The Ultimate Guide to Getting Great Home Recordings, Even if You Don't Have a Clue
That song came together. You charted the chords, you finished the lyrics, and the melody is strong.
It’s time to record it for all to hear.
However, recording can be a stressful task if you’ve just started. There are so many recording techniques and things to think about that it can quickly overload your brain before you even press that red REC button.
Fortunately for you, all you have to do to record great audio consistently is follow a few simple guidelines to success.
Don’t overload your brain, just keep it simple.
In this guide, I’ll take you through the recording process and tell you what you need to keep in mind for a successful tracking session.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
Planning Your Session and Getting Ready to Record
- Before you start recording
- Setting levels
- Four steps to a fool-proof recording session
Taking Advantage of Your Studio Space, Even if You Produce in One Room
- Recording & Engineering in the same room
- How To Turn “Bleed” into “Blend”
Quick and Easy Ways to Pick the Right Mic (And Where to Put It)
- Don’t stress the mic selection
- Six foolproof mic positions
- The most stupidly under-utilized mic technique ever
- 4-step way to get your mics in phase every time
Before You Start Recording
Having the right equipment and a well-treated room are important factors in getting your recordings to sound as good as possible.
We’ve already discussed the various equipment you’ll need to get started in your home studio, but if you haven’t seen it already, check out the home recording equipment guide here.
Even though you could technically record whatever you wanted with the cheapest gear in a bad sounding room, it’s going to make for a lousy sounding album, especially if you don’t even know how to use all of the gear.
Instead, you want to focus on getting the best sound possible with the right equipment and techniques in a reasonably controlled room. You don’t need incredibly expensive high-end equipment, but you also don’t want bottom-of-the-barrel garbage gear either.
Take care to check out each instrument before you start recording to ensure it’s in its best condition. You don’t want to rush into things and record an instrument that buzzes or makes annoying noises.
First rule of recording: Set up your instruments and make sure they all sound as good as they can.
- Restringing the guitar if the strings are starting to sound dull
- Changing the drum heads if your drummer has worn them out
- Setting up the intonation of a guitar or bass if it goes out of tune on the higher frets
If you’re recording vocals, you should make sure the singer is in good shape and doesn’t have a sore throat, a cold, or something else that could affect his singing.
Hangovers are especially devious. You might not notice that there’s something wrong, but you won’t be getting the best performance from the singer.
When it comes to guitar recording, make sure the amp isn’t all hum and buzz. If that’s the case, check the rest of the guitar signal chain. Some guitar effects make the guitar amp hum. Make sure they are all routed correctly, and if possible use a noise gate to reduce the hum.
Other small things you wouldn’t necessarily think of are other noises instruments make. For example, listen to the really squeaky bass pedal on Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
Things like this are overlooked many times, so before you start recording make sure no annoying noises, squeaks or buzzes make it onto your recording.
What Kind of Sound Are You Looking For?
You might also want to plan the type of sound you are looking for before actually recording anything. Depending on the genre you might be seeking to record things differently. This is something you’ll want to decide on during the pre-production process.
For instance, when it comes to recording drums in different genres, you’ll approach the miking of the drums differently.
Jazz drums might not need the same number of microphones as a prog–metal band would. Similarly, a calm, finger-picked acoustic guitar might need a different approach than a screaming metal riff.
Think of your microphones as your paintbrushes. You’ll be able to create any sonic palette from your microphones because you’ll use many of the same microphones regardless of genre. It’s just the style of the music and how you use your microphones that determines the kind of painting you will end up with.
If you’re not a musician, you might read a book on how to mic up an individual instrument and then follow those instructions. It’s good to use those recommendations as guidelines, but you need to start by doing one of the most important things of all:
Following microphone techniques blindly without objectively listening to what you’re hearing is a stupid way to record your instruments.
Listen to the instrument that you’re going to record. Where does the sound come from? Does it plug into an amplifier or is it an acoustic instrument that has a sound hole, such as an acoustic guitar. Is it loud like a drum or soft like a plucked nylon string guitar?
Not only does listening help you understand why that book you read said that this was a good way to record when reading about acoustic guitars, but listening will also give you an independent view of each instrument and how they sound. (e.g., “Oh, the sound is coming from the sound hole, but it’s very thick, so it’s better to put the microphone a little further up the neck.”)
Follow great guidelines, but also use your ears when you’re working. They need training just like your brain needs the recording knowledge. Together they’ll go far.
Your microphones are supposed to translate what your ears are already hearing. Therefore, you need to experiment with mic placement and recording techniques until what you hear in your head sounds the same as the music you manage to record.
