How to record at home: 5 simple steps towards getting your perfect take
- Practice practice practice
- Pick your format
- Wait for the take…
- Don’t give up!
In today’s technologically advanced world, it’s becoming easier and easier to successfully record at home. It’s the subject of much debate, with industry experts both singing it’s praises and condemning it’s effect on the industry.
Making a record at home is nothing new of course, but with advancements in user-friendly apps and programmes, musicians who had previously been scared off or frustrated by the complexities of music programmes are finding it easier to consolidate their ideas from the brain to the computer. Companies like Apple have been refining their entry-level software (eg. GarageBand) to be more user-friendly, which has opened the door to novice recording artists who are now able to try it out for themselves.
With this is in mind I thought I’d share a few simple philosophies towards the process of recording yourself. They are more like guidelines than steps to follow specifically, but I feel they are important points to make.
1. Practice Practice Practice
It’s probably an obvious point, but the more confident you are in what you are performing, the better experience you’ll have of capturing it. It’s often easy to hear if someone is merely trying to get through a good clean performance, as opposed to actually performing it with feeling. There is an important distinction here, and one that can be easily overlooked. It will take time to hone your performance but it’s an important process to go through. Making voice memos or dictaphone recordings to listen back to can really help you to make decisions on the form and shape of the song. Step back and listen to yourself instead of trying to make decisions while you are performing. This process will give you an insight into the way you perform and highlight strong and weak areas in the performance as well as the song.
Ok, you’ve nailed your song’s structure and parts. You can play it without thinking and with plenty of expression and emotion. Now it’s time to dedicate it to record! But how?
This is indeed the question. It’s certainly too giant a subject to simply sum up in a paragraph or two, but there are a few rules of thumb you can follow to get pleasing results.
2. Pick your format
The advent of the ‘home record’ has yielded all kinds of cult stars, bands and performances, with youtube stars like Vulfpeck creating their own signature lo-fi sound using rudimentary equipment and mixing techniques, and then proudly displaying their setups in their live videos which accompany every song. It comes down to what you can afford, and there is plenty of choice…
There is a myriad of options when it comes to simple recording setups. For example, at a little under £100 you can get yourself the nifty Focusrite iTrack Solo, which you can plug into your iPad and record straight into GarageBand. It has two inputs for a microphone and guitar or another line instrument allowing you to record two parts at once. Picking an option like this will give you a good quality file, which is perfect for demoing or sending to a friend or producer to build upon. You can quickly achieve pleasing results this way, and of course there are plenty of options on the market depending on your computer setup.
Philosophically speaking there isn’t really a right or wrong way to mic yourself; you may well stumble upon an incredible sound just by chucking a mic in front of your instrument which could end up personifying your ‘sound’. My own rule of thumb is to simply use my ears. What sounds pleasing to me? Can I hear everything I want to? If you keep your methods simple then you should be able to yield satisfactory results. The key is to not get too bogged down in the exact science of mic technique. Your focus should be keeping your work flow as unhindered as possible. As long as the song is getting out in an audible way then you’ve nailed it!
When it comes to mic choice there are endless options. Every one is unique, and will suit different situations. Of Course, not everyone has access to lots of different mics, so what’s important is getting the most out of what you can afford. You can achieve an awful lot with just one mic. One of the most common microphones is the humble Shure SM58. It’s a rugged, dynamic mic that has been in circulation since the early 60’s. It’s a great all rounder, especially when making a home record. You can use it on amps, vocals, even drums if you want to, making it an extremely useful and cost effective choice. They have a pretty wide frequency response, so whether your sound source is low or high pitched, they’ve got it covered. If you want a deeper sound, then bring the mic closer to the sound source. if it’s too bass-heavy, then move it away. Simple!
4. Wait for the take…
This is an important point. You’re happy with the structure and sound of your song, you know it back to front, you just need to record a nice clean take. Easy. Right?
Red light fever is very real. It can ruin a whole recording session; write off a day in a matter of minutes. There is something about the change of circumstances when the record button has been pressed, that effects everything. You’re still performing the same part you’ve practiced a thousand times, but for some reason this time it’s different. Your finger decides to do a weird little flick and fluffs the guitar take. Your voice decided the today it can’t go that high. You drop a drum stick. It happens!
What’s important is to not let it get the better of you. Easier said than done admittedly, especially if you are limited on time. The key to recording is to be open minded about the results you achieve. A lot of times, I’ll listen back to something I recorded thinking it’ll sound a certain way, when in fact the part has a completely different effect altogether. That doesn’t mean it’s not right. Evolution in music is common at the recording stage, and shouldn’t be ignored. The only way to see if something works is to record it and listen back. Is it doing what you wanted it to? Is it doing something better than you’d hoped? Keep an open mind.
5. Don’t give up!
Hey, it’s not easy! If you’re not used to hearing yourself performing it can be one hell of an awkward experience. Do I really sound like that?! You won’t always get it nailed in one take either. It is really asking a lot of yourself to be able to churn out perfect takes, so do not worry if you feel like you’re not nailing it.
One of the most valuable bits of advice I got from my time with record producer extraordinaire Ethan Johns was simply to give yourself 5 minutes before you listen back to what you have just recorded. In those few minutes, you naturally let go of your mental bias towards one take or another, and you can go into the listening stage with a more level head. The take you’d written off before could in fact be the killer take. It’s all about perspective.
I hope this has helped clear up some questions around how to record at home, and that you’re encouraged to give it a try!
Please feel free to send over any recordings you capture, it’s always great to hear from people and discover new music. I look forward to hearing you!