1. It’s All in The Room.
So a lot of people fuss over what microphone, or what equipment. But the first thing to consider is, are you working in the best possible space? And I don’t mean ergonomically, but acoustically.
The fact is that, aside from the source itself, the room is the biggest contributor to the sound of an instrument.
Now there might only be so many options when you’re recording at home, but there’s a few simple things to consider that can achieve great results.
Firstly, is it the biggest room you could use? Generally speaking, smaller rooms have more prominent issues with standing waves than bigger rooms. You don’t need to understand physics to recognise the sound of a standing wave - I’m sure we’ve all had that experience where you’re playing a riff, and one note just seems to resonate with the whole room. That usually means it’s reacting with the modes of the room to create a standing wave. It makes some notes huge and ring out too long, and others diminished and lifeless. It wreaks all sorts of havoc on recordings. So in short, use the biggest room you’ve got.
Secondly, what’s in there?
Now you might be inclined to clear out the work space you’re going to record in, but I’m going to stop you for a minute here. In professional studios we spend loads of time and money building absorbers and diffusors. Both to absorb the sound thus shortening reverbs, and to break the sound up, giving the reverb a sweeter, smoother sound.
Things like couches can act like absorbers, and things like book shelves can act as diffusors!
So if it isn’t going to rattle, and isn’t in the way, leave it! Microphones aren’t like ears, they don’t respond nicely to heaps of reverb.
2. It Starts at The Source.
Sounds cryptic I know, but it’s 100% true. You can’t record what isn’t being produced. So if it doesn’t sound great, you’re unlikely to make it sound any better later. Make sure guitars have been set up for intonation, drums have been tuned, heads replaced, fingers warmed up, and vocalist’s feet massaged. (Ok maybe not the last one)
If you need to borrow a mates rig, or cymbals, or pedals, do it!
So chase down any squeaks/buzzes, check tuning every couple of takes at the least, and keep your gear in top nick!
3. Place Those Mics, Place Them Well!
Microphone placement is an entire art and skill unto itself, but lets cover some pretty universal principles that can help you achieve that sound you want.
Distance - There’s a couple of really important things that happen when you adjust the distance of a microphone from it’s source. The most obvious one will be that the further you move from the source, the roomier and less defined the sound gets. Yet at the same time, the further out you are the more “lifelike” the sound is through the microphone. You might notice however, that lifelike is often not what we’ve come to expect from a recorded sound.
On the other hand, as you move the mic in closer it’s essentially picking up a smaller “piece” of the sound produced by the instrument, making it more sensitive to precisely where it’s placed.
For example, a microphone on a guitar cabinet will generally pick up a brighter sound when placed in front of the dust cap, and a darker sound as it’s placed more towards the edge of the speaker cone.
And at the same time, when using a mic in cardioid or figure-8 pattern, moving closer increases the amount of bass the microphone picks up.
4. Leave Plenty of Headroom.
If you’re recording at home, you probably don’t have lots of compressors to use during recording to keep your signal to a consistent level. So rather than risking ruining that perfect take with some unexpected clipping, play it safe and keep the level low. You can always slam it in the box.
5. Slam it.
If your computer can handle some plugins while tracking, do it! At least for overdubs. It’s much more inspiring to work with material that sounds great, so if you need to quickly EQ some stuff, do it. And if you can, throw some compressors on everything! It’s much easier to overdub when instruments are consistent in the headphone mix. Especially for the vocalist. You can always work out some more pleasing compression later, but for now just use it to keep levels consistent.
6. Don’t Settle Too Soon.
With today’s modern hard drives, hours and hours of recording barely makes a dent in their capacity. There’s no reason you can’t keep doing takes until you get that great one. If you’re recording at home then you might as well take advantage of the fact that the clock isn’t ticking away. Even if you’re only recording for the sake of pre-production, it’s good to know what it takes to reach that one great take.
Of course, you have to play amateur psychologist to make sure you’re actually making progress, not just driving everyone insane.
7. Keep it Positive.
Recording yourself is hard work. It’s tough trying to be objective about your own art. It’s going to add some stress trying to be both artist, technician, and producer. Make sure you take breaks when it gets too much, eat properly, drink plenty of water and keep track of everyone’s feelings.
It pays to make sure any constructive criticism focuses on what they did well, and what they can do to improve, rather than just telling them what they did wrong.