Note: We only wish our home set-up looked like that 😉
We all wish we had unlimited free access to a studio backed by Sony or Capitol Records and we all fantasize about our tracks being produced and mastered by the best in the industry. The unfortunate fact is we don’t have the dough to cough up every time we want to immortalize our music to an mp3 (or vinyl if you roll that way). Our best bet (especially for us DIY-ers) is to record our music ourselves, but we find most of the time we hit record at home we aren’t as impressed as we should be with the result.
Luckily for us, there are many options available to us nowadays that open the door to near-studio quality sound on the cheap and sometimes free! We pride ourselves with the fact we record all of our songs ourselves, here at The Capitol Heights, and we want to share some of our recording techniques and tips. You can view this article as a baseline approach to get the most out of the money you have in terms of recording. We hope you find this article useful!
1: Equipment and Software
First things first: We gotta get out the basics (i.e. gear you need to begin pumping out the hotjams). For simplicity’s sake, we will include a list of the minimum items you will need to get started.
What We Use
Custom Built, 8 Core Processor, 16 GB RAM, Windows 7
Hopefully you already have one (and hopefully this was a given). The computer lies at the center of the operation. It runs the software that controls your DAW and Recordings as a whole. We recommend at least having a 4 core processor along with a minimum of 8 GB of RAM in your machine.
A DAW or Workstation
150$ ~ 500$
What We Use
Presonus FireStudio Project
A DAW takes physical audio signals from things like microphones, instruments, and keyboards and turns them into digital signals that can be used by your computer (or more specifically your computers recording software). If you are doing simple vocal and guitar recordings or only need, at most, two inputs at a time, you can settle for a cheaper option. DAW’s start increasing in price as you add inputs (things you can simultaneously connect and record) to it. We recommend picking one that at least has 2 channels with phantom power (this allows you to use condenser microphones as they draw more power than dynamic mics), and records at 96KHz / 24bit (this means audio is sampled 96,000 times per second and saved as 24 bits [more information about the sound is saved digitally]).
100$ ~ Infinity (just kidding .. but seriously.. mics get expensive)
What We Use
Rode K2 Condenser, 2 Sterling Audio ST55, Sure SM57
While microphones are a bit obvious in this list, you may be wondering “why so many?” Different microphones are designed to do different things. Condenser microphones are generally more sensitive and are great for things like vocals and dynamic microphones are good for things like drums and electric guitar. If you read the list of microphones we use you will notice we have three condenser mics. The Rhode is used for vocal recording, while the other two are used to record in stereo. We have found mixing the SM57 with a Sterling audio mic provides a nice sound. Recording sometimes requires a lot of trial and error. It is more than OK to try out a bunch of configurations for your recordings.
100$ ~ 300$
What We Use
This is the primary, must have, piece of hardware if you have the extra money after buying the above. Hardware can get out of control and a lot of professional studios have tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment doing a myriad of things to the sound. A general-purpose compressor/limiter/gate is the one thing you can’t live without. This tool does three things: prevents the sound from getting too loud and distorting your recording (limiter), cuts down the volume of loud things (compressor), and prevents sound from coming through unless it reaches a certain volume (gate). While this can be done with plug-ins, a hardware compressor ensures you get a great tone from your microphones without being in danger of it getting too loud and maxing out your track (causing a really nasty distortion sound).
That’s it! That is a list of the bare-bones minimum items we suggest. If you already have a computer, you can start recording awesome tracks for less than $1000. That is far below the cost of going to a recording studio. The benefit is, you have complete control of how much and how often you record along with what goes into the recording. Your studio is yours forever.
2: Mic Placement and Environment
Microphone placement is an art. Well.. Let us restate that. Microphone placement is, as stated before, often an art of trial and error. Placing your mics can make or break the way your voice or instrument sounds on the recording. Most of the time we need to move the mics, record, delete, and start over multiple times before we get it just right. While we have to tweak the placement, we at least have a general idea of where to place them. There are many rules, techniques, and ideas regarding mic placement (i.e. the 3 to 1 rule) and we won’t rehash all of them here as it greatly varies depending on the instrument or source of audio (aaannd it could be an entire article itself). We will include links =].
We generally stick to a single mic for vocals and leave the track unpanned. If we want a different sound (take our song You and Me for example), we will record the vocals multiple times and try different pans for each. For acoustic instruments we tend to use spaced pair. You will also hear us use the same vocal doubling technique with instruments as well. This gives us a “wider sound”.
Also know the microphone can pick up a ton of things. It goes without saying to make sure there isn’t any background noise going on in the room where you are recording, but also make sure you try to pick a room that doesn’t have as much echo. A smaller, carpeted room will usually do just fine. If you still notice some echo in the recording, you can try to hang up sheets around you while you record. This should absorb most of the unwanted noise.
