5 Things to Consider When Recording Music at Home
Businesses across the globe are doing what they can to adjust and stay afloat during these unprecedented times, including us here at Prolific Sound Solutions. The music industry, and related service professionals & firms within the sector, are especially impacted. Live shows being cancelled and in-person studio sessions no longer a viable option due to shelter-in-place initiatives. However, the show must go on as they say, and we’re seeing a surge of creativity and camaraderie within our artist communities.
Quarantined or not, every song you do doesn’t need to be recorded at the studio! There are many great reasons to have your own recording setup at home:
Reduce your studio expenses! Record at home, then send your stems to an engineer for mixing/mastering (link)
Freedom to create and experiment with no time constraints
Practicing your performance & delivery prior to your studio session, so you come in prepared
Creating singles or mixtape tracks between proper album releases
Be able to capture ideas as soon as creativity strikes you
Just look at one of the hottest artists for inspiration and proof: Grammy Award-winning Billie Eilish started out recording at home and uploading music on her own to SoundCloud. To this day, Billie and her brother/producer Finneas still create music in the privacy & comfort of their bedroom.
One of our most dedicated clients, Leo the Youth, records ALL of his music at home before sending his songs to Prolific Sound Solutions for mixing and mastering. “Recording at home gives me the opportunity to try new things and be more creative,” he says. “I can experiment and play with new approaches at home, things I wouldn’t normally have the time to try when I’m paying for studio time. It really helped me grow as an artist. It REALLY helped us save a ton of money too in the process.”
It’s easier (and cheaper) than ever to record great music yourself! Recording equipment costs are at an all-time low, and intuitive, accessible recording software lets ANYONE who has an interest in creating songs do so at the comfort of their own home.
In an effort to help out artists everywhere, especially with all this sudden free time, here are 5 things to consider when recording music at home:
1. Have the RIGHT Hardware
Using the right equipment will make a huge difference in the final output of your music. The cost of entry and skill barrier these days are lower than ever, but you still need to be mindful with how you configure your recording setup.
Computer: I’m on the side of the argument that building a PC is the most efficient and affordable way to go, but not everyone is comfortable with the idea of building from scratch. Whether you’re picking your own parts, or buying a PC/Mac pre-built, the key things you want to look for is a decent processor, ample amount of RAM, and a Solid State HD (SSD) if you can swing it. If you also plan to do video processing, the graphics card (GPU) is also a big factor. Don’t worry about the sound card, because you’ll be using an external audio interface for your recordings. For a deep dive into computer specs for home studio setups, check this blog post out.
Audio Interface: The audio interface allows you to utilize professional microphones with XLR connectors (not USB mics), as well as record line-level instruments such as guitars. Audio interfaces do the analog-to-digital audio conversions within the unit, then send the digital signal to your computer for processing/recording. Audio interfaces also allow you to connect to studio-quality speakers, and headphones for monitoring while recording.
These days, audio interfaces are capable of impressive audio fidelity for relatively affordable prices! Here are some great entry-level interfaces I’d recommend to those who are starting out. Each one of these interfaces can connect with one microphone, one line-level instrument, studio monitor speakers, and headphones.
Presonus Audiobox MSRP $129.95. Excellent entry-level audio interface
Focusrite 2i2 MSRP $199.99. One of the premier go-to interfaces for musicians everywhere
Solid State Logic SSL2+ MSRP: $349.99. Amazing unit from the prestigious SSL. “Legacy 4K” mode allows for analog, old-school saturation. Bundled with Pro Tools First, Bomb Factory plug-ins, Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid Keys, and Komplete Start
Universal Audio Apollo Twin (USB) MSRP $1229.00. Used by established artists and bundled with UA industry-leading plugins
Microphones: Using the right microphone is paramount to a clean sound. Condenser mics are a popular option for vocals. They use XLR cables (compatible with audio interfaces) and require an external power source, called “Phantom Power,” which audio interfaces can provide with a push of a button. Condenser mics that are popular for vocals usually have a boost in the upper-mid-range for clarity.
