The Home Studio. Part 1: Gear Basics

An introduction into the basics of home recording, and the equipment you may need.

1
Hey there UGers, this is the beginning of a series of columns for recording at home. This part is an introduction for recording noobs, but experienced home recorders may find this useful also. For anyone serious about this subject, i recommend 'The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records' by Albin Zak it's very helpful and has some great ideas for getting unique recording sounds at home and in professional studio. First off, a brief outline of the jobs in a studio and what they entail. Performer This one's easy, the singer/drummer/guitarist/bassist/trombonist etc who's part is being recorded. Engineer This person is responsible for mic setup and sound checks, basically everything involved with the sound once it leaves the instrument and enters the computer or console. Producer Many people ask "what the hell does a producer do?" Good question. A producer can be anything and everything in a studio, they can perform, write songs, do the job of the engineer, check the sound mix of a live recording, or all of the above. Most of all, the producer usually has the say on wether a take is good enough or wether it needs to be done. They also make sure everyone in the studio is doing what they're supposed to and keep a project running smoothly. Mixer This will be covered in a later chapter, but the mixer is involved in the final editing of the song and it's parts in terms of stereo spectrum, EQ and volume. Now in most home studios (like mine) one person plays all these parts, but it can help sharing the workload. For example, when recording one of my band's songs, i am the engineer, the performer (for the guitar parts), the mixer, and usually the producer (for my own and the vocal takes). The Gear In terms of your instrument gear, if it works, anything goes, but i cannot stress the point that the more money and time you invest in your gear, the better quality recording you will end up with. Decent amps can sound awful in oddly shaped rooms etc, whereas a cheap practice amp recorded into a $10 mic may sound like a million bucks in the same room. Mix and match, there is no wrong or right. For all recordings, unless you are doing a guitar only instrumental and are using what is called 'direct in' (more on this later) you will need a microphone (assuming you already have all the required instruments and amps and effects for your recordings.) Many people ask, which microphone? For my bands first recording, we stuck a crappy $10 mic in the middle of a room and played a song, needless to say, it sounded awful. You can use one mic for all instruments ( currently I use a Shure PG57 for all instruments, and they all sound fine) or a different one for different situations (maybe a Shure SM57 for guitar and bass, some AKG drum mics, and a Neumann for vocals) This can be very expensive but also leads to a much clearer sound overall. I suggest, if you can afford mid-priced mic, to get a Shure PG57. They only cost about $100NZD (roughly 80US), are extremely versatile, and are only a step below the industry standard for instrument mics (the SM57). If you are interested in spending more on mics, eg a fully miked drum kit requires a minimum of 5 drum mics, I recommend surfing wikipedia for the best kinds and find out what your favourite artists use in the studio. Now some people like a 'clean' sound and go instrument --> mic --> mixer/interface --> recording device (some people like me) but you can add things such as compressors and EQ's between the mic and the mixer, just like you would with effects between a guitar and an amp. This is quite advanced and is used for adding more coloration to a particular sound, and there is no right or wrong here, just mess around with stuff till you get a good sound. (For example, i run the vocals through my Boss GT8 guitar FX processor sometimes to get cool effects like distortion and echo). Note: adding EQ's and compressors after the mixer can also work. Direct In is a method of recording for electrical instruments such as guitars, basses, and keyboards, where you bypass the amp and microphone option and go directly from the instrument or effects chain to the recording device. For example, sometimes if i can't get a decent sound miking my amp, I'll go straight from my GT8 processor into the input of my computer. Some people believe this yields a "harsh", "cold" & "digital" sound, but in todays modern world of amp and speaker modeling, beautiful tones are now easier than ever to achieve. Now we need something to process the sound that is being picked up by the mic and put it into your recording device. I use a small Behringer XENYX502 mixer that has a single preamp for the mic and is great for getting your levels right for different instruments, no fancy controls or effects just simple stuff here. For elaborate multi-instrument takes, I would recommend a larger (at least 16 track) mixer to get the job done, brands like Boss and Behringer are the go here. A simpler, sometimes more effective method is an Interface. These can be thought of as computer friendly mixers. They have inputs and level knobs etc, just like a mixer, but most have USB output, which is effective because it bypasses the (sometimes poor quality) soundcard in your computer and as a result you get a much clearer less digital sound with your recording. For these i suggest something like the mini M-BOX, which comes with ProTools. Now, a recording device. This can be a simple computer equipped with audacity (a free, easy-to