Not every songwriter is meant to be a performer, a producer, or an engineer. Many of you would probably go the route of having your songs demoed in a reputable studio, and avoid the frustration of the do-it-yourselfer. Me, I’m just a masochist I guess 🙂
I started out in 1985 with a 4-track recorder, one of the first ones out there designed by Tascam. I had no idea what I was doing, so my husband took the place of engineer, while I just did the playing and singing. Not a good thing for a marriage 🙂 Eventually, I got frustrated with how “slow” he was, and I realized I was just going to have to learn to do it myself! I armed myself with knowledge AND I saved my marriage at the same time.
However, it took a lot of trail and error, mostly error, in order to understand the whole process of getting a song to sound good on tape. Even saying the word “tape” shows you how long I’ve been at it! In the beginning, I had no understanding of the very basics, so my education came from trusting my ear as to what sounded “right”, and though I do know a lot more now, I still tend to fall on that same rule in the present. I trust what sounds right to me. If you ask the question, you will get PLENTY of opinions as to how to set up your studio, which equipment to buy, blah de blah de blah. You’ll get SO MUCH that you will have no idea where to start and who to trust. This series of tips is really designed for an absolute beginner, so the rest of you audio hounds take your know-it-all somewhere else :-)!!
| Basic Equipment | Optional Equipment | Your First Recording | Some Thoughts on Arrangments | Conclusion |
You will need either a standalone recorder or you might be more inclined to record on your desktop or laptop, in which case you’ll need the software to record into. I started out with a 4-track analogue recorder in the early 90’s. The first one I had cost me $1500! Now they are MUCH cheaper, more compact and dummy-proof (I can get away with saying that since I still consider myself a dummy). Eventually I went to 8-track, then 24-track reel-to-reel, and finally I made the jump to digital and started using a software program called Cool Edit. At that time you could download a free 4-track version of it, so that was a good start. Now it is called Adobe Audition, it has multiple tracks and many, many other features that you couldn’t get early on. There are many popular types of software for recording these days.
If you are using recording software, you will need some kind of interface. This may simply be a sound card with the necessary inputs/outputs to handle patch cords and microphone cables, or it may be a small mixer with inputs/outputs that connects to your computer’s soundcard.
You may not have a choice, you may already have a unit or a software program that you will have to learn to use. Read the manual, go to online forums and soak up as much information as you can first. Learn how to turn it on 🙂 Sounds stupid, but just getting the basics down first will help a lot.
…your very best bet would be to go with an industry “favourite”, a mic called a Shure SM57. It is versatile, tough, and will last a long time. I still use my original one today, usually for instruments, but sometimes for vocals too. Get a used one if you can…don’t get one with too many dents and scratches. These days you can also get USB mics, the main use for them appears to be podcasts. I’ve never used one myself, but it sounds like a simple way to record with a mic straight into your software. If you buy a regular mic, get a good microphone cable too.
A good patch cord
…that’s the cord that goes from an instrument like an electric guitar or an acoustic/electric guitar to the recorder or amp. It normally has two 1/4″ jacks at either end (those are the thicker ones). Make sure you look at the back of your recorder or your interface first to see if the inputs are meant for those, or for what are called XLR inputs. An XLR input is about 3/4″ round with three holes; the cord that you use for that will also be different…round with three prongs on one end (the male), three holes on the other(female). If you can afford it, get two patch cords. You never know when one is going to crap out on you 🙂 Another note about patch cords…learn how to wrap them properly or they’ll start twisting up like a telephone wire and you might cause one of the inner wires to break.
If you plan on recording drums, you might consider a drum sequencer or sampler. Or you might choose to buy a CD of drum loops. There are quite a number of very well-recorded loops that you can use in your recordings, complete with fills, intros, recorded in 1- 2- or 4-measure lengths in 16- or 24-bit wav or aiff files. I use Drums On Demand, and lately a nifty little program called Addictive Drums but I’ve also downloaded individual loops from various sites on the web. You COULD try to record a live drum kit, but you’ll probably be very disappointed in the sound. A good drum sound requires a number of mics, a great room and an endless amount of patience. Whatever you do, shop around and get what sounds good to YOU. These days, most drum sequencers sound great…even bigger studios use them!
– an important element! If you are using a mic, you will have to turn your speakers off and monitor your recording with headphones. Headphones tend to distort the sound just a little, so try a few different types out at an audio store to see how they feel and sound. Bring a CD that you are very familiar with when you are choosing headphones, so you can see which ones more accurately reproduce the sound of the CD. Be careful! Don’t have the volume to your headphones too loud! Before long you may damage your hearing…believe me, I’ve had a few bouts of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and it’s no picnic!
