Beginner’s Guide to Home Recording: Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at what equipment you need to get started with home recording. In this article we will go through how to put your gear into use to make a home recording, step by step.

Step 1: Prepare your room

Before recording it’s a good idea to find a suitable room to record in, or at least make some basic preparations. What you want to achieve here is a ‘dry’ recording, meaning that you are getting as much of the sound as possible directly from source, whilst minimising the reflected sound coming back from the walls of the room. Curtains, sofas, bookcases or anything else that will absorb or break up reflections are good, and yes, hanging up some duvets can be a big help. In recent years ‘portable vocal booths’ (semi-circles of reflective material attached to a mic stand) have become very popular, and can provide a very respectable control of reflections on a budget.

When recording vocal takes, ‘pop’ sounds from certain syllables can ruin otherwise good recordings. In these circumstances a pop shield is required, either a piece of foam that slots onto the microphone, or some thin material stretched out in front of the microphone. Dynamic microphones tend to have a pop shield built-in (that’s the bulbous mesh at the end of the microphone), whilst condenser microphones generally do not.  A coat hanger and some old tights can be a last minute solution, however you can get dedicated pop filters which clamp onto a microphone stand via a flexible arm.

Step 2: Setting up your interface

Before you even look at your sequencer you should make sure your interface is set up correctly. If you are using a condenser microphone, turn on phantom power. If you are recording directly from a guitar, turn on the high impedance switch. Make sure direct monitoring is on and you are getting an acceptable level of volume from your headphones.

On the microphone or guitar inputs of any audio interface you will have a ‘gain’ knob. This boosts the relatively low level of a microphone or guitar signal up to a level suitable for converting into the digital realm. Getting this right is a key step to achieving a good quality digital recording. Too little gain and you will have to digitally magnify the signal later on, boosting any noise that came with it. Too much gain and you ‘clip’, creating digital distortion which sounds absolutely awful.  A healthy balance is required, though it’s worth noting that if you have a 24 bit interface (most are these days, but check) you can add quite a lot of gain to the signal digitally before you run into problems.

Step 3: Recording

Now you’re ready to record your first take. In your sequencer create a blank track then select the correct input of your audio interface. You’ll need to ‘record arm’ the track, usually represented by a red button, and make sure that any software monitoring of the signal is turned off (you should be doing that directly through your interface). Finally press ‘Record’ (or in some sequencers ‘Record and Play’) and start doing a take. You should see audio appearing along the track you’re recording onto. Whatever instrument you are recording it’s worth your while taking a few demo takes with the mic in different positions to see which sounds best.

So now you’ve got the first instrument recorded and want to ‘overdub’ that with a take from another instrument. Simply repeat the steps above, creating a new track and recording onto it. During recording you should have your interface set so that you are also monitoring what is coming back from the sequencer – usually there will be a control to balance the level of this against what is currently  being recorded. Now both tracks play side by side, and you can add more instruments as you desire.

Now let’s say you want to create a recording using a keyboard controller going into an internal synthesizer in your sequencer. This is a bit different, since no audio is actually being recorded here – only musical instructions called ‘MIDI’. Most sequencers require you to create a MIDI track specifically for this purpose; other than that you record in pretty much the same way. Any keyboard controller manufactured in the last few years will be equipped with USB, however some older ones will only have a MIDI out. If this is the case you will need a MIDI in on your audio interface, or failing that a standalone MIDI to USB interface.

Step 4: Editing

Once all the instruments have been recorded you’ll  find that you’ll need to do at least some basic editing. It’s a good idea to chop off the start and end of the take to get rid of any noise or background sounds accidentally picked up by the microphone. The same goes for any parts during the recording where the instrument is not playing.

If you have multiple takes of the same part (for example a vocal where you nailed the verse on take A, but the chorus sounds better on take B), you should cut out the part required from each track and put it on one track. This process is known as ‘comping’ and is normal practice in the studio.

MIDI gives you more flexibility as audio is created in real time. Not only can you move around entire sections of the MIDI recording, but you can move around individual notes, allowing you to correct mistakes and add parts that weren’t on the original recording.

Step 5: Mixdown

So you’re nearly there – all the takes are recorded and edited to perfection. The final step is to do the process known as ‘mixing’. As the name suggests this means taking all the individual tracks and mixing them into one single stereo file, creating a good balance between instruments and applying effects and processors where required. In the home studio, especially for a beginner, these processors and effects will be applied in the form of software ‘plug-ins’ which are fully integrated into the host sequencer.