This will take a lot of experimentation and time because you won’t know what sounds good until you’ve recorded a lot of music. However, that shouldn’t deter you from trying your best and experimenting as much as possible.
“Correct” Microphone Placement
First of all, there is no one correct mic placement method. There are guidelines and standards, but no golden rules. Sure, I might offer you tips for where to put your microphone, but in the end, it’s up to you to move the mic around to get the sound you are looking for.
You don’t realize this until you try it, but just moving the microphone a few inches here and there can make a noticeable difference in the overall sound.
I understand the time constraints many people have. You don’t always have a chance to experiment and moving the mic an inch here and an inch there seems counterintuitive when you’re trying to get something tracked fast.
This is why we have these so-called standards, where so many engineers have done the same thing with great success that we’ve grown accustomed to using these tried and tested techniques.
If you’re under a time constraint, at least try two different positions. That way you have something to compare. If you never experiment, even with only two mic techniques, you’ll never know if that particular method is the best.
Try two, compare them, and choose the better one.
Use Your Ears as Your Microphones
A good way to hone your listening skills is to listen intently to an instrument being played in a room and focus on how the sound changes as you move around the room. You’ll find that as you get closer to the instrument, the less room sound you’ll hear. You’ll also find that as you move your ears around the instrument, moving from the sound hole of the body of the acoustic guitar to the frets around the headstock, that the sound changes quite drastically.
You’ll also find that as you move your ears around the instrument, moving from the sound hole of the body of the acoustic guitar to the frets around the headstock, that the sound changes quite drastically.
This is exactly what your microphones will be capturing once you finally place a microphone up to that instrument. So, being familiar with what the microphones hear before you even plug them in will make you a faster and more efficient engineer. Intently listening to the instruments in the room will train you to know exactly what kind of sound you are looking for and it’ll help you capture it better.
So, being familiar with what the microphones hear before you even plug them in will make you a faster and more efficient engineer. Intently listening to the instruments in the room will train you to know exactly what kind of sound you are looking for and it’ll help you capture it better.
Why Setting Levels isn’t As Dangerous as You Might Think
Everybody wants to record audio like the great engineers of history.
You might read interviews and books about their warm sound and smoothly saturated tape. And then you try to apply those same ideas to your recordings.
Digital audio recording is a bit different than what you read about in the history books about tape saturation and overloading your pre-amplifiers.
Today, digital audio is not so lenient towards overload. Digital clipping is one of the worst sounds an audio engineer can hear. In the old days, engineers liked pushing their levels to saturation to get that warm tape sound. But now, the only thing you accomplish by pushing digital audio to the max is horrible digital clipping.
No Clipping Please
There’s a silver lining to digital audio recording though. You don’t have to worry that much about recording at low levels because 24+ bit recording gives you so much headroom to work with.
By setting your levels correctly, you can avoid a few problems in the mixing phase. You avoid that pesky digital clipping that ruins your audio completely, and by recording at 24-bit, you have enough volume and headroom to play around with without the noise floor posing a problem to your recordings.
When you are getting levels into your DAW, don’t worry about getting as close to clipping as possible. As long as you’re not recording at a really low level, you can always raise the level of the signal later.
The reason you don’t have to push the signal so hard is that with 24-bit recording, and now with up to 64-bit recording, you have more headroom to increase your signal after you’ve recorded it.
The signal to noise ratio is so much higher that even though you would boost the signal considerably after recording it, the noise floor is so much lower than with 16-bit recording that you don’t have to worry as much. Essentially, you can allow yourself to record at lower levels without kicking yourself that you didn’t push your signal hard enough. You can push it as much as you want once it’s been recorded.
An excellent rule of thumb is to record the loudest part of the signal at around 75% before you reach 0dB. If your meter goes from green to RED, then somewhere in the middle of the orange part should be a nice enough level. Not too quiet so that your audio is too close to the noise-floor, but not so loud as to cause clipping.
Not too quiet so that your audio is too close to the noise-floor, but not so loud as to cause clipping.
How to Run a Foolproof Recording Session, Even If You’re Not Quite Sure What You’re Doing
One year I went down to Guadalajara, Mexico to produce a band.
We ended up tracking a nine-song funk fusion album in a weekend. After the whirlwind weekend we not only ended up with a great sounding record, but we learned a lot during the process.
Here’s what you can learn from my marathon recording session:
1. Break the Rules When You’re Forced to Adapt
At Audio Issues, I talk a lot about how things “should” be done. Well, sometimes you just can’t do them that way.
