In March, I detailed one way you could set up a fully functional home recording studio for a total cost of under $5000 USD. This month’s column is the first installment in a companion series about how to effectively plan and use such a low-cost home studio. While I made sure the products recommended in my original article were of good quality, and refer to them again here, that piece was more a proof of concept than a shopping list.
But before you plunk down any cash, it’s best to have a plan—actually, several plans. I’ll at least touch on all the important ones here. And while this installment focuses on plans, planning will come up again and again in these articles. Planning and preparedness go a long way toward making the recording of music go smoothly, which in turn leads to a better final recording.
First, I have two questions for you: 1) What sort of artist are you? and 2) What are you trying to accomplish by recording your music? Your answers to these questions will tell you much about what you need to buy, and how you’ll want to use it.
The equipment and workflow needed by a solo artist or DJ will differ greatly from what a large ensemble needs. The main determiner of what you’ll need, and the type of space you’ll need to use it in, is whether or not there will be multiple people playing acoustic instruments (especially drums). Billie Eilish’s debut hit album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was mostly recorded by Eilish and her brother in his bedroom in their mother’s house. At the other end of the spectrum is a large ensemble such as Grupo Fantasma, from my longtime home of Austin, Texas. For a pop artist like Eilish, my shopping list is overkill; for a band like Grupo Fantasma, it may not be enough (though with careful planning it could serve).
Do you want to record your band’s rehearsals and work on new songs—essentially, make demos? If so, your focus should be less on sound quality than on capturing the moment and keeping a creative flow going. However, if your goal is to make a record for public release, you’ll want to focus much more on quality of sound and performance. Maybe you start doing the former, and when you’re ready, you can move on to the latter. I’ll cover both in the next installment, about actual recording, but will focus more on the latter situation. Again, your musical genre and goals will dictate the path you follow.
When you know what you want to accomplish and have the appropriate gear, the real planning begins. Most of what you’ll be planning is the recording process itself. This is very important. A well-thought-out plan means you can focus on what’s important while recording—playing and/or singing—because all the little details that can interrupt the creative process of recording have already been taken care of. And, as you’d expect, planning becomes more important—and more complicated—as the number of musicians increases. Everyone’s situation is different, so my main focus here is to offer broadly applicable advice. I also make some assumptions; for example, a small band will need a (cheap) vocal PA, a rehearsal space, and to be able set themselves up so that everyone can hear everyone else. If that space is shared or rented by the hour, you’ll also have to plan how to most efficiently set up and strike for each session.
So, planning . . .
It’s boring, right? Planning may not be glamorous or exciting, but it’s essential. You want to get right to recording, but if you’ve done your planning, you’ll be glad you’ve already thoroughly thought everything through.
The first thing to figure out is when you can record. When is everyone available, and who actually needs to be there for any given session? People not actively involved in the recording tend to get bored and become distractions—especially if they aren’t in the band.
If you’re a large band working on a serious project for public release but have a limited number of inputs—like the eight inputs of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (3rd Gen) USB audio interface ($599.99) I recommended last time—you’ll need to work piecemeal. Recording the bass and drums first lets the foundation of the rhythm section lock in together naturally; then you can add the rest of the rhythm section, and so on. In most cases, vocals are the last things recorded. There are good reasons for this. First, getting the vocals right tends to take longer than the instrumental parts—you can’t simply tune a singer like a guitar. Second, many singers are shy about performing in the studio, so recording them last, with few other people present, is good for their comfort. This is how a lot of pop records are made. If that’s your situation, you’ll need to figure out at which tempo you want to record each song, because you’ll need to know that tempo to generate a click track. A click track, or click in industry lingo, is usually a percussive sound set to play quarter notes at the chosen tempo, like a metronome, often with an emphasis on the downbeat. The click track makes it easy to stay in tempo, even without a drummer. Playing to a click isn’t always easy, and some musicians, especially drummers (including me), just don’t like it. I’ll tell you what I tell myself: Suck it up, buttercup! If you want to have a career as a recording musician, playing to a click is an important skill that can be practiced and learned.
There’s another reason to record separately, if possible: isolation. Unless you have the ability and room to isolate the electric-guitar and bass-guitar amps from each other and the drums, record them separately. The reason for this is that fixing any mistakes later is much harder when that mistake is living its best life on all the drum tracks. Recording separately is a skill, but many great records have been made that way. If you’re a rock band using the Focusrite interface I recommend, I suggest that you use up to seven mikes/tracks for the drums, have the bass player plug directly into the interface, and then have both players listen through headphones as they play/record. That way, there’s no bleed between the instruments’ sounds. (But if you want the sound of the bass player’s amp, I’ll tell you how to get that next time.)
