Home recording: An idiot’s guide

Home recording: An idiot’s guide

Home recording is as much a popular past time with music hobbyists as it is with professional musicians who get paid to make music. The age of the ‘digital audio workstation’ (DAW) has opened many doors for pros and amateurs alike. Technology has come so far that even hit records are being recorded and produced in home studios or mixed on the road. Ignoring ‘the room’ for a moment, the gap between home and professional recording studios is now almost, at least potentially, zilch.

Of course, our home studios are, more often than not, missing three key ingredients – 1. the financial investment in the equipment and technology (i.e. the DAW, audio interface, monitors, mics, and other software and hardware), 2. a pristine, acoustically treated room that just sounds awesome (correct, the A/C burr-ing away in the background, the sound of car horns, the neighbors tv.. doesn’t sound awesome), and 3. the skillz to make your recordings sound like a record!

None-the-less, we can do pretty damn good on a shoestring budget, I say. So I want to share some thoughts of my own on dicing with home recording and provide a little guidence on how to get started.

B.D.: Before Digital

I guess I was pretty lucky. I had a family that loved music, and I got into playing guitar before I knew what a teenager was. At age 14, I got my first.. erm.. ‘DAW’. Though, in those days, it was called a 4 track  and it certainly did not deliver the crisp and hiss free tones of a modern 24-bit digital recorder. Us amateurs were a long way from the sound of a record back then, but heck, it was a lot of fun!

It wasn’t long until digital recording started to appear in the pro studios. I remember the comments of a family friend at the time who’s band had just recorded their album in a digital studio. He wasn’t overly impressed, describing the sound as brittle and lifeless – or something to that effect. It was early days in the digital domain and there was a lot to improve on; but even now, this kinda perception of digital recording persists, I believe. Purists will tell you that it just doesn’t sound the same as tape.

But I beg to differ. And with software emulation doing all the things that tape used to do, you really can’t tell the difference. OK. I bet the few can. But not me, and probably not you. And even where there is a difference, doesn’t necessarily make it sound worse or better.

My first experience in going digital was, like many, with midi. Recording audio was still out of reach for most home studios of the time. So I wasn’t able to record my guitar, but I did love how I was able to use it to help arrange my songs and create a backing track that I could play along with. In fact, it was my school that first introduced me to midi; our music class got its own Atari ST computer and an external sound module that was used to play back the various midi parts out through a pair of speakers. The software we used at the time, was Cubase.

It wasn’t until somewhere around the early 2000s when I finally got setup with the ability to record audio on my computer, and that pretty much changed everything for me. Finally, I thought, I can sound like a record too!

Fast Foward.. 10 Years On

Yeah. Not as easy as I thought it would be. But here I am, still trying to sound like a pro. And still having a lot of fun in my own home studio.

What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s not just the technology that does it. A lot of us just plow money into hardware, equipment, and plugins, and plugins, and yet more plugins. But actually, this can just make things worse. You can quickly end up with a lot of stuff you have no idea how to use. Guilty as charged.

So, if I were gonna start over, here’s what I would suggest to myself:

  1. Get a damn good computer, and dedicate it to audio. At the end of the day, this thing needs to do the legwork. If it hangs or pukes every time I try to add some reverb, I’m really not going to get very far. So get something that can do the job, and then some.
  2. Get a damn good audio interface and at least one great mic. Whether it’s your vocals, drums, or an acoustic guitar, the link between source and destination is pretty much down to your audio interface, and of course, your mics. It’s the audio interface that converts that sound from the analog domain to the digital. So the quality of your analog to digital converters, and mic preamps, is key. Your audio interface will also be key for low latency recording. I.e. the ability to hear what you are singing or playing in near real-time as you overdub your tracks without a noticeable delay.
  3. A pair of great headphones. I’d love to say monitors, but for most, headphones might well be both better and cheaper. Monitors certainly can be the way to go if a) you can afford some good ones, and b) you have an acoustically treated room with very little external noise coming in.
  4. Study the basics of recording, mixing, and producing music. Do a course or read a book. Learn about your DAW and basic audio and mixing concepts before you start buying plugin after plugin after plugin.

