Getting Started with Home Studio Recording

I’m often asked what kind of equipment is needed to get started with home studio recording. A lot of folks think that it takes buckets of money or a van load of groupies to set up a home recording studio

If you look at pictures of pro recording studios, with their racks and racks of gear, massive consoles, high-end equipment and $4,000 microphones, it’s easy to think you can’t do this without a hefty bank account or maybe some angel investors. It looks daunting and a lot of folks just give up or don’t even try.

Well, screw that! Fact is, you can get started for way less than you think.

Here’s What You Actually Need for Your Home Studio.

A Computer. Doesn’t have to be fast or fancy. I recently bought my mom a refurbished Dell laptop on eBay for $217, including shipping, that would totally work for home recording. If you’re sitting in front of a computer right now, I’ll bet you it will work just fine without much fuss. If you’re checking this on your phone, please send yourself a note to check it for real when you get home. Do you really think you can get world class sound with something that fits in your pocket? (Oddly, the answer is “yes” but that’s another topic.)

Some Recording Software. This is called your Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW. You can get a pretty decent entry-level DAW for free. It’s called Audacity. Yes, there are  better DAW’s available, and we’ll talk about those, but you can start with this one, then upgrade when/if you want to. Some names to watch include ProTools, Sonar, Digital Performer, Live, several others.

An Audio Interface. This connects your DAW to the real word of microphones, guitars, accordions, crappy singers and anything else you want to record. A basic audio interface can be had for less than $100. Here are some audio interface options. The audio interface used to be called a “Sound Card.”

A Pair of Monitors or Headphones. “Monitors” is studio-geek-speak for, um, Speakers. This is one thing you really can’t scrimp on. You’ll need to hear what’s really going on with your recordings, and cheap speakers just won’t do. FORGET using your ear-buds (For what we need, they suck!) If you can swing it, I recommend a great pair of headphones like the Sony MDR-7506. You’ll find these everywhere from LA to Abbey Road and they’ll set you back around $200 but they’re absolutely worth it. If you can’t afford that, plan for at least $50 on a pair closed-ear headphones, the kind that cover your whole ear, with a thingie that goes over the top of your head. Here are some Monitor and Headphone options.

Your Instrument or Voice and a decent Microphone. You’ve probably already got an instrument or two or you wouldn’t be here, and I assume your voice is working, so I won’t bother talking about those, other than to say to keep them in top condition. As to microphones; the type you’ll want to buy and use depends on what you want to record, but you can get a decent cardiod or condenser mic (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means) for less than a hundred bucks. More info about microphones over here.

A Space to Record. Most home studios are in the spare bedroom, the garage, basement, or the living room. My First Album was done entirely in a 10′ x 14′ room with small furry animals lurking about. It might not be ideal, but you can get great results recording in whatever space you’ve got. Don’t stress about having the perfect space. Your ears and your tenacity can overcome almost anything!

Time. Creating a pro-quality recording at home takes time. No way around it. The good news is that, unlike renting a pro recording studio, once you’re set up, you don’t have to pay by the hour or stress out about how much it’s all costing. You can tinker and tweak to your heart’s content.

That’s pretty much it.

On every level and for each thing, you can upgrade or ramp it up when you’re ready, but really, you can get started for way less than you think.  There is lots of great, free, information here at Home Studio Geeks that goes into detail about each of these steps, and I encourage you read up on it and get started.

To go deeper into any given topic and to fast-track your awesomeness, you’ll want to check out my home studio Premium Training.

Oh, just one more thing.

You don’t have to be an “Expert”, (whatever that is)

You don’t need a degree or a certificate. You don’t need a diploma and you abso-fuckin-lutely don’t need “permission”. Screw the suits and screw the nay-sayers. You don’t have to know everything right now. This is a learning process, and each step builds on the last one. You’ll learn what you need to learn as you go along. Breathe.

Even world-class professional recording engineers and producers will tell you (if they’re honest) that there never comes a time when they know everything. Anyone who says they do is an asshole.

So EMBRACE THE PROCESS! It’s a really FUN process, and I look forward to helping you do your kick-ass shit, show you how to record your music, make your awesome voice-overs, have a blast, and make the kind of recordings you can be proud of.

Cheers!

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Guitar is Just Like a Cowbell

Music Adventure

Guitar is Just Like a Cowbell, and it’s NOT like Violin, Sort-of.

Guitar is one of those instruments that’s pretty easy to play, but really hard to play WELL. Like a Cowbell.

Let me explain.

I’ll bet you know at least 5 people who play guitar. Most them don’t play it very well or with much finesse, but they play it and have fun. Their friends sometimes even like it.