use recording program), an industry standard I-mac running Garageband, Protools and Logic, or just a simple 4 track tape recorder. Whatever you use, it will eventually need to be converted to digital for CD/IPOD use so you may want to consider cutting down the number of times you need to format and convert, so it will be easiest and most convenient to use a computer. I suggest an Apple, i use a standard I-mac with extra RAM, and it is extremely useful and convenient for my recording needs. Also, the portability of a laptop may want to be employed. The Basics Many people argue what should be recorded first in a song, and it differs between producers, writers and songs. Maybe you need a good acoustic guitar track to lay the foundation, perhaps the bass to provide the groove. Personally, i like to set down the drums first, so that a solid rhythm can be played on, the trouble is it's hard for a drummer to play to a quiet click track because what they play is so loud. Experiment, there is no right or wrong for recording orders, if your bassist can play to a click track well then I'd advise to get the bass down first for a solid rhythm. When you have recorded the foundation track, it's time to start adding layers. I'll usually do the bass after the drums, followed by a simple rhythm guitar track. From here, you can branch off and do the vocal work and some harmonies and backing vocals or you could lay down the guitar solos or some cool sound effects or whatever. Sometimes i find it easy to record each layer with only the drums and bass active to avoid to much muddle and it makes it easier to concentrate on what you are playing. It would be wise however, to include some type of instrument that plays a melody and/or chords when recording vocals as this makes it much easier for your singer to hit the right notes when they have something to match it to. That's all for now, thanks for reading part 1 of "The Home Studio".

76 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Heat-13
    first! very nice! good for newbies agree with most things you say... btw Audacity ftw
    Moose1309
    Blazn Blue wrote: For elaborate multi-instrument takes, I would recommend a larger (at least 16 track) mixer to get the job done, brands like Boss and Behringer are the go here. I'd have to disagree and say mackie is the best mixer out there.
    +1, But Allen and Heath is up there too.
    the_kooks666
    i did my bands recordings with all of the instruments mic'ed up, i used some shure mics and some really cheap behringer mics, i did all of the micing of the instruments, all of the sound checks, all of the mixing (considering it was all a live take, except for the maracas and congas, those were over dubbed) and this was my 2nd time ever recording a band and this is what came out of it... www.myspace.com/theabandonedact i mean i think it sounds pretty for the equipment we used and for me not knowing what the hell i was doing, i personally think its pretty easy to record, its all in what the band members think, if it sounds good then stick to it
    clap_clap_clap
    to the guy above, investigate another audio interface, the mic input in the front of your computer isn't at real mic level, and it's super noisy, like the OP said, look at a protools mbox mini (one with a mic preamp). This way you get the pro tools software as well, trust me, what comes with your computer + audacity is no way suitable, and mbox's aren't that expensive, especially considering you get software and hardware
    RHCPROCK!
    in the comments a couple of guys were saying how audicty lagged loads adn you had to manually move the track into the right place after recording, i had the same problem. but i also got a really crap buzzy sound whenever i used any distrotion whilst recording, but it was fine recording with a clean tone. Any advice on how to get a decent heavy tone when recording? and is it okay to plug my line6 spider III striaght into the mic port on the front of my computer?
    clap_clap_clap
    oh and guys, please, google these terms: neotek audient api ssl neve toft soundcraft neumann schoeps earthworks bricasti lexicon chandler avalon....there's a huge world of audio gear out there, spend some time on gearslutz and get to know it, some of it is very very cool
    clap_clap_clap
    "And also great job on handling the criticism and stuff civilly. I didn't think people were like that on UG or the internet anymore." I thought people appreciated constructive crticism (yes, I was being constructive). YOu guys need to harden up if you think is bad criticism and you want to survive in the business. I'm sorry if I offended you guys, I was only trying to help calrify things as someone with knowledge to people without.
    hendrix7
    thanks for this article i just started to get into recording and have wasted a shitload of time trying to figure everything out thx
    Shor-T Zero
    audacity is really easy to use and ftw, but some of the settigns and stuff on it, pluss some lag, isn't too great. Great article btw, really helped me plan out what to do with my band and how we can get started on some home recording. And really great that you know some of the technical aspects, as far as that mic placement is better than price in some/most cases, and different techniques. And also great job on handling the criticism and stuff civilly. I didn't think people were like that on UG or the internet anymore. Oh, on the topic of what kind of room to record in, if you can, try an isolated room that has some kind of padding, in order to prevent the sound from reverberating everywhere.
