How To Record Songs At Home
Recording studio time is expensive, at least here in Australia – with a single day in many recording studios upwards of $1k a day, making records and professional recordings really is out of reach for many independent musicians or even vocal coaches like myself looking to make videos and recordings in a professional capacity or record their own original music. Fortunately, this guide will show you how to make a recording studio at home so you practice your recording skills and start making your own recordings.
Think about it, the gear you likely have access to now is probably miles away from the rudimentary recording gear used to make some of the greatest hit records ever made – while I’m an ‘oldschool’ guy personally and have had the pleasure (frustration?) of recording directly to tape in recording studios over the years, the workflow of a digital recording studio at home really does make it an easy and efficient process to record your own songs. With a few tips and a little bit of microphone and recording technique at your back, learning how to record songs at home will be an easy and enjoyable process. Lets get started.
#1 – Recording Space & Vocal Booth
Living in the big smoke for many years, finding and setting up an appropriate recording space that was relatively sound treated and safe from the sounds of flushing toilets, chirping birds (aww) and slamming doors was always the biggest issue. Fortunately, there are work arounds and techniques you can use to set up even the most hostile recording environment so as to get a great sound. The first order of business is to cut down as many reflections as you can with some soundproofing – I personally buy in bulk, around 10 foam sheets for $20 or so and soundproof as many reflective surfaces as possible – thick curtains can also work well, along with a rug on the floor to keep down foot noise and reflections from wood or concrete.
The first port of call is a vocal booth of some sort. Of course, if you soundproof your room well you can set up in the middle and go right ahead with recording, but if you’re after a ‘deader’ sound, then it’s worthwhile to set up a soundproof enclosure that is big enough to house a singer. I’ve set up vocal booths using old doors that were thrifted for free, with brackets to attach them together and then heavily soundproofed inside – or you can even make a basic booth using a large cardboard box that is also suitable soundproofed with foam.
The easiest option is actually a portable reflection booth like the ones below – I’ve used many different ones of the years and they’re all pretty much the same idea; a foam shield that attaches to a microphone stand so you’re basically “singing into the foam”. These are great where your recording space might not be ideal, or you’re not in the position to build a full vocal booth.
While you can mix a relatively mediocre guitar recording, mixing vocals that have tons of ambient room sound or noise in the background is almost impossible – setting up a space for recording vocals is paramount to getting a good home recording studio. We’ll talk about drums and guitars soon, but in the initial stages of setting of learning how to record songs at home, focusing on how you’re going to record vocals first will truly make the difference between a really great recording, and a demo sounding track that lacks quality.
#2 – Microphone choice and placement
Microphone technique is one of the most important things that sound engineers will ever learn. Instead of “fixing it in the mix” as many beginner musicians or those new to recording music often think they can do – the difference between a well chosen and well placed microphone will either make or break your song.
For a home recording setup, there’s really only two microphone types you should focus on, either dynamic or condenser – these both work well for vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and also double as snare, kick or ever overhead drum mics where condensers are concerned. Lets keep it simple for the time and talk about the main differences between dynamic and condenser microphones – I’ve also done a full comparison for you if you’d like to read further.
Dynamic microphones are the traditional microphones that you’ll often see live singers utilising, or those in a rehearsal space. A Shure SM58 is probably the most common dynamic microphone in the world – I’ve personally seen and used them all around the world from here in Australia, the USA and even in Asia, they really are a versatile tool for any recording or live setting. Dynamic mics are known for their ability to withstand high sound pressure levels and are generally the most robust and tough of all microphones – that’s why you see them at open mic nights and rehearsal studios where the clientele may not really care or look after the gear so much. If you’re a more aggressive singer like punk or harder rock, then it’s likely a Dynamic microphone will be on the cards.
The added benefit of a dynamic microphone when you’re looking into how to record songs at home is the fact they pick up minimal background noise, so in a small space or a room that doesn’t have the best acoustic treatment, then a dynamic is your first port of call. Dynamics are also generally on the cheaper side compared to a decent condenser, which not only comes with a heftier price tag, but also require more gentle handling and care when using.