I’ll bet you also know at least, uh, NOBODY, who’s main claim to fame is playing cowbell. (Unless you’re into playing latin music, in which case, EVERYBODY wants that gig.)

The thing is, playing guitar, or playing cowbell, is pretty easy on the surface. All you gotta do is learn a few chords and strum away. For cowbell, all you gotta do it hit the thing with a stick.

But here’s the deal.

The cowebell is very important in latin music and percussion ensembles because it’s really loud and really obvious. It cuts through everything! If you off (just a little bet) people will notice. So it’s easy to play, but hard to play well.

You’re either awesome or you suck.

There’s no in-between.

Luckily, Home Studio Recording is Not Like that

Almost anybody can throw together a basic recording setup and lay down some basic tracks. Well, OK, that’s not really true, but lot’s of people can do that basic stuff.  (Assuming they have a laptop and and a credit card)

But to go beyond the average mammal, the run-of-the-mill dude fiddling with the mouse and making mediocre crap in his bedroom, you’ve got to work at it a bit.

Or a lot.

The cool thing is that you can keep learning, keep making mistakes, keep getting better and there’s no hard or fast rules as to what’s good or what’s not, except that it has to sound good. It’s up to you to create what you want and work on stuff as you go along.

Take the Time to Learn Your Craft

Take the time to learn how to use your gear, learn how to really play your instrument(s). Take the time to fiddle around with things until they sound the way you really want them to.

I’ll be getting into the nitty gritty; stuff like EQ, compression, microphones, guitars & other techniques in the coming posts but, for now, I’d like you to think of yourself as an explorer.

You’re on a very cool sonic adventure!

You’re part student, part explorer. Adventure into the awesome world of sound and home studio recording. You don’t have to know everything right now. You just have to be willing to get in the game and start exploring, start experimenting with sound.

How to Get Started

The best place I know of to really start building your skills and record your music or voice-overs in a way that will POP is to learn about EQ.

This is HUGE.

It’s one of those behind-the-scenes, back-stage tricks that will set you apart from the rest.  Join me and learn how to use EQ to awesomize your home recordings.

Take the plunge and BE AWESOME!

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A Home Studio Guy Walks Into a Bar

Home studio guy in a bar

He sits down and orders a drink. It’s about 9:30 in the evening and a local band is playing a decent version of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Our home studio guy (let’s call him “Bob”) scans the room to see if any of his friends are there, or maybe some nice looking women to meet.

There’s a group of friends in the corner booth so Bob goes over to say whassup. As the conversation gets moving, Bob notices that almost no one is listening to the band, even though they’re pretty good.

In addition to being into home studio recording, Bob’s also a musician and plays in a couple bands.  Getting gigs is hard enough, and getting people to show up and pay attention is even harder, but they’ve been working it for about a year now and are starting to gain a little bit of traction.

It Ain’t What You Say

Bob’s learned that it almost doesn’t matter what songs you play, as long as you play them with passion and do something on stage that’s visually interesting. It ain’t what you say, It’s how you say it. When Bob closes his eyes, the band playing “Stairway” sounds good, but when he looks at the stage they’re just standing there, looking a little bored and there’s absolutely NOTHING that yells “Excitement!”

Except for the drummer. The dude is totally in the pocket and he’s just NAILING the drum part. (OK, granted, it’s a pretty easy part but the dude’s workin’ all the right angles.)

Looking a little closer around the room, Bob notices that people are ignoring the singer, but they’re watching the drummer and getting off on what he’s doing.

It’s the Same With Home Studio Recording

You can be average (or worse) on a lot of things, but as long as you’re awesome on at least one, then that’s what you should focus on and bring to the front of your mix.  With home studio audio, we don’t have the visual aspect going for us. It all lives or dies on the SOUND of what we’ve recorded.

So. If you’re a guitar god, bring the guitar up in the mix. If your bass playing can kick the ass of Nathan East and Jaco, then by all means, push the bass front & center.

On the other hand, if you’re just OK at playing instruments or singing, and you don’t know which part of your mix or song to focus on…

Here’s a Little Trick

Play your latest tune for 5 different people and ask them to tell you one thing they like about the tune or the recording, and one thing they don’t. Be willing to listen and don’t take it personally. They’re doing you a favor by listening and commenting so thank them for their time.

If you get the same comment or idea more than once, THAT is your secret sauce thing to focus on. Make it bigger; tune it up; polish it; make it shine!

If you get 5 different answers, then ask 5 more people and keep asking until you get 2 or 3 people who say the same thing, and then focus on that.

Bob Walks Out of the Bar

And he remembers that awesome drummer, because THAT was the best thing in the room. Take your time, get feedback, listen to what people say (if there’s some common ground) and then act on that.

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Doesn’t ANYBODY Play Guitar?