Even if you want complete separation and total tonal control between instruments you simply have to adapt without it.
That happened to me when we recorded the brass section because I needed to put two very loud brass instruments into the same room while trying my best to isolate them as much as possible. Through some creative use of gobos and mic placement, I ended up with a usable sound that had minimal bleed between the two mics.
2. The plan ALWAYS changes
Even if you’ve planned out the entire recording session to the very last cable, you should always expect to adapt.
3. You never have enough mics
I ran out of condenser mics in five minutes.
Sure, maybe we could’ve gotten more condensers if we wanted but we just decided to make do with what we had and made it work.
4. Awesome players will give you awesome recordings
Nine songs in five hours all tracked live. It’s not possible unless every single player knows his stuff.
5. When in doubt, do research
Before I got there, I wasn’t sure how to approach the brass section. So I hopped on the Internet and instantly became wiser.
The reason I decided not to use any of the condenser mics was that their frequency response all had a boost in the high mids which would over-accentuate the honkiness of the trumpet and saxophone.
So I ended up with the SM7B and RE27 dynamics instead. The sound was a little darker, but nothing we couldn’t handle in the mix.
I think the reason we achieved our goal that weekend was two-fold:
- We planned ahead
- We got a great performance
Even though the plan shifted and changed during the weekend, just the fact that we had a tentative plan in place from the start made it easier for us to adapt.
If I had arrived without a plan, then we would have wasted a lot of time that first day just trying to figure out what we should do.
How to make a plan and avoid stress
Everybody stresses out more when there’s no plan to follow.
It’s like when work builds up. There are so many tasks that you don’t know which one to start and you end up doing none of them. Because we had a plan in place, the musicians were at ease and could focus on giving us a great performance instead of waiting around for us to figure shit out in the studio.
We don’t want your recording session to fizzle out before it even starts so make sure you have a plan of action.
What that means for you is that before you even start recording, make sure you know the answers to these questions:
- What instruments are you recording?
- How many songs are you working on?
- How much gear do you need to bring if you’re recording on location?
- What’s the room like and what problems can you predict or avoid before you get there?
You don’t always have to be innovative when you’re recording. Sometimes, all you need are a few simple techniques and a process that’s known to work. When you find yourself in a new recording session, and you want to get straight to work without overloading your brain, keep these simple things in mind.
Remembering the Basics
Once you’ve got a plan in place, keeping it simple and remembering the basics is key.
Here are five things to bear in mind when you’re moving forward with the session.
1. Make sure Everybody is Tuned up
It’s your responsibility as an engineer and producer to make sure everybody is in tune. You’re running the recording session, so it’s your job to remind everybody about the importance of tuning well and tuning often.
Not only do you need to tune the strings correctly to a tuner, but you also need to make sure that the chords you make are in tune within themselves and with the other instruments.
If all the open strings of a guitar are correctly tuned, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily in tune everywhere. Make sure that the chords you are playing also sound in tune.
For example, I remember one time the intonation wasn’t working right on my guitar. This caused a major tuning issue when I was using a capo on the higher frets because the guitar was out of tune with all the other instruments on the recording.
To avoid serious issues like that make sure everybody is tuned correctly, capo or otherwise. And make sure everybody checks their instruments every few takes or between songs.
2. Use Tried and Tested Techniques
There are a lot of different microphone techniques and recording methods out there. If you are stressing yourself out because you don’t know which method to use, just keep it simple.
Don’t try complicated techniques like the Glyn Johns method or a Decca Tree when you can use simple tricks like the X/Y technique.
Stick to things you know you can handle and make the most of it.
3. Don’t Overload Your Inputs and Record Too Hot
Now that you’ve got your plan in order and decided which technique to use, you’re ready to record.
Remember, one of the biggest mistakes amateur recording enthusiasts make is to record too loud. (We just talked about this above.)
With digital recording you can be more conservative with your levels, making sure you never even come close to the red. That way, you’ll always end up with a clean recording to mix.
4. Get a Great Performance
Lastly, make sure the performance you’re recording is worth the hard disk space it’s recorded on. If the performance sucks then all the prep doesn’t matter.
A sub-par recording will sound better if the performance behind it is amazing.
But a technically perfect recording with an out-of-tune vocalist will always sound awful.
How to Record in Your Home Studio if Your Live Room and Your Control Room are the Same Room
Most home studio engineers yearn for a second room to record in.
Even if you’re stuck with a single bedroom studio where you produce, record, mix and master your songs, there are some hidden advantages you might not be thinking about.
