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  • Writer's pictureSteven Meloney

Create Professional Recordings of Any Instrument At Home

Want to make pro sounding recordings of your music at home? Maybe you’re new to recording, or maybe you’ve tried recording yourself but you weren’t super stoked on the sound that came back out of the speakers. This article will discuss the concepts that are the most important to achieving high-quality, professional sounding results at home. This won't be a step by step set of instructions (although you can download The Step by Step Guide to Professional Recording At Home here), instead it will offer a big picture look at the recording process as a whole. Read this article if you want to understand the things that have the highest impact on the quality of your recordings. We will cover the following topics:



Let’s get some meters bouncing.

 

The Room


The room you record in makes a big difference in how your recordings will sound. When you strum your guitar, pick your bass, or whack a drum, sound travels directly from the instrument into the microphone. But some of that sound also travels to the wall, bounces off, and then makes its way into the microphone a split second later. Any time we record anything with a microphone, we record both the direct sound of the instrument, and the reflected sound that comes to the microphone after bouncing off of a surface. Even if the direct sound is awesome, the reflected sound might not be. This raises the obvious question:


How do I know if a room sounds good or bad? And what can I do if the room sounds bad?


Evaluate the room by playing your instrument or making a loud sound, listening to the way the room reacts. You can hear the room best when you abruptly stop the sound you're making and listen to the way it decays and trails off in the room. How long did it last? Was it even or did it wobble? Did you hear any tones in particular standing out? Try this in different rooms and compare. Generally, smaller rooms will have more issues because their reflection points (walls, ceilings, and floors) are closer together.


If you notice something about the sound of the room you don’t like, you have two tools for addressing it:


1. Absorption - Materials used to absorb sounds so they don't reflect back to the mics. Think acoustic foams, blankets, thick rugs or carpeting, or a mattress or couch.


2. Diffusion - Materials used to scatter reflections more evenly around the room. Think irregularly shaped wood panels and book shelves.

If you hear uneven sounding reflections or any obvious tones standing out, try adding absorptive materials. Start with placing them in the corners of the room. These areas have two or three reflection surfaces (walls, ceiling, and floors) touching, and so cause the most problems. If your room sounds dark, or dull, try adding diffusion materials to more evenly distribute the reflecting sounds, better balance the room, and potentially even brighten the sound up.

Note: This is not the most scientific or perfect way of evaluating a room. Room acoustics is a complicated subject that you could study for years… But I hope this at least gives you a good place to start.



The Instrument


It’s astounding how good a cheap instrument can sound if it’s set up properly in comparison with an expensive instrument that has been neglected. I’m not just saying tune your guitar here… Every instrument will benefit from a different set of inspection points and adjustments. If you are not familiar or comfortable with making more advanced adjustments to your instrument, check your local music shop to see if they offer any set-up services. Here are some points to consider for guitar, bass, drums, and vocals:


Guitar and Bass

  • Intonation check

  • Grease the nut

  • Use new strings

  • Check action and adjust bridge and truss rod

  • Clean crackly pots and tighten loose connectors

  • Adjust pickup heights

Drums

  • Change the heads

  • Tune the drums!

  • Use dampening (moon gels, dampening rings, cloths, etc)

  • Use fresh sticks

Vocals

  • Stay well hydrated

  • Get enough sleep

  • Warm up properly



The Microphone


There are a number of different kinds of microphones, such as dynamic, condenser, and ribbon. You can easily find details about all of these online. In this article however, I want to focus on two characteristics that all microphones have, and that are the most impactful to their sound: polar patterns, and frequency response curves.



Polar Patterns


Polar patterns define how sensitive a microphone will be to sounds coming from different directions. There are three common types of polar patterns.


