If you’re used to recording in a professional studio, or are new to the recording process altogether, the thought of doing it yourself from home can be intimidating. With almost every creative act being restricted to one’s domestic environment these days, we musicians have little choice in the matter right now.
The good news is that more incredible, world-changing music is being recorded straight from the homes of musicians today than ever before. A modest budget and lack of technical experience are no longer barriers keeping you from recording professional-grade songs from home.
But, like everything else in music, it helps to be pointed in the right direction, and to get plenty of practice under your belt so you can develop your engineering and production skills. So here are some practical tips for those new to the DIY home recording process.
Set up instruments and equipment before sessions, not during
As a general rule, recording sessions typically take much longer than anyone expects them to. Between instruments, recording equipment, and the human element of performing music, there are many moving parts to keep track of when home recording. If something can go wrong, it usually will.
Giving yourself adequate prep time before sessions and not during them, so you can get set up and test your equipment, will help keep you fresh and engaged when the time comes to start tracking your parts.
DIY home recording will quickly teach you that you only have so much attention and energy to work with; and that these are invaluable resources you can’t afford to waste! And you’ll end up squandering these resources putting out fires and setting up equipment during your sessions.
More elaborate recordings, like those featuring drum kits and full bands, multiple mics, and tons of overdubbing, will always require longer setup times. That’s okay, we’ve got all the time in the world right now! If you’re unfamiliar with basic recording equipment and DAWs (digital audio workstations), make sure you obtain a base level of familiarity, if not working comfort, first before attempting to record from home.
Designate and treat a space to record in
Neither your basement, bedroom closet, or shared dorm room will be able to match the sound, feel, and fidelity of a professional recording studio with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment. But then again, do you really need the power and scale of Led Zeppelin with a 200-piece orchestra? I doubt it.
Some pretty basic things can help transform a spot in your home into a space in which you’ll be able to produce clean, professional recordings. Let’s cover some of those basics right off the bat.
At the very, very least, you’ll need to ensure the space you’re using to record is quiet.
This means turning off noisey furnaces and appliances, getting pets, roommates, and partners out of the house for a while, and reducing outside traffic and environmental noises as much as possible. Hang heavy blankets or curtains if you have to, stick towels between the door and floor, and get rid of things that might “rattle” on the walls or shelves. Even modestly priced mics will pick up auxiliary noises and muddy up your recordings.
Secondly, choose a space in your home that sounds “dead,” in other words, a room that doesn’t have long reverberations or slapback. Large rooms with high ceilings, tile floors, and lots of windows make for noisey, muddy recordings. Small, carpeted rooms with short ceilings and few windows are far better.
For those who can afford it, treat your room by covering the walls with wood and fiberglass panels and fabric. If doing this is out of your price range, try covering your walls with blankets and inexpensive foam panels. Working in a closet or another small, confined space, using hung sweaters and clothes to buffer sound reflections, can also be ideal for recording vocals or tracking guitars.
If no such place exists where you live, consider building a DIY vocal booth instead. A quick internet search will give you lots of options to work with.
Are you recording yourself or working with someone else?
The DIY home experience is going to be dramatically different depending on whether you’re doing everything yourself, or getting help from a second person. Recording your own sessions typically delivers a set of challenges that working with someone else does not.
Obviously, there’s the challenge of multitasking. You’re engineering, performing, producing, editing, etc.— often at the same time. All of those acts also come with shifts in perspective on the music you’re making. You might find it hard to be subjective when it comes to judging which of your takes sounded the best and were played the best, which to keep, and which to toss. It can often be difficult to separate your performer brain from your producer brain when it comes to making hard choices to serve the music.
For these reasons as well as others, self-recording tends to take much longer than tracking with someone else, but some musicians prefer the intimacy and DIY aspect of recording alone. Whether you go it alone or record with someone else, plan accordingly.
Note what works and what doesn’t
It’s important to remember that audio engineering is a skill that people develop over months and years, even lifetimes—not overnight. Every attempt you make will involve things you’re proud of, and things you can work on next time.
During your first attempts, actively pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. If something isn’t happening the way you want or need it to, don’t get too stressed; it’s normal. Spend some time figuring out why, and work towards fixing it the next time. Getting into this habit will help you build a productive home recording practice to meet your needs over the long-term.
Recording is hard, tedious work for many musicians, regardless of whether one is tracking in a fancy professional studio or in one’s own home. To create stellar recordings, you’ll need stellar performances, and this takes practice and a willingness to try take after take until you get it right.
Listen back to your recordings and determine what’s successful about them and what needs improvement. The same patience and discipline you cultivated learning how to play your instrument in the first place will come in handy during the home recording process too. Good luck!
Learn more: 4 tips to get started with home recording
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.
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