better tones

How to record better tones in your home studio

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From potato chips to preamps, decoupling to drum heads, these 13 tips can help you get better tones when you’re recording in your (not-acoustically pristine) home studio.

If you’re recording in a home studio, chances are the room acoustics 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 that doesn’t change, whatever the environment: 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.

1. Focus on your instrument

If you’re a vocalist preparing to record, warm up and do your vocal exercises before your session. Make sure you’re hydrated and maybe use a throat spray to lubricate your vocal cords (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

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, the oil lubricates the throat, and it just gives the voice a little more crispness.

3. Set the mood

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 headspace. 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

Take the time before a session to physically move your 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, 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 more direct sound, 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 portable acoustic control panel. For $200, 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, without going over, when you’re recording. If you don’t, you’re missing out on some of the sound from the source. Some A/D converters have a feature called a soft limit which works well for this.

Let’s say you have a 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

Gain staging is when you figure out the dynamic range of your source (singer, snare drum, 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 a performance with the lowest noise and the highest level of flexibility.

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

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 divorcing it from those potentialities. 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-foot 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 tight sound, you might just want to leave it on the floor. Remember, in a professional studio, they’re going to have a dead floor. They’ll have that under control so you won’t have these pockets of resonance under the floor. Chances are, your home studio won’t be as predictable.

Jon Marc Weiss is the Director of IT Operations for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with 30 years’ of industry experience. He owns and operates a private studio called Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Jenkintown, PA, where he records and produces his own music along with local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

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4 thoughts on “How to record better tones in your home studio

  1. #10 is old school thinking. Today, with digital and 24-bit recording, there is no need to have a hot signal. As long as you have a reasonable level, you can always boost the signal digitally with no issues. If you clip, you can never get that information back. 24 bits gives you so much dynamic range that you never have to push the level anymore.

  2. Here’s a few you forgot to add:-

    1. Furniture, clothing and blankets can all be used as acoustic treatment. Having an amp miced up facing a sofa can reduce the reflections being captured so can having your singer sing in a walk in closet. Hanging blankets over some chairs or a airer works well too. For a down and dirty bass trap, a piece of plywood with a moving blanket works too.

    2. Use low wattage, or no wattage amps. There are a number of manufactures that have amps that are under 5 watts or have built in attenuates, there are also after market attenuates and load boxes that can be added to most amps. Using smaller amps allows you to get the tone you want without annoying the neighbors. Using software amps is another option.

    3. Use headphones. Even when recording electric guitar if you have open speakers the track can spill over on to the guitar track, it makes it a lot cleaner come mix time if there is no spill. Headphones, especially isolation ones, can help you focus on the track.

    4. Take breaks. It’s easy to get lost in the recording, but taking a break and coming back to something that was not quite working is often better the just pushing through for hours only to listen back the next day to hear something less then ideal. The reasoning behind this is over time your ears get tired and you start to hear less of the upper frequencies. Spending 45 minutes playing with your dog, going for a walk or doing some housework, just not anything loud, can really help

  3. Don’t change strings or drum heads. Tommy Tedesco, perhaps the most recorded guitar player only changed a string when he broke one. Maybe, wipe them off before you play. I have strings on some of my instruments for decades and they still sound fine when recorded.

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