If you don’t want the same sound for every song, record each group of similar-sounding songs together. Duplicating the sound you had after you’ve moved everything around is at best difficult and time-consuming, and at worst impossible. You have to measure and write down the precise location of everything—instruments, mikes, and people all affect the sound in the room that the mikes pick up, and it all needs to be the same or it won’t sound the same. There’s an analog in films and TV: If part of a scene must be later reshot, and there’s now a coffee cup on the table that wasn’t there in all the other shots the reshoot must now match, the final overall sequence of shots, when edited together, will lack coherent visual continuity. On film and TV shoots, there’s always at least one person who does nothing but keep track of this visual continuity. That’s how important it is.
On the other hand, if your goal is mainly to record rehearsals and demo new songs, isolation is much less important. The same is true if your band is good enough that the whole group can play the song “live in the studio” together without mistakes—or, more realistically, is willing to live with any mistakes for music that has that live feel. If, say, the drummer goes crazy bashing cymbals and overwhelms the singer’s vocal mike, mixing in postproduction may be more difficult due to the bleed. Sometimes, though, recording live in the studio can result in a special, unpredictable, unrepeatable kind of performance—after all, many demos are eventually released as actual records—so planning your recording setup to maximize isolation is still a good idea.
Close miking, too, can help—I’ll cover that next time. If you go that route, eight inputs may not be enough, and without isolation, fixing mistakes later is very difficult. Remember that mistake living its best life on all the other tracks? Yeah, that won’t go away without some serious—and often sonically compromising—editing and/or equalization and/or who knows what else. So, keeping in mind your budget and target sound quality, you have a choice: go with two interfaces (maybe cheaper) and the additional work needed to make them work together smoothly, or stick with eight inputs and put more thought in how to mike the group, or spend more on a bigger interface. Stax and Motown, among other record labels, proved that you can record live in the studio without a lot of isolation, inputs, or mikes—but you’ve got to be well-rehearsed and good. You’ve also got to be careful to take time getting all your musicians and mikes in just the right spots. It’s like setting up a pair of speakers for the optimal balance of stereo soundstage depth, width, height, center fill, imaging, and, well, balance—and then cubing the difficulty factor. But this is a huge advantage of recording at home: Because you’re not paying a studio and engineer, you’ve got lots of time to try different things.
If you’re a solo artist or duo who primarily work with electronic instruments and vocals, you’ll want to opt for a two-channel interface of higher quality—like Focusrite’s Clarett 2Pre USB, for about $60 less than the Focusrite Scarlett recommended previously. (And you can always save a lot more and get a less-expensive two-channel interface.) You lose six mike preamps and inputs you won’t need, and the Clarett has better sound quality. You’ll need only a vocal mike, and maybe another pair of mikes for recording, say, an acoustic guitar in stereo, or sounds that you might record and use to build a loop (a repeating section or measure, as in hip-hop), or add as sonic sweeteners. (The term loop is short for tape loop. The sounds that comprise the introduction to “Money,” from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, were recorded on analog tape, edited together, then spliced end to end and played as a continuous loop.) In the next installment I’ll describe the differences among various stereo miking techniques, and offer some ideas of how to use each.
There’s one very important thing you’ll want to decide as early as possible: Who’s going to produce your recording? Someone must be in charge, even if that means only that that person settles any arguments about the music, the recording process, etc. Otherwise, you run the serious risk of too many cooks spoiling the record. Say two people are playing in the same sonic space and the sound is getting mushy—someone’s gotta change what they’re playing, and who’s going to tell them? The producer, that’s who. My 2¢? The best choice is often someone who didn’t write the song being recorded, but who has the best people skills and the respect of the band. Songwriters tend to be protective of their babies, and have trouble remaining unbiased. But when there’s no one at whose mixing desk everyone agrees the buck will stop, recording projects tend to lose focus and get messy. Put someone in charge of making the final decisions—and more important, listen to that person, and learn to live with their decisions. If enough of you don’t like the result, well, you can always do it again with someone else producing. After all, you’ve got the greatest luxury: time.
Next up: putting your new gear to work.
. . . Mark Phillips