Introduction to Home Recording
This is an updated text from my 2011 original eBook about home recording studio
- The computer
- VSTs and Plugins
- Sound Card
- Studio Monitors
- Acoustic Treatment
Preface to Introduction to Home Recording
First of all, thank you for reading this. I hope you have subscribed to our community. Follow the site and our presence on social media for updates, tips and tutorials. I will try to create a community of reference around the website and will work together to develop this culture and take your recordings to the next level level.
The site is designed to help people who record from home, to help them direct their time and money to what is really important: to create music.
There are probably many people who have experience in the field and will arrive sooner or later on the site/blog. Some of them tend to be a little… wiser. They have a background in the industry, an experience gained in a time when things were not as accessible as they are now.
Also, many have formed certain opinions about the way they work, the programs and the equipment they use.
If you’re one of those people, please think at that moment when you realize how much you want to do this and how many things you would have done to get in the possession of one microphone for example, a model which now you look at it with skepticism.
This site tries to communicate in an accessible language. I noticed many good articles use terms that are far too difficult to understand for a beginner. Often this will push people away.
I hope to be as explicit and understood as possible.
We live in wonderful times. Technology and communication have reached unexpected thresholds. This may be more true for the music industry.
Computers have changed a lot, and the internet has created a global economy that has forced equipment and software manufacturers to drop prices so much that many devices that were only for those with huge budgets, are not extremely affordable.
Also, the concept of DAW (digital audio workspace) has changed things completely. With a computer and certain software programs you can record in your own home what for, not so long ago, you had to pay for recording in a studio.
VST (virtual studio instruments) and plugins (hardware effects software emulators) have also come to the aid of artists, composers, producers, and sound engineers.
If you are listed among them, it means that you have a set of advantages over your predecessors. You now have many tools that were previously available only to the “privileged”, from the equipment to the distribution.
It is very important to understand that, on one hand, recording and composing music has not changed – there are audio techniques that are de facto and will not change under any form or influence of technology.
And on the other hand, be aware that the rules of the music industry have changed and that many things that were once considered good, today are no longer valid or accessible to all.
You no longer need a record label and different radios to reach people. A Facebook account is enough to let fans know through a single link the latest song released.
You now have control over your music.
This website has been designed just to slightly filter the options on the market and clarify certain aspects.
This community wants to help people in the audio recording industry, both beginners and advanced. And yet the most important element is you, the reader, because it will depend on you in the end, how the music made by you, will sound.
Passion, determination, time invested and hard work are the elements of a successful project.
Similar to this site, there are others on the Internet. Follow them and try to know as many opinions as you can to form your own. But be careful not to fall into the trap or go down any rabbit hole and forget about why you do this: because you like music.
I personally worked with software like Acid Pro, Fruity Loops, Vegas, Sonar, Cubase, Cool Edit Pro (current Audition), Nuendo, Pro Tools, Logic, Reaper. Both PC and Mac.
Some software are more popular in certain areas of the world. Cubase is more popular in Romania (and Europe).
Pro Tools used to be popular in North America (because the software came for free with certain hardware consoles – especially for Television).
Logic is available for Mac users only.
For productions, it seems that Fruity Loops is preferred by more than half of the young producers. Those producers, giving time, will transfer to other software (this was the original note – I can’t emphasize enough how Ableton changed the music production landscape and the sound of music).
Although there are different discussions, overall, all DAW software does the same thing. And at the end, when a song is ready nobody will say: it’s done in Pro Tools, or the master’s in Sound Forge. No, it’s a good or bad track. All software has the same functions. You just have to learn them. Once discovered, it will be easy for you to use, regardless of the interface.
Some time ago, the notion of “home recording” was somehow derided. In time, however, there have been so many accessible software and hardware that are seriously competing for appliances in “big” studios that this notion is being taken more and more seriously.
There are a lot of “great” artists who make their music at their home, the finished result being recorded and mixed right there, without resorting to studio services. A powerful computer, a midi controller (keyboard), an audio interface (sound card), a preamp and a microphone (or two, or three), a guitar, a pair of headphones, a pair of monitors (audio speakers) and the acoustic treatment of the room (probably the most important link in the whole home studio setup) is all you need to produce, compose, record, mix, master and distribute a song at the highest standards.
And on the internet you find a lot of sites willing to help you (like this one -the one you just subscribed to). Also, YouTube has become a very close friend of musicians, because there, people post tutorials on how they work and solve the problems they encounter (be sure to subscribe to our official HomeRecordingCanada YouTube channel).