Instead of being jealous of those huge commercial studios that do nothing but drain your budget, why not cherish your home studio for the comfortable workspace it is?
Everything Within Easy Reach
If you have all of your gear in the same room, everything is within easy reach. There is no need to stand up and go into the next room to set up. Everything you need to record is right there in the corner, by your side, or anywhere you decide to put it.
By having everything set up and right there, you reduce the amount of time you spend getting everything ready. Everything is close by and ready to go.
Create a More Convenient and Comfortable Work Space
If you mostly produce music by yourself, creating a comfortable work space around your DAW is much more productive than having a second tracking room.
Stimulate creativity in your music production by placing everything you need around your desk.
Put your MIDI controller/keyboard on one side and a microphone ready to record vocals on the other. And if you need to lay down some guitar tracks, just plug directly into your interface and use an amp simulator to produce convincing guitar tones.
Now you don’t even need to stand up to record. You don’t even need to move your chair since everything is right there by your side.
A Closer Relationship with your Client
Recording others in the control room also has its advantages. Even if you don’t produce music yourself, recording an artist in the same room as you can create a more intimate relationship if you are trying to get a good performance from them.
I’m not saying you should breathe down the singer’s neck, but being in the same room creates easier communication. It’s simpler to stop and discuss the take or the performance when you are both in the same room.
You won’t have to set up a talkback system, or god forbid, constantly keep running into the other room to have a conversation.
Easier Work Flow
Recording in one room certainly has its advantages. Much of it has to do with ergonomics and easy workflow.
By having a dedicated, easy-to-get-to recording space in your room, you can have everything set up and ready to go for your next client. Similarly, keeping your gear close at hand and by your computer is perfect if you produce your own music.
Finally, easy communication between artist and engineer/producer is vital to get a good performance. Recording a client in the same room minimizes setup time and creates a more casual recording environment for the artist.
Handling the needs of musicians is something that’s just as important as getting a good sound. In fact, making a musician comfortable is one of the best ways to getting a good performance and therefore a good sound.
How To Turn “Bleed” into “Blend”
If you’re recording in your home studio, you might be working in some cramped spaces.
If that’s the case, and you’re recording everybody together in the room, you’re going to have lots of sound bleeding into various microphones no matter what.
So just to stop the negativity let’s call it blend instead.
Sounds so much better already, right?
Recording multiple instruments in a small space will have “blend” no matter what. If that’s the case, just don’t worry too much about it and start focusing on what matters.
Which, as always, is the performance.
Put people close together and get them playing like one big instrument.
You know what happens then?
The blend makes it sound better.
At a presentation at AES a few years ago, Mike Senior showed us an example of a recording that sounded better because of the blend.
The spill from one mic to the other created natural space that made the recording.
The saxophone sound, for instance, wasn’t just a great microphone in a good spot. It was the combination of the other microphones picking up the sax sound that created depth and space in the mix.
He soloed the saxophone mic, and it sounded decent. But it sounded flat and one-dimensional. Just like a cardioid mic pointed at one part of the instrument usually sounds.
But throwing a little room sound from all the other mics made the sax just come alive!
So think of that when you’re recording a live recording.
It’s not about eliminating bleed (or blend), it’s about using it to your advantage. Make all the mics count, not just for the instrument they’re in front of, but also the instruments in the room.
Don’t Stress the Mic Selection
Mic selection is a common problem.
With so many of them out there, it’s hard just to pick one.
And what type do you need? Dynamic? Condenser? Ribbon?
(Note: a ribbon mic is actually a dynamic microphone, but most people connect “dynamic” with moving coil microphones such as the SM57).
Mic Selection Anxiety
All of those different types have different makes, models, and brands to choose from.
Talk about decision anxiety! But the thing is, I doubt you have all those microphones at your disposal anyway.
So why stress over what to use? A Dynamic works great on a guitar cabinet. A ribbon does too.
And guess what!?!?
A condenser does as well!
Same goes for most instruments. Sure, the dynamic mic might not be the best bet for a full-bodied vocal or an acoustic instrument. But if it’s all you got then that’s what you have to use, right?
Use the Mic You Got
For example, there’s this Icelandic engineer who recorded an album called “Please Don’t Hate Me” by the artist LayLow. They had to make do with what they had so he used a Sennheiser MD-421 on her acoustic guitar.
Now you might be thinking: What?!? A dynamic mic for the acoustic guitar? That’s going to sound terrible!
Well, it didn’t, and the songs were so good the album sold in truckloads. The fans didn’t care that the acoustic guitar lacked some high-end. It sounded cool, and it fit into the bluesy folk sound she was playing.
