Watch this demonstration on how to set up your home studio and then learn how to use your gear to make great-sounding recordings:
- Getting Started with Home Recording
- Prepare Your Room for Recording
- All About Mic Placement for Home Recording
- Recording with Pickups
- How to Set Recording Levels
- Tracking and Editing in the Home Studio
- Mix, Master, and Publish Your Recording
1. How to Get Started on Your Home Recording
Not too long ago, you had to book time in a professional studio if you wanted to make a professional-sounding recording. But today, modest-priced gear is capable of producing recordings that are indistinguishable from their commercial big-budget equivalents. The biggest obstacle to making top-notch recordings at home is no longer the equipment—the trick is to know what to do with what you have. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to set up your home studio to create quality acoustic guitar tracks, focusing on techniques that will help you sound your best no matter what gear you use.
Recording music does require some equipment, of course. Many retailers offer complete recording packages at various price points, and browsing websites or catalogs can give you ideas about typical setups and budgets. The most important thing is to understand how gear choices will affect your recording workflow. For example, there are many small two-channel handheld digital recorders that can capture stereo sound, typically with built-in mics. These are great for recording live concerts and can also be useful for solo guitar or guitar and vocal performances. Like point-and-shoot cameras, these devices are virtually foolproof. Place the recorder in front of you, hit the record button, and play! The sound can be surprisingly good, and these devices are a great entry point into the world of recording.
However, if you want to record multiple instruments at once or overdub additional parts, you will probably need a more elaborate setup. There are self-contained multitrack hardware recording systems, such as the Boss BR-1200CD, Tascam DP-24, or Zoom R24, but many people prefer the flexibility and ease of use of a computer-based setup. A computer-based system may cost a bit more initially, but it is easier to expand as your needs grow. Yet another approach is to record to your smartphone or tablet. There are microphones designed to work with these devices, and a variety of inexpensive recording apps—you may even be able to transfer your recording session to a computer for editing and mixing.
A reasonably current desktop or laptop computer (Mac or Windows), combined with an audio interface and software provides a powerful recording system that can record dozens, or even hundreds, of tracks. Software packages like Logic, Pro Tools, Reaper, or Sonar support the entire recording process from recording to editing and mixing. You will need some type of audio interface—a hardware device that combines microphone preamps/inputs with the ability to connect to the computer via USB or FireWire. Make sure the audio interface you choose can handle as many inputs as you will need at any one time. Two inputs may be enough for simple solo guitar or guitar-and-voice recordings, but you will need more if you want to record any size group live. You will also need microphones, mic stands, cables, and other accessories. Short mic stands designed for use with drums make a great space-saving choice for acoustic guitar, and boom stands make it easier to position the mics. Be sure to leave room in your budget for speakers or headphones, so you have a way to listen to and evaluate your recordings.
2. Prepare Your Room for Recording
Often, the biggest difference between a professional recording studio and a home setup is the acoustics of the room you’re recording in. Most home recordists face two main issues: unwanted noise and the “sound” of the room. Noise is the most obvious issue, and often the hardest problem to fix. The first thing you may notice when you start recording is that mics pick up everything—air-conditioning, the refrigerator, a dog barking, even cars driving by. To chase down problems, record some “silence” and then try to identify any noises you hear. Turn off the furnace, air, and other household machinery while recording. External noises can be more challenging, but there may be a room in your house that is quieter than others. Remember to close windows and doors, even in other rooms in the house. You may find it helpful to record late at night after the household has settled down and when there’s less road traffic. A good—but often challenging—goal for home recording is a noise level that is 60 dB or more below the peak level of your guitar. Professional studios will be quieter than that. However, don’t despair if you can’t eliminate all the noise. Depending on your music, low-level constant noise may not be noticeable in the final mix, and having to edit or do retakes for occasional noises—like a motorcycle driving by—are just part of the home recording experience.
Computer-based setups present a challenge, because computer fans and hard drives are a major source of noise. Placing the computer as far from the mics as possible may help, or you might try placing the computer in an isolation box or a different room. Most hand-held digital recorders have an advantage here, because they are totally silent and portable, so you can take them to any location.
The acoustics of your room have a major impact on the sound of your guitar, and microphones tend to be less forgiving than your ears. Small rooms with hard surfaces create short echoes that can make your guitar sound distant or indistinct. Rooms also have resonant frequencies that can overemphasize certain notes. Fortunately, couches, chairs, bookcases, rugs, and drapes help absorb echo and break up the resonances, so the average furnished room will usually work well. If you want to go further, you can buy acoustic sound panels and bass traps. There are commercial products available from Auralex, GIK Acoustics, and others, and it is possible (and often more cost-effective) to build your own sound absorbers.
