Home Recording. Part 2b

A handy guide for mounting microphones, preparing rooms for recording, and the recording process itself.

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Last time we covering signal chain and microphone placement for drums and guitar. This time we're on to bass, vocals, and the recording process.
  • Bass Unless this bassist's rig has got the most killer tone you have ever heard in your life, just plug the bass straight into the mixing board. Seriously, it will sound infinitely punchier and have greater fidelity to the bassist's technique than any amp you're likely to find. If you absolutely must record from the bassist's amp, see the above techniques for recording, but I do not recommend distance-miking a bass amp as it will become flabby and inarticulate. One approach I've heard favored with bass is to split the signal from it and send one lead direct to the mixer and another to the amplifier, which is miked. Be very careful doing this because there's a very good chance you'll wind up with phasing problems due to the signal from the mic being delay slightly from the direct signal. When miking a bass cab, I recommend the D112. It will be perfect for the bass's deep range. An SM-57 will make the bass sound too thin and make it compete with the guitars for the upper-mid region of the frequency spectrum.
  • Vocals Okay, vocals are as complicated to record as drums are. You can go for one of two approaches with vocals, the first being to just completely isolate them from all other sounds so sonically speaking you have a blank slate to work with or you can set them up in a decent-sounding room according to the specifications mentioned above for drums. Lately I've been preferring the latter as it results in having to do less EQing when it comes time to mix. Because vocals are the most variable and hardest to capture instrument, you need to make sure your vocalist has warmed up properly and has access to water as they are recording. Unless they have a very distinctive rasp to their voice that has a musical quality (which is really rare), have them stay away from carbonated beverages and alcohol while they're recording (and usually the night before). Have them also stay away from milk and yogurt as it will coat their throat with a thin mucus film that will deaden the brightness of their voice. If they have said film in their throat already, have them do a shot of lemon juice and warm up their voices by saying kah very loudly several times. Both will serve to loosen up that mucus and hopefully get it to pass down their throat. Also have them avoid ice water as it will cause their throat muscles to become tense and not as malleable. Tea with honey and lemon juice is golden for keeping vocal cords at their prime. When it comes to the actual setup, have the microphone (whatever it may be) roughly between 3 and 6 inches from their mouth. Many problems with popping and sibilance can be avoided by hanging the mic slightly above mouth level and pointing it down toward the singer's upper lip. Rare's the vocalist who can avoid popping and sibilance entirely, so you should probably use a pop filter. These can either be bought commercially, or if you fancy a cheaper approach, take a clothes hanger and cover it with a pair of nylons/pantyhose and attach it to the mic stand. This is also helpful with singers who like to eat the mic. When a microphone is too close to the singer's mouth, you get what's called proximity effect. It causes the low-end to be disproportionately picked up by the mic and you get very woofy sounding vocals. A really great vocalist can sometimes use this to their advantage, but overall, the pop filter should be mounted about three inches away from the mic, so that even vocalists who like to eat the mic will be properly spaced away from the microphone. If you're not adding reverb to the singer's monitor headphones during recording, have them only wear the headphones on one ear. The signal bleed won't affect the mix adversely and by making sure the singer is hearing their voice in the context of the room they're in, they will be more likely to sing in tune as they'll be singing in tune with themselves rather than the recording and they'll be able to hear even their quiet notes in a very detailed fashion.
  • Other Instruments You may run into a need to record parts from a piano or a stringed or brass instrument, all are pretty common. To record a piano, take a stereo pair of microphones (preferably condensers) spaced equally across the piano's soundboard. For an upright, this will mean opening up the top and dipping them in to divide the piano into thirds with the mics being the dividers. For a grand, use the same technique across the much wider board. If you can hook up more mics, a grand can give you a gorgeous sound from all over. The point is to get a good stereo image of the piano. The range of pianos is such that you really should not attempt to do it with just one mic. If you have an electric piano or synth available, just take its headphone out or line out jack straight into your mixer. For stringed instruments, make sure you've got a good-sounding room and position a mic a few inches above the instrument's F-holes. You can get away with a dynamic mic on this, but I highly recommend using a condenser. For brass instruments, mount a mic roughly six inches directly in front of the bell. Dynamics work well for brass instruments.
