Home Recording: Equipment and Preparation

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Having the right equipment and being well prepared are the two main things you need to do high quality home recording. If you master these two elements, you shouldn’t go wrong.

Equipment

Console (Sound Board)

First you have to look at your budget and your style. Do you need a console? Do you need an effects board? You don’t need either of them, but some people prefer to work with them. That’s something you should examine before anything else. Having a console can be expensive, but it’s also very practical. With a console, you can set all your pans and fades, volumes, etc, before recording. You use a channel for every instrument (depending, of course, on the number of channels available to you).

I prefer to go directly to the computer and handle the engineering aspect from there. The point is that some people like to twist knobs, while others don’t care either way. Remember that whatever is available externally is also available through software. Therefore, the only thing a console will add is a tool certain people find easier to work with.

Effects

How do you prefer to work? This point is similar to the previous one. Do you want to handle all of your effects prior to recording, or do you want to add them after the recording is done? In my experience, I’ve found the second route to be much less time consuming. The only effects I will add prior to recording are distortion and wah. The wah I’ll do prior because of the control available while playing, and the distortion because it’s just easier to have it on while playing; you can really feel the sustain of the notes.

I add all other effects afterwards. I don’t even use an amplifier to record; I get the sound in “pure.” I find this saves a lot of time because you won’t always be sure ahead of time which effect will fit where. Most producers you’ll work with will be the same. You see, a song you play every night using a specific amount of chorus, reverb and flange might sound very different in the studio.

The best thing to do is to record your instruments direct, then listen to the overall sound of the song and add your effects from there. This also gives you a lot of versatility. You might discover that putting in a more discreet flange, adding reverb, and reducing chorus might work better for that specific song. If you’ve already recorded using effects, you’ll have to re-record. This means you might have to spend more time playing with your effects to get the right result.

Cables

This is an absolute rule: Spend a lot of money on cables, and keep your recording cables for recording only. Never use wireless systems. Buy cables that are more expensive and handle them with care: don’t step on them or twist them. A faulty cable will destroy all your work. Make sure the cables are of high quality. Don’t be afraid to ask a qualified technician at your music store for advice. Tell him or her you need cables for recording purposes. A ten-foot cable might cost you $30, but it will make a huge difference.

Electricity

Hums usually come from bad grounding. Test your sockets. Use a dedicated outlet for your computer and recording devices. Don’t play near a television set, or if you do, don’t turn it on. TVs can cause feedbacks with pick-ups. You can also get feedbacks with the radiation emitted by your computer monitor. Never play your instruments directly in front of your monitor.

Also, make sure you have the correct voltage for effect modules. Rolands tend to use 9.35 volts instead of 9. That’s why you get hums from a Boss pedal if you use a Radio Shack power cable instead of a Boss.

Computer

Recording on a home computer is safe and the quality is as good as a professional studio. Most studios now have computers in them. The old philosophy of the Mac being better than the PC for recording is wrong. Know what? It always has been. This is due to simple mathematics. Apple has about 5% of the computer market worldwide while 85% of computers used around the world are PCs. By having such a big share of the market, manufacturers produce more PC components than Mac components. Therefore, the quality is higher and cheaper for a PC.

Also, the Mac was built for video. Sound came as an afterthought. Most people who will tell you a Mac is better than a PC for sound are people who haven’t touched a PC in ten years. You can do it on a Mac, but it will be much more expensive. Yet, if you own a Mac, don’t go out and buy a PC unless you’re really planning on changing the computer.

Disk space

Recording takes up a lot of space on your hard drives. Be prepared for this. The best thing you can do is go out and buy a second hard drive (if you don’t already have one). Recording ten songs might take up to 10 GB of space on your hard drive depending on the amount of tracks you’ll be using. But remember to record in mono: it’s half the space of stereo files and stereo files don’t add anything. You’ll be thinking about stereo only when it comes to mixing.

Record your files on your first hard drive, then make copies of all of them on your second hard drive. Why? Because if your first hard drive blows up (and this does happen) you’ll have a copy of all your files on the second drive. Back up your files every day. More often if you can. Burning to CD is out of the question. It would take at least 10 CDs to back up your files every day; you won’t do it. Also, retrieving your files from a CD is just a lot more work and can lead to confusion.

Processors and RAM

Don’t worry too much over this aspect. I use a Celeron 366 with 64 Mb of RAM and have had no problems whatsoever. I can honestly say that 95% of the time, this is quite fast enough. The other 5% of the time usually poses no major problems. I’d say upgrade only if you would be upgrading anyway.

Instruments

Guitars and basses should be brought into a shop for adjustments to bridges and necks. Strings must be brand new. If you normally change your strings every six weeks, go down to two or three weeks. As soon as you see a bit of wear on them, change them. Make sure all wiring is clean and dust free.

Drums should be tuned before recording. Pianos should also be properly tuned. Analog keyboards should be cleaned and dust free.

As for mics, I highly recommend that all voices be recorded in a professional studio. Your $200 microphone might sound great on stage but it just won’t cut it in the studio. Professional studios use mics that sell at about $2,000 each. Also, the rooms in which you record the voices will be properly built to absorb the sound of your voice rather than bounce it off the walls and create unnecessary echoes and feedbacks. They’re more expensive, but the results are so much better.

Preparation

The songs

It’s not all that important that lyrics be finalized before beginning the recording process. You still have time to finalize them as you record. I usually come up with a whole bunch of changes a few minutes before recording the vocals and sometimes during.

There are two ways to go about recording basic tracks. Remember that these tracks won’t be kept later on. If the song is one the whole band knows and plays regularly, then have the whole band play it and use that as your basic track. If not, then a melodic instrument (guitar or keyboard) should be the first instrument recorded. Make sure the person doing this knows the song ahead of time. All additional tracks will be reworked as you are recording anyway.

Make sure you know which songs you’ll be recording so you don’t spend endless hours recording songs that will be dropped. Most likely, you will drop and/or add songs as you go along, but try to limit the process as much as you can.

Sequence of musicians

You know the guys you’ll be working with. Make up a schedule. You can work on ten songs at a time. I even recommend it, as it keeps you from getting too involved in a song and losing sight of your objectives. Also, make sure people come in when it’s their time to do so. Some musicians don’t mind recording if there are other people in the room, others are uncomfortable with that. See how everybody feels.

Breaks

Schedule creative breaks: a few days where you’ll neither record nor listen to the material. Then listen to what you’ve done before recording again. This will work very well, inspiration-wise. There’s also the fact that immediately following a recording session you might feel you’ve done great work, but a few days later realize it’s not all that good. It’s hard to judge when you’re too much “into it.”

Patience

Recording is a long and arduous process. You will spend several hundred hours on each song. Things can and will go wrong. Arm yourself with patience and remember that you can’t predict the unpredictable.

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