How Do You Record Your Own Music

Recording Connection 2019 graduate Shamar Kuteyi in his home recording studio

As an aspiring musician, singer, or player in a band you’re likely going to want to record your own music at some point. There are many reasons to record your music: you want to hear what you, or your group, sound like; you want to share your music with your friends; you want use a recording to spark interest from a local club to hire you; or you may have more ambitious reasons like creating a demo track to send to record labels or music supervisors (for film, TV and video game placement) or to post online to sell your music. The audience you have in mind for what you record will have a bearing on how you record your music—a demo track for a record label or music supervisor or online sales needs to be of the highest quality possible, whereas a recorded track for you and your friends to listen to need not be of the same caliber.

There are many avenues to pursue in your quest for recording your own music—for the purposes of this article we are talking about music that consists of vocals and instruments, as opposed to electronic music which differs in how it is created and recorded—so let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Building Your Own Home Studio:
At first blush, this would seem to be the logical choice starting out; after all, you already have a computer and there’s several decent audio software programs that are free (Audacity, Garage Band- for Macs only, Traverso, Ardour and Pro Tools First. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a number of things.

Whatever space you decide to use as your home studio “live” room needs to be soundproofed from external noises (including roommates) and have decent acoustics. Depending on your living situation, this can be easy or hard.

Next, you are going to need some equipment including microphones, mic stands, cables, connectors, headphones and probably an audio interface or computer-compatible mixer and a new sound card for your computer.

Next, regardless of the audio software you choose, you will be faced with a learning curve. Depending on the software, this can be relatively easy or cuss-word challenging. My choice here would be to learn Pro Tools First. Pro Tools is the de facto industry standard so if you have to learn how to use your audio software, why not learn on an interface that you’ll find in just about any recording studio.

Finally, you will have to determine how you want to record your music. This is somewhat dependent on your choice of audio software. Some have limits to how many tracks you can record simultaneously, how easy or hard it is to hear already recorded tracks while recording a new track, how many tracks in total you have to work with, and how many plug ins are compatible with them.

Another solution is the Zoom H6 digital recording. It has six mic/line inputs and allows you to overdub and mix down your tracks. They have an excellent video explaining this process. You will still need an acoustically decent room, microphones, stands, cables and headphones, but hooking up your instruments or microphones to the Zoom H6 is as simple as plugging them into the device and the learning curve is extremely simple and negates purchasing an audio interface or computer compatible mixer and a sound card.

The Zoom H6 retails for around $330. Don’t let the six track capability get you down. You can bounce the five tracks down to one track, then freeing up those five tracks to record additional tracks. This is the same technique used by The Beatles who recorded in four track analog studios. The Zoom H6 gives you six tracks and is digital. With a little ingenuity you can even record using Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique—multiple instruments playing the same lines with the output sent to speakers placed in an echo chamber which had a microphone to pick up this reverberated sound and send it back to the Zoom to record. Cool, huh?!

Recording in a Recording Studio:
While this may seem to be the more expensive route to take, a closer look says look again. The recording studio will have at least one “live” room that is free from outside noise and acoustically designed. It will have all the top gear—microphones that cost $1000 or more, top-of-the-line mixers and computers, and most importantly an audio engineer who knows how to work all this gear.

There are basically two techniques that you should consider when contemplating recording your own music in a recording studio. The first is “live off the floor” which is essentially recording a live performance of your music. Relatively easy if it’s just you singing and playing your guitar, it becomes a bit more complex with each additional voice or instrument. Regardless of the number of singers and musicians in your band, the recording studio should have plenty of inputs and tracks to record everyone on their own track. The studio will also have ways of isolating instruments (essential if you are going to redo certain tracks) with Gobo panels (acoustic panels that are placed between musicians to help isolate each instrument or vocal) or even splitting your band into a few rooms.

The second technique is to build your song track by track, instrument by instrument (multitrack recording). This is fairly straightforward if it’s just your guitar and your vocal—you record your guitar, and then lay down the vocals on a separate track as you listen to the guitar track in your headphones. With a band, it’s a little more complex. First, you need to record a guide track—this can be a click/metronome to set the tempo (or you could use a pre-recorded drum loop for the same purpose) or it can be a scratch track (basically a version of the song that establishes the tempo/breaks that will be overdubbed, instrument by instrument, before it is deleted or ‘scratched’.) After that you (or in actuality, the engineer) lay down the rhythm tracks (usually drums and bass), then the harmonies (chord structure usually played by rhythm guitar, piano, horns, synthesizers, etc.), then the melodies (usually lead guitar and lead vocal), and finally you add little nuances to complete the sound (background vocals, piano fills, percussion fills, sampled sounds, etc.)

Regardless of the method used to record your song in the studio it goes through some additional stages before it’s ready for the public. These include editing your song (arrangement, comping, noise reduction, time editing and pitch editing). Arranging includes deleting or cutting out sections of tracks that aren’t working and moving a section of a track to a different spot in the song. “Comping” is where you compare the various takes for each track and select the best ones. This can include combining the best sections from different takes to create a brand new take. Noise reduction removes all sounds before, after and in-between each section of a track. Time editing fixes off-beat notes and pitch editing shifts notes so they are back in tune.

Next, your song is ready for the mixing process. At its very basic, mixing is where you make sure each instrument or vocal is clear but not overpowering and can involve volume control, panning, EQ, compression, reverb and automation. To complete the process, your song has to be mastered. There are online services that will master your song for a nominal fee or you can do it in the recording studio. In mastering, you are looking to maximize loudness (through compression and limiting), balance frequencies (through additional EQ and multi-band compression) and stereo widening (through various plugins.) Finally, you have a completed demo.

To setup a home studio that will get you the desired result will most likely cost you $350-$500 (minimum) in equipment costs and countless hours of frustration going through the learning curve. For the same $350-$500 you can get five to ten hours of recording studio time (with an audio engineer) and be free of dealing with technical challenges (that’s what the engineer is being paid to do.) If you, and your band, are prepared you should be able to finish one to two songs in this amount of studio time.

The advantage of the home studio really shines if you plan on recording a lot of songs. Once you are past the initial equipment investment and learning curve, each additional song will only cost you your time. If you only want to record a song or two, you are probably better off hiring a recording studio.

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