Of course, you’ll need whatever instrument you write your songs with…piano, guitar, etc., and probably a bass. Some hints on how to record either of those later.
A compressor/noise gate…what do these do? Well, very simply speaking, a compressor takes all of the “peaks” and “lows” out of your signal (what you’re recording) and compresses it into a smoother signal. For instance, if you tend to have trouble singing into your microphone properly, you may be very soft sometimes and extremely LOUD other times. A compressor will help to smooth out the sound of your voice by the time it gets to the tape or digital track. It will also tighten up a guitar sound, and even give a smoother sound to the overall recording when you are ready to mix it down. Some will tell you a compressor is a “must” on your equipment list, but let me tell you that until you have the rest figured out, it’s the last thing you need to worry about! A compressor does not work very well in some situations…for instance, if not set up properly it can take all of the dynamics out of an acoustic instrument. A noise gate is another piece of equipment that helps to clean up the sound you are trying to get. And it is very much as it sounds…it’s like a gate that only opens when it hears a certain level of sound…so that means when you’re not singing or playing, it shuts out every other noise that might normally be picked up by a microphone. Again, it’s optional and not absolutely necessary to begin with. In the digital world, there are many plugins that perform these tasks.
When you are recording on your computer through recording software, these elements will often be part of that software, although in slightly different ways. For instance, instead of a noise gate, you can actually take the hiss and noise out of a recording digitally. You can also do some compression on the sound file after you’ve recorded it. Technology, eh? Ain’t it amazing?
Another piece of equipment/plugin you’ll hear about is a effects unit. This is for effects like “reverb”…making your recording sound like you’re in a big hall, etc. There are a zillion different effects…the one I have can even simulate the sound of a brick wall! You don’t necessarily need that just yet either, but most digital units or D.A.W.s (digital audio workstations) now have effects built in.
Some preliminary things to consider…find a QUIET room. Put lots of pillows, blankets, stuffed chairs or whatever in it. This will “deaden” the sound of the room when it comes to recording. Some people prefer a natural room sound, so you can try it either way and see what you think. Just remember, hardwood floors and concrete walls make A LOT of noise! Sound waves hit those walls dead on and then rebound back into your microphone. And then they do it again! This may thrill and amuse you, who knows? I find that most demos I listen to are NOT very clean sounding.
Let’s assume you’ve got all of your equipment in front of you and you’ve read the manuals so you know how to turn everything on and plug everything in. Your recording unit or software manual should have a simple description of what to do to record your first “track”. Your digital unit or software will have a certain number of tracks, and each track is meant for one element…voice, guitar, bass, etc.
Which track to record first? Let’s assume you’re not going to use drums…if you were, then you would have to program and record them first. Why? Simply speaking, the drums are the rhythmic backbone of a recording and everything else should “follow”. When you try to put drums on AFTER another instrument, you’ll see what happens 🙂 Even the best of live drummers have trouble following a track that’s already been laid down (that means recorded). And drum loops are completely unforgiving…you would have to edit them to match your other tracks and that’s a lot more work than you need.
Let’s just make a simple vocal/instrument recording. You have two choices…you can plug in your guitar (or piano) and your microphone and do a “live” or “live off the floor” recording of your song, where everything is recorded at once…OR you can do one element at a time. Try it either way. Be prepared to use lots of hard disk or digital tape space, so you can experiment with which works best for you. My recommendation is to try laying down your guitar or piano track first. The chord progressions are really the foundation of the song, and therefore will hopefully maintain a nice flow that you can sing on top of when you get there. BE PATIENT!!
Have you ever played through your song without singing it? Get used to it! Have the lead or lyric sheet in front of you so that you can follow along if necessary. Just how long was that bridge part again? Oh, yeah, that was a G that I was supposed to play! *&$^#*!! Keep at it until you have one good version…then just for fun, record another. Why? Mostly for safety’s sake. Sometimes you won’t notice a small mistake or a noise in the background until you play it back. And, with one version completed, you just might be relaxed enough and play it better the second time!
There are a thousand different schools of thought as to where to place your mic when recording an acoustic guitar, for instance. Try these out…for a smooth sound, place the mic about three or four inches away from the neck, pointed right between the sound hole and the body. For a heavier sound (with less “string” sound) place the mic at the same distance away, pointed just below the bridge. Play around with placement until you get a sound you like. That sound is often referred to as the “sweet spot” :-). Experiment with strumming or picking a few chords or notes with the mic placed one way, then do the same chords or notes with the mic placed some where else. Take note of where you placed the mic for each recording, and then listen carefully to all of them at the end to decide which placement sounds sweet to you.
