The Home Recording Studio Survival Guide. Chapters 1-6

Various techniques, tips, and skills you will find useful in the home recording environment.

I wrote this for UG a while back. I hope you guys find it useful. It's important to note I do not go over many parameters (knobs and buttons) of each sound processor. You can find these on wiki. I will try my best to tell you how to use each device in a practical situation. I will try to make this 100% accurate as possible, but I am human. If there's something you feel is incorrect, PM me, and I'll look over it. 1. Recording on your computer (DAW) 2. A guide to mastering the Equalizer (EQ) 3. A guide to great sounding vocals 4. A guide to reverb, delay, and auxiliary tracks. 5. A guide to mastering compression 6. Cheap headphones are your best friend --- 1. Recording on your computer with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) What is it? Basically it's a computer software simulation for "studio equipment". You know those huge boards in studios that the mics are attached to with sliding volume faders, lights, etc etc? Somebody finally (many years ago) decided to make one of those for the computer. And it's the same concept. If your recording software doesn't have a multi-track system in the form of software, you should think about switching. The power of a digital mixer board is a must if you want to create demos or do it as a profession. Without this, you literally cannot do necessary things. This section is only for people who want a DAW described above, and have a small but decent budget. There's two versions of these - one's that require hardware and will cost 250-500, and ones that don't require hardware, which will cost close to 200. There's a rumor going around that people are finding the ones that don't require hardware for free by downloading it, I hope somebody puts a stop to it soon. The one's that don't require hardware will use your computers sound card. You plug your mic in the same place you plug speakers in. This should be avoided, as these sound cards are typically 16 bit, and you want to record in 24 bit. If you have a 24 bit sound, that's better, but only if it's external will you avoid the problem of the computers current hum in your recordings. Recommended by me is going to be Protools. You can get an Mbox 2 off craigslist typically for 250. At the retail store it's going to run you close to 450. There's a nice package for 600, which is going to give you everything you need for a basic setup. If you can't afford that much, I recommend cubase or sonar, or a free software called reaper. It's also great now to catch the idea of a controller. This is much like a nintendo controller, only its a giant mixer board. You can control the "digital mixer board simulator software on your computer" with it. So basically, this giant controller that looks like a studio mixer board that has faders and knobs on it, and if you were to move a sliding fader on the controller board, it would move the slider on the software version of the computer. On your computer monitor you would see the slider move up on its computer version of the mixer board. This is very cool, and will provide you with speed when mixing, and easier control and use of automation. The common misconception is that this will be tons of money. If you have a budget of $1,400, you can open a business as a studio if you wanted to. 2. A guide to mastering the EQ First and foremost your best bet is to utilize a parametric EQ. These have the most control and are the most versatile. Basically, no EQ matches up to it. Go with a 5 or 7 band. This means you can control up to 5 or 7 different frequencies on one sound with one insert. One does not have to know where each individual sound or instrument should sit or sounds good in frequency, in fact, it's completely up to you, although I would recommend following some basic guidelines as to where vocals, guitars, or drums fall in the world of frequency. See the end of this post, as to that's not as important to the next following things. First and foremost, you need to understand the ultimate use of the equalizer..many are under the conception that an equalizer is built to make your "drums bang harder" or "vocals sound warmer" by increasing or decreasing the volume of the bass, mid range, or high frequencies. Yes, it is used for that too, but it's the final piece of the recording in which our EQ is important. I've never been good at metaphors, so I'm not going to take that route, but a much more up front approach to enlightening you on a "great eq engineer" and what his main focus is. If you have 6 instruments, all of them different instruments, you want to associate one quality as it's main identifier on your track..and that's it's frequency. Think of each sounds frequency as it's face, and we don't want any twins. The goal would be to assign a frequency that SOUNDS GOOD for that instrument as it's main identifier, and exploit that frequency to give this particular instrument character vs other sounds on the track. What is to be most avoided is two separate instruments or sounds to share one frequency, which means, if your vocals are pumped up at 3k, you DO NOT want your guitar to be pumped up at 3k. This will take away the presence of both entities, and also create "mud" as they sound at the same time. Although this one paragraph may seem short, this is the main focus of a good EQ engineer. To get each individual layer of the recording a frequency that sounds great for that particular sound, and avoid sharing that certain frequency with other sounds. This will give your track "fullness". There's a rule to remember with EQ's - less can be more. In other words, often times you do not need to boost a frequency on a sound, but rather lower the frequencies you don't want, in turn making the good sounding frequencies stand out more. You do not need to know what frequencies sound good on what instruments