How to Use Home Recording Technology to MAKE Your Album

By Ivan Valles

With the music industry now struggling to survive in this brave new digital era, budgets for recording have been greatly reduced. Downloads are affecting CD sales, which in turn is affecting specially the major players in the industry. So there is a tendency these days to invest in recording and producing music at home studios. Since technology has allowed for comparable quality at more affordable prices, smaller studios have started to serve as main launching platform for independent artists’ careers. However, no matter where you record your album, good quality recordings are crucial to your success, so here’s a few pointers and guidelines that will help you, should you decide to experiment with home recording.

First of all, it is important to make a reference recording of all the songs that you wish to put on the album. A minidisk or any small recorder will be enough for this purpose. The more songs you have the better. Keep in mind artists and producers typically choose from more than 30 songs for their albums. A great song will help you become successful much more easily, so make sure you have some damn good songs before starting the recording process. Eight to twelve songs will be enough to make your album. Dedicate some time to listening to these rough recordings, and figure out if your songs have the right structure (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc). Also, listen for changes in tempo, key and overall feel.

Once you have done this for all the songs, you need to find the right infrastructure to record in. Typically, and specially if you’re starting, it is a good idea to collaborate with a producer that has engineering knowledge. If you’ve never recorded before this is the right path to take, since producers will usually have a deeper knowledge and understanding when it comes to the whole production process, and their ears are much more trained than yours in the art of recording. When doing a home recording, it is crucial that you isolate the recording booth from the rest of the surrounding noises. Ambient noise can deteriorate greatly the quality of a recording. Some very inexpensive panels are available at local hardware stores, and combined with fabric, they help isolate what is being recorded from the outside world. Before recording, listen to how the room reacts to the instrument being recorded. If in doubt, it is better to have a room with very absorbent surfaces, rather that a very noisy and reflective environment that will be more difficult to control later on. A high pass filter on most instruments will help you eliminate unwanted low frequencies coming from the Air conditioning, steps and other sources of noise.

If you can choose, it is better to use a computer based recording system, also called Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), since smaller portable studios are hard to use and are not as versatile as computers, they are my first choice always for Home Recording.

It is very usual to record instruments separately. You should lay down a scratch or rough harmonic track (with a keyboard, guitar or any harmonic instrument), and a reference vocal. After this you’re ready to record, starting from drums, then bass, guitars, pianos and anything else the song requires. You can then add vocals.  If you don’t have the possibility of hiring the necessary musicians, look for the best available samples and loops to get the sounds your looking for. I personally prefer Drum Loops because they tend to work better than separate samples sequenced, since they are nothing more than a drummer recorded for several measures of music. The same practice applies to guitars. Some programs have a library of different guitar performances, which will make your recording sound much more realistic than a sequenced keyboard trying to emulate the sound of a guitar. Try to avoid recording amateur musicians, unless they are well trained in their instrument. Amateur instrumentalists will have a lot more mistakes than a professional working musician, so recording them will result in you or your producer spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to fix all of their mistakes.

Some good things to have to improve the quality of the recordings include a good microphone, a good preamplifier (which converts a microphone signal into a line level signal to be recorded), and a good digital interface (You can find some really cheap ones these days). The better all these elements are, the better your recording will be.

Vocal production plays an important role in the success or failure of an album. So it is important that you practice the songs as many times as you can before getting to the vocal tracking, in order to obtain the best possible vocal performance. Record rough vocals as many times as you need you before actually attempt tracking of the final vocals. This will help you find places where the vocals need to improve. After tracking vocals, several tools are available in computers as plug-ins to enhance the voice, use them correctly to get the most out of the vocal performance.

You should use powerful and easy to use recording software, to help edit mistakes and enhance the music even further. My personal favorites are Protools and Digital Performer on a Mac, and Cubase for PC. Mixing and mastering are very important in a production. If mixing in a home Studio, make sure you mix at relatively low volumes, to take out some of the reflections of the mixing room, which can lead your ears in the wrong direction. Check your mixes in different rooms and speakers, so that you can get a better idea of how your mixes sound. Headphones will also help you finding the right amount of effect and overall levels. Remember to be objective and constantly listen for things that could sound better in your recording.