How to Make Home Recordings Sound Professional
By Team HC |
How to Make Your Home Recordings Sound Professional
No one has to know you recorded at home
by Anna Grant
Over the past couple of years, a lot of musicians have gone from recording songs in professional studios to recording in the comfort of their homes. When you think about it, this doesn’t actually come as a surprise.
Home studios are more affordable (and remember, a lot of songwriters are on a tight budget), easy to set up, and let you work at your own pace, without having to finish everything within the allotted time slot a studio provides. Furthermore, all you need is your instrument, a laptop, and a quality microphone, and you’re all set. However, what most tend to forget when it comes to recording at home is that you don’t get high-quality equipment and a sound engineer to guide you through the process.
Still, just because you’re on your own doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great results! All you have to do is pay attention to a couple of things, e.g. which instruments you can and cannot record at home (and why), and your next recording project could be as good as a project done in a pro studio.
The tips and tricks in this post will help you record professional sounding demos in your home studio, but if you’re after broadcast-ready quality, it’s best to hire a studio with high-end equipment, a recording engineer, and professional sound treatment. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.
Is the source you want to record a high-quality one?
This may seem rather basic—and it is—but it is essential to get a good recording. Sometimes, an engineer in a “professional” studio might be able to slightly improve a low-quality source with specialized gear, but 99% of the time, if you hear a good recording, it’s because the source is good. Whether you want to record an instrument or a voice, the source is where it all begins.
Trying to make a $200 portable keyboard sound like a 1973 Fender Rhodes is just not going to happen. The same goes for trying to make someone with a “bad” voice sound good—even if they were to go to a “pro” studio and record through thousands of dollars’ worth of gear. It’s important to have the correct instrument or plug-in and someone with a voice that's suited to the song to make a good recording.
Which instruments can you record at home professionally?
With today’s technology, you can record the following instruments at home with good results: electric guitars, bass guitars, keyboard instruments, drum machines, or anything with a DI (direct input). When recording these instruments, pay attenton to the levels going into your DAW. You need to ensure there are no other interfering signals or noise. Yes, you can record your analog synth or whatever you have through a $6,000 preamp going into a $10,000 converter and get a better sound, but the preamps on a stock “home” interface will do just fine. As a matter of fact, as long as you are aware of how loud you are recording, you will produce a good recording.
Nowadays, it is good practice to have your RMS around -12dB, with peaks hitting around -6dB. There’s absolutely no reason for you to record any louder than this! In the old days, you’d have to record “hot” to avoid the noise floor of tape, but in today’s digital world, it’s completely unnecessary. Not only that, but many of the top recording engineers today say that recording between -18dB and -12dB is the “digital sweet spot” and sounds “warmer” than recording at higher levels. Just be sure that when you’re recording your instrument directly there are no electrical grounding issues creating hum or buzz, and that your instrument is not the vessel for some other signals like FM radio (sometimes certain instruments will actually pick up radio signals! Cool, but very irritating when trying to work on your own music).
Which instruments can you record decently at home, with a bit more recording experience and budget?
Vocals (although this is technically not an instrument), acoustic guitars, and various percussion instruments. With just a bit more experience (other than recording a direct instrument), you can record these sources at home quite well, assuming you have access to a quality microphone and a room with decent acoustics. In fact, the room is more important than the mic (and of course, your source is more important than both of these together). Let’s take a look at the three sources mentioned and how you’d go about recording them at home, and some tips and tricks along the way that will help you make the best recording possible.
Vocals. This source, in the majority of cases, will be the most important part of your recording session. In order to get a good recording, you’ll need an excellent microphone. This could be something as cheap as an SM57 (which does sound exceedingly good on certain voices) or if you have the budget, a high-grade, large-diaphragm condenser. You’ll just want to avoid any microphones that are especially designed for other purposes, like kick/bass microphones, or anything that is particularly colored.
Next, you’ll want to make sure you’re recording in a space that doesn’t have a noticeable room echo. This can be the trickiest part about recording at home, as it’s hard to find a space that doesn’t have any echo; even a tiny bit of unwanted echo can quickly make your recording sound “unprofessional.”
Before I got a vocal booth at my own home studio, I put the vocal mic in my walk-in closet—which was full of clothes—and that worked quite nicely. It just didn’t look or seem very professional, but it sounded great. You can also set up some baffles in the corner of a room and position the singer in between them, along with a microphone, and sometimes get a good sound. You’ll have to play with the space in order to see what gives you the driest vocal recording possible. Do whatever it takes! Blankets, foam, baffles, Auralex, etc. Figure this out, and the rest will seem relatively easy in comparison.