One of the industry-standard mics for vocal recording at any professional studio is the Neumann U-87, which retails for around $3000. However, you’d be surprised at the level of quality that some of the more entry-level microphones are capable of. Consider these options:
Audix CX112B MSRP: $336.00. Professional build and serious versatility
Audio-Technica AT4033/CL MSRP: $399.00. A 20-year old classic, great for vocals as well as guitars
Neumann TLM 102 MSRP: $699.00. Same lineage as the legendary U-87. Bright, crisp sound
Shure KSM44A MSRP: $1,249.00. Amazing warmth and unique, professional-sounding characteristics
Studio Monitor Speakers: Studio monitors are designed for professional audio. They have a flat, even sound, unlike consumer speakers that are usually designed to accentuate bass and treble. They connect to the rear of your audio interface, usually with XLR or TRS cables. Studio monitors are essential to ensure your music is balanced and sounding great. While some are limited to just listening to headphones due to their environment, it is always ideal to have studio monitors. If you have the room and budget to add a pair to your home recording setup, you absolutely should.
Here are some great-sounding, budget-friendly options:
PreSonus Eris E3.5 3.5" MSRP: $129.95 (pair). If size and budget is a concern, these are a great option
JBL 305P MkII 5" MSRP: $149.00 (each). Accurate, excellent entry-level choice
Yamaha HS8 8" Currently $369.99 (each). Iconic white-coned woofers, with studio lineage dating back to the late ‘70s
ADAM Audio A7X 7" MSRP: $749.99 (each). Precision monitoring; found in many pro studios
Headphones: Headphones are used during recording to monitor your performance in real-time. A good pair of studio headphones should be comfortable, even, and durable. They should be wired, not wireless or Bluetooth, as those introduce latency. Studio headphones connect to the front of your audio interface using a ¼” connector, not a 3.5mm “aux” connector that most consumer headphones use. They are “closed-back” in design, to prevent the monitor audio from leaking into your recording (more on that later).
Here are our recommendations:
Sennheiser HD 280 MSRP: $129.95
Audio-Technica ATH-M40x MSRP: $99.00
Shure SRH440 MSRP: $125.00
Sony MDR-7506 MSRP: $130.00
Misc accessories: Rounding out our hardware recommendations are the miscellaneous items you’ll need to connect everything together and record cleanly:
XLR cables for your microphone(s) to the audio interface
XLR or TRS cables to connect your studio monitor speakers to your audio interface
A Pop filter to prevent “plosives” in your recording
A microphone stand to position your mic while recording. While it is traditionally proper form to be standing during recording, a lot of bedroom artists have taken a liking to sitting down during tracking. Consider what’s comfortable/best for your situation when choosing a mic stand
2. Use the Right Software (DAW)
A Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW for short, is a software that allows people to record, edit, and produce music, among other things such as podcasts, audio for film, and radio. Using a DAW will help you properly record and edit a song to a sleek finished product. Using the right DAW will allow you to also easily collaborate with other musicians and engineers using the same software.
There are a lot of options out there, and we can talk at length about DAWs, perhaps on another blog post. For now, here are some user-friendly, established DAWs you can choose to use:
Avid Pro Tools Subscriptions starting at $29.99/month. Leading-industry DAW
Apple Logic Pro MSRP: $199. Mac only; powerful DAW, great for production
Ableton Live starting at $69. For power users who want supreme flexibility to match their creativity
Presonus Studio One starting at $69. One of the newest DAWs with a lot of modern design ideas
Universal Audio LUNA FREE (requires UA hardware). For tech-savy musicians who love bleeding-edge technology. Recording-focused DAW with deep Apollo integration and analog emulation
Reaper Starting at $60. Although not as sleek and user-friendly as the other DAWs on this list, a common choice for new users due to its free 60 day evaluation with no limitations
3. Capture the Best Performance
Once all your hardware and software is in place, it’s time to record! Keep these things in mind when recording:
Your Performance: When recording from the privacy of your own home, it’s a lot easier to try to experiment with your performance and delivery. This is a big thing to consider: don’t just recite your lyrics. You need to truly PERFORM them as you record, as that energy will translate to a great recording. This is something I tell a lot of our new clients coming into the studio. How would you perform these lyrics in front of an audience? Would you be reciting your piece lethargically while reading the lyrics from your phone? Or would you be theatrical with your vocals and body language? Keep this in mind while you’re in front of your mic. Memorizing your lyrics will free up your mental awareness so you can focus it all on your performance, not reading while reciting.
