Posted Jul 25, 2006 01:13 PM
Home recording is often a difficult art to master. There are so many variables created by the lack of professional equipment which can affect the overall quality and outcome of your recording. However, after many painful and frustrating hours, I have finally achieved a recording quality for my solo work that I am proud of, so I have decided to share my methods so other people can benefit from my work and not waste as much time as I have trying to produce a good recording sound. This article will focus on recording drums, bass, guitar and vocals and will try to keep the facts and methods as simple as possible.
The first thing that you need to realise is that you are doing this at home and that you can't expect your recordings to sound identical to those released by your favourite bands. As disappointing as it may seem, you do not possess the greatest recording equipment on the market, but this does not mean you won't be able to create a high quality recording. Aim to achieve a sound that you are both comfortable and happy with; it does not need to sound perfect.
Another point I need to explain is that this article will focus on home recording for the financially challenged such as myself. There are too many articles which assume you possess ten microphones and the facilities to minimize natural reverb and create brilliant masters etc. so I will try to focus on using the least professional equipment and the most household appliances as possible.
The first instrument that is usually recorded is the drums. The drums provide the timing and drive for your piece of music so they need to be both precise and fairly loud in the final mix. If your recorder is equipped with a built-in metronome, make sure you use it to achieve a recording with an accurate tempo. If not, you can record a simple click track which you can play along to, which can be erased and recorded over with another track at a later stage. I have discovered multiple ways to record drums using different numbers of microphones. To achieve the best drum recording quality, I believe five microphones are necessary. However, it is possible to achieve adequate with results with a single microphone. I think I should point out that you do not need to possess an expensive drum microphone set to achieve a good drum sound; normal omni-directional microphones will do the trick just fine.
If you are using a single microphone, place it next to you to your left, level with the bottom of the snare drum. This position ensures the mic captures the bass drum, the snare drum and the hi-hat cymbal, as these parts of the kit are used the most.
If you are using two microphones, place one mic central over the entire kit above your head and the other near the bass drum. The bass drum needs to be loud or the entire drum track will sound empty. The other mic ensures all parts of the kit are picked up on the recording.
If you are using three microphones, you can use the traditional triangle set up. One mic should be placed over the left side of the kit, one over the right and the other near the bass drums. This set up produces a similar quality to the previous point but the two overhead mics provide a more adequate capture of the whole kit than a single mic.
If you are using four microphones, place one between the hi-hat and the snare, one over the middle two toms, one over nearer the floor tom and one near the bass drum. This ensures the hi-hat, snare and bass are captured most, and also provides a good sound for the rest of the kit.
If you are using five microphones, place one between the hi-hat and the snare, one under the middle two toms, one over nearer the floor tom, one centrally over the cymbals and one near the bass drum. The five mics ensure a good capture of the whole kit.
For those of you using two or more microphones, you will need to utilise a mixer in order to record through all the microphones onto the same track. The mixer usually allows you to alter the volume of each mic individually in order to achieve the best single drum sound in relation to the others. If you are doing this however, make sure all the volumes are accurate before you record because you cannot alter these volumes once you are done; you can only alter the master volume of all of them together.
If you possess a more advanced recording machine with a capacity for many tracks, you will be able to use something similar to a five track simultaneous record, where you will be able to record through each mic onto an individual track, therefore possessing the ability to alter the volumes od separate drums once the recording is complete. However, most standard recording devices can do two track simultaneous recording with two inputs. If you are using more than two mics with a mixer, I suggest you use the simultaneous recording method and record the bass drum onto a separate track as this is the part of the kit which needs to be loud and often isn't. Using this method, you will be able to alter the volume of the bass drum separately once the recording is done.
If you use the two track simultaneous recording method, you will often find that you need that extra second track you have just used. However, all is not lost! Most recorders have a function called 'bounce' where you can compress many recorded tracks onto a single track without any degradation in quality, similar to how a mixer brings down all the mics onto a single track. However, once again, make sure that your volumes are accurate before you bounce as you won't be able to alter them once the bounce function is complete. The last point to remember is that you will normally record drums in a large room, consequently there is often a large amount of natural reverb which you really don't want on this final recording. To minimize this, try recording your drums in a room with a carpeted floor rather than a solid floor which will reflect the sound, or a room which contains furniture such as sofas or padded chairs which will absorb the sound. If this isn't possible, attempt to make some kind of barrier using materials in your home, such as bedsheets, coats etc; it doesn't have to be too advanced as long as it satisfies the criteria and does the job well.
The next track that is usually recorded is the bass. The bass' main function usually is to support the guitar so the two will need to have a similar volume in the final mix. If you possess a good recorder and just want to record a simple bass line with no output effects, you can simple plug your bass guitar directly into the jack input and record that way. This method avoids any background white noise which could occur through your amplifier and provides a nice finish. Some recorders possess output effects of their own designed specifically for different instruments so check them out and see if any of them provide you with a higher quality bass sound. If you are recording bass with output effects, then it is preferable to record the output speaker of your amplifier using a microphone instead. A unidirectional microphone is used for this as it only records sound in one direction (the direction of the speaker) and eliminates the sound of emptiness caused by the remainder of the room and captures as much bass as possible. However, if you do not possess such advanced technology, you can use a normal omni-directional microphone with a thick piece of clothing like a hoodie or a jacket wrapped around it to dampen the sound from other directions.
