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 home studios. 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 may provide. Furthermore, all you need to record professional sounding audio 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 a home studio is that you don’t get high-quality recording equipment and a sound engineer to guide you through the process of making recordings sound professional.
Still, just because you’re on your own doesn’t mean you can’t achieve recordings that sound professional in your home studio! All you have to do is pay attention to a couple of things, e.g. which instruments you can and cannot record in a home studio (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 article will help you record professional sounding audio in your home studio, but if you’re after broadcast-ready quality, it’s best to hire a professional studio with high-end equipment, a recording engineer, and professional acoustic treatment. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into how to make home studio recordings sound professional.
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 professional 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 professional recording.
Which instruments can you professionally record in a home studio?
With today’s technology, you can record the following instruments in a home studio and get professional recording results: electric guitars, bass guitars, keyboard instruments, drum machines, or anything with a DI (direct input). When recording these instruments, pay attention 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 studio audio 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 professional sounding 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 in order to get professional recordings at home. 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 record well in a home studio, 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 in a home studio quite well, assuming you have access to a quality vocal microphone and a room with decent acoustics. In fact, the room is more important than the microphone that you select (and of course, your source is more important than both of these together). Let’s take a look at the three audio sources mentioned and how you’d go about professionally recording them in a home studio, and some tips and tricks along the way that will help you make the best professional recording possible.
Professionally Recording Vocals in a Home Studio
This source, in the majority of cases, will be the most important part of your home recording session. In order to get a professional sounding recording, you’ll need an excellent vocal microphone. This could be something as affordable as a Shure SM57 (which does sound exceedingly good on certain voices) or if you have the budget, a high-grade, large-diaphragm condenser microphone. You’ll just want to avoid any vocal microphones that are especially designed for other purposes drum 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 in a home studio, 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 out how to sound proof your home studio, 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 professional vocal recording, so make sure you absolutely don’t forget to put your pop filter in front of the microphone. When the singer sings into the microphone, make sure they're not positioned too close to the microphone.
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 vocal microphones 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 in your home studio. 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 in order to get home studio recordings to sound professional.
Professionally Recording an Acoustic Guitar in a Home Studio
To get professional home studio recordings of an acoustic guitar, you will need a good acoustic guitar and a good guitar player. Without these two things, your home studio recording won’t stand a chance. Like recording the vocals in your home studio, you will need a good space to record your acoustic guitar in. A walk-in closet can also be a solid choice in this situation. However, just by the sheer nature of how a professional recording is mixed and the way that acoustic 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 produced in your home studio. You’ll have to be the judge—just be aware of it as you’re recording in your home studio.
There are a lot of instrument microphones that sound good on acoustic guitars. You could use a Shure SM57 if that’s all you have, and you will still get a professional recording in your home studio. Placing the instrument microphone in the right position is paramount for producing a professional recording in a home studio. You’ll have to do some trial and error to see what sounds best in your home studio room and on the acoustic guitar being used. Generally, a distance of 6 inches away from the instrument will yield pleasing results.
Where you point the instrument microphone on the acoustic guitar will have an effect on the tone produced in your home studio. Try positioning the instrument microphone so it points at the high end of the guitar fretboard, but not directly at the guitar sound hole. In some cases, if you have access to two instrument microphones you can place an additional microphone towards the bottom of the guitar fretboard and mix between the two instrument microphones to achieve the desired tone of a professional recording. Just be sure that you’re recording the audio at the proper level (-6dB peaks and -12dB RMS).
Professionally Recording Percussion in a Home Studio
Two common instruments in this category would be the shaker and the tambourine. They can be fairly cheap to buy and simple to professionally record. They can also add a ton of dimension and life to your tracks recorded in a home studio. A shaker placed on the second verse can add some color, and a tambourine placed 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 while recording these in your home studio. Be sure that you position the instruments at least a foot from the instrument microphone, and record at proper levels. Percussion instruments can generate many high frequencies, so you will want to be pretty conservative when setting levels.
Which instruments don’t record well in a home studio and are best left to be recorded in professional studios?
Pretty much anything else you can think of is best left to being recorded in a professional studio. You could record a piano in a home studio, 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 in a home studio is almost impossible because of a variety of factors, including annoying your neighbors. Stringed instruments, horns, choirs, and other ensembles large and small require the correct space which is, in 99% of cases, simply not available in the average home studio. You will be better off going into a professional recording studio to record these sources. But, 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.
Recording in a Home Studio Checklist
- Is the source you want to record professionally 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.