Home Recording: Some Thoughts if You’re Thinking About Starting

A Reaper project open, on my old PC, set up in my parents' library while I was tracking rhythm guitars for
The Reaper project for “Red Skies” on my old PC, set up in my parents’ library while I was tracking rhythm guitars for “Zero Mantra.” My acoustic sounded great in that space.

…Even budget gear is good enough today that if you can’t get at least a “good” guitar tone out of a budget USB interface, a Shure SM57, and a good sounding guitar rig, then the problem probably isn’t your gear.

I got the home recording bug back in late ’99, in my freshman year in college. One of the cool things about college, especially for someone who grew up in a fairly small town, is that suddenly you’re surrounded by a whole bunch of people around your age with similar interests. I had a number of musician friends in high school, some quite talented, but when I came to college suddenly I was part of a much larger community of musicians. A number of them were first and foremost songwriters, and since this was right about the time computer based recording was becoming accessible to home hobbyists, it was only a matter of time before one of my friends gave it a go.

When my friend Daryn bought a copy of Sonic Foundry’s (now Sony) Acid 2.0 music production program and started making music using it, I thought it was one of the coolest, most exciting things I’d ever seen. The idea of being able to take song ideas and, using my computer, turn them into actual full-blown songs opened up whole new worlds of possibilities for me. He offered to install the demo version on my laptop, and when the evaluation period expired I promptly bought a copy of my own. I’d been coming up with little ideas for instrumental songs for some time – I think as a musician and especially as one whose roots are in genres that involve a lot of improvisation this is only natural – and to be able to take these ideas and flesh them out into actual songs that I could play back on my computer and share with friends was awesome. I was hooked.
As time went on, the focus shifted a little for me – I still looked at my computer as a great songwriting tool, and still got a huge kick out of the feeling of laying down a track, sitting back, hitting play, and listening to the latest recording I’d done and just thinking, “I did that.” It’s heady stuff, and anyone who says they don’t like the feeling of hearing one of their own songs playing back on a stereo, much as it pains me to admit this, is lying to you. But, over time, I also started to really appreciate the process of recording music – the act of getting the sound of a certain instrument captured with a certain mic in a certain position in such a way to sound the way you want it to in a mix, or how a bit of EQ or compression, carefully applied, could help different instruments gel together a little better and take a decent sounding recording and suddenly make it sound like a record. I think the challenge of it all was appealing to me, and while there was clearly something nerdy about it, and any of my friends who’ve listened to me go on and on about how the natural EQ curve of a SM57 is just, like, perfect for capturing everything you want from a guitar and rejecting everything else, or the relative merits of different approaches to balance a kick drum and a bass guitar, well, I owe all of you a beer. But at the same time, it’s been a really fun trip, and as I look back at fifteen-odd years of increasingly-more-serious interest in home recording, I have a couple observations and conclusions I’ve come to that seem worth sharing.

Be Honest About Your Objectives

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone ask what they need to get started on a home recording site, and the discussion quickly get into the nuances of why monitors with at least a 6.5-8″ driver are critical for accurate low end reproduction and why you should consider a subwoofer anyway, how much room treatment you need to control certain frequencies , and how such-and-such a mic is really absolutely mandatory for recording such-and-such an instrument.

Now, it’s not that none of this stuff matters – it does, hugely, and the right tool for job will make a huge difference in the right hands. But, it’s also hugely expensive. So, if you’re contemplating getting into recording your own music, ask yourself, what exactly are you trying to accomplish?

Are you looking to make the cleanest, lushest, most perfectly mixed audio masterpiece and try to make a name for yourself as the next Andy Sneap, Chris Lord-Alge, or Bob Rock (hint: when in doubt, don’t be Bob Rock)? Or do you just want to record some pretty good sounding songs to share with your friends or release, or use your computer as a songwriting tool to work out ideas and arrangements? If you’re in the former camp, where sound quality and getting as good as (in)humanly possible at recording and mixing music is your ultimate goal, then yeah, definitely go down that route. Just accept that it’s going to be very expensive, in terms of not just money but also time, and that becoming world class at anything is a huge personal commitment.

An earlier version of my current setup, pre desk, while tracking bass for Zero Mantra
An earlier version of my current setup, pre desk, while tracking bass for Zero Mantra

But, if you just want to record some songs? You really don’t need very much, just your computer, some sort of recording interface that will let you record at least two tracks at a time (unless you’re a drummer, which is a whole different can of worms), and probably some sort of microphone. Cheap monitors are nice, but for the most part a decent set of headphones are fine, especially if you’re not using more than one microphone at a time on any instrument. Yes, you will probably be able to make better sounding recordings in a properly treated room with really great monitors, an excellent preamp and a whole suite of great microphones… But, at what cost?