Before going into the chapters any further, we need to establish some rules. In home recording there is one: there are no rules. Yes, you read that right. There are no rules. During the mix stage, composing or recording. This does not mean that you do not have to know certain notions quite important.
Yes, it is not ok if you put the microphone somewhere where there is an echo or reverb.
Unless you wanted to sound like this :).
I know, it’s hard, and it’s hard for me to get used to this idea, too. I tend to apply all kinds of patterns. After all, it is important to hear, to listen. The finished product. And in time you will get to perfect yourself (although you will be very excited at first, your mixes will not be the best and you will probably laugh at them after a while; but of course, we all have to start somewhere).
Also, suppose you want to do a home recording studio, a basic set-up and you haven’t purchased anything yet, you are now in the research stage. I come back to the opinions of experts who, if they will respond to you, will make an endless list for a budget of tens and thousands of dollars.
And if you try at a recording equipment store, you have a better chance of getting products you don’t need or models that are much more expensive than you need. Yes, it is ok to get a headphone splitter, but you don’t have to take the 400$ one.
The examples can continue. Just invest in what you need, as if your life would depend on it. Yes, it is a bit exaggerated but this will help you see things more clearly, make a more complete picture.
Don’t buy the cheapest stuff on the market either. Just do your research first.
A circulating theory goes like this: your studio is just as good as the worst part of it. According to this algorithm (logical syllogism), you can have the most compelling SSL Mixing Console and the most expensive Brauner microphone, acoustic treatment, monitors, etc. Your studio is as good as the headphone jack bought from the neighborhood convenience store.
1. The computer for your home recording studio
Perhaps the most important element, because without it, we would not have arrived here. The bottom line is you should get a computer as powerful as your budget allows you to. I originally wrote this sometimes between 2011 and 2012; we have come a great deal since.
I am a Mac user for computers for more than 10 years but for the past 2 I’ve been working on a PC laptop and this environment has evolved tremendously as well.
So, what would it be? A Mac or a PC?
In Romania most computer users use the PC. However, I noticed that most “music” people started working on Macs or Hack-intoshs (hybrids between PC and Mac). Of course, Apple, the Mac’s creator company, makes extraordinary products, both in terms of design and performance (and also the iPod – the device that has revolutionized the music industry and
iTunes Apple Music – the biggest music store online, iPhone – the phone everyone wants and newer iPad – that thing you want though it doesn’t even have a USB and without a wireless connection is somewhat useless – and Apple Watch).
It also comes with its own, more stable operating system and a suite of “on board” tools with which you can do extraordinary things – there are people who have recorded, mixed and mastered entire albums in Garage Band – the DAW (we will get to what DAW stands for later) that comes with the operating system.
However, all these come at a rather high price, not accessible to everyone but justified by performance and software.
I personally use both Mac and PC.
The PC is much more accessible and easier to handle. Both software and hardware. It is much easier to create a computer according to your preferences. There are a lot of component manufacturers that are fighting with the best offers.
Ideally, it should be as quiet as possible. You may not have a separate room (usually the recording booth) to record your voice. And you don’t want the only thing heard to be the creepy processor cooler.
Also, a lot of powerful laptops have appeared today. You should not shy away from working on a laptop. In the end it has its disadvantages but under no circumstances will it hold you back to create that extraordinary music.
The idea is to work on what you’re most comfortable with.
Regardless of which option you choose, you should ultimately aim to make it as strong as possible. My suggestion is to try to get as much RAM as you can. Also the storage space (the hard drive) should be generous. An SSD goes without saying.
What I would pay attention to is the power source of the computer. I found to be the cause of 75% of what can go wrong with a desktop computer so I would spend the extra 50$ on a decent source, with protection, if possible.
A UPS (the plug socket on battery) were a thing but I haven’t seen people using them that much anymore – they’re expensive and the battery runs out after 1 year or so. But having some protection of the wiring is mandatory.
The above text is the original one, written in 2011. So much has changed since then. For the past 6 months I wend back to a desktop computer on Windows 10 and my MacBook sits quietly in one of my drawers. I’ve reinstalled it’s operating system, thinking of selling it. Now, I can’t remember the new password :). Notes as of October 2020
2. DAW – Digital Audio Workspace
Well, so far we have clarified what we need – a computer as powerful as you can get.
We have the operating system, Windows or Apple. Now what?
We need specialized software to provide us with the tools we need. And these are called DAWs (D.A.W. is the correct acronym). People use different software but at the end of the day, they all do the same thing. My suggestion is to start with one and master it.
