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. It will cover the basics of the recording process, what to expect with a professional studio, and outline 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 all the other recording musicians follow the right beat, instead of the drummer having to follow the other off-beat musicians.
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.
Rhythm Guitar: Gets recorded third, as it's the foundation for the lead guitar.
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. 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.
All in this order, of course, assuming you don't have the space and tools to make a live recording.
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!
Although you have more "creative control" in a personal setting, having professional sound technicians taking care of the recording make things much, much easier.
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.
- Condenser microphones are generally used for recording acoustic guitars and 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 microphone like the Shure SM57 (industry standard microphone for recording electric guitar amplifiers and snare drums); 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.
- 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. 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" enabled option and you should check for this when choosing between software packages.
- A good guitar is essential. An entry-level guitar should be replaced with a good quality guitar after a guitarist has mastered open chords and a few scales. This usually means within a year or so from the day they started playing. Guitarists tend to become attached to their first guitar and the danger in this is that the guitar itself hinders the development of higher skills. An entry-level guitar will always sound like an entry-level guitar when recorded. * A good rule is to find out what some of your favorite guitarist plays and play them all through a few different amps. You will then be able to see which feels best to you, and not what the "norm" is. That being said, there is a reason Gibson and Fender are the most popular brands to own. Just remember to find a guitar that you like, and if you like how it plays and sounds, its all up to you.
This is an odd subject. Most studios are specifically designed for sound, and are built to get the best quality sound available. However, some of the most famous albums ever where recorded in buildings that were never designed for music. It all comes down to what sounds good to you.
That being said, you never want a square/rectangle room to record in. Always try and uses as much sound dampening possible, so that you can get the best quality with what you have. As long as there is no reverb (unless wanted), the recording should be adequate.
PC or Mac?
This is more a preference than which is better. Certain people are accustomed to Windows, others feel that an Apple is easier to operate. However, most professionals use Macs, but it is not uncommon for some major studios to use PCs. There are a variety of specialized Linux distributions dedicated to the purpose as well, utilizing real-time kernels for lower latency and faster processing of audio input.
There are many companies that supply music recording software (DAW - Digital Audio Workstation). Professional studios tend to use Pro Tools by Avid. Pro Tools is expensive and usually needs to be run on a computer that is built for editing, and are high performance computers such as a Mac Pro/Alienware, or a custom built PC. However, any basic PC/Mac can run it.
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 Injection is one of the most hotly debated decisions when recording the sound of guitar. On one hand, if truly direct (that is, does not goes through any amplifier or effects), the extremely clean signal is a blessing for the audio engineer, as he will now have some thing that can be easily manipulated with any effects. On the other hand, some people say that there are no rescue for such a clean signal, no matter what effects were inserted.
Effects to use
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.
Alternatively, if you can get a hold of a Pre-Dunlop era Rockman, it provides all the tools and setup needed to produce some of the best direct-injected recorded Guitar.
Tips for Recording
- Don't get frustrated! - If you can't get something to sound right, just take a break. Go and do something that is not music related and then try again.
- Re-amping - If your midi tracks sound a bit lifeless then re-amping can put some "air" into the mix. Play the midi track through your amplifier and record back into the DAW onto a separate track.
- Creating a great guitar solo - the professionals may "comp" a solo from many different takes. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) are two guitarists who utilize this method of merging the best sections of alternative takes.
- Backup your projects - essential to save and back-up your music projects. Music projects tend to grow quite big as you gain proficiency in developing songs and backing up your work is essential if you don't want to lose earlier takes that you may wish to return to.