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photo via Otrams
Technology is Bad ASS! I mean just think about it. Not even like 10 years ago, maybe a little longer,most musicians without a home recording studio, had to save up money, or beg borrow and steal, to get enough money to go into a real recording studio and make an album.
A LOT of money. Before I learned how to do this myself, some of my albums cost me and my band over 10k just to get the product. WHAT!?
Then we still had to hit the road and promote it to try and sell enough CD’s to pay back the investors.
Not a good spot to be in. Stressful
BUT!! These days with technology advancing so rapidly, DIY musicians like you and me, can afford recording and mixing gear at reasonable prices and deliver expensive sounding results straight from our home studios. That’s freaking awesome!
Just think how many people back then never got heard because of financial limitations. It’s crazy if you think about it
Today I want to break down some affordable essential gear if you want to get started recording and mixing your own, or other peoples music.
A lot of the gear I mention I actually use, and it’s affordable and sounds great! There is so much gear out there it’s easy to get stuck trying to figure out what to buy. One tip is to stick to what you can afford.
It’s not the gear, its the ear that makes a good engineer.
Most desktops and laptops these days already have enough power and technology to get you started recording and mixing. Saaaweet! Just use what you have to get started. No need to go crazy right now.
If you need to buy a new computer, go with a brand that you are familiar with.
A lot of Macs and PCs are both equipped to handle audio recording needs . I’m on a MAC now, but I started out on a standard PC computer and recorded, mixed, and mastered tons of songs.
One tip that will help your computer operate more effectively for recording is to put as much RAM in it as possible. Helps it not get bogged down.
Don’t break the bank. A home recording studio typically grows over time.
Do not go into debt buying the most expensive fastest new computer because an audio forum or website told you to. Like I said, most mid range computers have the power to get you started. Use what you can afford.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
photo via The Wire Realm
A DAW is just a computer software program for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering music.
There are a lot of free ones and a lot you will have to pay for. AGAIN, use what you can afford.
Some DAWs only work on PCs, some only work on MACs, and some work on both. So your computer will help you decide which way to go. If you’re are just getting started then I suggest going with a free DAW or a very affordable one.
This is very important
, remember, It is not the gear that makes a good engineer, it’s the knowledge and skills on how to use the gear that make a good engineer.
A good engineer can make good recordings on “crappy gear”.
If you are on a MAC, you probably already have Garage Band. You can totally make good recordings and mixes with a free DAW if you know what you are doing.
Just do a search for free DAWs and you will find some helpful info and reviews.
I started out with an low priced DAW, but have since moved to Pro Tools. I practiced on the low priced DAW until I was ready to move into Pro Tools. The only reason I moved into Pro Tools is because it is the most widely used program in the industry today, by far. I run a home studio and work/collaborate with professional musicians who are used to working with Pro Tools.
BUT, there are a ton of other DAWs the professionals use that are just as good, and some would argue better, than Pro Tools. Please don’t over think this. Just find one that fits your budget and move on. Ive recently came across a DAW called MixBus. Its amazing! And you can get started for as low as $79! What?!
I love Protools, but according to some audio dudes I trust, they say Mixbus is just as good. I’ve never used it, but I watched the promo video and was blown away. Check it out here http://harrisonconsoles.com/site/mixbus.html
photo via Focusrite
If you cant afford a super expensive analogue board for your home recording studio, then you will need an audio interface.
An Audio Interface is how you get the audio into your computer. You plug in mics,or instruments directly into the channels of the interface, and it sends that signal into your computer usually via a USB type connection.
You also plug your monitoring speakers and headphones into an interface. I started out with a 2 channel USB audio interface.
At the time thats all I needed and I recorded a whole album with it. Yes, you can record drums with 1 microphone if you know what you’re doing. I will admit, I rented an 8 channel audio interface for drums, but my friends who record as well have used 2 channels to record a whole kit.
Its very doable Most if not all interfaces already have more than good enough built in preamps to get a good clean signal into you computer software.
You’ll need it to come with at least one microphone preamp with phantom power (see the next section), line-in inputs for guitar cables and keyboards, stereo outs, and at least one headphone out.
One 2 channel interface I’ve used is the Focusrite Scarlet 2i2, here is the link below As far as external preamps go, unless you are planning on doing this for a living, day in and day out, and need more inputs, don’t waste your money on something you don’t need.
You can always upgrade later. There are so many to choose from, just remember to limit your options and pick one that works for you
Here are a couple of affordable under $200 interfaces that I have used:
Focusrite Scarlet 2i2
Avid Mbox Mini
Where to start? There are 100s if not thousands of mics out there, so it can get real easy to get caught up in the sales pitches of why you need this mic or that mic. Keep it simple, easy, and cost effective. Do you see a pattern here yet? 🙂
I can’t go into full detail because it would take a whole other ebook, but There are 3 main types of microphones to consider for your home recording studio: Dynamic, Condenser and Ribbon.
