Very often modern composers perform at least some of their recording (and mixing) from their homes/home-studios. The Internet is saturated with content on how to achieve great recordings in a home-studio environment, but this content is often misleading. In fact most of the information they provide is focused on gear rather than technique. Probably this trend is pushed by audio manufacturers who want you to buy their last plug-in or physical piece of equipment. Unfortunately that kind of advice is not very helpful when trying to achieve a good sound. Most of the times acquiring new gear is not the solution, it can actually be detrimental to your goal.
The hard truth is that being a good recordist takes time and effort, just like learning how to play an instrument. In my experience as a professional recordist and mixer I have seen very often composers overcomplicating their recording workflow. That’s why I’ve summarized 5 simple but super-effective tips that will help you reach better home-recordings quality:
Keep it simple
It may sound obvious, but one of the most important tips to follow is keeping your recording process as simple as possible. In fact, let’s talk about gear! It’s so easy these days to feel overwhelmed by the enormous amount of prosumer gear available. Don’t waste your time looking for an amazing microphone under $1000. Let me help you with that: there’s no such thing.
However you could get a decent microphone for around $500. Here are a few that I like: Rode NT2, Warm Audio WA-87, Soyuz SU-013. If I had to choose only one mic type I’d go with a condenser microphone (small or large diaphragm) with a cardioid polar pattern.
One microphone and a simple sound card are all you need. Make sure your card has one or two microphone inputs. Most modern prosumer interfaces will provide with everything else you might need.
Use just one mic
More and more often I see people recording instruments with more than one microphone. Don’t get me wrong, there are instances where multi miking techniques are good and necessary. Unfortunately placing more than one mic in front of an instrument can expose you to a number of issues that can result in huge wastes of time.
When you use more than one mic to record something you are entering in the world of phase cancellation: in short, when you mix two mic sources, some frequencies will be boosted and some will be cancelled in the final combined sound. This can result in an undesired lack of tone. Furthermore, handling the infinite interactions between multiple mics can be an unnecessary hassle.
Most of the times one mic will be enough to capture the tone of a wide range of instruments and the process of tweaking the mic placement will be much easier.
The only exception to this technique is piano, which is usually best recorded in stereo. Bonus tip: occasionally try to record some melodic piano parts with just one mic, you’ll be surprised with the results!
Move the mic before adding EQ
Once you have placed your mic roughly, you need to keep in mind that moving the microphone is almost like operating an equalizer. Ask somebody to help and move the mic around for you during a performance: you’ll hear real-time changes in frequency response.
This is one of the best, yet underrated ways to get the right tone when recording in any room: just changing the mic placement can do wonders. If you have too much high-end try to angle the mic slightly away from the instrument and/or put the mic closer. If you have too much low-end try to put the mic farther. These are just general rules, but do experiment with different mic placements for any given instrument.
Bonus tip: don’t look at the mic too much. Sometimes you’ll end up with some funny mic placements that might not make sense to you visually. Never judge tone by eye, just use your ears and you’ll be fine!
When you put up a mic in a room, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to avoid room reflections to be captured along with the direct sound from the instrument. The more you walk away from the source, the more roomy the overall tone becomes. Unfortunately this undesired effect often results in a “muddier” mix. Unless you have spent a good amount of money in treating the room chances are it will be acoustically challenging, with reflections that aren’t very pleasant to the ear.
In order to avoid those bad reflections try placing your mic close to the source. What about those situations where you need to place the mic a bit farther to get a good tone? In addiction to distance, you can use the polar pattern of your mic to reject the room reflections. The most common polar pattern is the cardioid. In short terms, the back of a cardioid mic rejects most of the sound coming in, therefore you can aim the null to something you need to keep quite in the recording. Just put the source near an absorbing surface, like a bookshelf (full of books), an open wardrobe, a bed or something similar. This way you’ll point the mic towards the less “roomy” area while rejecting the room sound as much as possible.
Prepare a great headphone mix
Something really underrated is preparing the best headphone mix you can. This can be very useful both when you are performing or when someone else is. Even for the most seasoned studio musician, playing with headphones to a pre-recorded track is nothing short of unnatural. A great headphone mix can help any musician deliver a good performance. Remember, this doesn’t need to be your final mix, but it has to be balanced and pleasing to hear.
Don’t wait until the last moment and get prepared in advance with a good sounding mix. This will also help you to be more accurate while you make arrangements decisions along the way. The idea is to have a good mix going at anytime during the production of your music, so you’re always ready to hit that record button.
While you are recording you should also check for headphone bleed coming in your mic. High pitched and percussive sounds such as tambourines, triangles and so on are very likely to bleed into your recording, so be careful with those. Imagine you decide to get rid of a tambourine at the very last second only to realize it has been printed in some already recorded track because of bleed.
This applies to click-tracks too, of course: you should always be checking for click bleed. Be sure to turn down the click during soft passages. Also experiment with different click sounds (your DAW has plenty) and don’t hesitate to EQ out some hi-end from the click track (it helps a lot).
Finally, always try to have good closed headphones for recording purposes.
I really hope these simple tips will improve your recording workflow, taking some of the more techy stuff out of the equation so that you can focus on the most important factor: music!