Keep in mind that recording often takes a surprising amount of time, and once you get your mics placed and a sound dialed in, you may want to leave your equipment set up for an extended period of time. Carving out a dedicated space for recording, even if it’s the corner of a bedroom, allows you to start recording more quickly when inspiration strikes.
3. All About Mic Placement for Home Recording
There are many types of microphones, but the most popular type for recording acoustic guitar is the cardioid condenser mic. Inexpensive models such as the Audio-Technica AT2020 or AT2021 start at under $100. If your budget allows, consider popular models like the Shure SM81 or Neumann KM 184. High-end mics can easily cost thousands of dollars. Cardioid mics are usually best for home recording, because they pick up sound primarily from the front and reject sound from the rear, reducing noise and limiting the effect of poor room acoustics. When choosing a mic, be sure it works with the rest of your gear. Condenser mics use XLR cables and require phantom power, which can be supplied by your preamp or computer interface. You can use dynamic mics, which don’t require power, but condensers are usually preferred for recording guitar, because they’re significantly more sensitive and accurate.
Stereo recording with two mics is a popular way to record acoustic guitar, but you might begin by experimenting with a single microphone. A mono recording often works well when mixed with other instruments, but even if you’re recording solo guitar, it’s useful to learn how to use one mic before moving on to stereo. A good initial location is the spot where the guitar neck joins the body, about a foot away from the guitar. One way to fine-tune the placement is to listen to headphones while you move the mic around, but headphones can be misleading. You’ll probably get a more realistic idea of the sound by recording a short example, and listening back through your speakers.
You can make substantial changes to the way your guitar sounds on the recording simply by moving the mic small distances. You can also try entirely different mic locations—other good starting spots are behind or below the bridge and centered in front of the guitar, but raised above the soundhole. (Directly in front of the soundhole almost never works.)
The distance between the mic and the guitar also has an effect on the sound. In an ideal acoustic environment, you might get a great sound with the mics as much as three feet away. But in home recording, you often have to place the mics much closer to eliminate undesirable effects of the room. Cardioid mics have a characteristic known as “proximity effect” that creates a deeper, bassier sound as you move the mic closer to a sound source. The effect generally begins at about 16 inches. As you move closer, the sound will be more direct and have more bass. Experiment to see what distance works best in your room and with your guitar. You can also experiment with the angle of the mic. For example, turning a mic in toward the soundhole should produce more bass, while turning it away will produce less.
If the guitar is to be featured prominently in your final mix, you may want to record in stereo, using two mics. One common setup, known as X/Y, uses two mics placed so that the capsules are as close together as possible, and angled at 90 degrees. For X/Y miking you can try the same locations we discussed for mono. There are mic holders designed specifically for X/Y that allow you to place both mics on one stand, which allows for easier positioning.
You can achieve a more spacious sound with a technique known as “spaced pairs.” There are many variations to this approach, but a common starting point is to place one mic where the neck joins the body and a second mic near the lower bout behind the bridge (see photo). There are many other common mic patterns, but few hard-and-fast rules, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Above: 3 common microphone placements. Single mic aimed at the 12th fret (top), stereo X/Y configuration (middle), and stereo miking with a spaced pair (bottom).
4. Tips on Recording with Pickups
Most people find that microphones capture the sound of their guitar more realistically than pickups, but pickups can be effective in some recording situations. If you simply can’t create a quiet environment for recording, pickups may be your only choice. Using a pickup can make it easier to record guitar and vocals, or even another instrument, at the same time without worrying about a mic picking up other sounds on the guitar track.
Some contemporary guitarists blend a pickup with mics to get a more direct and larger-than-life sound. As long as you have an extra input for the pickup, you can always record multiple tracks using mics and a pickup and then experiment with blending the tracks.
Soundboard transducers (such as K&K’s Pure Western Mini or the L.R. Baggs iBeam) often sound quite realistic on recordings, and undersaddle pickups (such as the D-TAR WaveLength, Fishman Matrix Infinity, or L.R. Baggs Element) can add a punchy sound to a recording. Magnetic pickups tend to sound a bit electric but can add a deep bass when blended with a microphone.
