For years I’ve been saying I was too busy to get into home recording. True, there are times I’m on the road touring and I am actually too busy, but in the last few weeks of Corona-virus lockdown I’ve had the time to set up a home studio and in doing so I realized something else: I was also afraid. The learning curve to get started seemed too big and I worried I didn’t have the ear to track at a professional level. After a nudge from a friend to get started I have had nothing but fun building my studio and now wish I’d done this a decade ago. I’ve also realized I was always more than capable enough, so this piece is for me 10 years ago, and for you, now.
You’re going to need one. Mac or PC is fine and most home computers are powerful enough now that whatever you have will work. The more memory and speed the computer has the better and make sure to check the operating system is compatible with any equipment you buy before you buy it.
There are many options for the program you choose to work with, some of the most common being Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro X, and Ableton Live. Most audio interfaces come with basic version of one, so the choice might be made for you when you choose an interface. Maybe you have an engineer friend who you’re hoping to lean on for advice and help, and in that case maybe going with whichever program they’re using is the smartest move. I chose to work in Logic Pro X because I had used it briefly years ago in college, because the workspace appealed to me, and because (at the time of writing) Apple was offering a 90 day free trial.
For more advice on choosing a DAW I reached out to Sean Sullivan, studio and mix engineer at The Butcher Shoppe Studio in Nashville, who we’ve worked with on two Tattletale Saints albums.
“Every DAWs has its strengths that will appeal to different users” Sean says, “Pro Tools is the industry standard and has great editing and mixing functions, Logic includes extensive collections of drum loops, virtual instruments, and effects that make it a great option for songwriters and composers (and it’s will be the most familiar for Garageband users), and Ableton is extremely popular for electronic music production. Most of them are sold in different tiers; the more you spend the more features that are unlocked. But, for most, the basic versions will include everything to get you started.”
Sean also notes, “DAWs don’t play nice together. You can’t open one company’s session file in another companies software, so if you are collaborating with others using then same software will make that easier.”
If you do end up collaborating with people using a different program you can export, send, and then have them import WAV files to get around conflicting programs.
There are lots of different options for audio interfaces and all interfaces will work with all the DAWs. I’m using the Scarlett 2i2 (initially just because my good buddy lent it to me) and I love how simple it is, truly a “plug and play” piece of equipment. I’ve also used the Apogee Duet and it was great too, just as simple to use.
Sean notes, “for most musicians a simple 1 or 2 channel interface that sells for around $150-$200 new will suit their needs, and they are all sonically and functionally similar. Many companies will pack in a basic version of one of the DAWs, which can help you narrow down which one to pick. But it’s important to know that whichever interface you pick, it will work with all of the DAWs so you can also try different ones until you find what works best for you.”
An online course is a great way to get over the initial learning curve and take some frustration out of the process of getting started. I found Logic Pro X Essential Training by Scott Hirsch incredibly helpful on day 1 when I first opened the program and couldn’t remember a single thing. The course was free using my library card number to login to Lynda (a subsidiary of LinkedIn offering video courses taught by industry experts in software, creative, and business skills). Lots of libraries around the world offer free courses through this platform, so check with yours. They also have courses in Pro Tools and Ableton available.
Google is a great source of information too. You can basically ask any question including the name of your DAW and find 100s of videos/forums/blogs answering your exact question.
You could start just using whatever you have laying around but eventually you’re probably going to want to get some decent monitoring headphones that have a flat EQ and don’t boost any frequencies. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones are a great option at around $150. They have a very even mid-range, nice clarity, and don’t boost the bass – which is what you want when recording/mixing. If you can get your instrument tone and/or overall mix to sound good with these, it’ll sound good anywhere!
You’re going to need at least one boom microphone stand to get started. You might have a mic stand laying around because you use it live, or one you can borrow from a friend, but if you’re purchasing one consider going for a heavy duty option. A condenser microphone in a basket can be quite heavy and you don’t want it tipping over potentially breaking the mic or hitting your instrument. If you have got the boom of the microphone tilted (rather than straight up), make sure you position the feet so the mic is parallel with one of the legs, rather than between two of them, to help stabilize. Search “heavy duty boom microphone stand” online and you’re sure to find tonnes of options.
You’ll need at least one XLR cable to record and if you buy a microphone it may come with one. When shopping for your XLR cables, make sure they’re decent quality. Buying the very cheapest you can find online will likely result in it breaking within a few weeks meaning you have to return it or buy something else, and is a giant pain. It’s usually false economy to buy the cheapest one you can find. Get something between $40-80 and you’ve probably got something decent quality but still affordable. Make sure it’s a studio cable and go for at least 10 ft so you’re not overly tethered to your desk. When you’re recording you’re going to want as much space around you as possible, so you can perform as naturally as possible.
A MIDI controller isn’t a necessity, but it is a nice thing to have even if you’re not a keyboard player. I’ve been using mine to play in the chords to a song so I can pitch bass and vocals to it, then I send the WAV files of bass and voice off to a proper chordal instrumentalist and replace the MIDI keys with that.
A M-Audio Mini USB controller is around $160, easy to tuck away when you’re not using it or throw in your bag if you’re traveling with your setup. It has reduced sized keys and only 2.5 octaves, so a piano player might find it restrictive, but it’s a great little tool for simple MIDI inputting.
Below are some suggestions for some of the primary instruments you might be recording, starting with my advice for voice, bass, and keyboard, which are the instruments I’m working with in my home recording studio. After that I’ve asked some of my friends in Nashville to give their expert advice for guitar, drums, strings, and woodwinds.