Condensers are common place in recording studios, being a little bit more expensive and delicate than a dynamic – plus having a much more sensitive ability to pick up every nuance of sound. This means that a recording studio in a sharehouse with slamming doors and a broken airconditioner humming in the background really isn’t the place for a condenser. Now that being said, if you’ve put due care into soundproofing and you’ve set up a basic vocal booth, then a condenser really can provide you with that ‘pro’ sound that is open and airy, with every bit of detail you would expect from a professional recording. I have a selection of both dynamics and condensers that I use for different purposes – but really, with one or two great microphones at your disposal you don’t really have to go crazy buying expensive gear. A condenser microphone will give you a much more open sound with more ‘air’ to it, and a much clearer recording – but with that comes the possibility you may pick up unwanted sounds, or if you’re working with an untrained singer perhaps a little ‘too much’ detail isn’t the best when it comes to their/your voice – we’ll talk about vocal technique in a moment.
#3 – Interface
You need somewhere to plug in that microphone you just nabbed on eBay, right? A basic USB interface will do the trick. I have used both presonus (my current interface) and a focusright, and it’s really up to what you prefer more than any distinct differences in the way they work. If you’re only going to be recording an acoustic guitar, or vocals and guitar, or two guitars – you can get away with a two input interface, but often it’s best to upgrade to an interface with a few more inputs just in case. Recording a drum kit properly requires at LEAST four inputs; Left and Right overheads, snare and kick. If you’re making a more modern sounding record, then even more mics will be required for separation in the mix.
I like to use an interface that isn’t too bulky and has the best of both worlds, as many inputs as I need but the ability for it to still remain portable. Recording drums sometimes requires me to go off-site to a rehearsal or recording space, so portability where gear is concerned is very important. The preamps in many USB recording interfaces are usually pretty basic, but they do the job – of course, you can upgrade to an external tube preamp, but honestly, I think investing in a good microphone will do much more for your sound than a gimmicky tube pre that really does little to colour or improve your sound.
When it comes to recording drums or guitars, microphone placement and using the unique strengths of the microphone you’ve chosen will make a huge difference in the quality of your recording. The closer the microphone, at least where a dynamic is concerned, will result in a much clearer sound with little ‘room’ to it. I find that putting a pair of headphones on and moving the microphone around until it hits the ‘sweet’ spot while a guitarist is playing is the best way to find a great microphone placement, but there are a few general tips that will help you.
Generally, the centre of the amp in the middle of the speaker cone will be the brightest and sharpest sound, while the edge of the cone will give you a darker tone with less attack. You can also try turning the microphone 45 degrees into the speaker to get a blend of the two, or take away some of the attack while retaining some of that nice brightness that many great records are known for.
#4 – Vocal Recording Technique (aka Microphone Technique)
To make the mixing process a thousand times easier for yourself, it’s important that you learn proper microphone technique where singing is concerned. As an example, a song that starts out with a quiet and breathy verse will require you/your singer to be relatively close to the microphone – and when it shifts into that belting chorus, you/they’ll need to take a step back away from the microphone to moderate the level and avoid distorting the diaphragm. It’s actually pretty easy to learn, and I suggest practising with a hand held mic and a PA first in a rehearsal studio. It’s easy to forget about microphone technique when you’ve got headphones on and the microphone is on a stand, but when you’re in a room with a PA blaring your voice back at you – you’re going to learn pretty soon how to develop better microphone technique when you sing. The same process applies when you record vocals at home too – back away on the loud highs, and lean in a touch when you’re singing delicately.
Obviously, if you’re struggling to hit the notes or running out of breath when you sing, then this is a separate issue that you need to rectify with vocal training. Singing itself is a process of balance that is learned over time with practice, perseverance and proper technique – so many sure you’re not pushing, straining or yelling when you sing. You can use the troubleshooting guides to your right in the navigation bar to get help with any specific vocal issues you/your singer is experiencing.
#5 – Accessories (cables, stands etc)
A good set of microphone cables will serve you well – I have a set of copper insulated microphone cables that have lasted me almost a decade in my home recording studio. Sure, you can get a cheap cable, but you’re just going to step on the end in a week and have to buy a new one, so invest a little bit more in your gear and make sure to take care of it properly by winding your cables properly and hanging them out of the way when they’re not in use.
Microphone stands are also another important accessory that is often overlooked in home studios – a cheap stand might ‘do’ for the time being, but remember, when one of those cheap connectors or threads gives way the whole stand will be useless. Buy a better quality stand from the start and you’ll actually save yourself money in the long run (you have to spend money to make money, right?).
