The Audio Engineering Fundamentals You Need to Know If You’re a Musician or Content Creator
Whether you’re a musician making music in your home studio or a digital creator making online content to promote your brand, your recorded audio must sound great.
You cannot get away with crappy audio quality if you want people to pay attention. People may forgive low-quality videos with sloppy edits but they’ll NEVER tolerate bad audio.
So in this post, you’ll learn the essentials of what you need to get started recording great audio in your home studio.
We’ll discuss the gear you need and the audio engineering fundamentals you need to know to capture great audio from your home studio or office.
The Physics of Sound
Ok, I’m actually going to skip over the physics lesson on sound. I know it’s a huge part of teaching you the audio engineering fundamentals you should know about, but I know why you’re here.
You’re not here to read about sound pressure and vibrations in the air. You’re here because you want to know how to set up a recording studio, record music at home, or get higher-quality audio for your online content.
So let’s skip over that and focus on getting yourself geared up.
What Home Recording Equipment Do You Need?
The NAMM tradeshow in Anaheim is one of the biggest music tradeshows in the world. I don’t know how often I’ve walked the trade show floor wanting to hyperventilate into a paper bag because there’s so much gear out there.
I’m sure you feel the same way when you start searching for recording gear online. How do you choose from all these options?
Luckily, I have a completely separate guide for how to get the biggest bang for your buck when shopping for music production gear.
But when you’re starting out, simplicity is key.
When you don’t think about all the brands offering similar products but the type of product you need, it’s easy to see what you need.
To get started, you’ll require a few fundamental pieces of equipment:
- Audio Interface: A simple audio interface is the heart of your setup. It allows you to connect your microphone to your computer.
- Microphone: Choose a microphone that suits your needs. For podcasting or voice recording, a dynamic microphone is a great choice. If you’re recording vocals or acoustic guitar, a condenser microphone will work better.
- Headphones or Monitors: If you’re recording music and doing overdubs, you’ll need headphones for tracking. And if you want to do any serious mixing work, studio monitors are a must. This is less of an either/or situation and more of a you need both situation.
- Mic Stand: You have to put that mic somewhere. Not everyone can record their vocals holding the mic like Billie Eilish. A large mic stand with a boom works for vocals and other acoustic instrument recording. If you’re doing podcasts or videos, a radio-broadcaster-style mic stand has an arm or stands on your table will work better.
- Cables: Pretty self-explanatory, but it needs to be said. You’ll need cables to connect your microphone to the audio interface.
- Acoustic Treatment: While not mandatory to start, consider using blankets or DIY acoustic solutions to reduce echoes in your recording space. Here’s a good guide to understand where to get started using acoustic treatment for your home studio.
- Audio Software: You can find various audio software options, some even free or low-cost, to begin with.
Remember, you don’t need to invest a fortune right away. Start small, and as your creative projects evolve, you can gradually upgrade your gear. You should be able to get a bare-bones recording setup up and running for about $300 – $500 in gear purchases – excluding your computer.
Then, as you make the content or create the music, you can upgrade to higher-end gear as you notice what you need.
Choosing the Right Audio Interface
Your choice of audio interface depends on your specific needs.
If you’re only recording your voice, you don’t need anything fancier than an interface with a single microphone input. The Focusrite Scarlett is a reliable example. It’s cost-effective and simple for solo recording.
However, if you’re recording a full band or multiple sources at the same time, you’ll need more inputs. Consider reputable brands like Focusrite, Motu, PreSonus, Apogee, Universal Audio, Zoom, or Steinberg.
Remember, more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean significantly better quality.
If you’re recording podcasts or creating videos, you can safely ignore ALL audio purists out there who obsess over high-end outboard gear, tube pre-amps, or A/D converters. The marginal improvement in audio quality is irrelevant to the content you’re producing and unnoticeable by the audience that you’re attracting.
Understanding Microphone Types
Microphones come in various types, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on the most common:
- Condenser Microphones: These are sensitive and excellent for recording music. They pick up a very broad frequency spectrum and are great for capturing instruments and vocals. However, they can pick up background noises easily.
- Dynamic Microphones: These are less sensitive to background noise and are ideal for podcasting and voice recording. They tolerate higher volume levels better and don’t distort as easily, but they require more gain from your interface to record at an appropriate level.
Which do you choose? It’s entirely up to you and your specific recording needs. Pick a condenser for recording singer/songwriter demos, but choose a dynamic mic for recording podcasts.
Microphone Patterns and Proximity Effect
Microphones have different pickup patterns, such as cardioid, bidirectional, and omnidirectional. These patterns determine how they capture sound.
Remember the proximity effect: the closer the microphone is to your mouth, the more bass response you’ll get.
- Cardioid: Captures sound mainly from the front, ideal for single-source recording. Use a cardioid microphone when you don’t want to pick up unwanted acoustics and reflections from the room around you.
- Bidirectional: Picks up sound from the front and back. Bi-directional mics are great for recording two instruments at once and a two-person interview if you don’t mind not having separate tracks for each speaker.
- Omnidirectional: Captures sound from all directions, useful for recording in the center of a room. This polar pattern does not suffer from the proximity effect. So you can get nice and close to the microphone to give your vocals a sultry and intimate sound (at the expense of getting the room sound around the microphone).
