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You’re an aspiring producer: making beats, recording sounds, trying to make it all fit together, and working mostly out of your home recording studio. You’ve got some mixing chops—the problem is, when it’s time to do a lead vocal at your house, it just never sounds right. Ditto for that acoustic guitar—you don’t want to go direct anymore, but it’s just not sounding convincing enough when you have someone lay it down.
If that sounds like you, read on: we’re going to give you some hacks for recording in your project studio. With a focus on those who make music out of their domiciles, we’ll walk you through the steps you should take for securing clear, natural recordings, from room treatment to microphone technique.
Room treatment is not in any way sexy. Nobody wants to drop five hundred bucks on something that can’t make a sound. Sure, I could go on and on about how fantastic a modicum of room treatment will make your inexpensive gear sound. I also have great recipes for cauliflower rice, and you’d probably be just as interested in that.
Still, room treatment—especially in domicile-based studios—is essential, even if we discount room treatment for mixing (which we shouldn’t). But let’s say you’ll never take off your headphones when producing, no matter the pro advice. You should still outfit a segment of your workspace to achieve proper recordings.
For vocals, you can get the cage that wraps around a mic stand, but I’d wager you’re better off actually treating dedicated portions of the room for recording. If you can only devote a segment of your room to audio capture, that may work out in your favor:
Sure, you may want to convert a closet into an iso-booth, but you very well stand a better chance with a larger, multi-use space, as is-booths are hard to treat correctly. Handled wrong, you’ll get a muddy, lifeless sound for a variety of acoustic reasons. It’s easier to achieve tonal balance in a part of your multipurpose room, believe it or not.
How to go about treating your room for vocal recordings varies on its shape, the materials of construction, and your budget. There is no one-stop solution I can provide, except to suggest that you do the proper research. Many companies, like GIK, offer free advice on how to go about treating a room on any budget. Other sources, such as this article, can be helpful.
And really, you ought to treat your room for mixing purposes as well. It goes a long way to securing mix translation. You can read up on where to do so here.
Treatment geared to both scenarios—recording and mixing—is essential, because there’s no such thing as a demo anymore. With shrinking budgets and satellite schedules, any serious producer is expected to craft material that could go out for mass consumption. The better treated your recording environment is, the better your chances of capturing a usable performance.
The same assumption here: your audio needs to sound as radio-ready as possible. You can work all your magic at the mixing stage, but if you’re a producer looking to create great sounds efficiently, it helps to have a solid recording chain to bring life to your audio on the way in. I’ve often heard breakdowns like, “50% of a good sound is the singer, 40% is the room, and 10% is the gear involved.” If you think it’s true, then it behooves you to go for that extra 10%!
It may take a while to save up for good recording gear, but even one channel is worth the expense. And, luckily for you, many interfaces in the sub-$1000 range sound great. Provided you’re working at sample rates at or under 48 kHz, Spire can act as one such interface since its preamps were made by Grace Design—a manufacturer of high quality, transparent preamps. If you don’t have the scratch to shell out for vintage gear or clones thereof, go for clean and transparent: you can vibe the sound later on with Neutron 3, Ozone 9, or Nectar 3, which all boast saturation settings.
Mic pres are very important—it’s why I wrote about them first. Conversion too is something worth researching. But you should also invest in a couple of great workhorse microphones. I’d say two would do the trick. If vocals and the occasional acoustic instrument come through your space, a dynamic mic and a great large diaphragm condenser will serve you well.
Note I said “great,” not “expensive.” Modeling microphones are getting better and better, as well as cheaper and cheaper. Large diaphragm condensers like the Aston Origin or the WA47 sound great in the sub-1000 category. For dynamic mics, a Shure SM7B, an EV RE20, or even a trusty Shure SM57 can get the job done.
If you pair one workhorse condenser and one dynamic mic, you’ll probably have enough to handle most singer/guitar situations that come into your home recording studio. Occasionally you’ll come across a singer who’d probably benefit from a ribbon, but until you’re able to spend discretionary income on one, you can feasibly handle whatever comes your way in this department.
Noise is a troublesome issue for recording. It can come from anywhere in the domicile-based production studio. Do you live off a traffic circle? I did for six years. It seemed motorcycle drivers and truckers had a penchant for knowing when I wanted to record. Do you have roommates? I did, and they opened doors at all the wrong times.
Yes, there are things you can’t control—and for those things, RX is a godsend. Even though RX is more transparent with each iteration, nothing beats a clean, noise-free recording. you can minimize noise on your end as much as possible.
Air conditioners, refrigerators, hard drives—all of these are within of your control. Turn the air conditioner off whenever you record. If you can hear the fridge on your recordings, unplug it for the session. Set your hard fives far away from the recording location, and outside of the microphone’s pickup pattern. If they’re still whirring loud enough to come through your recording, box them up. I had a particularly noise external hard drive and was lazy about replacing it, so I lined a large bucket with a packing blanket and just placed it over the top when I recorded. It worked well enough. Do what you can to banish extraneous sound in the recording process, and you won’t have to worry about noise-reduction compromises later on.
This tip applies to those who have only one space for recording and mixing. You may love your open-backed Grado, Sennheiser, or Audeze headphones for producing. Open-backed headphones do give you a feeling that closed-back headphones can’t emulate. But as soon as you’re recording, it’s time to put those leaky headphones away. Again, you want your audio to sound as clean as possible, and that means as little headphone bleed as you can get.
