Quick tips for recording better tones in your home studio

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Keep experimenting. The only way to know what sounds good in your home studio and what to avoid is to try different approaches to the same scenario. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you figure out how to record and inform your experiments in your home recordings.

Let’s face it, if you’re recording in a home studio, chances are the room acoustics in your recording studio aren’t exactly ideal. There may be some instances where capturing the room’s ambience and resonance is just what you want, and other times where isolating your sound source and divorcing it from the room is your better option.

One constant you’ll pick up from all our recording posts is: keep experimenting. The only way to know what sounds good in your home studio and what to avoid is to try different approaches to the same scenario. So much of the art of engineering, producing, and recording comes from trial and error and constantly honing your ears and your technique.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you figure out how to record and inform your experiments in your home recordings. Let us know if you’ve got some recording tips of your own.

1. Focus on your instrument.
If you’re a vocalist preparing to record, warm up and do your vocal exercises. Maybe a throat spray to lubricate your vocals will help (though be wary of the sprays that desensitize your throat). Wear a scarf around your neck for a couple of days prior to entering the studio to help keep your pipes warm. And just do the basic stuff (avoid smoking, no dairy) to keep your throat moist and phlegm free.

If you’re a guitar player, change your strings before going into the studio – especially if it’s an acoustic guitar. If you’re a bass player and you don’t change your strings once a month, you need to change those strings before you bring that bass into the studio. It’ll help the tone, the output, and you’ll stay in better tune.

If you’re a drummer, change the drum heads. If the heads have been on for too long, they’re going to sound dull and they’re not going to stay in tune. Also, take time to tune the drums correctly – you may even want to tune the drums differently for different songs.

2. Eat potato chips.
No, really. Here’s a crazy trick for recording vocals – have the singer eat his/her favorite regular potato chips before you cut their vocal track. Not Pringles, something greasy. You’ll be blown away when you hear the difference. The salt eats away at phlegm, and the oil lubricates the throat, and it just gives the voice a little more crispness.

3. Get on the floor
For an intimate vocal take, something that requires a soft and airy delivery, have the vocalist lay on his/her back and put the microphone right above their mouth. This isn’t for all vocal parts and situations, and they might think you’re being crazy, but this allows the vocalist to completely calm down and get into a different rhythm and head space. For a soft intro or a ballad, it can help you get the right take.

For any performer, vocalist or instrumentalist, lighting control can also help set a mood. Recording a slow, sultry track? Dim all the lights, light up a candle, and get in the groove.

4. Move around the room
Physically move the instrument or amplifier to different parts of the room. It can make a big difference in the tone you get. If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, violin, piano, sax, or any acoustic instrument, and you have it up against a wall with a lot of glass and wood, you’ll get a more reflective sound than if you’re up against a baffle. If you’re recording an amp, don’t just turn the amp on, stick a mic in front of it, and hit “record.” The amp can sound totally different in different parts of the room, so play around with different spots until you get the right tone for the track.

5. Focus the energy
If you’re in a home studio environment and you don’t have a lot of control over the acoustics in your room, you can capture a lot of unwanted early reflections, flutter echo, and the like. To get a sound that’s more direct, try taking sleeping bags, blankets, or cushions off your couch and build a little space, like a fort or a teepee, and put the microphone in it. You probably want to avoid using acoustic foam treatments for this, as you could lose too much high end. But something to focus the energy and cut out the ambients can help you capture the source more effectively.

Another way to get a tighter, more controlled sound and get less of the room is to use an sE Electronics Reflexion Filter. For $300, it will create a baffle around the microphone and focus all of the energy into the mic so you pick up virtually no reverberation from the room.

6. Check your cables
Good cables can make a difference.

7. Keep it simple
Don’t run too many devices in series with each other. Limiting the number of components in your chain will usually provide a fatter tone. If you’ve got a mic pre, an EQ, and a compressor in the signal chain, you’re probably doing that for a reason, but sometimes that can negatively affect the sound. If you’re not happy with the tone you’re getting on record, try going right out of the mic pre into the console and deal with the EQ and compression later. Sometimes simplicity is the way to go, and this way you’re getting a more natural tone to tape.

8. Don’t jump right to your EQ
Sometimes the low end or highs that you’re not capturing (or that you have too much of) are a result of poor mic placement, using the wrong mic, EQ settings on the instrument or amp, or the angle of the mic in relation to the instrument. Adjusting any one (or more) of these elements can make a big difference without having to touch the EQ. Especially if you’re trying to capture more high end. Pushing the high end on an EQ can bring unwanted noise into the track and the mix. Too much high end could actually be preferable, because you can pull that back with EQ and quiet the track down considerably.

9. Target your frequency
When you’re recording and mixing, you’re really working on a puzzle. You don’t want to have lots of overlapping frequencies. If you’re cutting percussion, for instance, and you don’t need anything below 80 Hz, you can use a high pass filter and allow the highs to pass through while cutting off the low frequencies. Now you’re focusing that instrument into the frequency range you want it to occupy in the mix. Maybe the air conditioner that’s blowing air in your direction is producing low frequency rattle, or the artist who’s tapping her foot or moving around in the studio is producing low frequency energy that doesn’t need to be recorded. Filtering out the frequencies that don’t need to be there is going to help keep the mix articulate and clean.