The next tracks to be recorded are usually the guitar tracks. If your recorder contains two inputs, it is possible to record two guitars at the same time onto the same track. However, remember you cannot alter the volumes of each separate guitar once you are done. Similar to the drums, you can save more than one guitar track onto a single track using the bounce function, which leaves you with more free tracks to record other instruments, but make sure your volumes are accurate once again. You can record the guitar straight into the recorder through its jack socket for a clean sound but this often sounds flat as there is a lack of reverb which is required to achieve that polished final recording. Having said this, like the bass, there are some preprogrammed output effects present on some recorders so feel free to investigate to find the right setup for you. Beware though, as these effects usually sound more fake and manufactured than a real guitar sound. The best method to record guitar is the same one used to record the bass; a unidirectional mic (or a normal omni-directional mic with a hoodie/jacket around it) place in front of the amplifier speaker. However, if you are recording the guitar using this method, make sure the bass control on the amplifier is turned up quite loud as most recorders have a nasty obsession with making recorded guitars sound tinny by extracting the bass; the unidirectional mic you have created will be able to capture the bass more sufficiently though. If you are using effects, I have found that clean effects tend to sound louder than certain distorted effects so make sure the volumes are similar when you commence recording, as a large volume differential will make mixing extremely difficult.
The last track to be recorded is the vocals over the top of the rest of the piece. When recording your voice, it is vital that you apply some kind of reverb effect to make your voice really sink into the piece. Failure to do such a task will result in a flat sound and your vocal line will not sound like part of the piece. For those of you who don't know, the definition of reverb is the time taken for a sound to reflect of an object and return to its source. It is commonly linked to echo as the two do no sound dissimilar, although echo is more of a delayed repeat of the original sound. Some recorders have a vocal reverb function output effect already included which provides a brilliant full sound when recording straight into the recorder through the jack or XLR socket. However, if your recorder does not possess this superior level of technology, you can use either use the reverb built into your guitar amp and connect the output of the amp directly into the recorder or use a guitar effects pedal with a clean reverb function. Failing these choices, a large room with materials which reflect sound well will provide you with some natural reverb which will suffice. However, is you are using this method; you may need to use more than a single mic to capture some of this reverb onto a single track. Once again, you will need to use a mixer or simultaneous recording to record many signals onto a single track (or use the bounce function after recording the vocal line onto several separate tracks). If you do not possess more than one microphone, attempt to make some kind of reverberation booth using reflective materials which captures the reverb in a more enclosed area.
If you have spare tracks, I recommend recording a guide track of the notes you are going to sing on a separate track using the guitar, keyboard or a similar instrument to sing along to in order to record the most accurate vocal line. If you are recording a mixture of normal melodic singing and screaming (nu-metal, screamo etc.), the screaming bits tend to be louder than the normal singing so step back a little from the mic at these parts to avoid a large volume differential. However, if life rally has been kind to you, you can use an EQ device which allows you to select a certain volume and bring the rest of the track up or down to that volume.
The last step of the recording is the mixing and mixdown process. Mixdown basically means the same as bounce; bringing all the separate track of the piece onto a separate track. Remember you cannot undo mixdown so make sure your volumes are accurate when you mixdown.
There is no correct way to mix, it is a matter of personal preference. However, I will offer a few simple pointers I follow when I mix my tracks. Mix the guitar and the bass first as you can set the drum volumes around these once you are done. Make sure the bass is loud enough to provide sufficient drive for the guitar and compensate for the bass taken from the guitar line by the recorder, but not too loud that it drowns out and dominates the guitar line. When mixing your lead or solo guitar line, make sure the track is loud enough so every note can be heard above the rest of the piece but not so loud that is becomes disjointed from the piece altogether. The same goes for the vocal line; make sure this track is loud enough so every single word can be heard but not so loud that it dominates the piece; while the vocals are usually the focus, the accompaniment is vital for the success of this line. Finally, when mixing your drums, make sure every snare and hi-hat beat can be heard rather clearly as these are usually the vital rhythmic parts. If you listen to one of your favourite bands, you will realise that the hi-hat cymbal is usually well heard but does not dominate the piece; it should be mixed in appropriately with the rest of the piece. Also make sure your crash cymbals can be heard when your piece enters a new section as this cymbal produces the distinctive marker and climax to show, for example, that the verse has ended and the chorus has begun. Finally, make sure every bass drum beat can be heard just above the bass line to provide that vital accompaniment, but not to loud that it begins to sound irregular within the piece and dominates it.
And that's all there is to it! This guide may not use the most professional methods around but it gets the job done, and produces a high quality recording I'm sure you will be proud of. I hope this guide shows that you do not have to own the most expensive equipment on the market to record your own tracks and good results can be achieved by simply using objects around your home. If you have any further questions or there is something you don't understand, do not hesitate to contact me.