There is a learning curve for each tool, especially for a audio recording software. An especially if you are already used to one (I recently have this issues ALOT when switching from Adobe Products to Presonus Studio One).
There is no standard software anymore, all of them out there are quite popular and make a decent living out of it. But let’s dig a little into history:
In Europe, 10 to 15 years ago, people with “home recordings” were using Sony Vegas, a video editing software that was very user friendly – and crack-able.
Slowly, Cubase has been the favorite.
In North America, Pro Tools is more popular, mostly because it came for free for some video and audio hardware equipment when purchased, usually by radio and TV stations (remember, sound recording was – and still is – a science, and a couple of years prior, sound engineers were dressed in white robes like any other scientist you can imagine).
Logic was and still is popular, but it’s available for Mac only. There was this legend going on saying that Logic was superior somehow.
It’s not, but it’s not accessible for Windows users, hence the aura of superiority.
There’s also a decent amount of free software that people are using. The thing in 2020 is that most of the are quite affordable and they also come in some sort of Freemium version. Take for example PreSonus Studio One (one of the new players in town) – they have a free version that fulfills any beginners’ requirement. It’s intuitive and build on a drag and drop workflow.
Garage Band, Reaper and Audacity (the latest seems to be popular among podcasters) go into this category of free software as well.
I have put together a list of the most popular software people used throughout time (some of them might be obsolete by the time you’re reading this):
- Cakewalk Sonar
- Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo
- Garage Band
- Presonus Studio One
- Pro Tools
- Fruity Loops – mostly for production
- PropellerHead Reason
- Audition (previously named Cool Edit Pro – purchased by Adobe and integrated with their suite of software – take this into consideration, for a monthly fee you have access to all the Adobe software – Photoshop, InDesign, Premiere and After Effects, etc)
- Acid, Vegas, SoundForge (for production, audio and video editing – originally developed by Sony, now produced by Magix)
We need to make a small distinction for the software used to record and the ones used for producing. Fruity Loops, Reason, Acid and Ableton (a lot of people will argue about the last one) are great tools for music production, but it’s unlikely someone will use them for recording, mixing and mastering (although they do have these capabilities).
Vice versa, you can use the rest of the software for producing as well – but this is something for another chapter, perhaps in another book. If there’s one thing you need to remember, is that the software doesn’t make you sound better or worse just by itself.
3. VSTs and Plugins
A VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. They are basically virtual instruments, that emulates the sound (sometimes remarkably alike) of real life instruments, voices, choirs, drums, etc. It’s the core of the music production, and if you plan to go this route, after a while, your ear gets trained to easily recognize what VST-s the producers used on that song that’s playing on the radio.
Plugins are sets of software that work on top of your DAW and emulates hardware compressors, eq-s, reverbs, echoes and the list could go on. These are used during the mix of a song. People like to use plugins while recording; although is not recommended, if you’re recording the same artist and the template works, that’s something you can experiment with.
Most of the major DAW have their built in sets of VST and plugins; usually, they are not enough to take a song to the next level. I’m not saying it can’t be achieved, you’re just limited by the opportunities that comes natively, and you’ll need to look for what’s out there; and there are plenty of plugin bundles and VSTs (Terabits of sounds).
Again, I suggest starting small.
4. Sound card
After we have clarified with the computer and operating system + the software tools, we will move on to a very important aspect: the sound card. Most computers come with an “on board” sound card where you can listen to music and watch movies, but it is not the best choice for recording (not at all).
The fact that most software works with all sound cards, gives us a list of almost endless choices. But, let’s limit ourselves to what we need: most likely, a sound card with 2 channels. The biggest mistake people make is hurrying, throwing money for an expensive sound card (which they couldn’t use to their full potential anyway).
However, it is good to be on the lookout for certain offers. Many manufacturers team up with a software company, and when purchasing a component, they offer the software as a gift. In general it is the lite version of the software – it has certain restrictions (limited number of channels, you cannot record, or you can’t save, etc.). It’s still cheaper to upgrade from a software lite than to buy the original, so this might save you some money.
There are many options out there and most likely you will start with something small, a 2 channel sound card that connects to your computer via USB port. The technology has advanced so much that you can get a high-quality audio recording via a USB interface, that has an input for your microphone and your instrument (guitar, keyboard, etc.) and and output for the speakers and a headphone monitoring.
That’s it. The DAW does the rest.
For a starter, a preamp may not be as necessary, but it must be one of the accessories you should have on the shopping list. The preamp gives you the extra warmth and depth that you need for a smooth voice recording.