  • Putting It All Together So how do you put all this together to record? If you only have a limited number of inputs available, you'll probably have to track everything separately and overdub. While recording a whole band live is tempting, it's a logistical nightmare unless you've got a lot of inputs available. In fact, unless you've got 8 inputs at the very least, I'd say forget about tracking a whole band live. For recording separately, you'll have to set up the drums with the mics in a room mentioned above and take the monitor signal after the recording device (in my case this is the line out of my soundcard, for someone using a multitrack recorder, this will be the headphone out jack) and add a mixer right after it. Into this mixer you will plug the monitor from the drums and any additional instruments the drummer needs to remind them of where they are in the song. Make sure these instruments are isolated in a fashion that they cannot bleed into the drum mics. This is where modeling devices can come in handy. Just plug a POD into the mixer and you've got a quick setup with built-in isolation. Take the headphone out jack of the mixer and split it between the musicians who are going to be playing with the drummer and the drummer themselves. Set levels for everything on the mixer to make sure nobody's drowning anybody else out. You'll also have to set levels for the drum mics for recording. This is very important because it's a technique you'll use on every other part of the recording process. Have the drummer do a whole bunch of tom fills and cymbal crashes to set the levels for the overheads. Any mixer or program you're likely to use for recording will have a built-in VU meter for monitoring levels. It will be a colored bar that will jump up and down as the drummer plays. It also will likely have an LED that denotes when the signal is clipping/overloading. You want to get the levels such that they are as loud as possible without overloading the input. Finding this balance can be tricky, especially with drums because they have such a quick attack and then the levels drop very quickly. While recording, you will want to make use of a click track. This is a metronome set at the tempo of the song to make sure that the tempo is consistent. I've made recordings with and without this and quite frankly, getting everything to line up without the click is such a pain that it is really not worth skipping. Would you rather spend ten minutes ironing out the exact tempo of your song or an hour the next day trying to get the guitar in the intro to start at the right time without any kind of cue? All the programs I discussed in the last article have built-in metronomes. So, use them. Trust me you will be glad you did. You'll want to do any number of drum takes before moving on, so this will involve arming a few tracks at once and adding some more afterwards. This is a simple process, just make sure you select the inputs properly. After that, some people like to lay bass tracks down next, but I've found doing guitars next works just as well if the guitarist has a good sense of rhythm. Either way, set levels just like you did with the drums. Only this time it will be easier because there will be a more consistent volume level and you'll have a good idea of where the peak lies. Try to make sure you get enough guitar takes that you'll have two good ones for use in mixing. This will become important. Once you have the basic instruments in place, put together a rough mix so that the instruments are basically balanced and you'll have the mix you'll put through your singer's headphones. Each performer will have a peak performance that you need to watch out for. After this performance, the performances afterwards will begin to degrade and mistakes will become more common. The peak performance will usually be the final one, so noting which one it was can save you time in mixing down. This is actually a very simplistic description of the recording process, which tends to take a long time and involves a lot of hard work from every musician involved. People who gel together live may find they have a difficult time with the metronome or that cool lead the guitarist always kind of fudges will now have to be dead on enough to work in a mix where it'll be out for everyone to see. This is also when you should get experimental. Would that chorus sound better with a piano part behind it? Would a tambourine give the song a cooler vibe? Should we change the melody on this one vocal part or maybe add a harmony? Anything you record in this stage can later be taken out, but once you've taken down your setup for recording, it can be difficult to put it back together quickly, so I always err on the side of recording more rather than less. I've had a lot of circumstances come up where a part someone makes up on the fly that nobody thought recording time should be devoted to winds up adding a new gravity to the sound. Don't be afraid to experiment! You're not in a studio, you can take as much time as you need. That's all for this installment. Be back soon with mixing and mastering.