Looking back at fifteen years of home recording, to this day the single-biggest improvement in recording quality I’ve seen was getting my first outboard interface with dedicated audio converters really intended for recording use. With even an entry-level interface, you’ll be able to make recordings that will sound good enough that the biggest limiting factor is not going to be your equipment, it will be your ability to use it. So, if you just want to make music, don’t overthink it on the gear. Hell, when push comes to shove… I was fine for years just plugging a mic into a computer sound card. It’s not the best… but it absolutely works.

Great Mixes Start With Great Tracks

If you haven’t read Slipperman’s Recording Guitars From Hell, stop now and go read it immediately. It’s a veritable treasure trove of really excellent advice about recording heavy music, delivered in a narrative voice that would do Hunter S. Thompson proud. However, if for whatever reason you don’t, then at least pause and think about this:

One of the assistants goes scurrying into the tape locker and eventually fishes out the masters. We pile into the proper control room, and he puts the thing up.

The FIRST thing I notice is….

IT ALREADY KINDA SOUNDS LIKE A RECORD….

Yep. Faders up.

No creative/corrective bullshit(Eq./Compression) on anything yet.

*I’m thinking* No shit!?!?

I’m kinda amazed by this and it gets the old Slipper-Noggin-Expresso-Maker set to ‘fine grind’.

The assistant is pretty familiar with the band, but has never heard this particular record, and is occasionally commenting on various things in the fray as I proceed to just solo here and there, and noodle a tad with the various instrument tracks. So basically…. he’s checking the SONGS out while I am fooling around finding approximate fader lies and panning positions, starting some simple corrective Eq’s etc…

“Man… This really IS a great record…” He chimes in after about 8-10 minutes of this process….

“Yep..” I reply absentmindedly… “I love these kids….. They know how to play their own music…. Kinda MIXES ITSELF Right?”

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZTTTTTTTT.

*system reboot*

Again, the rest of that archive is a gold mine, equal parts philosophy and very technical advice, but I don’t think this is a point that can be made too strongly. Contrary to what people may say, mixing isn’t all that hard, as a process. You balance your levels, listen to  what you’ve got to work, then with as critical an ear as you can, find and identify problems, and remove them. That’s it. There aren’t really “tricks” or “secrets” or anything; it’s just a matter of carving away what doesn’t work, in favor of leaving behind what does.

What does that mean in practice?

  • Absolutely nailing your performances is critical. The low end of your mix seems a little flubby? Re-recording it and getting the bass and kick drum really locked in together will do more to tighten up your low end than any EQ tweak, multiband compressor, or automation plugin you can throw at a mix. All of modern pop music notwithstanding, I’ll hazard people will be way more excited to hear music with really great performances but mediocre recording quality than perfectly-recorded ho-hum performances.
  • Spend some time thinking about how the mix SHOULD fit together. When tracking, I usually put down a simple drum loop to keep time and then start with bass guitar, even though I’m a guitarist. I do this for two reasons – one, because I realize I care more about the guitar performance than the bass performance, so by forcing myself to listen to the bass in isolation, I’m way less likely to accept an “ok” take in favor of a good one. And two, when I do start recording guitars, while I’m dialing in my amp settings and adjusting mic position, it forces me to really think about how my guitar tone is going to fit in with my bass tone. That’s incredibly valuable.
No clue who the original author of this is. Nothing in this post should be construed to encourage violence towards sidekicks.
No clue who the original author of this is. Nothing in this post should be taken to condone violence towards sidekicks.

Extrapolating this logic, even spending some time thinking about the arrangement and if the instruments are arranged in a way to really fit together well makes a lot of sense here. The fewer problems you leave yourself to address in the mix, the better your mix will be. A common metaphor (which come to think of it I probably picked up from Slipperman as well) is to think of a song like a phone booth, and try to picture how you’re going to fit all the various and disparate pieces into a given space. Some times that means re-evaluating production decisions; that huge lush piano probably won’t work with that huge lush acoustic guitar, so figuring out which one of them is the “important” part driving the song before you even hit record is going to save you a lot of grief in the mix.

 Gear is Probably Less Important Than You Think

Looking back at my earliest recordings, recorded in 30-second snippets (all my laptop could handle) with next to nothing in the way of studio gear, it’s absolutely insane to me just how good even entry-level, budget recording equipment is today. One of those things you often hear getting bandied around on the internet is that even a cheap interface and Garageband is a more powerful recording setup than what the Beatles used on Abby Road. That’s not entirely true – the importance of a killer live room and some incredibly talented engineers are why that album sounds like it does – but isn’t completely wrong either; the Fab Four were working on a pair of four track tape machines synced up to allow up to 8 separate tracks to be mixed together, whereas your typical Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) program today allows you can layer as many tracks as you want and track count doesn’t even factor in as a production concern anymore. For better or worse, technology is a wonderful thing. Yeah, you’ll get better transient response out of a really high end recording interface, really nice monitors in a well treated room will allow you to hear the nuances of your mixes a lot better, and a really, really, really great mic that’s perfect for the part you’re trying to record really is a thing of beauty. But, even budget gear is good enough today that if you can’t get at least a “good” guitar tone out of a budget USB interface, a Shure SM57, and a good sounding guitar rig, then the problem probably isn’t your gear.