    AwesomeDrummer
    triggerhappy19 wrote: Does anyone get a weird recording delay on Audacity? if i record a track playing along in time to tracks already recorded then when i go and listen to it afterwards the just recorded track will be out of time with the existing tracks, so i have to move it around manually to get it in time... Any advice? I got that all the time man, that's why u dont use audacity, if u have a slightly less than average sound card or not much Ram, audacity lags like a bitch you can go to preferences and set it to automatically correct the lag after it is done recording.
    Where exactly in preferences? I had a look but couldn't find it.
    guy_tebache
    you can get an Mbox mini with protools for about 600NZ so id say 300pounds? not too sure though
    Nah dude, thats more like 150 bp
    triggerhappy19
    Does anyone get a weird recording delay on Audacity? if i record a track playing along in time to tracks already recorded then when i go and listen to it afterwards the just recorded track will be out of time with the existing tracks, so i have to move it around manually to get it in time... Any advice? I got that all the time man, that's why u dont use audacity, if u have a slightly less than average sound card or not much Ram, audacity lags like a bitch
    you can go to preferences and set it to automatically correct the lag after it is done recording.
    BriBri001
    is this any harm in using a mixer before your Mbox? insted of just using an interface? pros and cons?
    iron_maiden93
    good article, dollarstore mics ftw! lol my bands recordings sound so bad, i wish we had money, or jobs for that matter, get some decent equipment
    big_hall23
    just a few pointer that i have. first mic placment is absolutly the most underlooked key to getting a great sound. if you change the angle or move the mic in any direction it changes tone. also reducing bleed from other mics (i.e. guitar cabs to drum mics)will bring clarity to your recording by reducing what they call fase problems. if you can put different insterments in different rooms when recording it helps out about the most. you can also put heavy blankets over the front of cabs and put the mics right next to the grill to isolate the different sound sources. and last of all, with the computers i had a few comments. directly plugging a mixer is ok if it is not powered. any time you use a powered amp you send way more power than the computer inputs were made for and will most likely fry the amp or computer. and if you are overdubing a bunch on computer programs, there is a latency issue, which just means there is a delay time. when you play something that has been recorded already, to record something on another track, the times are fractions of a second off of each other. unfortionatly it usualy produces a "comb filter" effect wich sounds off. many studios directly record into a digital multi-track recorder so there is not as much signal flow delay time. then you can transport the recorded files to your computer for editing and mixing purposes. other than that, great start. hope to see a few more of these post. kodos
    BassmastaRob
    good article but i think it would be better just to take a class at a community college or high school. it just seems like it would be hard to explain everything in an article series and not confuse people or have others post misleading information in the comments. i took a class last year for a semester and it was great to learn a lot of things and not have to buy $600 of equipment to find out its not compatible/is more expensive than industry standard for less quality.
    underfunking
    For anyone that lives in the uk, especially the south, if you really want to get the best studio experience and learn a lot in 10 weeks, i suggect looking at www.acm.ac.uk
    Gabysguitar
    good column Im trying to record a couple of songs and definitly it could work for me!!!
    Kat Kllr
    Tweakz guide is the recording bible. Im majoring in music production right now and I find that a lot of people know how to get there music on to the computer very good but once it's on the computer there stumped, they don't know what there suppose to do to the signal now that it's been recorded.
    moody07747
    I suggest you reword all that talk about mixers. I just had someone ask if they needed a mixer and its not needed TBH Mixers are needed if you are running analog or if your interface doesn't have any preamps on board. Interfaces are the #1 thing anyone looking to record should start looking into. They are a piece of hardware that bypasses your stock sound card and will give better recording/audio quality as well as less latency. Mixer/interfaces are out there but they are not all that great and only firewire ones are useful. Firewire VS. USB: Firewire interfaces can move move more data at one time. they generally are used with higher end interfaces as they keep inputs unmixed. What do you mean unmixed? Well USB cant move as much data at one time and generally it will mix every input on an interface to a single stereo track...this is very bad when you want to edit each track as they are all combined now. Tweak's Guide is the best out there IMO for studio info and gear reviews...Google it. As for this site, I made a few recording basics videos and have another one soon to come. I suggest going and watching them, they are posted in the R&R section of the forms.
    guitaringsailor
    good article waiting for more! Though I actually have access to a good studio this is good reading anyways
    ShredderOmega
    [quote]druz15_UG wrote: Quick question, ProTools; about how much dose that cost (in UK pounds preferably)? you can get an Mbox mini with protools for about 600NZ so id say 300pounds? not too sure though quote] Cheers, that's a lot cheaper than I've been told before. Might be able to afford that fairly soon.
