How To Record At Home
Being able to record at home is a crucial part of finding success in the music industry. It opens up your schedule, reduces costs on studio time, and allows you to sketch things out with ease – whether for you, or your client. It’s an absolute must for the writing process, for blasting out royalty-free instrumentals, for soundtracking, and even for practising against yourself!
In this article, we’ll be focusing less on the writing elements of that list, and more on the “how to record at home” bit: taking a finished song from phone memo recording to polished demo. If you’re unsure how to record at home, the prospect can be a little daunting – this step-by-step will help assuage those fears. And lastly, if you’re not confident you have everything you need, check out our run-through of studio musts here. Here’s how to record a song in your home studio:
Whether or not your song includes live drums or percussion, ghost-tracking is an incredibly useful tool – especially if you’re working alone. This is in essence a scratch recording of your song – one instrument and maybe vocals to guide, if there are any. The only thing that really matters about this recording is the timing. You’re going to use it as the template for your entire piece, and (unless it happens to sound good in the mix!) discard it when it becomes unnecessary. Find the tempo of your song, plug it into your DAW and record your ghost track in-session – doesn’t matter how, just as long as it’s in time!
If you haven’t already thought about the arrangement of your piece, now is the perfect time to experiment, or work towards your client’s brief for that matter. Deconstruct the piece as it exists now; is there a lead line hiding in the chords you’re working with? Can you lift anything out onto something with a different timbre? Does it need more cowbell? This is your blank canvas, and the best place to consider these creative decisions. Just play around on top of your ghost track, and if anything sounds good, record it for posterity – we’ll come back to it later. If your track is destined to be solo instrument and vocals, you’ve confirmed your opinion and can skip ahead a few steps!
Drums and percussion are the true backbone of your song. A common mistake a lot of home-recording musicians make is to record drums last, because they didn’t think about arrangement before recording instruments proper. This invariably results in sloppy timing; everything you’ve tracked is in time with each other, and maybe the click, but not to an audible 3rd party in the final mix. When you lay drums down last, the inconsistencies between instruments is highlighted, and even your playing suffers since you’re focusing more on staying in to what’s there, as opposed to objectively keeping time.
With that in mind, we’re recording drums first, to your uncomplicated, in-time ghost track. You can program MIDI drums in session, use pre-existing loops, or record live. For a live kit, you’ll only really need 2 mics – one for the kick drum, and one about a metre from your snare, dead ahead, taking in the whole kit. This set-up was good enough for The Beatles, so it’s certainly good enough for you!
POPULATING THE TRACK
You’ve got your drums down, one way or another. Now you get to fill in the ‘song’ bit! If you’re recording acoustic guitar, there are a number of ways to mic it up. Condenser mics are a must in this situation; 2 condenser mics in a 90-degree crisscross, or XY pattern, around the 12th fret (one pointing to the soundhole, one pointing up the neck) is a great all-round way to pick up everything you might want sound-wise.
For electric guitar, you’ll want to crank your amp up loud and put a Shure SM57 up against the grille. How far across from the centre of the speaker cone can change the tone you get considerably, so be sure to experiment. As long as it’s not so loud as to clip in the DAW, and doesn’t sound like nails on a blackboard, you can work with it!
Bass is best done DI (or straight in to your interface) in your home studio – even professional studios take DI signal as well as amped-up signal. It’s easier to mould the DI signal, and pick out definition. You can mess with how it sounds in-session later.
For piano, midi is perhaps the easiest route for a demo – when swamped in the right compression and reverb, even a relatively rubbish VST can sound convincing. If you have a real piano in your house, great! As long as the mic’s no closer than 2 feet from the strings, you’ll take in the whole thing without losing too much definition.
Vocals are the easiest to record of all; tape some egg-crate to a corner in your home studio, and put a condenser mic about a foot away, facing the room. Put your vocalist a foot away from the mic, and bob’s your uncle: relatively clean, dry and well-tempered vocal takes, perfect for recording at home.
Since you’re not recording Dark Side of the Moon just yet, you don’t need to think too much about this. If your mix sounds cluttered, use some aggressive EQing to take out needless frequencies: any guitar below 80Hz, any bass below 50Hz, any vocals below 200Hz. If anything sounds a little off, find its frequency and scoop it out. Use some light compression on your vocals to even them out, and create an auxiliary channel for reverb so you can unify all of your instruments in the same room. A little saturation here, a little slapback delay there, and an aggressive limiter on the master track to push the gain up (watch for clipping again) and you have a basic, serviceable 1st-mix demo which is loud enough to listen anywhere without cranking volume over-much.
In a pinch, and in few words, that’s how to record at home. It won’t sound radio-ready, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a decent-sounding demonstration, and will absolutely cut it in a professional environment. It doesn’t take much more to produce something that could easily be used commercially, but that’s another article for another day!