Recording Tips and Recording Equipment Recommendations for the Home Recording Studio.
Some of these apply to hardware-based home studios, some apply to computer-based home studios, and some apply to both! In these tips, I am examining equipment you can buy at the low-end that could be used to achieve high-end results.
1. Don't skimp on microphones!
Start out with at least one good condenser microphone that you can use to capture vocals and acoustic instruments.
I really like the Rode NT-2A for recording my vocals and acoustic guitars. You can certainly do better than the NT-2A, but you’ll also pay a lot more for the privilege. If you can afford more than the NT-2A’s $400, then see the book updates for recommendations. If you are going to be recording high sound pressure levels (e.g., guitar amplifiers), then you can't beat the Shure SM-57 dynamic mic for about $80. If your studio budget is tiny, two very good but very low-cost condenser mics to look at are the Audio-Technical AT2020 (about $65 online at B&H Photo) and the MXL MCI SP-1 (less than $50 online at B&H Photo or PSSL.com).
2. Spend your effects dollars in this order:
If you have a home studio that uses outboard equipment instead of a DAW hosted on a computer, then first invest in a good reverb, then a stereo compressor and finally a stereo noise gate. For a multi-effects processor, you can't go wrong with any of the Lexicon and TC Electronic units. There are plenty of low-cost used Behringer DSP multi-effects units online (try eBay) if you are short on cash.
3. If you have a home studio that uses mostly outboard equipment instead of a computer, then you should have a FMR RNC-1773 stereo compressor in it.
Nothing can compare to it sonically for under $1000, yet the unit only costs $199. It has a special mode called Super Nice Compression that serially connects 3 separate compression elements within the unit to avoid the typical noise pumping problems common to most compressors. This is a great tool to use during your tracking and mixing stages. You can buy the RNC-1773 directly from the manufacturer at www.fmraudio.com. RNC stands for Really Nice Compressor! Their Really Nice Preamp (RNP) for microphones is no slouch either! I highly recommend it!
4. Don't skimp on audio cables!
If you do, you will forever be chasing phantom noises, crackles, pops and intermittent connections around your studio instead of making and recording music. In the book, the source I cited for low-cost, high-quality cables (Gateway Electronics) has dried up. Instead, now I like the Prolink “Audiophile Series” audio cables, but even those are too expensive for some budgets (find them on Amazon.com). For a much more budget-friendly approach, look at MCM Electronics’ Pro-Signal cables (called Premium Stereo Patch Cables on their site). These are incredibly inexpensive for the build quality. Find them at www.mcmelectronics.com, such as part numbers 24-12492 and 24-12491.
5. Invest in an audio patch panel.
A patch panel is a central point to which all audio cables connect in your system. As you change connections around in your studio, you just move patch cables on the patch panel instead of chasing cables around your studio and crawling behind equipment to find the proper connection points. This is an incredible time saver and a great way to troubleshoot signal flow problems in your system. See the text for various troubleshooting techniques. This can help in a hardware-based home studio and also in a computer-based home studio.
6. Use multiple monitoring methods when mixing down and mastering your songs.
Invest in a good set of headphones. You want a pair that is as neutral as possible and that is made for the studio. Headphones made for consumer listening will color the sound, so avoid them. Also, set up a pair of close field monitors as explained in the text. This will allow you to reduce the coloration effects of your studio room. When you mix down or master your songs, listen to the mixes on a wide variety of transducers (your headphones, the close field monitors, your living room stereo, your car stereo, a cheap boombox in mono, etc.). This will allow you to get the best overall mix that works in most situations. Check your mix in mono (not just stereo) to make sure that elements of the mix don't simply disappear due to cancellation.
7. Should you buy analog recorders or digital recorders or a computer-based DAW?
The bottom line is that you can make excellent recordings using any of these formats. Analog recorders have more maintenance headaches and tape hiss to contend with, but you can still find used analog recorders all over for great prices now. However, finding reliable sources of tape is becoming more problematic. Many people prefer the "warmer sound" of analog recordings. Refer to the book for used equipment sources.
Digital recorders can be standalone units or they can be incorporated into your PC or Mac computer (commonly referred to now as Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs). Recorders integrated into computers usually have software applications that provide fantastic editing capabilities that are hard to do without once you get used to them. Digital recorders in computers also usually allow various plug-in software applications that provide huge functionality and flexibility options, and they allow mastering and CD generation without ever leaving the digital domain. Clearly, the market is solidly headed in the digital direction. Make sure you have a capable computer before you head down this road, however! The computer-based DAW is discussed thoroughly in my 40+ page Addendum to Sound Recording Advice (provided with your book order).
8. Want to learn more about tape recording?
Get yourself a free subscription to the magazine Tape Op. Yes, I said free. Tape Op is a well-written magazine that discusses all things related to analog recording including equipment, techniques, musician and engineer interviews, music reviews, plus they preach the do-it-yourself approach. Direct your browser to www.tapeop.com, get signed up now and learn something new with each issue.
9. When initially recording your tracks on an analog system, always print the hottest (loudest) signal possible to the track and avoid distorting the signal….but DON’T do this on a digital recording system!
This will allow you to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio of the signal. You want the signal to be loud enough to mask any noise in the system but you don't want it to be so loud that the signal distorts or clips. There is most definitely a way to optimize all of the signal levels throughout your system; it is called gain staging. If you don't know about gain staging, see the book text or the addendum (it is too lengthy to explain here). On a digital system, the approach is very different, as there is nowhere for the signal to go above 0dB full scale (0dBFS) except into ugly digital distortion. This is discussed in the Addendum.
10. Don't immediately reach for the EQ knob, and don't overdo it with the reverb.
These are two of the biggest newbie mistakes. Rather than fiddling with EQ (equalization) if you don't like the way something sounds, try changing the source first. If you are miking a guitar for example, try moving the mic around to alternate positions relative to the acoustic guitar (or amp, if it is an electric guitar). Small adjustments can make huge differences in the sound. If you have a synthesizer sound that is dull, try opening up the filter a little or change the synth patch in some other manner to get the effect you want. To add a nice sweetening to elements of your mix or to add emphasis to a solo instrument without using EQ, try using one of the BBE Sonic Maximizer or Aphex Aural Exciter processors. They now make software emulations of these processors also!
©Copyright 2012, John Volanski.