A decent medium diaphragm condenser mic will sound good on most voices and the sE Electronics X1 S is a great, affordable, option for male and female voices as well as acoustic instruments. They also sell a “reflexion filter” designed to help with recording in a non-acoustically treated room, like a bedroom or living room. Another option is setting yourself up in a closet, or hanging some heavy fabrics around the microphone area to create a temporary vocal booth. Condenser mics really do pick up everything so you’ll also have to get your housemates to go out for a while and the dog to take a nap!
Electric bass can go direct into your interface with your 1/4” cable or you could take a line out of your pedal board so you can use those elements during recording too. If you have a really cool compressor on your board then that might be preferable to what you could add later using plugins.
A medium diaphragm condenser mic is a great starting point for upright bass, and I like it positioned about 4-6 inches away from the E string F hole, though every bass is different and you should experiment with positioning. It’s nice to record two lines of bass at the same time: a larger diaphragm mic positioned as above, and either a pencil condenser pointed at the fingerboard or a line out of the pickup/DI. That way you get the warmth and woody sound from the mic, and the high frequencies of the DI or pencil condenser. The DI isn’t usually the kind of sound you’ll want as the main tone, but a little of it in the mix with the main microphone adds nice definition and clarity.
The good news for keyboards is that you’ll be able to go direct into the audio interface without worrying about a microphone at all. You can record the sound of the keyboard itself using a stereo line out of the back of your keyboard, and into the interface. If your keyboard has a MIDI output you can also use it as a controller with a MIDI instrument in your program, and play the piano parts in that way. You’ll need to make sure you choose an interface with MIDI input for this.
For acoustic piano you’re going to need a pair of condenser mics positioned near the strings of the piano. Positioning is largely trial and error for piano but listen to the sound and trust your ears. Where it sounds good to you is probably going to be where it sounds good through the microphones too. The style of music, the piano itself, and the room you’re in, are all going to affect the necessary spacing and positioning of the microphones. This is definitely heading into advanced territory! Sean recommends a matched pair of small diaphragm condenser microphones for recording piano with two options: the sE Electronics sE7 and Rode M5 coming in at just under $300 for the pair.
“To get the nuance and clarity of an acoustic, you’re best to use a condenser mic. While a ‘small diaphragm’ condenser is arguably the most common choice, a medium or large diaphragm will sound great also – sE Electronics make a variety of affordable mics that sound amazing. For position, you’re best to avoid the boominess of the sound hole and angle the mic toward the point where the body meets the neck, around 6 to 12 inches from the guitar. These positions are approximate and will vary from case to case, so try different positions while monitoring through headphones.”
“A common choice for electric guitar is a standard Shure SM57 (or other dynamic mic) pressed up to the grill of the amp. The position of the mic relative to the center and side of the speaker cone also makes a difference: the nearer to the center of the cone, the brighter and more present it will sound, the nearer to the edge, the darker it will get. If you have the option, adding a condenser mic a foot or so in front of the amp will capture some of the room ambience and broaden the sound. “
“There are a number of amp simulators available in pedal form (Strymon Iridium, Line6 Helix Stomp), but also as plugins to use with your DAW (Amplitube, Guitar Rig). While it is a different experience, you can get a very usable sound, and have the ability to noodle and record at a very low (virtually silent) volume. Good for not annoying roommates and neighbors!”
By Jordan Perlson: drummer, recording artist and teacher who has played with everyone from Snarky Puppy to Alison Brown, Matisyahu to Adrian Belew.
“At minimum you’ll want, kick, snare and 2 overhead mics. For kick, basic options are the D112 or Beta 52. For snare, the newest, as well as the most experienced engineers tend to use the SM57.
For overheads you have a litany of options. Something inexpensive from a name brand is probably your best bet. A stereo pair of the Rode M5S is a good option.”
By Avery Bright: a violinist and violist who has played on recordings for OneRepublic, U2, Josh Groban, Dolly Parton, and many others.
“The most important factor in recording the violin isn’t so much the gear used, but the actual sound of the violinist and their instrument. With that being said, a nice condenser or ribbon microphone placed a foot or so away from the sound holes will give you an accurate representation of the sound. It’s also extremely important to be aware of the acoustics of your room as it can affect the ability of the violin track to blend in a mix. A dry, controlled sound is preferable over a large, roomy sound. You can always add reverb later!
The Audio Technica 2020a (around $170) is a decent entry level mic, or if you want to spend a bit more, the Røde NT1-A is also great.”
By Kaitlyn Raitz: cellist for Brandy Clark, and Oliver The Crow.
“Tracking strings is about getting as natural a sound as possible. It’s all trial and error, but I generally place the mic somewhere above my left f-hole. My first home recording mic was an Audio-Technica condenser but I’ve since graduated to a Peluso P-414 and could not be happier with the quality.”
Nashville violinist Kristin Weber (who has performed for the likes of Dolly Parton, Lorde, Kacey Musgraves, Cage The Elephant) also gives some good tips for any instrument, “My advice is to make google and youtube tutorials your friend. Absorb every remark and detail because sometimes the difference between things working or not working is one tiny little button you didn’t click. Spend time trying A and B, with mic placement, different pre-amps, etc. and trust your experienced ear and intuition!”
By Nathan McLeod: a touring and studio saxophonist based in Nashville, TN, who also designs and builds ribbon microphones when not on tour.
“A simple dynamic microphone, such as the classic Shure SM 57 or 58, is all one needs to start recording from home, especially handy for recording in noisy environments as it provides excellent cancellation. For a bit more detail in your recordings a large diaphragm condenser mic, like the sE electronics X1 A, would be preferred. Do keep in mind that condenser microphones capture EVERYTHING so a quiet recording environment is essential when using these. They work especially well with quiet acoustic instruments like flute or clarinet. The good news for people starting out is that all of these microphones can be purchased for around $100.”
Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles, Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.