So you've been practicing and practicing, and finally, you're ready to record your first demo. But where to begin? Should you go to a professional studio, or just try to do it yourself at home? What kind of equipment and software will you need? Although everyone talks like they could write and record an entire album in a weekend, recording is a surprisingly tricky and detailed job. Remember that professionals go to school to learn how to record musicians.

This page is a guide for musicians that already have their own songs and are ready to record them at home. It will cover the basics of the recording process and outlines an ideal home recording setup

 


What Gets Recorded When

Drums: Generally speaking, it's a good idea to record the drums and percussion first. This will help keep everything on the beat.

Bass: Should be recorded second, as it's the middle ground between the basic beat of the drums and the chords of the rhythm guitar.  A simple bass part can be recorded to get everything going and then enhanced later.

Rhythm Guitar: Gets recorded third, as it's the foundation for the lead guitar.

Vocals are sometimes recorded as a "guide track" to help the other musicians "feel" their way and then at the final stage is replaced with a more focused performance.

Lead Guitar: Follows the rhythm guitar, and will give direction to some of the vocalist's melodies.

Vocals: Very last, as the vocalist will be able to wrap melodies around the bass and rhythm guitar's chords, and the lead guitarist's soloing melodies. This will be the most difficult part of the recording.

Mixing:

When it comes to mixing volume levels and other audio dynamics, one needs to take several things into consideration. First, which instruments should be heard the most? In a guitar-focused rock band, one may want to give the lead or rhythm guitar more prominence. In funk or dance music, the bass may want to be given more space. However, certain instruments may also need more focus at different times in the song. If there is a banjo playing in the background in a rock song, but it eventually gets a solo part, one may want to increase the volume at the point of the solo.

The second thing to consider is special effects and left-right panning. Should the guitar be given a delay effect at some parts? Perhaps the bass may need a flange effect, or backing vocals should pan from left to right during the bridge?

Another important thing to keep in mind is the master volume level. At no point in your song should the listener need to abruptly turn down the volume for fear of breaking his/her speakers

 
Your Studio

Based on your budget and space available, your home recording studio layout and design will vary. What really affects your home studio is the type of instrumentation you intend to record. For a guitarist, you could use a computer, audio interface, amplifier, guitar and a dynamic mic. For more advanced music composition, you could add a hardware mixer, keyboards, drum machines, variety of different microphones, VST software and percussion instruments.

Putting together a small studio at home is relatively inexpensive compared to the price of hiring a professional studio. The power of modern computers gives you a huge variety of recording options and the computer has become the centre of home recording and pro studios. Pro studios buy extra audio processing equipment like expensive compressors and outboard effects which will always give them an advantage over home recording but with a modest investment the home studio can produce a recording quality that most people would find acceptable. All professional musicians usually prepare demo versions of their songs before they go into a costly professional studio and this should also apply to your working method.

Equipment:
  • Condenser microphones are generally used for recording acoustic guitars and vocals, dynamic microphones are more suitable for putting up close to the amplifier speaker. Try not to buy cheap microphones on the basis that the technology used is simple and therefore a cheap microphone will match a quality mic.  The extra cost is reflected in the higher audio quality of your recordings.
  • An audio interface is essential for instruments and microphones. Plugging a microphone directly into the computer's microphone input or a guitar into the line-in input produces poor quality results due to the fact that a computer's soundcard and microphone/line inputs are generally not intended for serious recording projects. Audio interfaces can be an external box using USB or Firewire or an internal PCI card with break-out jacks. External is highly recommended. 

The PC you use determines the amount of tracks you can record. A laptop can be useful for portable recording but they rarely match the usefulness of a high specification PC. You should aim for a minimum of 4GB of RAM and the fastest processor that you can afford.  If you do choose a laptop get a external 7200 RPM hard drive.  ESATA is the best choice but USB 2.0 or firewire will work as well.  Audio recording and playback places a heavy demand on the computer's resources and this can lead to timing errors, glitches and less tracks but this has become less of an issue with multiple processor machines. Recording software usually comes with a "multiple processor" enable option.  Make sure you have this if you are using dual  or quad core processors.

Recording Software:

There are many companies that supply music recording software (DAW - Digital Audio Workstation). Professional studios tend to use Logic Pro or Pro Tools but the biggest user base is for Steinberg's Cubase. Logic Pro is expensive and usually needs to be run on a computer that has Logic Pro DSP (soundcards) cards installed; whereas Cubase can run on any machine using the native sound capabilities without compatibility issues. Cakewalk Sonar is also a popular choice. 

There is a learning curve associated with music software and it will take time before you achieve results that match your expectations. A good example is the virtual mixing desk; one aspect of the software that matches its hardware version down to every detail. On a virtual mixer you can assign auxiliary sends and returns, route audio, set instruments in the stereo field, balance volumes, automate changes and much more.

All recording software allows you choose a software driver from a multiple list. If you have bought an audio interface and installed the software, then choose that driver to achieve lower latency. Latency is caused by the analogue to digital conversion of the audio signal and by the processing that takes place before it is sent to your audio outs on your virtual mixing desk. This can be quite disconcerting to the guitarist; a sense of striking the string but not hearing the sound until milliseconds later. This is usually overcome by the audio interface offering direct monitoring. This bypasses the software and provides you with a signal that is not processed. This has its drawback in that you cannot use any software effects but these can be applied to your audio track afterwards.

Here is a list of sound drivers:

MME: early Microsoft driver that still appears as a default in driver drop-down menus. Low performance makes this unsuitable for DAWs.

DX: Microsoft multi-media driver designed for improved graphics and sounds. Offers high latency and is therefore not suitable for DAWs.

WDM: later Microsoft driver that offers improved performance over MME

ASIO: developed for high performance and low latency. This driver is recommended for DAWs. ASIO is not a Microsoft driver and it is essential to check that the DAW you buy supports the protocol.

Direct Recording:  is hotly debated as to its merits.  if you record your guitar directly, with no amps or effects, you have many options in the mixing stage to apply all kinds of effects.  If you record the sound you ultimately want, meaning and amped sound with effects, then you are stuck with that sound and need to make it fit in the mix.

Whether you use direct injection or mikes, using computer or traditional 4-tracks, insert the effect while recording or after the recording, you will need to have some to bring life to the otherwise sterile sound.

  • Distortion - what makes electric guitar sound great? Distortion, that's what. When combined with proper amount of compression, the sound will be much smoother.
  • Compression - In terms of direct injection, compression of an audio signal can help produce a smooth distortion; this effect also produce a sustain on the sound.
  • Delay/Echo/Reverb - provide a front-back aural dimension
  • Stereo chorus - provide left-right aural dimension.

Some DI-boxes that is specifically designed for recording may also have additional circuitry, to help mimic the sound of some certain cabinet and the position of the mike.

Recording Tips:

  • Learn your recording software well and have it ready to go whenever you are practicing. When you have the feeling and are playing well you do not want to be spending most of your time trying to figure out how to "punch in" or "loop record" etc.

  • Create 2 or 3 tracks of acoustic guitars and pan left and right for a bigger sound.  The same can be done for vocals.

  • Run midi parts through and amp and record as audio.  It can take out some of the canned sound.

  • Back up everything religiously.  A project can grow quite large and you want to have all takes available for mixing.