That’s really all you need to get started. No plugins necessary – most DAWs will come with a lot of standard plugins which are perfectly capable, built-in (compressors, noise gates, EQ, reverb, delay, chorus.. you name it). Get to know these first and how to use them before you consider buying anything else.

So to get you started, following is a few ideas on each of these items and wherever I can, some suggestions for some pretty reasonable gear.

Computers for Audio Recording

Depending on what you intend to be doing with your home studio, you’ll need a computer with enough power to do it.

If you are just planning to use it as a midi sequencer, then you won’t need much. On the other hand, if you intend to record real audio, multitrack, and use virtual instruments and effects, then you’ll need a pretty healthy computer in order to handle the load.

Most modern computers and laptops will be able to handle some amount of audio work, so if you already have a computer, I would suggest getting an audio interface first, installing a DAW, and seeing how things go. You’ll quickly know if your computer is going to struggle or not.

If you are going to invest in a computer, and you are more serious about it, then I would recommend a desktop setup as opposed to a laptop. Why? Just because it is easier to upgrade and change out parts in a desktop. If you are planning on traveling or depending on space, then this may or may not be an option.

As for which computer or brand to buy, I can’t offer any concrete advice myself, but most known brands should be perfectly fine. There are also specialist companies that build computers specifically for this purpose and could be worth the extra dollars. Or, if you have some knowledge, you can just build your own.

Whichever way you chose to go, I would highly recommend that you thoroughly research your choices before making a purchase, as some component brands (motherboard, CPU, RAM, etc.) can be unsuitable for real-time audio recording, causing some very unwelcome problems such as stutter, crackling, latency, audio dropouts, buffer underruns, and more.

Once you have your computer setup, a great tool to check out is latencymon, which will help to detect and eliminate conflicts and issues relating to real-time audio. I think this is for Windows only – I’ll update with something for Macs if someone can recommend the equivalent software.

Windows or Mac?

Doesn’t matter. Macs were the place to be… 15 years ago. Times have changed. Windows is just as good or better nowadays – in my opinion. Most major DAW software will be available for both.

Though, Windows OS’s probably do have more default crap that you’ll want to disable or change settings for. There are plenty of tutorials out there that give advice on OS settings and tweaks for running audio software.

Hardware

Just my two sense worth, but if you are going to be recording live audio, and mixing, you’ll need a reasonable amount of juice.

In my book, the following is the place to start. This can all be upgraded once things start to grind to a halt (obviously, laptops will be a little more limited when it comes to upgrading):

  1. At least 2.4+ GHz multi-core processor. An Intel i5 is a good place to start. An i7 would be better.
  2. At least 8GB of fast RAM, 16GB would be better.
  3. Preferably solid state drives (SSD), particularly as sample and audio recording drives; otherwise 7200 rpm hard disks. Using multiple disks and separating your operating system drive from your audio drive is considered a good way to go.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)

A DAW is the software that allows you to create music on your computer. There are lots of DAWS available (free and paid) and you’ll have to spend a bit of time trying the various options out and finding one that suits your needs.

Below is a list of the more popular DAWS available.

Paid

Steinberg Cubase

Avid ProTools

Apple Logic Pro X

Presonus Studio One

Cakewalk Sonar

Ableton Live

FL Studio

Propellerhead Reason

Free

Avid ProTools First

MU.Lab

Tracktion T5

Audacity

PreSonus Studio One 3 Prime

Cockos Reaper

Zynewave Podium Free

Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces do the legwork when it comes to getting audio onto your computer, or back out to your speakers. The onboard sound card that is built-in on your motherboard is probably not going to cut it on when working with serious audio.

Audio interfaces can be bought as an internal add-in PCIe card, or as an external device. Either is fine, just make sure there is a high-speed/bandwidth connection between the audio device and the computer. For external devices, these include USB3 (USB2 is starting to be old but still perfectly adequate for most purposes), Thunderbolt, Firewire, etc. and are all plenty good enough. An external device will give you more flexibility if using it on multiple computers, or perhaps the only choice if you are using a laptop.