if you use the following trick below (still try to learn that stuff though): The Parametric EQ Trick - Eq's have three main controls, volume, frequency, and band. I can't explain those to you, so if you don't know them, you will not understand this trick. You're guna have to look it up. Step One- Activate one of the five or seven channels on your EQ. Increase the volume (or DB) of it almost all the way up. This will sound like hell if played back. Before pressing play, turn your speakers DOWN. Step Two- Decrease your band to be very narrow, almost like spike with little width. Step Three - Slide the frequency of your spike all throughout the frequency chart, listening for any unwanted noise. Mark those frequencies on a piece of paper. I'd suggest finding two or three of these nasty frequencies. Step Four - Continue sliding your spike until you find the tone that sounds good. Mark that on your piece of paper under "sounds good - 3k" or whatever the frequency is. Step Six - Bring the equalizer back to defaults, then look at your paper. Activate your 5-7 separate bands (there's an on/off switch!) and lower the sounds you have written down as BAD sounds by around 2 decibels. Set one band to the frequency you have as "sounds good" and RAISE that 2 decibels. Do this whole process about 3-4 times, but keeping the piece of paper you have the frequencies marked on. Try to spread out repeating this process a few hours apart, best the next day. One day a frequency may sound good or bad, and the next day you might totally disagree with your decision. Mixing your track over the course of 5 days is a good thing. Any experienced engineer will tell you they rarely ever get it right the first day. Here's some quick tips on typical frequency for most popular recordings (these are some general ideas, and results can heavily vary!): Your kick drum will mostly likely sound good somewhere between 50hz-100hz. Your snare will sound pretty decent around 1k. Vocals usually sound good somewhere between 1-4k. Guitars are 3-6k. These are the hardest to mix with vocals. You can find more info for typical frequencies per instrument or sound online. Just use google. Feel free to ask any questions! --- 3. A guide to great sounding vocals This one is much more simplier if you've mastered the eq, and if you havn't, make sure you ready this first, because good vocals are hand in hand with good EQ Find that section above. Past that, there's a few things you need to know about vocals! 1. The biggest misconception and mistake you can make is to have your vocals in stereo! The vocal of any human being is a monosound, and if you want your recording to sound real and warm, it needs to be mono. Stereo will sound thin at the center, and wide on the left and right, giving you the impression two different people are singing on the left and right of you! gross! If you record and keep it as mono, your vocalist will sound like hes standing in front of you when you listen to the song! And yes, the vocals will still be on both the left and right speakers. 2. Rarely should you just grab a clone copy of the chorus or even a verse, put it on a new track, doubling it up. It's a very obvious, cheap sound. Take the extra time to record it, using some different harmonics and tones, to make it sound PRO. 3. A clean recording is the most important thing! Make sure your vocalist is not far from the mic, a half foot to a foot and a half tops! Make sure you have the right microphone settings. Do not use a omnidirectional mic or something like that, look up "cardioid" and make sure that's the type of mic you are using! Also, feel free to experiment, but for "singers" use a "condenser" microphone, and for screamers, use a "dynamic" microphone. Feel free to put your screamer on the condenser for a more warm sound, but make sure you follow the steps below or you will break your stuff! DON'T BREAK YOUR MIC! If your vocalist screams, do not move him away from the mic more than a foot and a half. Do not lower the gain! Use a pad! Look up what this button means if you don't know! This is extremely important to remember when using a ribbon might, and possibly a condenser mic. 4. Never, ever record with any kind of effects on the vocals. Get a clean version of the vocals, then ADD any effect you want over that. This cannot be stressed enough and it is the biggest threat that you will not be able to make your vocals sound good! No compressors, delays, or eq! 5. "Just open the reverb plugin and choose a preset!" The biggest missed fact of reverb or any delays is that it needs to be in time with your songs bpm, or it will make the track sound muddy. This is the "delay" in milliseconds were talking about, but it needs to be in time with your BPM! Well how do we do this? Three ways: 1. MATH! 2. "Auto Timer" feature! 3. "Tap Feature!" You can calculate your reverb timing with MATH! Here's the formula! Calculate your reverb or delay timing using the formula below if your reverb device has no "auto timer" or "tap timing" - Here's an article that explains the formula. The auto timer on some of your digital reverbs will pick the bpm you set in your DAW, and auto time it! But atlas, finding these nifty tools can be troublesome. There's also a tap feature, which you tap the tempo on a little button and it will automatically time it! Misuse of reverb is a plague. For more information on how to set up a reverb properly, see the reverb section. --- 4. A guide to reverb, delay This section is not so long, but is one of the most important aspects of audio engineering and good sound. It does not explain to you the parameters or knobs of a reverb, but if you've got that figured out I'll show you how to make your reverb sound even warmer. I'm going to try to explain this cross platform for all software. Here's the rule - you never want to put a delay or reverb on your track by using that tracks insert. Why? You lose audio power and cause some latency