In the past I opted for a mixer with a sound card incorporated that connected with my computer via Fire-Wire. I could control the faders and tweak the channels from the hardware inside the software. This is not something you need at the beginning, but once you add more instruments to your live recording sessions, it becomes a must.
Since I wrote the original version of this eBook, most of the recording sound cards were available to be purchased only at dedicated music stores. But we have come a long way and now you can easily get a recording sound card from computer stores and even Walmart or Amazon.
Perhaps the best-known element of a recording studio – home or commercial. And the main “instrument” of recording. Microphones are “divided” into 3 categories:
- Dynamic Microphones
- Condenser Microphones
- Ribbon Microphones
The first 2 types of microphones are the most used but it’s good to know the ranges available.
Dynamic microphones are generally used for live concerts. They are more “resistant”, and they tend to capture sound from one direction. Shure SM57 is a very common model. Also some artists use them for recordings. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 uses it during the recordings and during the concerts as well.
Pay attention! There are many pirate copies that are sold in specialty shops. The success of this type of microphone is so great that the obscure microphone companies do not withdraw from putting the Shure emblem on the shitty mics produced by them. The safest thing is to buy it directly from an authorized distributor, or even from the parent company!
On the other hand, condenser microphones, the so-called “studio microphones” or large-diaphragm microphones, use another audio signal conversion system into an electrode. They also need that phantom power supply at 48v to work. They are used in studio recordings due to the details and realism that they provide to the recordings.
Again we discuss the wonderful time we are living now. As with audio cards, a lot of manufacturers are fighting for the best deals. And there are enough.
My advice? To start, do not spend more than 200$ for a microphone.
There are many people who have more microphones in their own studios. Of course, diversity is good. And a Neumann microphone always makes a difference. But for starters, it is best to have only one microphone. This will help you to get started faster to recording, without stressing on some aspects that you do not know anyway, and you will never learn unless you do it “on your own”. You will begin to experiment with the position of the microphone and certain settings. You will discover for yourself what a microphone means and its capabilities.
Also, if you can get a dynamic microphone (Shure sm57 is indicated, although I have a Sennheiser which I am very pleased with). People’s voices differ. As well as their tonality and interpretation. So don’t be surprised if someone sounds better on a dynamic microphone. As I said, the SM57 is Bono’s microphone.
6. Studio monitors
Studio monitors are of several types. They can be passive (they need an amplifier) or active. They can be in systems (5.1 for surround – here more experience is required). Or 2.1, with subwoofer.
In general, a pair of active monitors is initially chosen. Stereo. 2 ears, 2 speakers?.
Very popular studio monitors nowadays are those from Rokit KRK (yellow membrane ones). They are the standard of today. You will most likely see them everywhere.
They replaced (for Hip-hop at least) the very popular Event TR8 in the early 2000s. In the 90s (and many people still use them) the standard was the Yamaha NS8 (they were used by engineers because they sounded pretty bad, and if so a song was heard well on them means it was heard well on other systems ☺
Do remember! For a pair of monitors it is advisable to follow the frequency response – from one response time to another – and power. Most studio home recording monitors are between 50h and 20khz.
The frequency response shows you how often the respective box goes. In other words low, medium and high. How much he can bear.
They must also be shielded (magnetic shield to prevent damage to other equipment – eg computer screen). This is not the case anymore, all of the studio monitors are shielded but it was a time when people use to buy hand-made speakers that did not include this options in the process of creating them.
In general, the budget is somewhere up to 700$.
It is good to read as much as you can about the future monitors you want to buy (people’s opinions, professional reviews). Monitors are important. Over time you will get used to them. Learn them. After you finish a mix it is good to listen to as many speakers as possible (laptop, iPod, headset, car, club, etc.). This will tell their potential.
At first you will encounter this “problem”: why does a mix sound ok to you on the monitors and when you take it elsewhere the bass distorts everything, nothing is understood?
These are things that everyone went through. You don’t have to be disappointed with, you just have to work as hard as you can to get through it as quickly as possible. Once you’ll learn how your monitors work, you’ll see improvements in your mix.
In the same category we will talk a bit about headphones. And they are of several types. For recordings (the one used by the singer on the microphone) it is advisable to use a pair of “closed” headphones. These do not allow the sound of the headset to come out and be picked up by the microphone.
There are people who mix with headphones. There is no rule in this regard. Although never a mix in headphones will sound exactly as you want. For these types of mixes are the “open” headphones.
There are also certain types of headphones for different types of recordings.