The exact device to buy is, again, highly dependent on what you want to do. You can buy interfaces that will allow you to record just one or two sources simultaneously or one that will allow 8, 16, or more inputs. If you are a pro or a studio, then more might be better. If you are a drummer, then you’re gonna need those inputs. But for the most part, the rest of us probably only need one or two inputs.

The inputs should, of course, be able to handle both XLR and 1/4 inch jack inputs, and provide for 48v phantom power. This will allow you to be able to plugin either microphones or direct line instruments such as guitars and keyboards.

The interface should also support 24-bit recording (or higher) and a minimum 44.1 kHz sample rate. Most will be able to support sample rates of 88.2 kHz and higher.

Again, do your research. Look at reviews and feedback on online music shops. Lots of problems can occur with the audio interface’s drivers, which can be a show stopper or just a waste of time. It’s worth checking to see what people are saying about your particular interface and how well it plays with your OS and DAW, as well as noting people’s opinions about the manufacturer’s support for the product in case you do have problems.

Below I’m listing some of the more popular audio interface brands. Personally, I can only vouch for my experience with the RME UFX line, which I have been happily using for the last 4+ years.

RME

Universal Audio

Focusrite

PreSonus

Mics

Ok. This is not something I am gonna start listing! There are far too many mics in this world and everyone has something different to say about each one of them.

However, if you are going to record live audio, a mic is absolutely key. And you don’t have to spend a lot. There are plenty of budget mics out there that sound perfectly awesome.

Where to start? If you can, beg, borrow, or steal as many mics as you can get your hands on. Then, record, play, and listen. A lot of vocalists will have a favorite. Remember, a mic that sounds great for one singer may not suit another, so you’ll want to test and try as much as you can. Your amps and other noises that you record will all sound different, depending on the mic that you use, and obviously, it all boils down to taste and preference.

My personal preference is the mic that doesn’t hum, buzz, or make any damn noise! So include a good mic cable while you’re at it.

Want something more useful? Check out some recommendations for vocal mics from ehomestudiorecording.com.

Headphones

If you are going to be mixing, a great pair of headphones is well worth the investment. A couple of things to remember when selecting and purchasing headphones:

  1. Comfort. If you are mixing, then they will stay wrapped around your head for a good number of hours. So they need to be comfortable.
  2. For recording purposes, if you are using your headphones for monitoring playback while your record, then you’ll want ‘closed’ headphones – not ‘open’ ones.
  3. Quality. Obviously a major factor when it comes to cost. If you must mix on headphones, then you’ll be at a disadvantage compared to working in a treated studio space using high-end monitors. Headphones sound and present audio differently to speakers, so getting a decent pair can go a long way toward offsetting some of the issues.

On the subject of mixing on headphones, check out these two plugins: Sonarworks, Headphone Calibration and Waves, NX Virtual Mix Room. Both designed to help address the problems associated with mixing in headphones.

For the low-down and recommendations on studio headphones, check out these articles to get you started:

The Ultimate Guide to Studio Headphones for Home Recording – ehomestudiorecording.com

Best Studio Headphones – pickyear.com

Studio Headphones – soundonsound.com

In the End

There is a lot of stuff out there, a lot of experience, and a lot of opinions. And you’ll have to plunder through many articles more useful than this idiot’s guide before you get it figured out. But I hope this makes for a useful starting place at least.

Got an opinion of your own? Feel free to comment and share your experiences, feelings, and thoughts on home recording, gear, 4 track nostalgia, and about all the plugins you say you can’t do without!

One thought on “Home recording: An idiot’s guide

  1. Hello! Nice article, it is useful for beginners getting into setting up their own home studio. Just thought I might add this article https://www.yourbestpicks.com/best-studio-headphones/ which goes over in detail headphones for both studio and recording purposes and it’s recent as of May 2017. I think this might be useful to your readers under the ‘Headphones’ section of your article. Just a thought. Have a good day!

    -Isaac

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