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(Even More) Tips and Techniques for the Home Studio

Here is yet another list of practical pointers for home-studio fanatics, arranged by category (and loosely based on the “Top 100 Recording Tips and Tricks” from the editors of the late, great Home Recording magazine).

Posted in Songwriter 101 on August 3, 2006 by

No matter how many years you’ve spent toiling in the basement, it seems that you can never really know enough about this business of recording. Besides, learning helps to keep things from getting boring, and if you’re not getting bored you’ll still want to record, theoretically speaking.

To that end, here is yet another list of practical pointers for home-studio fanatics, arranged by category (and loosely based on the “Top 100 Recording Tips and Tricks” from the editors of the late, great Home Recording magazine).

GUITARS/AMPS
Mic the amp - and the strings. When recording electric guitar, in addition to miking up the amp, try placing a second mic near the guitar’s strings (like you were recording an acoustic guitar), which will give the illusion of a live rhythm track (think CSN&Y’s “Ohio”).

New positions. A few inches off the grille is the industry standard for miking amps, but why stop there? Experimenting with height, angle and distance to the speaker cone will provide you with a variety of interesting tones and colorations. Jimmy Page often recorded his amps from behind - and those Led Zep tracks don’t sound too shabby now, do they?

Less = more (more or less). There’s nothing wrong with a little processing here and there, but too many stompboxes can easily work against you. For fat, natural tone, nothing beats a good mic and a great guitar/amp combo. Just ask Angus.

DRUMS
Easy drum iso-booth. For a nice, dry drum sound without all the mucky-muck, suspend some comforters or flannel bed sheets around the kit using four mic stands, two for each side.

Hear the snares. When recording snare drum, try placing a second mic underneath the drum aimed directly at the snares, then combine both top and bottom signals (or, if you’ve got the track space, keep them separate and mix to taste).

When recording a drum kit,concentrate on getting the very best sound out of the two main ingredients-the snare drum and kick drum. The rest is easy (theoretically speaking).

One-mic drum track. Position a single mic on a boom stand situated about five feet back from the kit, aimed just above the bass drum and pointed toward the snare drum. Add a touch of compression, and presto - a no-fuss drum track.

VOCALS
Vocals with edge. For something completely different, try running a lead vocal track through a distortion box (using a XLR-to-�-inch converter), then out to your recorder.

Vocals with ‘verb. While making records with Santana and others, producer/engineer David Rubinson regularly tapped into the reverb unit housed in a guitar amp. “We just took a mike-level output and fed it into something like a Fender Princeton reverb, then sent it back out to use for vocals,” recalls Rubinson. “Some of those spring reverbs have a really nice warm sound, plus you can really control it nicely.” The only slight drawback is the impedance mismatch, which just means you have to really pop up the level, adds Rubinson.

RECORDING/MIXING
Take 10? No - take five. When overdubbing guitar solos, harmony vocals or any other added part, try to lay it down as quickly as possible, even if it means making a mistake or two (which is fine; you can easily patch the muffed bits later on). Never lose the element of spontaneity; if it’s not happening right away, take a break and come back to it later on.

Don’t listen to a mix right after cutting drums, electric guitar or any other voluminous device. Your ears just aren’t up to the task.

Less than zero. Because digital has literally no tolerance for hot levels, never push the meters above 0dB (unless you enjoy the sound of horrible crackling noises in your mix).

Ctrl-alt tricks. To help streamline the recording process (and maintain the well-being of your wrist), put down the mouse and learn some basic keyboard shortcuts for your digital workstation or PC-based set-up (such as record, stop, pause, play, return-to-zero, mark points, etc.).

Farewell to arms. Fancy ergonomic furniture might look great in your studio, but have you ever tried recording a guitar part on a chair with arms? Save your money and just grab any basic (and armless) wooden chair, making sure you’ve eliminated all squeaks beforehand.

CABLES
Connection suggestion. You might be able to get by using the same-old patch cables you’ve had for years, but a few bucks invested in some heavier gauge, higher-quality connectors will ensure the cleanest signal path possible.

Wrap it up. One size-11 foot is all it takes to mash an innocent microphone or instrument connector left lying helplessly on the floor of the studio. Therefore, after every session, carefully wrap all XLR and instrument cables and hang them on wall hooks to keep them clean and properly organized.

BASIC MAINTENANCE
Battery backups. Nothing in the digital world is for keeps until you hit “save” - as you’ll quickly discover if the power happens to go out while you’re in the middle of a great take. However, arming your studio with an automatic battery backup and surge-protection system will prevent this from occurring, and will safeguard your equipment from an unexpected power surge as well. While you’re at it, consider picking up a power-conditioning unit (PCU), which will help keep electronic flare-ups and other stray noises from invading your otherwise pristine audio.

Into the closet.Make the most of your available studio space by keeping all non-essential equipment out of the way until it’s time to record. Store mics inside a clean, dry cabinet; keep track logs, guitar strings, picks, cleaners, etc. in plastic totes or portable storage drawers; arrange mic booms, music stands, guitar holders and the like in an easily accessible location adjacent to the main recording area.

Dust never sleeps. When not in use, place a clean plastic covering over your recorders, mixers and other equipment to prevent dust and dirt from settling in the fader grooves and other crevices. (Crackly faders and knobs can often be remedied with a few good turns, however.)

Keep it clean. At least once a week give your room(s) a thorough vacuuming, clean the glass with Windex, and remove dust particles from control surfaces using a small basting brush or quality dusting tool.

Mold patrol. A top-notch dehumidifier is absolutely essential if your studio is located in a basement or any other area that is prone to high humidity. During the summer months, run the unit around the clock in order to ensure a relative humidity level of less than 50 percent (a household humidity gauge centrally located in the room will help you keep track).

(For more tips on classic tools and techniques, check out Dave Simons’ new book, “Analog Recording: Using Analog Gear in Today’s Home Studio,” from Backbeat Books)

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