More CowbellI know you’ve been there. You work your ass off for weeks and months trying to build something really cool, trying to create a big slice of home studio awesomeness. You’ve got the basic gear together; the computer and the DAW, you’ve got studio monitors and maybe a good pair of headphones; your instruments are ready to rock and you’ve got a decent microphone or three.

Let’s say you’ve been working with your bass player or guitarist or whoever to help them get up to speed and you’re ALMOST ready to go into the studio and lay down some awesome tracks.

And then it happens.

“Hey, dude. I’d LIKE to be there but I have this family thing (or work thing or <fill-in-the-blank> thing) and I just can’t make it.”

At the last minute, somebody lets you down and chooses to make something else more important than you.

What do you do?

Well, YMMV, but here’s what I do. if it’s the first time, or secord & maybe even the 3rd time I’ll be understanding and try to rearrange things to make it work,  If it’s happened a lot, then, well, I fire that person. Fire them fast and do it now. Doesn’t matter if they’re your best friend from high school. They’ve made the choice to make your music less important that other stuff in their lives.

The longer that person stays around, and makes you feel like they’re doing you a big favor by showing up, the longer you’ll feel like you don’t deserve to work with people who share your passion and are willing to do whatever it takes to make your vision explode onto the stage or into the bank of awesome home recordings.

If Someone Doesn’t Respect You, Fire Them

Fire them and move on ~ End of story.

Yeah but, isn’t that kind of harsh?

Well, it is and it isn’t.  It’s hard enough to put a band together, write and arrange the songs, schedule rehearsals, book the shows and all the rest. Or, if it’s just you but you’re relying on other people to help you get things done, same deal.  I swear, trying to get all the musicians and players in the same room at the same time is like trying to nail jello to a tree. Or like trying to herd cats. It’s HARD!

Personally, I’d rather work with a guy who’s maybe not super stellar but who has a great attitude and is eager to show up and work hard  and be part of your musical team. I’d rather have that guy that some one who may be a much better musician but only looks at you as a means to showcase their own prowess. Know what I mean?  Those people, while they may be awesome players and stunning musicans, are not in the game to help you.

Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing, Baby

What I want, and what you probably want, are people who share your vision for home recording and performance, people who will work WITH you to help build something awesome; people who are willing to show up and help you get the job done.

This is just my two cents, but if you find that your old friend who was totally on board at first but is now dragging her feet, that person you thought you could always count on but they now seem to be dropping the ball…

Cut your losses.

Fire them and move on. Even if you have to move forward not knowing what happens next. The longer you let them stay around, the more you’ll wish you’d fired them months go. Dude, trust me on this one. You can’t afford to work with people who bail when the pressure is on.

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Microphones

AKG C414

A microphone or “mic” converts sound into electricity.

OK, there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the basic idea.

When you sing into a mic (or play your guitar or other instrument) the sound waves from your voice cause a little thingie inside the mic to move. That movement interacts with other thingies in the mic and creates a tiny electrical signal. I’ll cover this in more detail later but the idea of changing sound into electricity is where we’ll start.

3 Types of Microphones

There are three basic types of microphones that we’ll be talking about and each one works best for certain types of recording tasks.  If you don’t already have a closet full of mic’s and you don’t have a huge gear budget (like DUH!), don’t worry. You can get started with a fairly inexpensive mic and add to your collection over time.

Cardioid Mic

The first type is the Cardioid mic. The classic examples of this are the Sure SM57 and SM 58. These work great for recording guitar amps, snare drums, live vocals and many general purpose applications. In the early days, I did an entire album using only these mics and the results were pretty damn good.

Condenser Mic

The second type is the Condenser mic. I break this type down into two sub-groups: the small-diaphragm and the large-diaphragm condensers. Small diaphragms are great for acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments; they kick ass on horns like sax or trumpet, overhead drums mics and anywhere you want clarity and sparkle. Large diaphragm condensers are the mic of choice for recording studio vocals and they’re great for kick drum, bass guitar cabinets and room sound.

Ribbon Mic

The third type of mic is the Ribbon mic and, frankly, I think you can pretty much forget about these. They can be rather fragile and ‘re temperamental and they usually have a bi-directional polar pattern. More about that in another article.

There are certain areas where ribbon mics shine but, basically, you can get everything you need using just the first two types.

Lastly

I’ll be talking about microphones in more detail in another article, and I’ll review some common choices that will get you great sounds.  For now, all you really need to know is that a $90 SM58 will take you a long way.

You’ll find throughout Home Studio Geeks that I place more emphasis on learning to use what you have than on buying a bunch of new gear. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE getting new gear and probably spend too much money on things sometimes, but the point is that knowing how to use your equipment properly is more important than blowing all your money on that shiny new toy.


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