Courtesy of the Staffordshire University Computing Futures Museum website - I'll replace this with a picture of my own if I can still find the thing
Courtesy of the Staffordshire University Computing Futures Museum website – I’ll replace this with a picture of my own if I can still find the damned thing.

As I’m typing this up, I’m actually listening to the first album I did on Mp3.com, and while it’s kind of a trip to listen back to something you did ten years ago, it’s also kind of funny, because it really isn’t THAT bad sounding. And, for the most part, the whole thing was recorded using one of those old desktop computer mics from the 90s. One song in particular I think WAS still recorded using my laptop’s built-in mic, come to think of it. Now, I’m not going to say it’s a great sounding album – it was the first thing I ever tried to mix, and there are some absolutely cringe-worthy moments here and there. But, most of the things that sound really bad to my ears are due to poor mixing decisions rather than the tracking, and there are also moments that, to me, sound totally ok. I had a great sounding guitar rig, and while the equipment I was using to capture it was incredibly primitive, it certainly worked and I learned a ton doing it.

Long story short, knowing how to use the gear you have – how to position the mic to sound as good as possible on your instrument (or at least as good as possible for a particular part, and in a particular arrangement), appropriate gain-staging for your gear so you have enough headroom to get really clean transients, which will help your mixes sound punchier as you start to layer in more tracks, how to really hear the impact of a compressor or an EQ on a particular track, where your monitors are a little weak and where they’re not, and how a good mix SHOULD sound on them… All of this matters more than the gear itself.

I don’t want to sell my Yamaha HS80Ms short, as they’re absolutely awesome monitors and I’m very happy with them. But, when I demoed them I brought in a number of albums I really liked the sound of as well as a few of my own mixes I’d done on the Behringer Truth 2030A’s the Yamahas eventually replaced, and I was surprised how well my old mixes translated. Did the full 8″ driver and much better midrange and high end detail make it easier to make great mixes on them? Absolutely… But, after several years working on the Behringers and getting to know them, and checking mixes on a couple other systems to make sure there weren’t any problems buried in there I was missing, I was still able to make mixes that were fine on my old Truths. It wasn’t night-and-day different; it was just faster and easier on the Yamahas.

Have Something Worth Recording

Zero Mantra unboxed
Note: this post is also not to imply that any of this WAS worth recording, necessarily.

This is maybe the biggest, and certainly most controversial, thing that I’ve realized over the years making music in a home studio. The vast majority of listeners – probably 99%, if I had to put a number on it – really don’t care at all about audio quality. As long as your music isn’t physically painful to listen to (unless it’s supposed to be – hey, who am I to judge), most listeners aren’t really going to be that worked up about whether or not the low end of your song is “tight,” or about that really sweet guitar tone you got on the bridge of your song using that hot new piece of gear. And, if you look back at some of the music that changed the course of history, some of it is, at least judged by modern standards, not all that well recorded. Something like “Louie Louie” is almost incomprehensible to listen to (and allegedly an obscenity lawsuit was thrown out precisely because the judges had to admit they couldn’t hear the vocals clearly enough to tell if they were obscene), early Beatles material like “Twist and Shout” gets by mostly on energy and a completely over-the-top vocal than by an amazing mix, and for everything Jimi Hendrix later do in the studio, it’s easy to overlook how rough around the edges some of his earliest work – “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” really was (admittedly, I like that about “Are You Experienced”). What you did have, however, were great songs, with great performances, captured well enough to pass some of that energy along.  Jimi’s playing still sounds contemporary today, almost 50 years after “Are You Experienced” was recorded, and if you ever record a vocal take that sounds like “Twist and Shout,” you keep it, regardless of if the recording itself could have been a little cleaner. It really IS that out of this world, and makes you kind of get what Beatlemania was all about.

That it’s never been easier to record music is in many ways both the blessing and curse of the music industry today. As a guy who just finished the process, I certainly appreciate the fact that relatively affordable, really great sounding gear is now in the hands of home recording hobbyists like me, and tools like Superior Drummer, software and hardware amp simulators, and the infinite track count and low operational cost of computer software DAWs compared to old school tape machines make it incredibly easy to make great-sounding recordings.

Playing with the Tom Corrigan Band at Key West in North Adams, probably after my freshman year in college.
Playing with the Tom Corrigan Band at Key West in North Adams, probably after my freshman year in college.

On the other hand, they also make it incredibly easy to lose sight of the end objective – taking a song and packaging it up in a way to get it to a listener and, hopefully, move them. Recording music is a tremendously rewarding hobby, and in many ways has made me a better musician, both by making me think more in terms of the bigger picture of a song and how to come up with parts that support it, and also by making any technical weaknesses in my playing glaringly obvious and helping me get better and become a better guitarist. But, especially if you’re recording your own music, it’s also incredibly important to remember what your ultimate goal is, which is strengthening a memorable song. Without a great song, there’s no point.

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