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    47 comments sorted by best / new / date

      WishIHadAGibson
      i have been waiting for someone to say something bad. and you know youve done good if no one says anything bad!!
      J Dub
      Amazing set of articles, this one included. Keep up the good work.
      riffer_raffer
      awesome advice man! now to figure out if i wanna spend my savings on recording equip. or put it towards something i actually need..
      Hosscat
      This article gives ma a great big chubby, but then I am a tech nerd. Good info.
      6minpants
      thank you for this article.. it really helped me out alot. mainly because i am to lazy to figure these things out myself. my band also wants to record a cd, and with some of your tips on this.. i think it will go MUCH smoother! thank you very much.
      rasker
      I record in studios, or work with mixing, weekly and I have to say that you really know your stuff here. but the main thing to remember when you're about to record is that you should never be satisfied with doing things the way you're supposed to. if you experiment and try different things (as many as you can) you will end up with a result that will make you go "wow, this was not what I was expecting. but s*it it sounds great". I had that moment this weekend when I recorded in a studio with our band for the first time. It's a great feeling to make your artpiece (the song) sound like it does in your head and not the way it does in a crappy rehearsal hall.
      5:15_Whofan
      i would just like to thank you for posting information that most people get treated like an ass for asking about. keep 'em comin they're great articles
      SethMegadefan
      Hey man, great article. Gave it 5 stars. Woulda gave it 10, if I could. Before I read this I was still recording guitar on a tape recorder next to the amp! Man, now the question is how am I ever going to afford all that stuff?
      elmolikepie
      sshhhh ur nt sposed 2 tell any1 wen u wrk this stuf out bt cheers i adnt thought of sum of this. an readin sum of ur comments if u want a decent 3 programme download Audacity, if u av a guitar port an a decent mike u can do mst of this stuf on it.
      fuzzysocks
      good article, just one thing. If you put your electric piano or synth into the recorder with the headphone jack you usually get alot of unwanted fuzz and noise, because the sound is then amplified twice. A minor detail though. Good stuff.
      Greenday389
      Make another good article but please hurry because i got serious problems .....with recording.....
      vanceboy
      Very informative, with great tips and tricks. Great article, you get 6 stars! haha, okay 5.
      TaoAvatar20
      atm_sk8ter- Some of it I read and tried out for myself (and when I'm directly referencing something, I've been trying to include a link to where I picked it up from), but most of it has been trial and error experience over the years. Get out and experiment, that's the best way to learn.
      Dyaxe666
      dam this shit is good. my band is going to record sum bass lines this weekend and this helped out alot, thx man. keep up the good work
      lindex
      tisk tisk, you're giving away all the tricks. Good articles, may someone should syndicate this?
      waz416
      dude.....i always run into those POPS that u said in Vox.....!!!....really glad u cleared it up for me....thsi is a very very goo dlesson...a must read for any home reocrding artist.....Keep rockin...PEAC EOUT
      atm_sk8er
      awsome man, too bad 99.9% of us are poor and cant afford the stuff to record decently. out of curiosity, how'd you learn stuff like this? (i'm 13) AND CANADAIN!!
      Styx
      Tanx man,I should make my bandmate read this so we don't have anymore problem with the sound!
      d_music_man
      great lesson ....i liked the tips about the piano's, i am planning to try it and wasn't sure how to go about it.
      StJimmy_89
      Hi everyone, recently I started home recording my guitar, yet I have a big problem with the quality. When I play "live" connecting my amp to my soundcard and letting that come out of my speakers, I get identical sound as if I were playing directly from the amp. Yet when I record my guitar in CoolEdit and play that back, I get really low quality sound (especially when palm-muting, scratching noises are heard) and I can't find the source of the problem. The drivers of my soundcard (Creative Sound Blaster Live! 5.1) seem to be alright and I think im choosing the best quality possible in CoolEdit. CAN ANYONE PLEASE HELP? This is really frustrating!