To that end, it is well worth your while to have multiple pairs of closed-back headphones, one for you, others for your artists. They don’t have to sound as amazing as your mixing headphones, just good enough to give the singer a pleasing picture of the voice.
At least one pair should be flat enough to trust while recording, and detailed enough to reveal issues should they come up. That pair should go on your ears. Familiarize yourself with that pair by listening to all your favorite records and logging any differences you notice coming through the headphones.
When recording, it’s good to have meters on hand to give you visual indications, showing you signal-strength, or whether the signal has clipped. Your preamp, interface, or converter usually provides some sort of metering, and of course, you can always use a plug-in within your DAW, something like Insight 2.
But more importantly, you should learn how to correlate any meter with what your ear hears as you record. Mics and preamps tend to have sweet-spots, areas where the sound is harmonically rich and satisfying. Correlate these aural sweetspots with the visual indicators of your metering.
When you’re setting up the mic on the vocalist or the instrumentalist, take note of the meter reading when you really hear the juice, and as you record, watch the meters to make sure you’re still in that zone. If you find the artist is peaking near the sweet-spot, you may have to compromise and turn down, or use a compressor in your chain. Some tracking compressors, such as several pieces in the FMR series, are both incredibly transparent and quite cheap.
Typical microphone placing for a singer involves leaving about 6 to 12” of space between the mouth and the capsule, which is usually cardioid in polar pattern (unless you have a great room or are trying to capture a specific effect, go for cardioid in most vocal-recording scenarios).
You may want to get the mic closer or farther away depending on a few variables. If you’d like to use the proximity effect to secure more low-midrange in the signal, move the singer closer to the mic. If the room sounds great, and you want its quality to come through in the recording, try moving the singer farther away.
But hold on—what is the proximity effect? This occurs in many microphones, and simply put, it’s this: as you move the mic closer to the capsule, you’ll notice more low-midrange in the signal. This can be used to your advantage, or it can be detrimental. Experiment until you achieve the appropriate fullness.
Be aware of the microphone’s angle. On a cardioid mic, if you angle the capsule so that the artist is singing somewhat diagonally into it, you can minimize sibilance, which will serve you well in the mix. Also, I’ve found that playing with the height of the mic can greatly impact the singer’s performance. Too low, and the singer tucks in the neck, squashing the sound and the chords. A little higher than dead on the capsule causes the singer to tilt up a bit, which elongates the neck and may engender a clearer tone.
Other than vocals, the most common recordable instrument you’ll come across is probably acoustic guitar. So, learn how to mic one!
Here’s an easy, straight-forward way to mic an acoustic: point the capsule at where the neck meets the body, about a foot away from the instrument (give or take). This will act your focal point in balancing the tone. Angle capsule slightly toward the body, and you’ll get a boomier timbre. Direct the capsule slight toward the neck, and you’ll hear a thinner sound with more string presence. Straight on is also good. Balance the tone for your song.
For more of a fuller sound, without the exaggerated boominess from directly miking the soundhole, try positioning the microphoning above the soundhole, about a foot away, angled down at the instrument. This can get you that darker, richer sound, with less string noise, and more body. As for mic choice, let’s assume you’re working with either a large diaphragm condenser or a dynamic mic. Try either to see what’s best. Something like a dobro might benefit from more of a dynamic mic, while a more rounded instrument like a dreadnought might crave that LDC.
But what about stereo?
For stereo miking, you have your pic of X/Y, spaced pair, and M/S miking configurations, but always keep in mind that you should space each mic the same distance from the guitar to avoid obvious phase issues.
Honestly, when you’re a bedroom producer, you want good results fast. You may not want to bother with stereo at all, unless you’re confident and practiced in getting up mics within your space. Try trusting in the gods of Fake Stereo, using EQ tricks, such as the one laid out in this article, particularly tip four when it goes live). You can mult an acoustic track to two new tracks, pan one to the left, the other to the right. High pass one, low pass the other, keep the unaffected one in the middle, and play with them all till you have a nice stereo spread.
In terms of naturality, this technique may not work for a solo acoustic recording, but for a medium- to heavily-dense arrangement, it can be a way to affect the right stereo acoustic-guitar sound quickly.
Don’t forget about the other gear that goes into securing a good performance. A Shockmount for a vocal mic? That’s a good idea. A mic stand that’s solid, with a round base that won’t tip over? You bet. A pop-filter? It can help.
Are these essentials? Not really. You can get by without them, but once you have them, you’ll never want to go back.
Also, remember that the artist needs to hear everything in the most flattering light. This may mean setting up a cue mix for them to hear exactly what they want—more of the vocals, less of the bass, etc.—while your mix remains the same.
It’s unrealistic, however, to expect a bedroom-based studio would always have the gear for a cue mix. Maybe you only have an interface with two headphone outs.
There’s nothing wrong with that! In this case, make sacrifices for the artist. Mix it on the spot for their liking, with the EQ they need, the instrument balance they ask for, and all the effects they crave. You’ve already heard how it’s going to sound when you set up the mic. Now you can step aside and trust them to their job, provided you’re sure in your technique, your gear, etc.
Is there more to cover here? Absolutely. The subject of room treatment alone is a volume of books, let alone a 2,000 word article. But use these steps as a guiding post, and you’ll be on your way to hacking out a quality acoustic recording in your room.
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