    Noremad
    I hope you keep coming with this column. I found this information very useful and right on time. I'm looking forward to the next installment...
    TheBulla
    TheBulla wrote: I use a SINGLE Samson Q1U USB mic and a Logitech Rock Band microphone (together for drums, and Mic the guitars and vox with the Samson) Sorry for double post, forgot to mention i use Adobe Audition for sound recording, as it can look at multiple inputs (mics) at the same time and record from both. Check out some of my recordings... http://www.myspace.com/malignantwreckcho...
    samerika
    awesome article. I have the same mixer as you pc's work fine too, im using one although if i hade the money i would get the best mac laptop xD
    jshwak
    for the record, i find Reaper better than Audacity as a recording software. Look it up.
    +1 I Like audacity alot.. but I kinda prefer Reaper too !!
    heliothehunter
    Do you need a mixer? I'm saving up for a Korg Multitrack (I forget which one, but it costs about $1,500) and I need to know if I have to buy anything else. Is a mixer absolutely neccessary or will a multitrack work without one?
    AFallenJake
    Taint McGooch wrote: i have a question...i'm not the recorder, but when we do record, we always have a problem with one person being louder than the other. Now, is the only way to fix that to tell the other guy to turn his level down (probably in a less nice manner) or can it it be mixed properly without multitracking (we have a P.O.S. 4-track tape Tascam, so multi tracking is almost out of the question)
    Here is a thought. I used to use a 4-track tape recorder, and for multi tracking, I would lay down the four available tracks with as much balancing as possible, and then record that on one track of another tape, and then you have three more tracks, you still may need a sound board to mic the drums and take them to one channel, but it would be a decent solution to the problem you have. You just have to buy a shit load of tapes. Also, I know it may not be a popular route, but I have heard of a program called Melodyne. It can be used to change the pitch and tone of recorded audio. It is great when it comes to a great vocal track with a few unfortunate errors, or getting the right harmonies for a really sweet effect.
    druz15_UG
    "I suggest an Apple" +1
    Thanks for all the positive comments guys. Don't take this advice as gospel though, try stuff out like computers if you can, macs are not for everyone. Part two will have more info on audio interfaces and the actual process of recording in more detail
    Blazn Blue
    For elaborate multi-instrument takes, I would recommend a larger (at least 16 track) mixer to get the job done, brands like Boss and Behringer are the go here.
    I'd have to disagree and say mackie is the best mixer out there.
    Rodders
    Very pro apple - a windows computer with cubase can be just as good. Often cheaper too, as a Windows computer can be found with higher RAM, memory and a faster processor for a lot cheaper than an Apple. I still love Apples, but with the money you save on a computer you could buy a few really nice mic's, and a decent recording program (not Audacity). And I disagree, I don't think a crappy mic can ever sound nice - you didn't talk about the difference between Condenser and Dynamic mic's either, or about Cardoid's, Omni-directional ect. I know it's a beginner article but these were first things we were taught in an As level music tech course - and they can make the difference between a crap sounding recording and brilliant one. But, overall, nice article.
    Auals
    Sounds good. I make a drum track using my drum machine and then record guitars, then drums, then bass. I leave vocals to last which is bad from what i've done, it's hard to mix vocals in last.
    dayzofdesire
    thanks for the tips so far. Whats your opinions on the multi track recorders that can burn right to cd? I've been playing with the idea of buying one though I have an apple laptop and a fastrack... any thoughts?
    ShredderOmega
    All I can say about Audacity is; you better have a decent mic. and/or soundcard. Otherwise, good program. Quick question, ProTools; about how much dose that cost (in UK pounds preferably)? I'll be following these articles Druz, something I've been looking for a while (y)
    wyantsm
    I don't want to write a whole article, and not to dis this one but there are some serious mis-steps here. 1.) no mention of multitracking 2.) scratch tracks were not mentioned either and this is kind of obvious to some people but prolly not to all so I think it def. should have been talked about in a beginner article. 3.) and the dynamic/condenser thing but someone already said that