Don’t think that you need everything under the sun to make a great recording… TEN WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR HOME RECORDINGS.
1.) Quality over quantity:
Focus on buying the BEST gear for your budget that allows you to work in the way that you want to work. Don’t think that you need everything under the sun to make a great recording. However, what you do purchase should be of excellent quality.
Now, chances are you cannot afford top of the line equipment like a professional recording studio; however, there are a number of manufacturers creating equipment that blurs the line between consumer and pro gear that the home recordist can take advantage of. When buying equipment be realistic about how often you intend to use it and how important it is to the finished product. Don’t be cheap! While you may save a few hundred dollars buying a low end product chances are that it will be almost useless because of how much it degrades your audio.
As a home recordist you should attempt to do as much as you can in software. Software offers the most cost effective, best sounding solution for recordists on a budget. Hardware, good hardware, is extremely expensive; don’t be confused by some engineers’ insistence that hardware always lends a superior sound. A 300.00 EQ plugin is going to blow away a 300.00 dollar hardware EQ. Generally speaking, good hardware tends to start around 1,000 dollars–if that’s beyond your reach, stick to software.
All it takes is one poorly set compressor to ruin an entire mix.
2.) Best plugins:
Chances are that if you are involved in home recording you are doing it digitally, which means that your audio is going to live and die by the types of plugins you have available. Just like hardware, not all plugins are designed equally. Also like hardware, some plugins have a different “flavor” or are created to meet different needs.
The backbone of your plugin suite should be at least one good equalizer, compressor and reverb. Get the best you can afford for the types of sounds you prefer. Don’t worry about having every option under the sun–remember, until a few years ago most albums were mixed with fairly basic Eq’s found on the console. Ultimately, the quality of the compression, equalization and reverb is going to make the biggest impact on your audio.
Once you have your basic plugins you can expand your repertoire. I recommend focusing on a quality delay and chorus next, and saving the less often used effects like phasing, flanging, pitch shifting and so on for last.
Whenever possible, take advantage of the sheer volume of free plugins available on the Internet. Some are surprisingly good and rival expensive plugins for ease of use and quality.
If you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it. That’s the cardinal rule of audio engineering. You are NOT going to get high quality sounds with computer speakers or cheap nearfield monitors. Other than your basic I/O (converters and preamps) nothing determines the sound of your audio quality more than the quality of your monitors! This is absolutely critical and make or break for the home recordist.
Nowadays there is becoming less and less difference between a professional recording studio and a well equipped home studio. Prosumer grade converters and preamps are quickly approaching a level where you can get 95% of a professional sound at a fraction of the price. Where a professional studio usually reigns supreme is in the amount of options, power (like higher track counts), convenience and MONITORING ENVIRONMENT.
See, the professionals know that monitoring is critical. The average home recordist would rather spend their money on something else like a new guitar or that new-fangled analog modeling keyboard that just debuted at NAMM. Most high-end studios have three or more top end monitors in their main room!
So do yourself a favor, even though it isn’t glamorous, and spend some time and money on your monitors. Expect to spend at LEAST 1,000 dollars on a nearfield pair. Don’t wimp out–by not having the best listening environment you are shortchanging all the money you spent on your other equipment and you are stunting your growth as a recording engineer. Spend some money on room treatments and acoustic isolators for the monitors. Read up on proper monitor placement for your room. Try to tune your room as best you can. Get familiar with how your monitors sound by listening to your favorite albums on them.
Ultimately, in this business you live and die by what you can and cannot hear.
4.) Use reference:
The single easiest, cheapest and most effective way to increase the quality of your music is to use reference music. Reference music is any professional album that you happen to admire its sound. Compare what you are doing to the reference–it will let you know where you are. Scrutinize your recordings compared to the reference. If your material is getting blown away don’t miss the opportunity to improve your craft by lying to yourself or not thinking that the difference is significant. At first it may be ugly–but at least you will realize how far from the mark your recordings are.
Use the reference when you are tracking to double check that the sounds you are recording are similar in quality. Use it during mixing to check the volume, balance, panning and presence of sounds. Use it during mastering to see how your music stands up to a professional grade.
Engineering without reference is like driving across the country without a map. Expect to waste a lot of time getting lost, and you may never find your end destination. Don’t think that this is wimping out–top recording engineers use reference ALL THE TIME.
The best time to start making an album sound good is from the very beginning.
5.) Aim for final sounds:
The best time to start making an album sound good is from the very beginning. The secret to great sounding albums is that ALL the components are well thought out and of the highest caliber. The do that through a lot of planning (pre-production), being highly selective for choosing sounds, and great care for the actual recording.