Moral of the story? It’s the overall sound of the performance and the song, not the distinct technical character of the microphone you choose.
6 Foolproof Mic Positions You Can Use Right Away
Experimentation is an important part of learning how to listen for what kind of sound you like.
It’s great if you’ve got the time. But when you need to get down and dirty right away, experimentation is a luxury you don’t have.
If you need a good sound fast, then walking around the room with headphones trying to find the sweet spot is not the best way to kick off an efficient studio session.
This time you need to resort to the old standards. The old standby tricks that everyone uses over and over again.
Because they work almost every time. There’s no need for experimentation if you know you’re going to get a great sound right away.
The following mic positions are an example of the 80/20 principle – these few mic techniques work 80% of the time. No need to get fancy if you just want to throw up a mic and record a great performance.
- Drums – An X/Y stereo pair over the drums. Simple, phase-consistent, and easy to set up.
- Acoustic Guitar – One condenser by the 12th fret. It’s the universally known acoustic guitar sweet spot.
- Electric Guitar – A sturdy dynamic or a ribbon positioned on the outer edges of the dust cap on the amplifier. It’s a good combination of lows, mids, and highs. Try both mics together for the best of both worlds.
- Bass – Skip it. Just run it straight through a DI and use an amp simulator to emulate the amplifier sound.
- Vocals – Fan your hand out in front of your nose, thumb on your nose and pinkie touching the pop filter with the microphone at mouth level.
- Piano – One omnidirectional condenser in the center of a grand piano. Because it’s omnidirectional, it’ll pick up both the highs and lows all around it. Because the piano is such a loud instrument, you don’t have to worry too much about the acoustics of the room because the microphone is inside the piano, even if the lid is open all the way. If you were doing something fancy like a stereo pair a few feet outside the piano, you might have to worry about the room more. But this trick is straightforward and easy. Just set it up and hit record.
All six of these mic techniques have in common: they’re the “set it and forget it” tricks of miking.
The Most Stupidly Under-Utilized Mic Technique Ever
One of the most under-utilized recording techniques is the polar pattern.
If you know how to use the polar pattern of the microphone to your advantage, you’re golden.
Your Ears as the Polar Pattern
Imagine there’s a guitarist on your right side and a vocalist on your left side.
Put one hand over your left ear, and you’ll hear much more of the guitarist. But if you start turning your head, your right ear will start picking up more of the vocalist.
A cardioid polar pattern works exactly like that. If you point the mic in the direction of the guitarist, it will pick up much more of the guitarist. But if you start turning the mic it will start picking up more of the vocalist.
Essentially, that’s how polar patterns work. Different polar patterns just mean that they pick up the sound from different directions.
- A well positioned hyper-cardioid snare microphone will reduce hi-hat bleed into the snare mic if you place it correctly with the null-point facing the hi-hat.
- A bi-directional microphone is perfect for a minimalist background vocal sound if you only have one track and the singers sound better together than apart.
- An Omni pattern works wonders if you have a great sounding room.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
It all starts with your ears.
Microphones are only the tools to recreate what your ears have already told you.
Use your ears before you even set up a mic. Cup one ear and use it as a microphone. That’s an excellent way to find the sweet spot. It’s easier than setting up a mic, hitting record, and moving the mic around a bunch of times.
Just stand there and use yourself instead of a microphone. If it doesn’t sound good to your ears, then do you expect the results to be better with a microphone?
The Simple 4-Step Way to Get Your Mics in Phase Every Time
Recording with more than one microphone poses a certain challenge.
Making sure both of your microphones are in phase with each other while recording is a crucial aspect of great tracks. Weak, out-of-phase snare drums and guitar sounds will sound terrible in your mix. Sure, it’s easy enough to fix in the mix by simply moving waveforms around, but wouldn’t you just want to get it right in the first place?
- Set up your microphones as you want them.
- Record a snippet of audio, like a double palm muted strum on guitar or a whack of the snare.
- Zoom aaaaaalll the way into the waveforms you recorded and make sure they line up, crest to crest, trough to trough.
- “If at first, you don’t succeed, try try try again.
That’s it! If you do that every time you won’t end up with screwy, out-of-phase tracks during mixing.
Whew! That was an intense guide, wasn’t it?
I’m hoping you took a lot away from it. We’ve covered how you can make your session a success from the start with purposeful planning. From there we discussed the benefits of taking advantage of your recording space, before simplifying your mic selection and microphone positioning.
Getting great tracks at the source makes the mixing experience more fun. Don’t spend hours before you mix fixing something that should’ve been done well from the start.