The capturing of real-world sounds, be they instruments, vocals, environmental noises or anything else, is one of the most creatively rewarding areas of music production; and with quality microphones more affordable than ever, and any Mac, PC, tablet or phone more than up to the task, there’s no reason for any producer not to get into recording, no matter what genre they work in. Here are seven tried and tested tips and techniques to get you started.
1. Gain staging
The often under-appreciated process of gain staging simply describes the setting of volume levels correctly at each point in the recording chain – which, for the in-the-box producer, might only comprise a mic pre-amp – in order to optimise the signal-to-noise ratio and, ultimately, get the cleanest recording possible. These days, tape noise is no longer an issue, so gain staging is much less of a faff than it once was; and with the essentially limitless headroom of 24- and 32-bit floating point recording formats, and the incredibly low noise floors of even the lowliest audio interfaces, we can comfortably aim for an average level at the pre-amp output of -18dB to -12dB, with the receiving DAW’s input channel fader at unity. That way, any unexpected peaks in your vocal, guitar or drum kit shouldn’t cause any issues, and your recording will be loud enough to manipulate as required in the mix.
2. Get your monitoring right
When recording vocals, make sure you’re geared up to feed the singer whatever they need in their (preferably open-back) headphone monitor mix. Obviously, they’ll want to be able to hear themselves clearly and with minimal latency, so if your audio interface isn’t fast enough to deliver suitably lag-free monitoring through software, switch it to ‘direct monitoring’ mode. For vibe and sonic inspiration, your vocalist might also request a bit of reverb or delay in their cans, which – unless you have a hardware mixer and effects unit knocking about – will necessitate monitoring through plugins in the DAW and thus a fast interface again, or an interface with onboard DSP for placing such processors in the direct monitoring path. Evidently, then, if your interface is both too slow for software monitoring and doesn’t feature direct monitoring, it’s time to think about investing in a better one.
3. Be prepared
There’s nothing more certain to kill the mood on a recording session than waiting around for the unprepared engineer – that’s you! – to hook up the required microphones and preamps, plumb everything into the audio interface, and set up all the necessary recording channels and monitor mixes in the DAW. All of this should be sorted well before the musicians arrive and the session proper begins.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to mics and cabling – assuming you don’t just keep them ‘permanently’ in place in your studio space, which isn’t recommended, mics being the fragile things that they are. Maintaining a library of ready-to-go template DAW projects, however, for whatever personnel configurations you’re likely to be recording, with tracks and inputs assigned, cue mixes defined, etc., will save you a great deal of stress on the day and make you look impressively professional to boot.
4. Room for improvement
The reverberant properties of any space have a huge influence on the recordings made therein, but for many home studio-based producers, serious acoustic treatment isn’t an option due to price or impracticality. There are still plenty of things you can do to get your room sounding better, though. For example, put as much soft furnishing in there as you can, fill any shelves with irregularly shaped objects, and close the curtains when recording. Fashion an impromptu vocal booth by hanging a duvet up in a corner, and/or buy a stand-mounted ‘reflection filter’. And alleviate fan noise from your computer by putting it next door and running a long cable back to the audio interface in the studio.
5. Record for maximum flexibility at the mixing stage – and don’t be afraid to experiment
Many instruments become much easier and more productive to mix when recorded ‘multidimensionally’ to two (or more) tracks at once – we’re talking bottom and top mics on snare drums, neck and body mics on acoustic guitars, mic and DI signals from electric guitar amps, and so on. If you’re unsure of the best multi-miking technique for a given source, don’t just guess – Google it. Indeed, it’s worth experimenting with mic placements beyond the established setups, too: who says you can’t stick an additional mic behind your singer if you like, or hang one from the ceiling over the guitarist’s head? This is the very stuff of audio engineering, and there are no rules!
6. Record everything
Unless you’re particularly pressed for hard drive space (in which case, good news: external storage has never been cheaper!), your computer has the capacity to record literally days of audio, so don’t feel any pressure to hit the stop button. Even the most disastrously flubbed vocal take might feature a moment of accidental genius, ripe for adding into the final performance, chucking into a sampler as the starting point for an out-there instrument, or just using as a spot effect. And who knows what sonic gems might result from leaving the virtual tape rolling during the warm-ups, noodlings and conversations that fill the gaps in every studio session?
7. Fixing it in the mix is a last resort
The power we have available to us today when it comes to audio restoration and in-the-mix correction is truly mind-blowing – modern plugins enable us to salvage and process badly captured signals in ways that would have been unimaginable only a decade ago. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to get the best recordings you possibly can at source. Apart from the fact that it’s just good practise, effective audio restoration and improvement involves far more time and effort than simply positioning mics and staging gains properly in the first place. Plus, of course, the more medicinal algorithms a recording is subjected to, the more artefacts will inevitably arise as a consequence – not ideal if the part in question is focal to the track; the lead vocal, say.
So, while the familiar old adage about polishing turds no longer rings as unquestionably true as it used to, the ability to perform such messy manoeuvres should never be viewed as an acceptable workaround for poor recording technique.