problems in your track that may not be audible but are still there. The second reason is you want your vocals to be mono, but your reverb to be stereo, for the effect the person is standing in front of you, but there voice is traveling and bouncing throughout some kind of stadium, stage, or whatever.. Here's the correct way to do this Create a new track called an auxiliary track, and make it stereo. Find your track (vocal let's say) and find the output bus. These are usually a drop down right on the mixing view of your track. Bus this track by selecting from the drop down a bus number (bus 3). At this point, it can be any bus number you desire. Now go to your auxiliary track. Make sure the fader is set to unity (0db). Go to the INPUT section of the track, and find the INPUT bus. Select the bus number you chose for the vocal output. So if your vocals are bused out on bus 4, your input on your aux track needs to be bus 4. What this did was create a clone copy of your audio track on your aux track. The original track STILL outputs to the master fader, it is not only routed through the aux track now, but just a copy of the signal is sent to the aux. On your aux, put the insert of your delay. Get your settings how you want them. Keep the "dry/wet" option completely wet unless trying to achieve a certain sound (that really shouldn't be the case, as you will do a dry/wet feature with faders now). Now, you should have two tracks of vocals, one is the original, one is the aux version which now has a delay or reverb on it. Use the fader on the aux track to blend in the reverb by raising or lowering the volume. You now have correctly setup a reverb/delay. --- 5. A guide to mastering the compressor Two key things: 1. Compression on your individual sounds, like the guitar, and drums 2. Compression on your ENTIRE song 1. What the hell does this thing even do? Welp, a compressor is a device that you shoot sound into, and it compresses it. With the controls on the compressor, you can make sound more "squashed" by raising soft sounds and lowering loud sounds. A guitarist who finger picks one part of a song an then strums another part of the song will often require compression (or automation), because typically the strum will be much louder then the finger picking. Compression is typically used on most audio signals in your mix, but some may be very very light. It's quiet uncommon to not want to apply some compression. 2. Compressing but not over compressing your final mix is usually a good idea. Anytime a record is finished, it is sent to a mastering studio, who will run a compressor and eq over the song as a whole. This will make it so when people are in their car listening to your song, it's not blasting one minute and then quiet the next. If your entire song is not somewhat dynamically flush, most listeners will just either a. turn down the volume when it gets loud, in turn not even hearing the quiet parts. OR b. turn it off completely. A practical example of this is when your watching a movie on tv, then a commericial comes on, and its volume is BLOWING YOUR HAIR BACK. That's because modern commercials are compressed to hell and back to sound in your face, while the movie probably had light compression on it to keep the dynamics of the audio in tack. Be wary not to over compression, as dynamic dimension is a good thing, you want your violins to sound a bit more quiet than your guitar or vice versa, but you don't want it to be a dramatic difference either. --- 6. Cheap headphones are your best friend What the heck am I talking about? Well, this is for the mixing process. Below my setup I have a box with 16 pairs of headphones, which are the cheapest, crappiest, and worst sounding headphones I can find. Why use these to mix? Because 80% of speakers used by average people are CHEAP. And it's important to make sure it sounds good on those cheap speakers. Your mixing process should start and end with your high quality monitors, speakers or headphones, but in between should be a mixing session on as many cheap speakers or headphones you can find. You will often find that your mix sounds great on your high quality stuff, but sounds terrible on cheap stuff. Adapting to the cheap stuff will still retain your high quality speaker sound if you spend enough time going back and forth. Also make trips to your car. If you take your song seriously, never release a mix without running it through cheap speakers or headphones. This is an often missed but important process of mixing.

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    Good article that brings up many esential stuff with good tips that I agree on. kudos for you. The only thing I'm confused about is the first lines about EQ. You seem to say the parametric is best but describe a graphic EQ?
    Oh damn. I knew maybe 60% of that stuff. This is gonna come in really handy soon. Appreciated
    Some really great advice and tips here. I use them on my own recordings now. Great article, hope to see more soon! Thanks.
    ...very nice article indeed. I do hope you continue on with home recording type tips and such!
    Great article! I've been doing home recording with a MBox 2 mini and Pro Tools for a couple years now, as a hobby. I've learn a few of these techniques from a friend who also uses Pro Tools but you helped flesh out a lot more. I'll definitely be using this guide as a reference.
    Great guide man. you really know your stuff. keep them coming. thanks a lot
    I imagine this is really heplful to a lot of people, hell I even understood it and I don't know the first thing about mixing/engineering or anything like that! Good work for doing this!
    i love how you say: "There's a rumor going around that people are finding the ones that don't require hardware for free by downloading it"
    Nice article. Only problem noted was in the "Parametric EQ Trick" section. It jumped from Step 4 to Step 6. Not sure if there's a Step 5