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Developing a Home recording Set-Up

Home recording is a great thing to do anyway (listen to how ropey you sound!), but in these days of isolation it makes for a productive pastime.  Over the last few months I've been developing a mini-setup, mainly just to make a record of what I was capable of doing in 2020 if that makes any sense.  I've made a few mistakes, wasted a bit of money here and there and made some decent choices too.  I thought I'd share my experience.

1. The Room

It needs to be as quiet as possible as the microphones you will be using pick up everything.  A "dead" sounding room is better than an echoey one IMO, because you can always add reverb electronically and can't take it away.  I'm using the kids bedroom ;-o

2. The Computer

Most people will have a desktop computer. I am using Windows but the setup I use would work under Mac too.  You can record on an Android tablet too (check out Audio Evolution) which is what I may end up doing if and when I am allowed back at my caravan.

3. The Main Software - The DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)

There are lots of routes to go down here, you can google it.  They all work on the same principle, that of recording multiple tracks either simultaneously or, more often for us acoustic types, consequentially.  You could do it with a general purpose audio file editor like Audacity (free), but a specific music recording DAW is probably more efficient.  I started off with a paid one (Mixcraft) which I still like but for stability reasons with plugins I moved to Reaperand I love it.  They have a free license until June and after that is only $60.  It is also an online jamming platform (Ninjam) and has an active community eg Reaperblog.  You may want to do your own research on the DAW, I think personal taste comes into it.  I have a friend who loves Ableton and Apple users like Logic and Garage Band.

4. Plugins

At first, plugins seems like an esoteric thing for the experts, but you rely on them.  The DAW basically organises your editing, cutting, snipping and recording, but you will want something to change the way you sound.  Your DAW will come with some plugins (Mixcraft is very good for this, Reaper a bit more basic but still has the main ones).   As well as the free plugins that come with your DAW, you can download free plugins online, most of which are very good.  After that, you can buy plugins, and I will discuss this later.  The main things you will need are:

(a) Reverb.  They don't all sound the same.
(b) Pitch Correction.  Yes I'm afraid so.  You can choose to use just a little of this, to move that note just a litttle closer to its intended pitch.  Too much pitch correction can start to sound weird like some yodel thing.  I think most DAWs have basic pitch correction built in which I think is mostly based off the Melodyne software.
(c)  Noise Gates can reduce background noise as can DeHissers.
(d) EQ.  A kind of sophisticated Bass/Treble control.

The plugins I use are mostly paid.  Izotope have a range thats great for beginners.  "Nectar" just makes you vocals sound better and seems to make me sound 20 years younger!  It includes reverb and pitch correction. "Ozone" automatically does the final stage of preparation "Mastering" which is a dark art as far as I am concerned but I just hit the "Assistant" mode and he chooses something for me.  "Neutron" is for instruments and I'm not convinced it does much but I use it anyway ;) The Izotopeplugins will cost more than the DAW and if you are smart I'm sure you can get the same results with free stuff.  To make the guitar sound decent , I either use Neutron and tell myself it actually did something or I use one of 2 other plugins that are like acoustic amps - "CLA (Chris Lord Alge) and Maserati(not the car).  They are always "on sale"!

5. Microphones

Lots of arguments about how good these need to be and whether you should use condenser or dynamic.  I think you need a half decent condenser mic.  I would recommend theAston Origin if you have the money or the Audio Technica or Samson or Behringer do a cheap one that gets OK reviews.  The more money you spend the more stuff it picks up.  I'm training myself to avoid breathing, swallowing or shifting my buttocks - its tricky ;)  Don't forget you need a desktop mic stand.

For recording guitar, I have found keeping the mic well away, like 2-3ft plus is better, because they can get so boomy.  Some people have a second recording stream from the guitars pickup, I wanted to avoid that.

For vocals, you have to be pretty close to get the "proximity effect" that sounds so pure (lol).  But not like a dynamic mic, so you still stay 6-12 inches away.  The nice thing about the Aston mics is they have a built in pop screen.

6. Interface Boxes

You need a box to connect your mic to the computer, I think technically its a preamp coupled with an audio/digital converter.

Most people use either the Focusrite Scarlett or the Behringer U-Phoria.  I used both and found the Focusrite software seemed more stable with my DAWs, but I did a lot of good stiff with the U-Phoria.

7. Instruments

I'm not sure your guitar has to be that great actually.  the recording process throws up lots of anomalies and sometimes a basic guitar can do the job better.  If the guitar starts booming it wrecks it IMO.

After that, for percussion, a couple of sticks maybe - I might experiment with whatevers in the kitchen draw ;)

there are all sorts of synthetic instruments inside your DAW, but I'll be honest, I don't understand all that.

8. The Work Sequence

My blunt and simple recipe , at t he moment, until I know what I'm doing, is this:
(a) Use the DAW's built in metronome to set up your click track and use this for recording everything before turning it off to produce the final mixed MP3.
(b) Record the main rhythm accompaniment instrument ie the guitar.  Slap on the the usual "sound nicer" plugin effect like Neutron or Maserati.
(c) Record the Vocal.  Slap on reverb, pitch correction or just let Nectar do its thing.
(d) Add any other layers you want eg percussion, solos, second rhythm guitar, harmony or doubling vocal.
(e) Optionally apply a mastering plugin to the overall track, like Ozone, then mix down to MP3.

It usually sounds better a few days later rather than straightaway, like fine wine ;)

9. Headphones

Nearly forgot!  You will need some decent CLOSED ear studio headphones, start at at about £30 on Amazon,

10. Advice

Lots of advice out there, just   Google it.