1. Overcome Home Studio Recording Challenges
Most homes aren't built with home studio recording as a main priority. So, as mentioned above, you'll run into challenges with room acoustics that need to be overcome to get professional-level results when tracking.
The 2 main home studio recording challenges you'll often face are:
You don't realize just how much noise you have around you until you put up a mic and listen to what it captures. Is that a dog barking three blocks away? Probably!
The way you get around this is by creating as much insulation as possible. Real insulation is however expensive so in most cases it won't be an option for most of us. The other way to make sure you get as little outside unwanted noise on your recordings is to record when there is as little noise as possible. This may mean recording later at night when everyone's asleep. Your neighbors are going to love you! ;-)
Reflections in the room you track in can cause a host of issues. The main issue is that these reflections show up in your recordings and make your recordings sound worse, unless of course you're lucky enough to have a good-sounding room.
Reflections are at least a bit more manageable than noise. In most cases you'll want to get it as dead as possible for vocals and maybe a little bit more lively for guitar.
Here are some things you can do to tame reflections when you record at home:
- Add Absorption - This can be acoustic panels, gobos, blankets or mattresses.
- Use a Reflection Shield - The idea is to filter out reflections around the mic.
In most cases absorption is your best option. A reflection shield can also work but you'll have to be careful that the close proximity of the shield doesn't add ringing to your recording. Listen carefully before you hit record.
2. Pay Attention to Mic Positioning
Where you place your microphone in relation to your sound source makes a massive difference to the quality of the sound you'll capture.
Here are a few ways to ensure you get a good sound down on tape:
A. Start with the End in Mind
Ask yourself what sound you're going for. Then look at your room and decide where you need to place your source and microphone in your room to be most likely to get the sound you want.
B. Pay Attention to Your Source and Room Sound
Different vocalists will sound better with different mic positions. So, if you're recording a wispy indie girl who barely whispers when she sings, you want to get in closer than you would with a true-blue belter, for example.
The same goes for players. The level guitarists will play at will be different from song to song and you want to take this into account when you place your microphone.
It's also important to understand the basic nature of the instrument you're recording. The position you place your mic in and the direction you point your mic in will make a huge difference in the tone of the recording.
Pointing your mic straight at the sound-hole on your guitar will produce a different sound than pointing it at the bridge or slightly off-axis away from the guitar. The same goes for a vocalist. Pointing your mic more towards the vocalist's nose will have a different sound to pointing it more towards the vocalist's chest.
Here are 3 tips to help you get your mic placement right:
- Listen - You cannot just whack up a mic and expect it'll be good. Put your head in the possible positions for your mic and listen to the instrument and room blend in these positions. Place the mic where it sounds closest to the tone you're aiming for.
- Experiment - Try different positions and compare them before deciding where to place your mic.
- Test - Record a bit of the performance and listen back in your mixing position. Adjust if needed and record another test run.
The main thing is to not accept good enough when you place your mics. Put in a bit of work now and you'll be glad you did, come time for mixing. So, make sure you're happy with your sound before you record your first take.
3. Choose the Best Microphone
You may not have a well-stocked mic locker when you start out in which case you'll have to make do with what you have. If you however have different mics then test them and choose the one that sounds best.
Also remember that you don't always have to use certain mics for certain functions. Some vocalists may sound better with ribbon or dynamic mics than with condenser mics, for example. Again, this is where you want to test and make sure you choose the mic that works best on the source and for the song or track.
4. Get Your Levels Right Going In
You need to make sure your levels are optimal at every stage of the recording chain going into your DAW and make sure you get good levels on the recording itself.
The optimal level depends on the gear you use so do some research and find out what's an optimal level for each pre-amp and effect you use on the way in.
The main thing with digital recording is not to go too hot but rather err on the side of more headroom. Clipping is a no-no in the digital realm because it causes distortion, not the good kind. At the same time, with high-resolution digital recording, 24-bit and up, you also don't have to worry too much about the noise-floor like you may have had to do back in the days of tape.
So, in short, pay attention to gain staging and get your levels
somewhere in the middle with nothing peaking too close to digital zero.
TL;DR: "So, at what level should I record at?"
Keep your average levels at around -18DBFS, with your highest peak levels not much higher than -10DBFS to -6DFBS to stay on the safe side. This will give you enough headroom and avoid any issues with clipping. You want to make sure the level is healthy, so not too low on average, but there's no advantage in driving the signal too hard in the digital realm.
5. Spend Some Time to Get a Good Headphone Mix
Make sure you or the artist you're recording is happy with the headphone mix. If the vocalist, for example, cannot hear the track or guide track well, the performance will suffer. They may want some more kick or snare to hit their cues well. They may want certain instruments completely removed if it interferes with or makes their part difficult to execute.
So, spend some time making sure you or the performer vibes with the headphone mix and you're more likely to get the takes you need.
6. Watch Out for Headphone Bleed
This one's simple. Make your headphone mix too loud and some of it might end up in your recording.
So, obviously use closed-back headphones and listen carefully when you test to make sure none of the headphone mix is present when you record. Especially if you or your artist are of the one-ear-on-one-ear-off variety!
7. Don't Be Afraid to Add Processing on the Way In
You may have heard that you want to record dry, without any effects or processing on the way in. This is fine but it means you'll have to work harder in the mix stage of the music production process.
So, don't hesitate to use some EQ and compression when you do home studio recording. The trick is obviously just not to overdo it so you end up stuck with too much processing. This is why it's quite important to know ahead of time what kind of sound you're aiming for.
It's still a safe choice to avoid reverb and delay in your signal chain unless of course it's definitely part of the sound of the vocal or instrument part for the song or track. A bit of compression and EQ is something that can make your life way easier when you mix though. Just make sure you're completely happy with it when you track.
8. Remember the Pop-Filter for Vocals
This one may be obvious to you but we'll include it for the sake of covering all bases.
Explosives can cause your mic to pop and popping is a pain in the rear-end to remove when you mix. So, use a pop filter when you're recording vocals. Always.
9. Do as Many Takes as Humanly Feasible
Aim for at least 5 takes. Do more if you can. The more the better.
Now of course you can only push a vocalist or player so far and more takes means more space. You'll also have to go through all of those takes during the mix process or when you're comping, so keep that in mind.
More takes just give you more options and some backup when a take is perfect except for one word or note in your recording.
10. Get a DI Take Where You Can
You can easily set up certain guitars or bass to record a direct-in and mic take at the same time. It's usually a good idea to do so when you can. The reason for this is because you can often get a nice blend between the clean direct-in and the microphone recording when you mix.
11. Vibe Before All!
Good music recording is about capturing a performance that evokes a certain feeling. The performer, be it you or another artist, has to be able to get into a certain zone to let loose and deliver the magical take you need.
So, pay attention to your vibe in the room where you're tracking.
It might mean a few candles or dimmed lights. It may mean a stick of incense. Do what you need to get the vibe right and make it easier to get in the mood for magic. ;-)