Getting more from your music production setup doesn’t have to be headache-inducing or break the bank;
Today, home recording equipment is both affordable and compact, but there’s more to making a good recording than simply hitting the big red button and then playing. We’ve put together a few tips to help you get the best out of your music production setup, regardless of whether you are using DAW recording software, an integrated hardware recorder/mixer or even an old tape machine. It goes without saying that good music production starts with a good performance of a well-arranged song, but even a good performance can be compromised before the sound reaches the microphone so let’s start there.
1: Use improvised materials to control the acoustics of your home recording studio. If your vocal or instrument recordings round roomy and boxy, the problem almost certainly lies with the room, not with the recording equipment. While full-scale acoustic treatment is expensive, you can make a vast improvement by hanging up blankets, sleeping bags or duvets around the area you’re using to record or mix in to dry up the sound. You don’t need to treat the whole room — just the area you are recording or mixing in.
When recording vocals, pay particular attention to any hard, reflective surfaces close behind the performer as without treatment they’ll bounce sound back into the ‘hot’ side of the microphone making your recording sound boxy. You can hang a thick polyester duvet over a boom mic stand set up in a T shape, then hold the duvet in place with plastic woodworking clips — often available from your local pound shop or DIY store. Hanging the acoustic treatment away from walls is more effective than hanging it right against the walls. And don’t forget to put a pop filter between the microphone and the singer.
For your mixing position, use absorbers at either side of you to intercept reflections from the side walls, and if you have any absorbers left over, hang them behind the speakers.
If you’re in rented accommodation and want to use acoustic foam absorbers rather than duvets and blankets, but can’t glue your foam tiles to the walls, glue an old CD to the back of each foam panel instead (top centre) and then hang the whole panel from a map pin or picture nail by hooking the CD’s centre hole over the nail head.
2: Don’t quantize everything unless the musical style demands it. Musical feel often involves slight changes in tempo or notes being played just before or just after the beat where hard quantizing can destroy that feel. Where some quantizing is necessary to tighten up a MIDI performance, try the percentage quantize function to leave some of the natural feel intact.
With some musical styles it may be better to ignore the click altogether and just treat the computer or digital recorder as we did tape machines. It might make editing a little harder but the end result may well end up sounding more natural.
3: Keep your recording levels under control. While analogue gear can often take signal levels well in excess of +15dB VU before anything clips, digital recorders have no headroom above digital full scale so you need to create your own safety margin. If you set your average signal level to be around the -15dB mark on your computer’s record level meters you’ll avoid accidental clipping and you won’t be fighting against excess levels when you come to mix. Most computer DAWs also seem to sound cleaner when the recording levels are kept to sensible levels.
4: While vocals are best recorded in a fairy dry acoustic environment, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments benefit from a few controlled reflections where a hard floor usually gives the best results. If you don’t have a hard floor, then just put a panel of hardboard, MDF, plywood or even a few tea trays and place mats on the floor reaching from below the instrument to beneath the microphone.
5: Set up your monitor speakers in the best location. In a domestic sized rectangular room, having them face down the longer axis invariably produces the best results, especially when it comes to keeping the bass even. Having said that, the bass response of small rooms is unlikely to be perfectly even so you may have to accept (and ignore) any peaks and bumps at the bass end. Resist the temptation to use a lot of low EQ to ‘fix’ bass problems that are more likely to be due to your music production environment than to your mix.
Studio monitors are normally set up symmetrically about the centre line of the room to form a roughly equilateral triangle with the listener. However, if the bass sounds uneven in your room, you may be able to improve things by moving the monitor speakers a few inches off centre or changing their distance from the wall behind them.
6: If you’re working in a small, square room, move away from the exact centre of the room when making mix decisions as there’s nearly always a big drop in bass at the centre of the room. Small rooms are notoriously difficult when it comes to accurate monitoring so don’t use speakers that are too big for the room and double check your mixes on headphones.
7: Following on from the previous point, double check your mixes on other speaker systems such as a domestic hi-fi or car stereo system. If you can get your mixes to sound acceptable on all of them you know your work is pretty well balanced.
8: Headphones are great for mixing, especially at night, and they’ll also pick up small details that loudspeakers may miss. However, you still need to check your mixes on speakers as the perception of stereo imaging and of the level of bass differs between these two means of listening. With headphones, the left ear only hears the left channel and the right ear only the right channel whereas with loudspeakers, some of the sound from the left speaker reaches the right ear and vice versa. It is important that your mix sounds right on both speakers and headphones where so-called open back headphones are generally the most accurate for mixing.
9: Always keep in mind that the most important part of a recording happens before the sound even reaches the microphone so take care to produce the best sound and best performance at source. This includes the musical arrangement and the choice of sounds, particularly electric guitar sounds and synth sounds. If anything is out-of-tune or out-of-time, do it again.
10: The warm atmosphere in a studio can cause tuning to drift so check your guitar and bass tuning between every take. I use a Boss TU-10 Clip-On Chromatic Tuner on both my acoustic and electric guitars as it has always proven to be accurate and reliable. You may also find that if you record using software as most musicians do these days that your DAW includes a tuner that you can leave on screen.