The same goes for high frequencies. If you’re recording bass guitar and you don’t need all the top end, take some off the top with a low pass filter

10. Get it hot, hot, hot
Always try to get the hottest signal you can to tape, because if you don’t, you’re actually missing out on some of the sound from the source. Get the level as hot as you can without going over. Some A/D converters, like Apogee’s, have a feature called a soft limit, which works really well for this.

Let’s say you have a really dynamic part, a section of the song where the vocalist is hitting it a little too hard. You’ve got a couple of options, you can anticipate the trouble spot and pull the gain down on the preamp a little bit, or you can use soft limiting. It’s kind of like compression but it just limits the output of the digital signal.

11. Gain staging
According to the Alesis website, gain staging is when you “figure out the dynamic range of your source (singer, snare drum, turntable, sampler, etc.), and then maximize that source’s gain level without distorting or clipping. From there, you can mix the levels of different sources using the faders or volume knobs on each channel. This way, you get the lowest-noise performance and the highest level of flexibility in your mixer or recording system.”

Gain staging is another way to get different tones from the same source. Here’s one example: Take a microphone, something with a little versatility – a 10 db pad and a bunch of pickup patterns – and then experiment. If you’re cutting jazz or something orchestral, and you want something clean and natural sounding, you won’t need to use a pad on the mic, and you might have the gain on the mic pre at 12 o’clock. For a different tone, try pushing the preamp. Use the pad and crank the gain on the preamp. Now it’s as if the preamp is waiting for the sound, ready to suck it in like a vacuum, and that recorded tone is vastly different than if you aren’t taxing the preamp.

One thing that sets pro engineers apart is they know how to hit their gear. They know they can get different tones by having the gain in different places. Doing this probably means you’ll need to move the performer, amp, or mic around to different places and adjust mic angles, which is where the experimentation comes into play…

12. Play with mic placement and angles
As we’ve mentioned in previous recording posts, mic placement and mic angles go a long way toward capturing different tones from the same source. For example, to help record a very sibilant vocal performer, try angling the mic up toward a 45º angle and you might find a lot of that popping and hissing goes away.

13. Angle your amp
Raising an amp off the ground or angling it so the face of the amp is at 45 degrees can have dramatic effects, depending on the room and the amp. If you’re angling the amp, essentially you’re decoupling the amp from the floor. The floor may be wood, and it may have a resonant cavity below it that’s sucking away your low end, or adding more low end because it’s vibrating. By pulling the amp off the floor, you’re decoupling it. Even if you’re angling it, only part of the amp is touching the floor, so you’re basically removing the floor from the equation in terms of the tone you’re getting.

Also, if you have an amp perpendicular to the floor, all the energy is going forward, and low to the ground. Let’s say you’ve got an 8′ ceiling. You’ve got many more options if the amp is kicked up at a 45º angle. Now you can put a mic up in the corner to get a little more of the room. If you’re going for a really tight sound, you might just want to leave it on the floor. Remember, in a studio they’re going to have a dead floor. They’ll have that under control so you wont have these pockets of resonance under the floor. Chances are, your home studio won’t be as predictable.

Jon Marc Weiss is an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. Jon recently opened Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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8 thoughts on “Quick tips for recording better tones in your home studio

  1. Just to concur with some other posters here, # 10 is a major no-no with digital recording systems (such as a computer-based DAW). I typically record with the peaks hitting at no more than about -5 or -6 dB. This leaves some headroom, and keeps you from overdriving your plugins (which receive the signal pre-fader). If you record too hot, you’ll have to use the Trim knob in the virtual mixer of your DAW, or insert a gain plugin first in the chain to bring the levels down to where they will play nice with the other plugins in the chain. 

  2. I agree with Matthias. Find a sweet spot where you get nice signal to noise but plenty of headroom. You will need it. Especially if you want to do some re-amping or transferring from tape to digital etc…
    About placement…. I realized one day that I play differently just sitting around in a chair or couch than I do when I am standing up. So many people when they come into the studio set up as if they are performing on a stage and just assume that they are going to play standing up. Try sitting, reclining, with strap, no strap etc… you may be very surprised. 
    Oh yeah, don’t start with the assumption that there is a “perfect” room for recording or that the quirky noises and frequencies from your space are unwanted. They may be, but they may also be the very thing that gives your recording that special character. 
    Oh yeah, one more…(sorry)  stop assuming that things with a direct out have to go directly in to your DAW. Try running those synths and vst’s and anything else from a digital source to an amp and mic it up with your fav setup. 

  3. Nice tips. However, with #10 I couldn’t disagree more! Nowadays, record at 24 bit and leave a generous (!) amount of headroom. Many home recording beginners might have less issues of various sorts if we could finally get the long-outdated “record hot” advice off the web.

  4. My own experience makes me cautious about changing drum heads before a session, (unless you feel your’e likely to go through a skin). Often new heads take days and much pounding to settle in and stop stretching. Use tape and a bit of padding to dampen the ring so you don’t have to EQ it out later. 

  5. These are all good tips.  The only one I would caution about is #4 – move around the room.  They name instruments that will sound different in different parts of the room and in the list they mention piano.  As a pianist I have to caution about moving a piano in general which depending on the piano and the age can throw it drastically out of tune.  It’s best to leave the piano where it is and deal with reflections than moving it around and throwing it out of tune.  Unless you have a tuner standing by to re-tune it after you get done moving it around. 

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