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10 Tips to Radically Improve Your Home Recordings
By John McKay
As the owner of a mobile recording studio, a large portion of the work I do is 'Home Recording,' though it's usually at someone else's home! In the past 5 years of doing the location gig, I've come up with a few simple things anyone can do to improve their home recordings a lot. This stuff applies whether I'm recording you, or you're using your own gear. Getting good tracks down is always a good thing!
1. Get a Snake
Your whole house is a 'studio' when you're recording. A lot of home recording studios are set up so that the musician is in the 'control room' which is often a bedroom. You're not going to get great sounds in a bedroom, especially with a loud source, or with something that will be heavily limited or compressed, like vocals. Get a 50' snake and set your mics up in the best sounding room in your house, whether that's the kitchen, living room, or whatever. Experiment, and just listen to how the room sounds to your ears.
2. Set up Nearfields
You need to have decent monitors to hear what you're recording, of course. But equally important is that they are set up properly. They should be in an equilateral triangle, facing you, with the tweeters at your ear level. You'll know when you have them set up correctly because sounds that are in the center, like a lead vocal, will appear to originate from a virtual speaker. If you close your eyes, you will literally hear what sounds like a third speaker. If that center image seems smeared or non-specific, your monitors aren't setup correctly.
3. Packing blankets
While treating your kitchen with acoustic foam might be fun, it's probably not very practical. You can get about 90% of the effect with packing blankets. Buy some good ones at Home Depot or U-Haul. They're cheap. Hang them over hard surfaces that are near your sound source. You can also make a blanket tent over a guitar cabinet and the mic to get a more direct sound. When tracking vocals, it sometimes will help to drape a packing blanket over a mic stand set up in a 'T' and place that directly behind the singer. This helps eliminate any reflections coming from the walls directly into the mic.
4. Natural reverb
Every space has some natural reverb to it. If a room 'sounds good' to your ear, that's a good indication that it has a pleasant reverb characteristic. If you're close-micing the source, though, you won't hear much of that. You can try moving the mic back until you get a blend you like, or throw up a second mic as a room mic. You'll probably want to limit that channel pretty severely during mixing to hear the reverb without the source overwhelming it, unless you're very far back. Try micing the corners of the room, up near the ceiling. Also, try pointing the room mics at the walls, away from your source. No digital reverb will sound like a real room the way room mics do.
5. Get amps off the ground
This is related to guitars, but applies to drums, etc. You want to get the sound source and the mic away from hard surfaces, which can cause comb-filtering. That's that scooped kind of phasey sound you hear when you combine two mics of the same source. A short reflection that is similar in level to the original sound will combine and cancel certain frequencies while reinforcing others. Generally not good. Put your cabinet up on a chairr, or f mic'ing a 4x12, mic the upper speakers. Also, laying down a DI track of any guitar or bass parts is a good idea, as it allows for reamping, either in your DAW, or with a reamp box.
6. Watch out for distortion
This sounds simple, but it's a little more complicated than you might think. Clipping or distortion on a track can be hard to hear, but when you start to add compression and eq, it can come out and bite you. So, when tracking make sure to leave lots of headroom at the input to your A/D converter. If the red lights are flickering, you're recording too hot. You can also have clipping at the mic itself, if the source is too loud. Listen closely for high frequency grittiness, and move the mic back a little bit, or turn the source down a bit. Preamps can be clipping, as well. If the mic has a high output level, you might need a pad to bring the level down to something your preamp can work with. Gain staging separates the men from the boys, so take your time to get it right.
7. Use the right mic for the source
This seems obvious, but there are some mics that are better suited for some sources than others. There aren't rules, so to speak, but if you want sizzly bright cymbals, you might not use a ribbon mic there. On the other hand, if you want thick smooth meaty drums, ribbons are great as overheads. If you're a beginner, you'll need a few different types of mics, maybe a couple of SM57s, a pair of matched condensers (don't worry too much about Large Diaphragm VS Small Diaphragm, they're more interchangeable than you might think) and a good all-purpose mic, like the RE20. Try each on your source and pay attention to what works and what doesn't. Remember, there aren't rules, but every piece affects the final sound.
8. Use pop screens
Using a pop screen when tracking vocals isn't a must, but it helps, especially if your vocalist isn't a seasoned pro. You can use the pop screen to 'set' the mic's distance from the singer, too. If you want a sound with a little space, or you're using a mic with a proximity effect, like an SM57, using the pop screen to get a few inches between the mic and you singer can improve results dramatically. That's not the only place to use a pop screen, though. Try it on your kick mic, or if you're using a condenser or ribbon mic in front of the drum kit, where the puff from the kick drum might hit the diaphragm. Try it when micing a bass cabinet, for the same reason. A pop screen can come in handy when recording horns or wind instruments, as well.
9. Reference tracks
If you're doing the mixing at home, make liberal use of reference tracks. You can import a song from a CD you admire into your project on a stereo track. Mute that channel, and then solo it when you want to reference it. You'll hear quickly when you're way off. If you hear a sound you want to reproduce, think about how they might have done it, and try to do it yourself. Nothing teaches like experience. It can be frustrating, but try to do it before you go searching Google for 'Snare Drum tips.' Once you have worked on it a while, the things you read will make a lot more sense.
10. Don't try to do something more than is possible
Be realistic. I'm not saying you can't make a great record at home, you can. But if you're a beginner with entry-level gear, don't beat yourself up for not making Abbey Road. Just try to get better, and remember: Performance and a great song are more important than having a perfect recording. And a 'perfect' recording is often inferior to one that has some character and sense of place.
I could go on for pages, of course, but these few tips are some of the big ones that I see over and over again. Also, working with a pro never hurts! Whether you need help learning to use your gear, or want someone to take your tracks and give them a bit of polish in mixing, you can learn a lot, quickly. And knowledge trumps gear every time!