Microphone Distance: While recording, the distance from you and the microphone plays a big factor in the quality of the audio captured. 6 inches is usually a sweet spot I recommend. Getting too close to the mic will result in audio that sounds “boomy “and messy. Being too far while recording results in a loss of high-end frequencies/content. Finding your recording sweet spot will ensure a nice, even, clean take. Don’t forget to always direct your performance to the front of the microphone. High frequencies are very directional, meaning if you turn your head away from the microphone at any point during recording (to read your lyrics, for example), the recording captured by your mic will be inconsistent.
Audio Levels: When setting the levels of your headphone, make sure it isn’t too loud. The excess volume from the headphones will “bleed” into your recording, resulting in a less-than-pristine take. After recording, take a listen to your take through your studio monitors, but make sure to disengage your recording track so you don’t cause an audio feedback loop! It’s recommended to listen to your take at a balanced volume; loud enough to analyze your performance, but not too loud as you can quickly experience listening fatigue, or even worse, damage your hearing.
4. Try "Comping" Multiple Takes
You don’t need to perform your song perfectly from start to finish. Capture a few solid takes of each of your verses. 3-5 takes usually is best. This allows you to have enough variation and choice, without burning out by over-performing. Then you can pick and choose the best takes for each verse, or, take the best parts of each take and stitch together a perfect take to use. This approach is called “comping.”
Comping takes practice, but it’s a powerful technique. If you sing a word flat in an otherwise perfect take, you can replace that problem word from another take where you nailed it. Started off strong, but lost your energy mid-verse? Comping will let you replace the second half of your verse with a stronger take.
Many DAWs allow you to comp different takes easily. With smart tools, you can cross-fade each piece and make it sound like a seamless recording. Pick the cleanest phrases with the best energy, and make sure everything matches in timing and tone!
5. Audio Isolation Tips
If you’re just starting out, you’ll soon find that home-recording hardware are sensitive instruments. Microphones can pick up a lot of unwanted background noise. It’s important to find a place in your living space that is suitable for recording. Ideally, you’d want to acoustically treat your room with acoustic panels and such, but this isn’t an option for a lot of people.
Closets make great makeshift recording booths. If that’s not an option, pick a room that’s relatively “dry,” as oppose to echo-y. Low-tech solutions, such as using a heavy blankets to isolate your performance/microphone, do help, but it’s a bit of a pain to use long-term.
Reflection filters have recently become a popular solution for home-recording, improving the acoustic quality of your recording space without permanent treatment. These are small barriers placed behind your microphone to help block unwanted sounds and reflections. Reflection filters provide some absorption of sounds that would otherwise reach the rear-facing sides of the mic. It also helps slightly block out room noise. They’re not a magic cure-all, but they do improve your recordings a bit.
Here are some reflection filters to consider adding to your setup:
sE Electronics Reflection Filter PRO MSRP: $349.00. One of the first reflection filters to hit the market; common choice
Aston Microphones Halo Reflection Filter MSRP: $299.00. Shell-shape design
ISOVOX MSRP: $999.00 Aggressive isolation design
Bonus: Label Your Tracks!
Once you get going on your songs, you’ll soon find your track-count quickly add up. Labeling all your tracks (such as “Instrumental,” “Verse,” “Dubs,” “Ad libs,” and “Chorus”) will help you stay organized and focused on creativity. This will also help when collaborating, or if you decide to send in your tracks to an engineer for professional mixing and mastering!