When you are tracking you should aim to for getting as close to a FINAL sound as possible. If you want the snare drum to be tight with a lot of top end you should record it that way–don’t expect to “fix it in the mix” later–you need to fix it right now! Take it from a mixing engineer, there is only so much that you can do to polish a sound and make it radically different from what you recorded. In fact, the less you HAVE to do as a mixing engineer the better the end product is.
It may take hours, or even days, to dial in these amazing sounds but I can tell you that it is worth it. No amount of Eq, compression or prayer is going to save weak sounds in the mix…. they may be less weak, but the best they’ll ever get is mediocre. I don’t know about you but I don’t aim for mediocre when I record something.
The other thing to watch out for is performance mistakes. Mix time is NOT the time for fixing little playing errors. GET IT RIGHT WHEN RECORDING! Aim for the best sounds that are exactly how they need to sound on the finished record, and aim for performances free from error.
Imagine how simple it will be to mix your material when everything sounds exactly how it should and there are no playing errors?
Having some outboard hardware to supplement a DAW setup can be a huge benefit.
6.) Careful use of outboard gear:
Once you have your core system up and running adding some additional outboard gear is a very good option. Having some outboard hardware to supplement a DAW setup can be a huge benefit. Just adding a single top end stereo preamp can greatly increase the power of a home recording rig. How about an external reverb unit? It will save your host processor some significant DSP power and, in the case of a high-end unit, provide a better sounding effect than a plugin.
Vintage gear is a good option for outboard equipment. There are hundreds of excellent choices out there, and a lot of it is pretty affordable these days. In my opinion every good studio needs some kind of a wild card effects processor–something that isn’t readily available as a plugin and has a unique sonic signature.
7.) DSP is power:
The real benefit of digital recording over analog is the sheer power and number of options available. With the degree of automation, higher track counts, low noise floor and endless array and flexibility of plugins digital recording has truly come of age. However, to access the full range of digital audio you need to have tons and tons of computer power.
Of course you want to have the fastest processor and RAM that your budget will allow, but ultimately all native systems reach a limit to how much they can handle. Processing time and latency can become a big issue…. so why not take some of that load off your main processor with some additional DSP?
There are a number of fairly affordable DSP solutions for today’s home recordist. Some of them can allow a home user almost all the power and flexibility of a much more expensive ProTools rig at a vastly discounted price. Many of these systems allow the user access to powerful plugins otherwise unavailable.
Remember that, in general, some of the best sounding plugins are extremely processor intensive. Linear phase equalizers, convolution reverbs, extremely accurate physical models of vintage gear and other top end effects eat up DSP very quickly. By having more power available you are better able to use exactly the effects you want, instead of only the ones your computer can handle.
8.) Less is more:
Now that you have all this power at your fingertips you’re going to want to use it, right? Well, maybe…. You should always seek to use the least amount of processing, whether analog or digital, on your audio. Keep things simple, but not so simple that you don’t reach your full audio potential.
Learn when to use processing and when not to. If you’ve already recorded great sounds chances are you’re not going to need a whole lot of Eq’ing and compression to get things to sound awesome. Mostly you’re looking to control a few levels, get the low-end happening and add a sense of depth to the recording. If you find yourself having to perform intensive “Eq surgery” on the tracks chances are you didn’t pay enough attention to the sounds being tracked. Perhaps it’s time to go back a few steps and do it right?
By not over processing your tracks you’ll find that they sound more open and have better clarity. Also, there’s less chance for operator error–all it takes is one poorly set compressor to ruin an entire mix.
If you are dedicated to making your home recordings sound great you should spend a lot of time researching and refining your methods.
9.) Study & practice:
If you are dedicated to making your home recordings sound great you should spend a lot of time researching and refining your methods. The Internet is a great tool–everything, and I mean everything, you could ever possibly want or need to know on how to make a great recording is already on the Internet right now. Do some searches, read some articles, think about what was said and decide for yourself if that’s the way that you want to work.
If you spend an hour or two of daily research within a year you will have vastly increased your knowledge store. You’ll also be better aware of the equipment out there, which will make you a more frugal shopper when it comes time to upgrade your own studio.
10.) Know when to use a pro:
If you’re very serious about your work and are aiming at making a little money off of your album, or shooting for a career as a musician you should be going to a professional for as much as possible. The chief advantage of a home studio is the ability to test and refine one’s material–both from a sonic and songwriting perspective. The home studio is NOT the environment to write, record, mix and master an album that you intend for commercial release. It’s just not a wise move.
The important thing is to know your own limitations of skill and equipment. Many artists are perfectly skilled to record their material, but fall short when it comes to mixing and mastering. Some artists are better off doing their entire project in a studio, whereas some musicians may only need professional mastering to bring their project to a high standard.
Know your limitations. Often going to a professional is cheaper in both time and money. It is especially critical when you have a deadline, or it’s important that things are just right.