Another option is to use a processor like the Fishman Aura, which can make an undersaddle pickup sound more like a microphone. And of course, internal microphones like the L.R. Baggs Lyric or the various Miniflex models may also help eliminate some external noises.
5. How to Set Recording Levels
Setting the correct recording levels is an important part of getting ready to record. In the days of analog tape, it was common to record as “hot” as possible to minimize the noise inherent in the tape itself. With digital recording, the most important thing is to not exceed the maximum signal level of 0 dB, and it’s a good idea to leave plenty of headroom. When setting levels, play the loudest you expect to play and aim for peaks of no more than -6 dB, with average levels around -20 dB. This leaves room in case you play louder on an actual take, or if you want to add EQ when mixing.
When recording in stereo, it’s important to check that levels are balanced between channels. If you are using a conventional stereo mic arrangement like X/Y, it’s best to set the controls on both channels to the same gain (assuming you have separate controls) and balance the levels by mic positioning. Setting and balancing levels while playing is difficult, so it helps to learn to use the meters in your recorder. Most systems have VU meters that show the levels on each channel as you play. Computer-based systems may have other meters. One commonly-used tool is a goniometer, which displays a Lissajous figure that can help adjust both the channel balance and “phase” between the mics. Phase affects how multiple mics sound when blended to mono. Out-of-phase mics produce cancellation at various frequencies and can make your guitar sound thin. One benefit of an X/Y mic arrangement is that the mics are very closely in-phase. Learning what meters your system has and how they work can greatly speed up the process of setting up mics.
6. Video Instruction Series: Tracking and Editing in the Home Studio
When you are confident that you’re capturing a good sound, you’re ready to record. There are many ways to approach the actual recording, depending on the type of music. If you’re overdubbing or playing to a click track, you will need to use headphones. Experiment with levels until you feel comfortable and can hear the click or the tracks you’re overdubbing to as well as your guitar. Make sure the headphones aren’t so loud that they bleed into the microphones.
Everyone would prefer to record a song perfectly in one take, but most recordings involve multiple takes, which are often edited or combined to fix mistakes. It helps to have a strategy to make editing easier. Here are a couple approaches:
Back up and Try Again If you aren’t playing along with other instruments, one way to deal with mistakes is to stop, back up a few bars, and keep going. Once you make it to the end of the tune, you can use your audio editing software to cut out the bad parts. Most modern editing software can automatically “crossfade” the good parts, creating a seamless join that no one will notice. It takes some time to learn to edit—and each editing system is slightly different—but the process becomes easier with practice. With this approach, you need to be able to stop and resume the song with the same volume, tempo, and feel, and try to avoid moving or changing your location relative to the mics—even a slight difference can create tell-tale signs at the edit point.
Compositing Multiple Takes Another approach is to record the entire tune multiple times and then piece together the best parts of each performance. With this approach, it’s best to keep playing, even if you make a mistake. Once you finish a take, record again on a new track, repeating until you think you have played each part correctly, somewhere, in at least one take.
Different editors support this process in a variety of ways. Nearly all will allow you to cut sections from one track and paste them into another. Some editors have more sophisticated functions, letting you select regions from different takes and automatically compiling them into a single performance.
It takes experience to find the right balance between obsessively fixing every little thing and letting small issues go. If you find yourself needing to make a lot of edits to get an acceptable recording, you should consider whether your time would be better spent practicing the tune. The beauty of home recording is that you’re not “on the clock,” and you can do as many takes as you need to, or take a break and try again another day.
7. Mix, Master, and Publish Your Recording
Once you have completed a track, you’re ready to mix and get it ready for release. Mixing is an art in itself, and beyond the scope of this article. If your recording is simple, like solo guitar or guitar plus voice, mixing will mostly consist of setting levels, adjusting the EQ, and adding a little reverb. Full band arrangements can get much more complex. One option is to record and edit your basic tracks at home and then go to a professional studio for mixing. A pro studio may have better monitors, better reverbs or other effects, and most of all, experienced mixing engineers.
Once your tracks are mixed, they can be prepared for release. Tracks meant for a CD are often sent to a mastering engineer, who performs some final tweaks, assembles the tunes in the desired sequence, adjusts levels between tracks, and generally makes sure everything sounds its best.
When you record at home, you wear multiple hats—performer, engineer, producer, etc.—and recording yourself can be a lot of work. It’s likely that you will learn a lot, not only about recording, but about your music and performance along the way. Relax and enjoy the process, knowing that in the end, you’ll have captured a performance you can be proud of.