Equalization (or EQ) is a great tool to bring out the best, or hide the worst tones on your tracks. Before we go on – one thing must be stated. Do not rely on EQ to save the way yout tracks sound. Usually, if you aren’t a big fan of how your voice of instrument sounds before you EQ it, you won’t be happy with it after either. It is a tool that should be used sparingly and only to compliment your recording – not define it.
In a previous life we recorded at a studio and had a pretty bad experience (long story short we hated the guy recording us [mostly due to his personality]). One thing that stuck with us (I don’t know if this is because he said it so much or it is a really important proverb) is “less is more”. We apply this rule when we EQ our tracks. We generally pull down different frequencies when instead of boosting them. This technique is called subtractive EQ. Think of it like you are sculpting the equalization of your sound.
Just like mic placement, getting the right compression is often trial and error. We tend to only do enough compression and limiting during the physical recording process to prevent maxing out the track. This way we can go in and compress the audio again with a plugin and tweak it however we like.
We suggest you use a compressor that allows you to input two channels simultaneously while using the same compression settings. This is 100% necessary for compressing stereo mic-ed tracks as it helps prevent phase issues. It is hard to describe phase shift declaratively; Instead, we will point you to it in action. If you listen to the song Chicago by Sufjan Stevens (preferably with headphones during this exercise), notice the cymbal during the trumpet solo. You will hear the cymbal traveling from the center-right to the left speaker. This could be intentional, but most of the time it is unwanted. This can happen if you recorded something in stereo, but compressed the two tracks independently. Just be aware of this when you are recording and compressing in stereo. Most of the time you want to make sure your compressor is compressing the left and right tracks the same exact way.
5: Digital Instruments and Plugins
Just like hardware, software can get out of control. Without saying words like doodads, whozits, and thingamabobers – just know software can do pretty much anything you can imagine to your sound. Below is a list of some plugins we have used and seen used over the years.
You might notice a couple of items that stand out in the list above. The last item (free VSTs) is a nice list, compliments of bedroomproducersblog.com, we found if you don’t wish to spend anything on plugins. If you start to price them out they begin to outweigh hardware costs. We recommend, at least, getting your hands on an EQ, parametric EQ, compressor, limiter, gate, reverb, and delay plugin. Those will take you pretty far.
Melodyne is probably the only controversial item on the list because it is used for pitch correction. There is a vast and deep divide between people who approve and can’t stand vocal correction. Personally, we think there is nothing wrong with making your music as close to perfect as possible. There is so much production that goes into recording it doesn’t make sense to stop at the voice – but let’s end our tangent there. Correcting your voice is all up to you and we understand both sides of the argument.
You are probably wondering what this is. Everyone talks about how important it is and how you should have a specialist do it … blahdy blah. Here on planet DIY, we explain and do things the easy way. Mastering (in less words) essentially ensures your song is about as loud as all of the others in the world. If you are pointing out the issues with that statement in your mind, you should stop reading this section =]. We know mastering is a complex subject and there are a multitude of standards and techniques. We are trying to underline the easiest way to get a good sound.
The way we approach mastering is simple. After we mix down the whole song, we import that audio into a new project. We are then able to apply adjustments to our audio as a whole. We add in an EQ plugin to do some finishing touches, then we add a type of compressor/limiter plugin afterwards. We suggest you play around with the compressor and volume of your audio for a while. The goal is to get your song relatively close to the same volume as a professional song. The compressor/limiter will ensure that your song won’t get too loud causing distortion.
This section oversimplifies the mastering process. The above method is more or less how we do our mastering, so if you like how our tracks sound, then you should have no problem employing the same technique.
7: Testing, Trial, and Error
You have heard this time and time again throughout this article and you will hear it again. Recording is all about trying things out and tinkering with different things. You aren’t going to set up the mics and settings once and immediately get the final result. It takes time and practice. Over time you will know what works and what you like. It will eventually get easier and take less time to record different things because you will get better at it.
Make sure you mix your recordings down multiple times, play them on a myriad of sound systems, and let plenty of people critique them. Our friends and loved ones can attest to us following this principal (sorry guys… we know it gets old). We have also found a couple of communities on Reddit that will give you feedback on your music. Check out these subreddits: r/WeAreTheMusicMakers, r/ThisIsOurMusic, r/songwriterscircle, and r/listentothis. Those were helpful to us. It is important to get as many ears on as many speakers as possible. This will ensure you are mixing your tracks to sound great to the widest audience possible.
Getting a great sound is easier than ever. With a few pieces of hardware and software, you can get pretty close to radio-ready sound. We hope this article helps musicians beginning to branch out into DIY land and gets them started on the right track (see what we did there.. ?).
Questions, comments? Feel free to drop us a line below.