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Home Studio There are different schools of thought around this subject, but I thought I’d throw in some of my own thoughts, since I’ve been at it awhile. Note that I won’t be talking about techniques necessarily, though I will include some tips and tricks… So without further ado…

First, let’s establish something here: You don’t need to buy super-expensive gear to sound good, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. I’ve found that in a lot of cases, while more expensive gear will afford you convenience features, and a better sound quality, for the home studio enthusiast, a lot of times this gear is overkill. I’ll go into some details below, but in my opinion, recording technique is far more important. So with that said, let’s start talking about what I think are essential pieces of equipment:

Computer Equipment/Software

You probably already have a computer, but it should be configured to handle digital recording. While drive speed is important, it isn’t necessarily critical. My MacBook Pro’s hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and I have no problems recording stuff. But what you do need is space. I’d recommend getting two hard drives: one for programs, and the other dedicated to saving data. It’s just a cleanliness thing. Also, get as much RAM as your machine can handle. I’ve got 4GB on my machine. That’s even more important than a hard drive. You don’t need a super-poweful machine either, but dual-core machines really work well.

Okay, Mac or PC? Go with what you’re comfortable with. There are lots of programs out there; among them is a neat little program that works great on both PC and Mac called Audacity – it’s free! Todd Rundgren recorded a lot of his latest album using Audacity, so it’s definitely doable.

What about ProTools?

I’ve got it. It’s great. But the learning curve is super steep. In fact, when I first started recording, I spent more time learning how to use the damn software than getting my ideas down and that just frustrated me to no end; so much so, that I lost my taste for recording for several months – I just didn’t want to mess around with the software! I just wanted to get my freakin’ ideas down! I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s complicated, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the program. With the home studio, what you’re after is getting your ideas down with reasonable quality – and fast. That, at least, is my opinion. In light of that, I use GarageBand to get all my ideas down. It has built-in rhythm loops so I don’t have to use a click track, and there are lots of add-ons, both free and affordable, that you can use in GB. The sound quality is excellent, and it even has some mastering presets that work amazingly well!

Digital Interface

There are lots out there. I happen to use the DigiDesign MBox 2, which has two analog inputs, MIDI, and a couple of others I don’t use. Very handy little box. But there are lots of solutions out there in the $300-$400 range. Most use USB, though FireWire is probably the optimum – it also costs more.

Microphones

Now this is just my opinion, but you’ll need at least two mics: One ribbon mic, and one dynamic mic. I have a Nady RSM-200 ribbon that cost me less than $200, and it works superbly! I also swear by my trusty Sennheiser 835 stage mic, which is a workhorse similar to the Shure SM-58, but I think it’s warmer and has a much flatter EQ response than the SM-58 which can get kind of boomy.

MIDI Controller

Being also a piano player – not nearly as good on this as I am on guitar – having a keyboard to trigger MIDI and add MIDI-based instruments is another essential. You can go the small route (2 octave) or go the full-size keyboard route. I use an M-Audio full-size stage keyboard myself only because it doubles as my MIDI controller as well as my gigging keyboard. It was also cheap at $300 new. Nice.

From my standpoint, this is all you need as far as essential equipment for recording. Now let’s get into some techniques and some nice-to-haves:

  1. Always record acoustic guitar using mics – and use two of ’em. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve tried going direct into my computer, and the sound is horrible. But using two mics works great. I usually place my ribbon mic about six inches from the sound hole, then place my dynamic mic pointed at a 45 degree angle at about the 3rd fret to capture sounds coming off the neck. Also, to take advantage of the ribbon mic’s rear pickup, I have a board, or hard, reflective surface placed about two to three feet in front of me to reflect sound back. It gives just a sligh reverb effect that really fills out the recorded tone.
  2. If you can swing it, get a couple of low-wattage amps. In particular, I use a Fender Champ 600, which is a 5 Watt amp with an 8″ speaker. Another one I’ve used, but don’t own is the Epiphone Valve Jr.. What a nice little amp! Since you’re recording at bedroom levels, a small amp that puts out less volume works wonders. Now here’s the trick I’ve found to recording with these small amps. You can make that sucker sound HUGE by close-mic’ing the amp. I use a dynamic mic pointed at an angle along the cone of the speaker, and place it no more than 2″ away from the grille cloth. Then I use a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals to get grind or searing distortion, then in my software boost the low frequencies. The end result is that it sounds like I’ve just recorded a full-size stack! You have to play with your settings, but it’s definitely achievable. The other nice thing about using a small amp for recording is that the naturally bright voicing really works well in a digital recording environment.
  3. For vocals, always use a pop filter. I’m an experienced singer, and even though I have great mic technique, nothing is worse on a recording than picking up those oral transients that your mouth makes when making consonant sounds. Pop filters cost less than $20 and believe me they’re a life saver.
  4. While we’re on the subject of vocals… Avoid using a compressor on vocals as much as possible. When you’re singing a louder phrase, move away from the mic. It’s that simple. Compression is good to a point, but there’s a lot to be said about having volume dynamics in your vocals. You get a lot more emotion coming through when you have it. If volume is pretty much the same throughout a song, it’s well… boring in my opinion, no matter how good a singer you are.
  5. Avoid EQ as much as you can. Dial in the EQ on your instruments before you record, then only do wholesale volume adjustments later to make mix corrections. What you’re trying to do is capture the natural sound the instrument makes as closely as possible. The only exception I make to this is when I’m recording a low-wattage amp and want to boost the lows. Otherwise, I just do volume adjustments for the mix.

These are just a few things I’ve learned over the last few years of doing this. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, so if anyone else wants to add to this, please feel free!

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