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Keys to Setting Up Your Home Studio!

Now that big studios are closing (read: The Magic Shop) and large budgets are becoming crowdfunding campaigns, home recording has never been more in demand, and in some cases is a necessity for being a professional musician in this new era of technology. This month, I had a conversation with the production team called “The Stay Level” on how to set up your own home recording studio. Made up of two extremely talented musicians/engineers, Kit Karlson and Chip Johnson, they can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not only did they mix my most recent album, but they have worked with several amazing artists, and even had one of their mixes featured as the official 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics song for NBC. You can hear more of the sounds they helped shape here. Keep reading to see what we talked about to get up and running and start your own recordings from home.

The first question you need to ask yourself is why are you recording? Is it for fun? Business? Are you just trying to get your ideas down? If it is just for getting some ideas down so you don’t forget them, then you can get away with any type of voice memo function on your smart phone. If you’re working on your own to just have fun, then most computers have a simple recording program like Garage Band on Macs. If you’re trying to make a living at being a studio/session musician, then you should be asking yourself do I play well enough that anyone will want to have me record for them.  Are you good enough at your craft? Regardless of which stage you’re at with your recording career, do understand that it will take time and practice like everything else.

Now on to step one. Where should you record. Record in most dead space as possible. You can always add effects after the fact, but it is harder to take them out if they are unwanted. Whatever you hear in a space is what will end up on track when you hit record. Oddly shaped rooms are great for the way the sound bounces around the room. Square or rectangle shape rooms can produce standing waves of sound. You can hear this by standing between the two walls and clapping your hands. If you hear a quick series of echoes with each handclap, then you’re hearing what is referred to as “flutter echoes” and can ruin a recording if allowed to creep into your microphone. Other things to consider are the shape of the ceiling (vaulted, flat, dome-like, etc) as well as the floor (ceramic, tile, wood, etc). You may notice a lot of studios have some sort of rug to capture sounds that are easily reflected off of hard floor surfaces. You can even look into other soundproofing options too. If you want to explore some of those options, I would suggest checking this site here or this one here.

PRO-TIP: Be cautious of attics that can get too hot (heat rises) or basements that might be susceptible to water damage and flooding. Replacing your equipment can be a costly endeavor.

Once you have the room picked out, you’re gonna need a computer. Most people use macs (especially if you’re gonna be sending tracks to them), they generally do not crash and are a bit more user friendly and resistant to viruses. So there’s my pitch. Get a mac! (Disclaimer: Apple did not pay me to say that.)

Once you have a computer (a mac), you’re gonna need some sort of recording software. Again, if you’re not doing this as a professional, Garage Band will be just fine and actually comes with your mac. If you are taking this to the next level, most people use either Pro-Tools or Logic Pro as the industry standard. My recommendation is to get Logic. It’s the cheapest way to record or make tracks for yourself as well as being very user friendly vs. alternative DAW (digital audio workstation). It also contains a lot of the plugins you will need as soon as you fire it up, where Pro-Tools doesn’t come “out of the box” like that. There are many more reasons, but if you’re just getting started with all of this, Logic is the path of least resistance (not to mention, Logic is owned by Apple and works only on Macs).

Next, you will need a microphone. There are several options to choose from depending on what needs to be recorded. Most microphone sites have descriptions on what mic works best for what instrument. If you are recording into Garage Band, then a simple USB mic that plugs right into your computer will work just fine. If you are recording professionally, definitely get a mic that uses an XLR connection. That will mean you can’t plug directly into your computer the same way a USB mic can, so you will need an interface. An interface is a way to get info into computer. It converts analog sounds into digital information. When deciding on an interface, ask yourself how many things are you recording at once. If you’re a singer the Universal Audio Apollo Twin is probably one of the best bangs for your buck. However, if you are a drummer and need more inputs, then the Presonus FireStudio might be a better option as it has 8 inputs so you can mic every drum and even some overheads. If you are a guitar or bass player you can either mic your amp (or sound hole if acoustic) or you can go direct and use the Guitar Rig plugin and choose which “amp” you want to play through. Some of these interfaces will come with preamps and some don’t. A preamp will make your sound better so if that option is there then take it. You can also purchase a better quality preamp and go through that as opposed to the one that comes with your interface.