As much as it’s useful to know what the multitude of parameters on these plug-ins do, it would take too long to detail them all here. As a starting point however, the plug-ins that come bundled with sequencers, as well as plug-ins that are bought standalone, have ‘presets’ which are already set up to handle common applications. Below is an overview of the most common plug-ins and how they are applied to a typical recording.

Perhaps the most common process used in mixing is ‘equalisation’ or ‘EQ’. This means changing the frequency spectrum of the audio, boosting or cutting low or high frequencies. You’ve probably seen a very basic EQ on your home hi-fi, usually labelled as ‘Bass’ and ‘Treble’, however EQ plug-ins give a much greater level of flexibility. This is useful when one particular frequency is fatiguing to listen to or when the instrument would sound better if another frequency was boosted. A specific type of EQ is a hi-cut or low-cut (also known as a hi-pass or low-pass), which cut out everything above or below a certain frequency. A hi-pass is commonly used on vocals to cut out any unwanted low rumbles or sounds from a stand being knocked.

‘Compression’ changes the ‘dynamics’ of the audio – the difference between the audio at low and high amplitudes. This can be used to bring the overall level of audio up without increasing the peak level of the audio, allowing you to squeeze more loudness out of the audio without creating distortion. To take a classic example, vocals generally need compression the most to ensure they aren’t drowned out by other instruments. Using the correct setting on a compressor is vital, for example using a compressor set up for vocals could ruin the essential transient sounds on a percussion track. As well as being used on individual tracks, compression is used on the overall mix (by placing the plug-in on the master track) to give the mix a better sense of loudness. This is important for home recordings – highly compressed mixes have become standard, so levelling the dynamics of a recording  is essential to making your track comparable to music that’s already out there.

The two examples given so far have been ‘processors’ and are inserted on an individual track. The other type of plug-in is an ‘effect’ which instead is put on a separate ‘aux’ track.  Each track on the sequencer will have an ‘aux send’ which routes audio to this aux track. The output of the aux track is then mixed with the other tracks. This allows the same effect to be applied to multiple tracks simultaneously and the wet/dry balance to be set – the amount of the signal without the effect (the ‘dry’ signal) opposed to level of the signal from the effects plug-in (the ‘wet’ signal).

By far the most commonly used effect is ‘Reverb’. This is what you hear when you talk in a large room and your voice seems to keep on going after you stop speaking. This is used to help instruments ‘sit in the mix’ and give a sense of ‘space’ and ‘depth’ to a recording. Using a mix of short and long reverbs, for example short on the vocal and long on the percussion, gives separation between instruments.

‘Echo’ or, as it is more commonly known in recording, ‘delay’ is often confused with reverb but is actually a different, distinctive effect. Whilst reverb gives a general sense of space, with delay you hear a number of delayed versions of the original signal decreasing in level each time. In small amounts this can help a vocal or other instrument sit in the mix, whilst at higher levels it can give psychedelic effects suited to certain types of music. It’s worth noting that delays generally sound best when they are synced up to the tempo of the music. Delay plug-ins usually allow you to sync the delay time to a certain fraction of one bar, the exact time taken from what tempo your sequencer is set to, as well as allowing you to set the delay manually in milliseconds.

Finally here’s a note about one more processor. While compression gradually reduces the dynamics of some audio over a certain threshold, ‘limiting’ completely squashes the audio above the threshold, not allowing it to go any further in level at all. I’ve mentioned this last since this a common ‘mastering’ technique applied to the overall mix rather than individual tracks. Using this on the master track in conjunction with some compression can increase the loudness of the mix, as well as ensuring clipping doesn’t occur (as with laying down a track, any clipping at the mixing stage can create digital distortion).

That’s all the basics of creating a home recording from scratch. Learning to produce a professional sounding recording can take a lifetime, but at least now you should be able to create a decent quality demo to send to your friends and upload to the Internet. If you want to improve the quality of recordings you’re making, then research and experiment with mic techniques, learn your sequencer and plug-ins inside out, upgrade your gear, and scour interviews and articles to see what you can learn from professional studio engineers and record producers. Best of luck!

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