Ear-drops – M-audio has a model specially designed for mastering.
There are also single headphones. There are some people who want to hear what is happening in the recording room, or an instrument they play.
Headphones are an important issue. Why? This is the first thing people will complain about. A lot of people, if they complain about something, will do about the headphones. Pay close attention to this, and take care of them. They break down quickly.
In order to avoid some of the complaints and for the best listening during the recordings, I recommend a separate headset controller. It is not mandatory, but it is very effective. You save time and nerves, avoid incidents like “I don’t hear my voice”, “make the instrumental louder”, etc. It is also welcome for the times when you need 2 pairs of headphones. You have volume for each one.
8. Acoustic treatment
And so we come to the chapter neglected by most: Acoustic Treatment.
If you would ask me today, after 8 years when I first wrote this eBook, I would start with the acoustic treatment before anything else.
At first, it is hard to “feel it”. Excitement will not let you focus on something that is quite technical and meticulous. But there are solutions.
Unfortunately, many home studio owners do not pay much attention to this detail. Now, if we think about it for a while, maybe there’s a reason why the big studios allocate astronomical amounts of $$$ for acoustic treatment. It’s the one thing that makes the difference.
That’s what you realize over time, working on more monitors, in more places and environments.
All these aspects must be treated separately. There are some ready-made kits that can be purchased from specialty stores after a brief room calculation. But many can be done manually. It takes a bit of dexterity and it is tracked and calculated exactly where the baseboards, suction panels, etc. should be placed. On the internet (and especially on YouTube where you can see exactly how it is done) there are a lot of materials available to you.
We will be covering this topic more in depth later on the website.
The terms we need to know are: diffuser – spread sound, bass trap – it does not allow the bass to “circulate” throughout the room, and absorption – the one that absorbs certain frequencies. The idea of an acoustic treatment is to make it so that you can hear the cleanest sound possible in the place where you are at the time of the mix. That way you will really know what is happening and you will have no surprises.
Here I recommend a thorough documentation. Read all you can about it. And consult an acoustic engineer if you want to do something.
It costs, it’s true.
And you wouldn’t want to spend any money on something you’re doing wrong. And no, putting studio foam all over the room is not a solution.
Although it looks good, acoustic foam is not really the solution for your room.
And most importantly: acoustic treatment is not soundproofing. You can put as much mineral wool and polystyrene as you want between the walls. The bass goes through almost anything (you can isolate a room completely, but through a completely different process).
The neighbors will still listen to your music, whether they want it or not. ☺
After purchasing this equipment, they will be installed. In general, at the beginning you can position them anywhere. It is indicated to be as symmetrical towards the room as possible.
However, be aware of doors and windows, they can count in the audition. It is important that the audio monitors be somewhere near your ears, and your position together with that of the speaker’s form a triangle.
Disclaimer and author notes
The author of this book and collaborators from the HOMERECORDINGSTUDIO.CA community do not consider themselves authorities in the field of recordings. Many do not have specialized studies and all they share is the result of their own experience, acquired over the years. We were all beginners at some point, but the beginning for some of us is lost in the darkness of time… of a time when few were privileged in this mysterious art.
Although now, in the 21st century, recording technology has reached an unimaginable level, a level that 15 years ago seemed impossible (recording a song at home that will be played on the radio).
As humans, we tend to crave the approval of those around us, although most of the time, those around us are not in the position for their opinion to matter.
It’s also valid in the field of recording/music business.
The first edition of this eBook was published in 2012 in Romania, my origin country from East Europe. It was (and I believe it still is) the first book to cover the basics of home recording. Some things have changed since – millions of people have dwelled into this world, from amateurs to award winning producers, mixers, composers, artists, engineers and so on. The industry has evolved a lot.
But the basics still remain the same.
I am still a recording studio guy; I believe the recording studio is the artists’ church. A temple where he needs to be in order to receive enlightenment and collaborate with other professionals in his area in order to be at his best.
But you can achieve great things working from your bedroom, on your own, and this book is here to help you do that. Especially if you’re a beginner in the field.
But at the end of the day, remember, it’s all about the music.
We use the tools and software to best capture a performance; part of your job is to ensure the artist (or yourself) performs at its best.
Original 2011 notes:
Thank you for taking the time to read this book. Its main purpose is to help those who are at the beginning of the road.
I hope you enjoy reading this book at least as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Follow our site.
There you will find the information you need to improve your records. Over time, I want the site to be more than a source of information. To be a center, a reference education institution. In time, it can happen.
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