Don’t feel pressured to keep adding gear to your arsenal. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get great recordings. These companies that make the gear are in the business of selling it. They always have the message that if you just got this one other product, then your studio will be complete. It is more beneficial to learn how to use what you have, rather than to keep getting newer stuff. Once you know the basics of recording then you will know when you need better gear. You will be able to ask yourself (and then answer) is it the playing, the instrument or the recording equipment.

So to review thus far. Pick a great room to record in and soundproof as necessary. Get a mac and a DAW. Then provide yourself a great instrument to record on. The performance of that instrument is the first thing you can affect in getting a great recording. Next is a solid microphone, a decent interface, and then a nice preamp will make all of that sound better.

PRO-TIP: Save all, save often!

Now, you will probably need some help along the way. If you like to read, then this is the book I would suggest! Or if video tutorials are more your speed, then I would start here and move on to here. Google and YouTube are both free and a goldmine of great information and tutorials. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, then ask someone who is already doing what you want to be doing. The customer service at Sweetwater is fantastic (Note: They didn’t pay me to say that either). Added bonus is you can order some of your gear from them too!

Now as you get better at recording from home, don’t get discouraged. Like anything it will take time and practice. Make sure you are encouraged that you CAN get better. Don’t be ashamed about a work in progress. Share your work (finished or unfinished) to get feedback from trusted friends and professionals, not necessarily the public. You might get pointers to make it better along the way.

After all your tracks are recorded, then they need to be mixed and then mastered. That can be another beast unto-itself. To start it’s good to know that mixing and mastering are typically handled by two separate entities because they require different expertise. If you were to think about it like an assembly line, the mixer puts the pieces together on a case by case (or song by song) basis, and the mastering guy (or girl) does a final check on all of the products (the album as a whole) to make sure they are consistent before it goes to the market.

When you’re ready to mix, know what you’re looking for with the mix, and any references you have for songs you like. Preferably music that is in the same genre as the music you’ve recorded. Just a few things that can be referenced throughout the mixing process to make sure what you’re doing sounds competitive with your favorite artists.

The “mixing” part is a bit hard to describe, but the analogy people make most is to one of a Chef. You take various ingredients, seasonings, personal taste etc. and then blend those things to make a single cohesive and hopefully delicious meal. In mixing, that would be anything from how big to make the drums sound, where the bass guitar should be fit with the drums, the effect choices for the lead vocal (reverb, delay, etc), how the lead Vocal should make the listener feel, the arc of the song, the list goes on. It’s a thousand decisions that fuse to make the song more compelling and stronger than the basic tracking session alone.

After mixing, the next step would be mastering. The basics of mastering really comes down to two things:

  1. Make all of the songs sound as cohesive as possible as a whole. Most of the time that is just making all of the songs a bit louder to be competitive in the market, and making sure that they are all at the same listening volume (It would be a drag if between every song on an album you had to turn your stereo up or down!). If necessary, they will do a bit of light treatment to help achieve that consistency. For example – Say there is piano ballad is a bit darker right after a full band rock track. They might bring up some high end on the piano ballad to make them feel more connected.
  2. Mastering engineers can make all the files you would need for duplication. If you were planning on making CDs to sell at shows, the mastering engineer makes a specific file (I believe it is called a DDP file) that would be sent to the duplication company. This allows for all of the song data to be embedded in the CD itself, so the song info will show up on your car stereo display, computer, etc. They are typically also more familiar with the various files that may be needed to go to iTunes, Vinyl, or any other distribution scenario that is available in today’s world.

There you have it. Great advice from great people. Now you should be able to set up your studio, record tracks on your own, and you even have a bonus explanation on mixing and mastering from two wonderfully talented engineers. You can hear the proof of what they’re talking about here!