Cardioid - picks up sound best from one direction (and rejects sound coming from the other direction)

  • Use when you want to record a focused sound of one sound source

Figure-8 - picks up sound evenly from two opposing directions

  • Use when you want to hear a little room sound or when two people are singing a duet into one microphone

Omni - picks up sound evenly from all directions

  • Use when you want to hear a lot of room sound, when you want to capture multiple sources spread around the room, or when recording a moving target


Microphone polar patterns



Frequency Response Curves


Frequency response curves describe how sensitive a microphone will be to sounds of different pitches. Some microphones are designed to pick up bass instruments more accurately, while others are designed to capture the nuanced details of the high end. Some microphones are specifically designed to be as transparent as possible, and these exhibit the flattest frequency response curves possible.

Frequency response curve


Placing Microphones


A few millimeters can make a big difference when placing microphones. For every instrument there is an array of different micing techniques, the following guidelines will, however, be applicable in any situation.


Use Your Ears

Even when employing a specific mic technique, you always want to start and end with your ears. Before you put any microphones anywhere, take some time to listen to the instrument. Put your head right next to it and move back and forth, left and right, and up and down. What do you hear? The place where you feel it sounds best is usually a good indicator of where to start with a microphone.

Record Tests

To truly find the best mic position, you have to do some test recordings and compare the results. Try a few different mic positions, recording a few seconds at each spot. Things always sound better when they are louder, so be careful to balance the volume levels of the recordings you are comparing so that you only hear the differences in tone, and not in volume.


3:1 Guideline

Any time we use more than one mic, we introduce the possibility of phase cancellation. Because we are using more than one mic, it is possible that a sound wave enters one microphone during the wave’s peak, and simultaneously enters another microphone during the wave's trough. When the two signals are later combined to be played out of your speakers, the peaks and troughs will cancel each other out, potentially destroying your sound. This is phase cancellation. To help avoid this issue we can follow the 3:1 guideline, which states: for every 1 unit of distance microphone A is placed away from sound source A, microphone B should be placed at least 3 units of distance away from microphone A and at least 3 units of distance away from sound source A. Depending on your set-up, this configuration is not always possible. Always make final decisions based on what you hear coming out of the speakers.

3:1 Recording guideline

Note: The 3:1 guideline is based on the inverse square law. The sound wave that would cancel is still present, but it’s so low in level that we won’t have to worry about it. If you add a ton more gain to mic B than mic A, the 3:1 guideline no longer works!



The Signal Chain


If you’ve got the room, the instrument, and the microphones all dialed in, you are more than halfway to a professional sounding recording. But there are still a couple of things that can have significant impact on the quality of your recorded sound.

The signal chain can be thought of as the pathway through which we send our sounds. Signal chains are created using devices that manipulate the sound in some way. There are three things about signal chains that all affect the sound of the recording.


  1. The devices used in the signal chain and their settings

  2. The order of the devices in the signal chain

  3. The gain staging (proper input and output levels) of those devices


In order to record anything, we must at least send our sound from the instrument to the computer. Here is the simplest signal chain possible to achieve this:

Sound Source > Microphone > Preamp > Audio Interface > Computer

simple recording signal chain

Preamp


The signals coming out of a microphone and most electric instruments are very weak, and must be boosted before they can be recorded. That is the job of the preamp. Preamps can be stand-alone devices, but in the home studio they are most commonly found built into audio interfaces. Like microphones, preamps can be designed to be transparent (have little effect on the sound), or characteristic (impose a certain sonic imprint on the sound).


Audio Interface


Audio interfaces allow digital devices (computers) to communicate with analog devices (microphones). They convert the analog signals our microphones and preamps produce into digital signals (1’s and 0’s) that a computer can record and play back. The quality of most modern audio interfaces, even at the budget level, is more than adequate to achieve professional quality sound recordings.


Signal Processors


There are many types of other devices that can be inserted into your signal chain that will change the sound in some way. The most common devices are Equalizers (EQ), Dynamics Processors, and Delays and Reverbs. Here is a brief description of each.


Equalizers


Usually simply called EQ, equalizers allow us to adjust the volume levels of a specific frequency or a range of frequencies.