If you have a keyboard you will likely use a patch cord between the “line out” (there may be left and right line outs) on the keyboard and the “line in” on the recording unit or interface. Stereo out is fine, but on a standalone unit you’ll take up 2 tracks for that. Within most software programs, stereo is recorded on one track. If you only want mono (as opposed to stereo!), most keyboards give you that option. Some acoustic guitars these days have what is called a “pre-amp” built into them and you can plug them right into your recording unit or interface! The ovation guitar was the first acoustic/electric guitar that had this feature. If there is a pickup on the guitar, but no built in pre-amp, then you can use a DI (direct in) box.
Get the sound you want out of the amp first, then place the mic several inches away from the speaker…again, everyone’s preferences are different, play around until you get a sound you like. Some even like to have the mic quite far from the amp, picking up the sound of the room along with it. To each his own!
As an aside…I will rarely mess around with those little knobbies (EQ, or equalization) on the track at the point of recording, only after. If you start to play around with the sound beforehand, remember it’s going to RECORD that way, and you won’t have as much control of the sound after the fact. This is up to you, and I know there are people who do lots of EQ’ing beforehand. Then again, they probably already know what sound they’re after.
Microphone technique is something I find that not very many people know about. Think about it for a moment…you probably sing softer in some parts than others. But if you have your mouth too close to the mic and no compressor set up, it may sound fine at the soft parts and then OVER-MODULATE at the loud parts. This is when the microphone can’t handle the sound you are singing into it! It makes your voice sound kind of like a buzz saw…maybe you want that, but your mic won’t like it, and neither will the recording. SO…keep your mouth about 6 inches away from the microphone, and when you are singing soft, move in a little, loud, move out a little! Nothing to it! Eventually you’ll get a better sense of how to do it. ALSO, don’t BREATHE HEAVILY or smack your lips in those non-singing places!
Now you’ve completed your first official recording!! How does it feel? Probably like you’ve got a long way to go, but don’t worry, you’ll get there 🙂
What are arrangements? In this case, we’re talking about instrumental arrangements, or which instruments you record where on your song. The initial temptation is to have everything playing all the way through…guitars, vocals, drums bass, strings, keyboards, whatever!! In my first recording, I added everything I could think of, and couldn’t figure out why it sounded so muddled…the fact is that sometimes the places you DON’T play are more important than the ones you do! What exactly does this mean?
Do yourself a big favour and listen very carefully to some of your favourite recordings…when we first listen to a song, we usually hear the whole thing as a complete package because that is exactly as it is meant to be! But now I want you to break it down…isolate the different instruments and vocals and make sure you can hear every one of them separately. The key to great recording is listening! When you’re recording a song, think of it as a kind of contruction process…you build the arrangement around the song. When the singer is singing, don’t cover it up too much with other instruments…when there is a break, fill it in with other things. Some of this you may already instinctively “know” just by having listened to music so much yourself.
Consider the following graph:
Here is a sample 4-track recording…on the right you’ll see that the tracks contain a vocal, lead guitar, bass and guitar or piano. The lead guitar will play little “fills” in between the vocal parts, and in the intro and be the lead in the instrumental or break. The bass (light blue) and the main guitar or piano (yellow) play all the way through. If you can visualize your recording, or even draw it out in graph form such as this, it will give you a better audio layout of your arrangement. What instrument will go where and how long will it play? You’ll notice that the lead guitar (green) will sometimes occasionally even overlap the vocal a little bit. That’s cool 🙂 Don’t be TOO predictable!
Yes, you’re a beginner when it comes to recording…but you have already unconsciously learned a great deal from being an avid music fan yourself all of your life 🙂 Trust your instincts, and trust your ear. Be patient with the process, it takes time…sometimes you’ll spend an hour just trying to figure out where that funny “hum” is coming from! Keep your demos simple until you are ready to experiment with fuller arrangements. If you are sending songs off to publishers, many of them already prefer simple! For the songs you want to make fuller demos for, go into a studio, hang over the engineers’ shoulder and ask questions. Four tracks may be all you’ll ever need, but some of you, like me, will become enamoured with the process and eventually expand your equipment and your studio.
If this page has helped you in anyway, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you have any other questions…I’ll do my best to help, but I may also refer you to some other “experts”.
Dictionary of Audio Terms – look up any terms you don’t understand
Home Recording Bulletin Board – ask questions and they’re happy to answer 🙂
VST Planet – find all kinds of plugins for your DAW here
Looperman – one of many sites that offer free loops when you sign up
Cakewalk Products – I use Music Creator
Drum Track Zone – many, many links to drum midi files and loops