Next, ensure that you have a pop filter (which is usually a small piece of fabric stretched out onto a contraption that you can attach to the microphone stand; they are cheap or you can make your own). “Popping P’s” and other “plosives” will quickly destroy your vocal recording, so make sure you absolutely don’t forget to put your pop filter in front of the mic. When the singer sings into the mic, make sure they're not positioned too close to the mic.
You can generally use the five-finger rule: when you stretch your fingers out and place your thumb to your mouth, your pinky should be touching the pop filter—and that’s about the correct distance. The reason for this is the proximity effect: with some mics if you sing right up on the microphone, the bass frequencies will be quite boosted, making the voice sound unnatural. (Some singers, however, use this phenomenon to their advantage, and in certain cases, it can be a cool effect.)
Finally, be sure that you’re able to record at an appropriate level. Peaks should be at around -6dB and your average level (RMS) should be around -12dB. This may seem obvious, but make sure that the singer is comfortable in their headphones and has a good balance between their voice and the rest of the track. That’s crucial for a good performance.
Acoustic Guitar. What you need is a good acoustic guitar and a good player. Without these two things, your recording won’t stand a chance. Just like with recording the vocals, you’ll need a good space to record your guitar in. A walk-in closet can also be a solid choice in this situation. However, just by the sheer nature of how we mix and the way that guitars sound, you might be able to get away with a little bit of room sound in your guitar track. Not an overwhelming amount, but a touch may be okay and rather unnoticeable in the final mix. You’ll have to be the judge—just be aware of it as you’re recording.
There are a lot of microphones that sound good on acoustic guitars. You could use an SM57 if that’s all you have, and still make a good recording. Placing the mic in the right position is paramount for this. You’ll have to do some trial and error to see what sounds best in your room and on the guitar. Generally, about 6 inches away from the instrument will yield pleasing results.
Where you point the microphone on the guitar will greatly affect the tone. Try positioning the mic so that it points at the high end of the fret board, but not directly at the sound hole. In some cases, if you have access to two microphones you can place an additional microphone towards the bottom of the fret board, and mix between the two microphones to achieve the desired tone. Just be sure that you’re recording at the proper level (-6dB peaks and -12dB RMS).
Percussion. Two common instruments in this category would be the shaker and the tambourine. They can be fairly cheap to buy, simple to record, and can add a ton of dimension and life to your tracks. A shaker part on the second verse can add some color, and a tambourine part on the bridge can lift the song. I always have a shaker and a tambourine at hand in my home studio and have been blown away by how “professional” they can make tracks sound when they are added in the right places. Unlike the previous two examples, a bit of room sound can sometimes give these recorded instruments some life and energy, so don’t be too worried if your environment is not controlled. Be sure that you position the instruments at least a foot from the microphone, and record at proper levels! Percussion instruments can generate a lot of high frequencies, so you'll want to be conservative when setting levels.
Which instruments are best left to be recorded in professional studios?
Pretty much anything else you can think of is best left to a professional facility. You could record a piano at home, but most of the time you’ll run into issues at square one, e.g. the instrument is not in good condition, doesn’t have the right timbre for the song, or is out of tune. Recording drums at home is almost impossible because of a variety of factors, including annoying your neighbors. Strings, horns, choirs, and other ensembles large and small require the correct space which is, in 99% of cases, just not available in the average home. You’ll be best off going into a professional studio to record these sources, but what can be an even better option is to use a service like what we have here at Supreme Tracks, where we can add instruments like piano, string arrangements, drums, and the like.
Checklist for Recording at Home
- Is the source you want to record a high-quality one? Do you have a good player, a great instrument that sounds appropriate for the song, an excellent singer with the appropriate voice, etc?
- Is your source a DI instrument? If so, just be sure that you’re recording at proper levels and there is no interfering noise. (-6dB peaks and -12dB RMS)
- Do you plan to record vocals? Be aware of these three factors: the room/space you’re recording in, how the mic is positioned (avoid the proximity effect), and recording at proper levels.
- Acoustic guitars? Ensure the mic is positioned in such a way that the tone is pleasing, and that you can record at appropriate levels.
- Percussion? You have some freedom here in terms of room/space and mic placement, just make sure you’re able to record at appropriate levels.
- Want to record another source? Be sure you can do this or find the right facility and players to record these instruments. - HC -
Anna Grant is a music aficionado and content writer at Supreme Tracks. She plays the keys and the guitar, and has years of experience in writing for the music industry.