Dynamics Processors

Dynamics processors can adjust the volume level of a sound automatically over time. The most common type is the compressor, which essentially evens out the volume of a sound.

Delay and Reverb

Delay units record a small bit of the sound and play it back some specified time later, usually within milliseconds. Reverbs are essentially many delays played back together, simulating the sounds of rooms, halls, caves, or other environments.


Gain Staging


Signal chains can become more complicated when we add other devices to further manipulate the sounds, like compressors, equalizers, and effects units. All of these different devices are designed to have a certain amount of signal coming into and out of them. Gain staging is the process of making sure every device in the signal chain gets the appropriate amount of signal.


Ignore gain staging and you may experience:


1. Clipping - unwanted distortion occurring due to too much signal coming into a device and overloading it.


2. Static, hissing, buzzing, or noise - occurring when the signal coming into a device is so quiet that the output of that same device has to be turned way up to hear it.



The Performance


The more rehearsal you have, the better you will perform. The better you perform, the better you will sound. Even instruments in poor condition recorded in a cardboard box with a $10 mic can sound decent if the artist performing the music is doing so with skill and passion. If you’re really going for the highest quality, best sounding recording possible, you simply cannot ignore this fact. This might be the smallest section in this article, but it is certainly the most important. The level of your musicianship will have great affect on the perceived quality of your recordings. To put it another way, if you suck, your recordings will suck, no matter what room or gear you have. There is simply no substitution for practice!


...if you suck, your recordings will suck, no matter what room or gear you have. There is simply no substitution for practice!


Your Vision


So far we have talked about how the room, the instrument, the microphone, the signal chain, and the performance each have significant impact on the overall quality of your recordings. However, I should point out that all of this assumes that you have a very clear idea of how you want the recordings to sound in the first place. This is crucial.

Your vision of how you want things to sound is your strongest asset. The clearer your vision is, the easier it will be to make the right decisions while recording your music. I recommend choosing one or two reference tracks - songs that exhibit the sounds you are after - and keeping them handy to compare your recordings to along the way. Of all the things we have considered, focusing on developing a clear vision can yield big results quickly. This is something you can easily improve, right now, with some intentional listening.


Summary


If you want to create high quality, professional sounding recordings of your music at home, you need to give some attention to the things that make the biggest difference in sound quality. Those things are the room, the instrument, the microphone, the signal chain, the performance, and your vision for the recording.


When recording with microphones, we always record both the direct sound of the instrument, and the sound that is reflected off of surfaces in the room. So the shape and treatment of the room will be heard in the recording.

The instrument being recorded will sound best after a thorough inspection and adjustment.

All microphones have polar patterns which define the directions they are most sensitive to, and frequency response curves that describe the pitches they are most sensitive to. Utilizing this knowledge will help you choose which microphones to use. Microphone selection and placement should always start and end with your ear. Recording and comparing is the only way to truly find the best combination of mic and mic position. Following the 3:1 guideline can help us minimize the concern for phase cancellation when recording with two or more microphones.

The signal chain is created by sending the sound through a number of devices designed to manipulate it. These devices, their settings, and the order in which they are connected will affect the sound. All these devices are designed to accept a certain amount of signal, and problems like clipping, distortion, and unwanted noise can arise if we do not practice proper gain staging.

The performance is what makes the recording worth listening to, bringing all the dynamic and emotional characteristics to the sound.

Your vision of your sound is your map to it. The clearer and more defined your vision is, the better equipped you will be to make decisions that result in achieving a professional sound that you can truly be proud of.


 

It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to listen to your recordings and provide some feedback.

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ABOUT

I help artists capture pro-sounding recordings, mix and master them to commercial release quality, and make a meaningful impact on their listeners. People work with me because I understand the musical process from writing to recording to promotion to release (I’m a musician too!). Along the way I offer my 20 years of experience, access to professional studios and equipment, and my network of music industry pros to help you record and release awesome tracks, and further your development as an artist.

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