This image shows you how bi-directional and omnidirectional microphones “listen” to their surroundings.
Avoiding Annoying Pops and Plosives
To prevent “plosive” sounds (like P’s and T’s) from distorting your microphone, you can use a pop filter. You can also create a DIY pop filter using a wire hanger and pantyhose.
Monitoring Your Audio
Whether you use headphones or studio monitors, make sure they suit your recording and mixing needs.
- Closed-back headphones minimize sound leakage, making them ideal for recording.
- Open-back headphones provide a better listening experience but might not be suitable for recording.
Headphones are invaluable when you need to work quietly, but having studio monitors can help you hear your work in the real-world. This matters less if you’re creating content like podcasts or YouTube videos, but if you’re recording music you’ll want to hear how your mixes sound in a room.
For headphone options and tips, check out these guides:
- 5 Studio Headphones That Won’t Break The Bank
- The All-Around Best Headphones Under $200 for Your Recording Studio
- How To Easily Mix With Headphones – Your In-Depth Guide
Audio Software Options
You have numerous software options for audio recording and production. Here are a few recommendations:
- Logic Pro: Ideal for singer/songwriters.
- Studio One: Affordable and feature-packed.
- Reaper: Free to start and powerful.
- Ableton Live: Excellent for electronic music.
- Cubase: A robust all-rounder.
- GarageBand: Comes with Mac and is great for beginners.
I won’t dwell too much on the specifics of each because they’re all great options. Like with so many things on this list, it comes down to your needs and goals.
If you’re a singer/songwriter, Logic Pro X seems like a logical choice. However, if you’re producing EDM beats, Ableton Live is probably your best bet. It’s not the software that makes your work great. It’s just a tool to help you produce your best work so the one you learn and know the best will always be the most effective tool for you.
In addition, you may need some additional software if you’re creating content. If that’s the case, if you’re creating tutorial videos where you want to share your screen, check out ScreenFlow, Camtasia, Loom, Descript or OBS, depending on your specific needs.
You can also share your screen and record on Zoom if you do live classes, but remember that the video quality on Zoom isn’t that great.
Recording at the Right Settings
When setting up your recording software:
- Sample Rate: Recording at 48kHz is a versatile choice, suitable for both music and video. I used to record exclusively on 44.1 kHz, but now I changed to 48 kHz to streamline any audio I do with any potential video projects.
- Bit Depth: Use at least 24-bit or higher to ensure high audio quality. 32-bit floating point is standard in DAWs these days.
This is one area where the audio purists and armchair audio engineers will get all bent out of shape. Technically, the highest quality you can record at is 192 kHz, but your audio files will be so big you’ll quickly run out of room on your hard drive. There is merit to recording at higher sample rates if you plan on doing a lot of time-stretching, but chances are you won’t, so you don’t need to worry about it.
At the end of the day, the quality increase is negligible, and most places will downsample your recordings to 44.1 or 48 kHz anyway.
If you want to get deeper into it, check out this article on demystifying audio formats to learn which one to record in.
How Loud Should You Record?
Adjust the gain of the pre-amp of your interface to keep the signal from peaking in the red. You want to turn the gain up until you see it come into your audio software at around 60-80% to keep it in the green or yellow zone.
If you record at lower levels, that’s perfectly fine because you’re recording at 24-bit at least. You’ll have plenty of headroom to increase the gain later without increasing the noise floor, but try to record a healthy signal into the interface at the very start.
Finding the Right Mic Position
Find your instrument or voice’s “sweet spot” by moving yourself or your microphone around to where it sounds best.
For example, let’s say we’re recording an acoustic guitar.
You’ll have a person sit and play, and then you have your headphones on, listening to whatever is coming through the mic. Then you walk around the instrument and listen to where the guitar sounds the best to you and the sound that you’re going for. That’s where you’ll place the mic.
- Use the room: “Use your ears” in the room to find where the instrument sounds the best
- Keep it dead: When recording voice-over/vocals try to reduce echo as much as possible with acoustic treatment
Make Use of Your Environment
Try to control your recording environment. Use DIY solutions like blankets or curtains to minimize echoes and improve your recording quality.
Check out the acoustic treatment section of this article for more information on the subject and make sure you avoid these mistakes when setting up your home studio.
It Starts with a Great Performance
Finally, remember that a good performance is irreplaceable. No amount of editing or quality gear can make up for a lackluster performance. So, strive to capture your best in the moment.
That’s hugely important for recording music, but don’t discount the value of your performance when you’re creating content. A droll, monotonous podcast won’t entertain anyone, so keeping your energy levels high is crucial.
Audio Recording Essentials
That concludes our short guide on the audio engineering fundamentals you should keep in mind when recording music or creating content in your home studio. There’s a lot more to audio engineering than what I covered here, but it should get you started down the path of recording high-quality audio, no matter what kind of work you’re creating.
If you’re a musician who’s already recorded their tracks and wants to learn how to transform them into released records, check out my Step By Step Mixing book right here.
If you’re a content creator, business owner or entrepreneur looking to increase your online presence with content marketing, get in touch if you need more help.
Keep learning, practicing, and upgrading your gear as your needs evolve, and make sure you publish your work because it’s the only way you improve.
Audio Production, Home Studio, Keeping Track, Recording Tips