Doing a great home recording is easier than it has ever been, but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t challenges to getting great tracks. Here are some tips to help you get that studio “magic” at home.
Pick a recording program and a setup that works for you.
Grammy award-winning engineer, producer, and songwriter John Jones (Celine Dion, Duran Duran, Sir Paul McCartney) noted that “you can nowadays get a great sounding record at home. The key is to be able to get what you’re hearing.” Just because Pro Tools is what many pros use, doesn’t mean something less involved (and less expensive) won’t work as well. Get a software program that gives you the flexibility you need, and that is easy for you to use.
Learn the ins and outs of your gear.
Take the time to learn the software, hook up your equipment properly, and practice recording and mixing before you need to get a song out to someone. On a deadline, it only makes matters worse if you still are learning how to use the equipment.
Apprentice with a mentor.
Old-school engineers used to sweep floors, get coffee— anything to get a chance to sit in on sessions and work with a great audio talent. Take Grammy-winning recording engineer Dave Russell (Two Against Nature, Steely Dan). He spent three years sweeping floors at George Benson’s studio to get a chance to engineer. Once he did, the rest was history!
Wiring and Connections.
Nothing spoils a great performance like technical difficulties. Make sure everything is wired and connected properly. If you’re not sure, get help. For example, if the speakers aren’t connected properly, they may produce out-of-phase signals that can sound thin, cancel out critical frequencies, or mess with the stereo spectrum. The solution is to change the polarity of one speaker.
Use speakers in playback and mixing.
Headphones can be deceptive both in recording and in listening back to the tracks. Great speakers give you an accurate perspective on the sounds and levels of the individual tracks and the stereo mix. Says Jones, “Turn the volume way down. You should mix at a low level with speakers, so you can clearly hear the balance of the instruments and the vocal.”
Listen to the instruments.
How does the acoustic guitar actually sound? Or the vocalist? You should listen to the sound in the room before you record it. Then, you’ll have a sonic foundation to reference after the signal travels through the mic and mic preamps and to the monitor speakers.
Get a basic foundation in song structure.
At a recent ASCAP Expo, Quincy Jones noted that in order to do what he needed to do in his career, he took a class in orchestration. Yes, even Quincy Jones needed some training. His advice to songwriters and artists was: “Get your chops together—that’s how the spiritual can come through.”
Do your homework.
This ties into orchestration, but learn what instruments play which parts and how. If you add a violin sample to a song, ask yourself if a violin would really play that part? If you play bass lines on a keyboard, learn how bass lines move from a bass player’s perspective. If you’re not a vocalist and yet you record vocals, take a vocal class, and learn more about the challenges singers face.
Get rid of the buzz.
Every bit of buzz, ambient noise, and room sound that gets onto the track stays there. Notes John Jones, “Think of your job as an engineer to find every little piece of junk in the track. Notice each noise, click, and pop.”
Avoid the flavor of the month.
Remember the gated-snare trend of the ’80s? Yeah, sounds rough today, doesn’t it? So do you think you need overprocessed autotuning on every vocal? Think again. Unless the genre of music specifically dictates it, don’t think you have to get on every trend for every recording.