In a recent piece, I discussed options for home-recording equipment at various price points. Now that you’ve bought the equipment and downloaded the manuals (you did download the manuals, right?), you’re ready to present your music to the world. That leads me to offer these following tips on making a vocal and guitar recording that sounds like you want it to.
It’s easy to think that making an acoustic recording is simple, and in some ways it is. You have limited variables for recording and mixing two instruments, and you’re most likely recording yourself, so you control the performance. But when you listen to your first recording you’ll likely find that what sounded good when you played it in rehearsal does not sound as you expected on a recording, or at least not how you wanted it to sound.
So, start with this tip, courtesy of Larry Crane, editor and publisher of the industry recording magazine Tape Op: Consider paying a professional engineer to help set up your home studio. Doing this will save you precious time each and every time you set up to record. I know people who love the nuts and bolts of recording, but most musicians want to be able to make music without a lot of complicated prep and set-up. Let somebody whose business is recording guide you along the way. It can take as little as a couple of hours for a professional to teach you the basics.
Because I started in the ’70s, when almost all recording was done in dedicated professional studios, I was able to learn about technique by observing professionals and asking questions. I learned invaluable lessons that later proved helpful in streamlining and simplifying my approach to recording.
Which brings us to . . . .
Recording the Acoustic Guitar
Learning effective microphone technique is the key to making home recordings that sound professional, according to Crane. Sometimes it seems like there are as many ways to mic an acoustic guitar as there are guitars and guitar players. So this is another place where it helps to start simple.
Some engineers recommend just pointing a single microphone at the guitar, and adjusting the position of the mic until you achieve a balanced, clean, representative sound. It’s a good way to start, and an even better way to learn what your guitar really sounds like. Thanks to the miracle of unlimited digital takes, you can experiment with placement and distance until you get a pleasing sound that is reflective of your guitar’s original tone. This may be the only technique you ever use. Tip: place the mic in front of the 15th fret and aim it back toward the 12th fret, considered a sweet spot by many recording engineers.
For the more ambitious, try using multiple mics, starting with a stereo pair. It helps to have the pair of microphones professionally matched to eliminate any discordant tonalities. Adding even one microphone increases the chance of unpleasant side effects like ghostly overtones and phasing (when the sound waves aren’t in sync). But if you have the time and patience to experiment, multi-microphone recording can result in beautiful and full guitar recordings. Tip: aim the mics at the 12th fret, but in a crossed “X” pattern.
Recording Your Vocals
Any good-quality mic should be able to capture a clean, transparent vocal sound. In the August issue, I suggested a few inexpensive models. After you’ve been recording a while, you’ll want to try a variety of microphones to discover which works best with your individual voice. But don’t worry about that until you’ve learned how to get a clean, “present” recording.
This starts with setting your levels so that you have plenty of headroom. Nothing spoils a great vocal track like the digital breakup that occurs from overloading the recording. It is natural to sing louder when recording the actual take than you sing during level tests. Keep that in mind when setting levels.
Tip: Don’t crowd the mic, and consider using a “pop shield” to minimize the popping sound caused by invasive Ps and Bs.
Also, don’t expect to fix vocal problems in the mix. Even with tools like auto-tune (software that adjusts your vocal to correct pitch errors), which is often used to great effect on modern hip-hop and dance albums, a bad performance can’t be made into a great performance. Most of the work in making a terrific vocal performance is done in the preparation. If you can sing it live, you can usually sing it in the studio.
Mixing & Mastering
Even if you only have a couple of final tracks, mixing your recording effectively—placing and processing the raw sounds so that they sound alive and present—will be one of the most important steps you’ll take toward having a recording that you look forward to sharing with the world.
Most professional engineers mix using external speakers. But setting up speakers for a home recording studio can be difficult and expensive. You can mix your recording using the headphones that come with your phone. But most consumer headphones won’t let you hear everything you need in order to create a professional-sounding recording. So consider upgrading to a pair of neutral-sounding, over-the-ear headphones like the Audio-Technica MH50 (street price, $150) or Sony 7506 Professional Studio closed-back headphones ($99.99). They should shut out external noise without using any kind of noise-suppression software, so that when you listen back to your recording you hear only the true sound.
If you’ve done a good job capturing your sound in bits and bytes, mixing should be relatively simple. In most cases, you can mix using the same software that you used for recording. Even with a simple guitar and vocal recording, careful use of the left-right pan control, basic EQ, and delays and/or reverbs can make a huge difference in the final, mastered product. A good rule of thumb is to use half the reverb you think you need and 25 percent more vocal volume than you want to hear.
After mixing and mastering your track, one way to ensure that it is sonically pleasing is to play it back through your car speakers. Car audio systems do a great job of revealing flaws, especially buried vocals or solo parts, or bass boominess. This is a technique used by quite a few professionals. One drawback of the digital recording process is that it can be a solitary and claustrophobic process. Doing a car listening session gets you out into the world and helps give you a fresh perspective on your recording.
There are many ways to get a good final product, but many more ways to ruin things “in the mix.” It’s easy to get distracted by all the different options now available in even the most basic recording software. A professional engineer can help you sort through the maze of options, making this another place where enlisting a pro can pay off.
About Those Happy Accidents
Finally, remember this: Your best recordings won’t be perfect; they will often be better than that. They might be happy accidents, products of the moment—what legendary producer Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmy Lou Harris, Marty Stuart) calls “pulling down something from the ether.”
Of course, you can’t get to those epiphanic recordings without proper preparation. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” This is truer nowhere than in recording music.
Now that you know the basics of recording yourself at home, start a project. It may seem complex, and you may at times feel overwhelmed, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.