Bulldog clips are also a priceless tool to have in your home studio – small spaces REALLY get out of hand with tangled wires and cables, so a simple bulldog clip attached to a table or wall hanger will do wonders for keeping your home studio tidy and organised.
#6 – DAW
Your DAW, or digital audio workstation is basically just the program that you use to record through your interface, think protools or logic. While protools is pretty much the standard in many studios, I prefer a more accessible program like REAPER that is essentially free (buy it when you are able to!) and can be configured in many different ways to form the workflow you really prefer. A DAW is pretty much like your mixing desk, your patch bay, your effects loop, even sometimes your guitar amp depending on how you are recording – whichever DAW you choose, do your research and learn how to use it properly for the best possible recording and mixing experience.
How To Build A Recording Studio At Home
With these simple tools and some good gear decisions, learning how to build a recording studio at home is actually a pretty easy and painless process. With an audio interface, a microphone, a little bit of soundproofing and the basic accessories of a cable and mic stand, you can get to work learning how to record songs at home at your own pace and for a literal fraction of the cost a pricey recording studio will charge you.
I personally love the workflow of recording from home when and where I want to so that I’m not locked into studio time on a day where my voice might not want to behave, or you need to play a certain guitar part over and over again, eating up that precious (and expensive) studio time when it’s really something you can do at home. I like the idea of partially recording at home, and partially in a studio or rehearsal space, this really has been the go-to for recording drums over the years.
How to record drums
Recording drums is pretty much the most difficult part of the process, and along with vocals, a good drum sound will make your record, and a bad drum sound will break it. Obviously, most houses aren’t the perfect location for a drum studio, but it CAN be done if you have sufficient space. The important thing is high enough ceilings for sufficient overhead microphone clearance, and of course sound treatment so that there’s not a pong pong reflection on every drum. You can deaden each drum with tricks like paper towel taped underneath the skin, or even leaving a leather wallet sitting on your snare (The Ringo Star trick!) – but ideally, you can find yourself a local rehearsal room that is already soundproofed and is large enough to accommodate overheads. Most rehearsal spaces will have access to baffles and extra soundproofing, not to mention a whole bucket of dynamics you can throw on each drum. A cheap local rehearsal space that can be used for drum recording should only be around $15 or $20 an hour tops – you can lock in three hours and have time enough to set up, pack down and of course record your tracks.
Another alternative is a V-Drum setup which may work depending on your drummer. It can be an expensive setup if you’re just getting started, so the rehearsal room setup is likely the most cost effective solution – however, if you’re looking for a more permanent setup, or you also play drums yourself, investing in a set of electric drums and software like Addictive Drums will probably give you a more professional sound in the long run.
Here’s an example of live drums recorded in a rehearsal room
The issue with rehearsal rooms is consistency between tracks if you are recording on different occasions – where a recording studio would have the same setup and do multiple drum tracks in one sitting. It’s important that you also A/B each microphone to ensure you get the BEST sound possible in the room that you are using – not all rehearsal rooms are the same, and not all of them are entirely soundproofed or treated acoustically.
Here’s an example of live drumming recorded on V-drums with Addictive drums
By setting the standard with live drums, I could them go right ahead and dial in something remotely similar using an electronic kit, which in the long run will no longer cost me anything now that it’s set up permanently in my studio. If you’re working on solo material, this can be a great way to go – if you have drummers coming and going, you’re likely going to get some opposition from drummers who have specific kits and preferences which is understandable. The ideal solution is to alternate between an electronic kit where possible, and a live drum setup where it’s absolutely 100% necessary.
Learning how to record songs at home is a very fun and exciting experience, especially as you start to learn and improve on your techniques. Now that you’ve got the basis of a great recording, the mix is really the nuts and bolts of your song – learning how to mix songs is another tutorial for another day though!
If your singer is having trouble nailing their vocal parts, a great place for them to start is the free Foundations 101 singing course available here at Bohemian Vocal Studio which will show them, or you, how to set up a bulletproof and rock solid foundation that will be consistent and powerful EVERY time you set foot in your home studio to record. If you’d like to take it to the next level with professional voice coaching, you’re also welcome to book a Skype Lesson with me and we’ll working towards extending range and building balance and control in your voice along with forming better habits around microphone technique so you can get the best home recording possible!
If you have any questions about learning how to record songs at home, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!