz if you seek even better fidelity.
Why record at higher settings if the end listener won’t hear it? Well, in some ways they will. Even though the CD is limited to 16/44.1kHz (and MP3 conversion compresses it down further), the processing used when applying software plug-ins (for reverb, delay, compression, and so on) will usually sound better when working at higher bit depths and sample rates. Also, perhaps you will some day want to release the results on a format with higher resolution capabilities – who knows what the future will bring? – and will be glad you captured the best-sounding recordings possible from the start.
With analog recording – and analog sound reproduction, in general – we sometimes value some of the distortion characteristics: a little tube distortion or tape compression, for example, can contribute to fatter or warmer sounding instruments. Digital distortion, on the other hand, is never desirable in the recording process, and sounds entirely nasty when it does occur. No soft, warm, fuzzy blurring of the audio along the lines of gentle tube clipping, digital clipping is a harsh kkktchhhkkk that sounds like the overload it is, and indicates “technical failure” in a recording. For that reason, you will want to do your best to avoid digital clipping throughout the recording process. This is not to say that you can’t record, for example, a distorted electric guitar amp into a digital system, or even a distortion digital instrument for the sake of that sound as a creative element, but that you want to avoid letting the signal from the mic or DI’d instrument distort at the point of input into your interface, computer, or DAW. Once digital clipping occurs in the recording process, you can’t do anything to clean it up, and are really stuck with it unless you edit that segment out, or re-record it.
To keep all digital signals safely distortion-free, be very sure that your interface or DAW meters (both, in fact!) stay well short of the red overload zone at all times. Coordinate any gain controls on external preamps and the interface’s input levels to present a clean, safe level to the analog-to-digital converter, and keep already recorded tracks well below the red zone in the DAW when mixing. Recordists who worked in the analog realm in the good old days might recall the advice that you sometimes push levels recorded to tape so that they are just touching on the meters’ overload zone, in order to get the best signal-to-noise ratio. The inherently low noise of digital recording means that that standard no longer applies, and you should in fact do something close to the opposite: keep recording levels well down into the safe zone – not even high in the yellow warning zone – and you can always bump up the volume later without increasing your background noise.
When mixing several recorded tracks together, even just to monitor existing tracks while overdubbing new instruments, you also need to rein in signal levels to avoid digital clipping in the DAW. If you need more volume, but pushing up the individual faders is putting you in the red, try pulling down individual tracks, then pushing up the master just short of the red, and if you still need more volume in the monitors, turn up the monitoring system.
In addition to being Vintage Guitar’s resident amp historian, Dave Hunter is the author of several books on gear and technique, including The Home Recording Handbook (Backbeat Books, 2012), which covers in further detail many of the techniques discussed in this series.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
The Art of Home Recording — In this series, VG will equip readers with the knowledge and skill to achieve professional-sounding home recordings.
Part 1: Building a Studio
Part 2: Microphones and Their Uses
Part 3: Recording Electric Guitars
Part 4: Recording Acoustic Guitars