The one you are probably most familiar with and didn’t even know it is a Dynamic microphone.
These typically are used for live settings on stage. These are the workhorses of the music industry.
They can take a beating and keep on going! These tend to be more directional, meaning they typically pick up whats directly in front of them and not much from the sides or behind them.
Dynamic microphones are best suited for handling fairly high volume levels, such as electric amplifiers or drums. They don’t require any external power or batteries and they have no internal amplifier. The most Popular being an SM57 for only about $100! See below.
Condensers (most popular is a large diaphragm condeser)need power either from a battery or an external source (this is where your interface comes in with Phantom Power I mentioned).
Since they are typically more responsive and sensitive than dynamics, they are very well suited for capturing delicate nuances and so are well-suited for recording purposes.
They are not typically recommended for high-volume work, as they can be prone to distort due to their sensitivity, so you won’t see them on stage very often.
AT2020 Large Diaphragm Condenser Mic (below)
Ribbon Microphones are considered by some to be the most natural sounding microphones evermade. Be careful though, they are very delicate and usually cost more. Although, you can find affordable types of all 3 mics mentioned above.
Avantone CR14 Ribbon Mic (below)
If you’re are just starting out and don’t have a lot of money to spend,I would get an SM57 dynamic microphone, since it can be used on so many sources and sounds great. You can put it on Snare, Toms, even kick drum.
You can use it on guitar amplifiers, acoustic guitars even vocals! It’s only about $100 bucks!
An affordable Large diaphragm condenser is another great option. Some affordable options are:
AT2020 I use these on vocals, drum overheads, acoustics, fiddle $100!
• I also have an MXL 4000 I like little more pricey but still under $300
• M-Audio Nova
• Samson C01
These also can be used on multiple sources which include all the ones I mentioned above for the dynamic mic.
Like I’ve been saying, do not break the bank and buy into the hype surrounding microphones about how you need expensive mics to get that pro sound. It’s just not true.
Now I’m not saying
those expensive mics don’t measure up to the hype.
They most definitely will be amazing mics, but I’m saying you don’t NEED those mics to get a good quality recording.
You can get really awesome mics ranging from $100-$300 dollars.
If you want, and can afford expensive mics, then by all means have a ball! But that is a luxury most home studio
owners like myself don’t always have the option to do.
When I first started recording my own music in my home studio I had one dynamic mic, the trusty SM57, and one large diaphragm condenser, an MXL 4000.
Thats it! I recorded
acoustics, Electric guitars, vocals, bass, percussion, and even fiddle with those two mics.
One at a time of course. I also used them on drums along with a few extra SM57s.
You want to get a pop filter to set up in front of your microphone especially when recording vocals.
A pop filter helps control the plosives on words that start with the letter "P" for example.
It helps tame those gusts of air that naturally occur when we are singing.
It can also help cut back on sibilance singing words with the letter "S" or "C" and "K".
You don't want anything weird ruining a perfect vocal take.
A $10-$20 dollar pop filter from amazon or sweetwater.com is all you need.
I used my wife's pany hose strung over a wire coat hanger when my pop filter broke and I didn't have a replacement in my home recording studio!
Grab some affordable mic stands. If you only have one to begin with that's fine.
You can still record drums with one mic!
Slowly build your mic stand numbers up so you can have options later on.
There are some affordable "On stage" brand mic stands out there.
No need to get super expensive mic stands when starting out.
XLR Mic Cables
You'll also want a handful of XLR microphone cables to connect your microphone to your audio interface.
Again, amazon and sweetwater.com have great affordable options. Read the reviews and pick the best ones that fit your budget and needs.
There is a lot of debate on which type of monitors to buy (ported- which have cut outs in the monitors, “ports”, to allow more lowend perception, or Non-ported which people argue is a more accurate freq response.
Honestly I don’t get caught up in all of that. Buy a pair of speakers that fit your budget, So you can buy acoustic treatment also!
I would advise getting some near field monitors ( I use KRK Rockit 5s). They are affordable and they do the trick regardless of their pitfalls related to the very expensive monitors that are on the market.
Since I know we are all on a budget I will give you some tips for your monitoring system, so that you can set yourself up with the best situation for being able to hear what you need to hear and create a good mix.
“The Listening Sweet Spot”
You should try and set your speakers up at an equal distance from each other, and have your listening spot equal the same distance as the monitors are from each other. You are creating an equilateral triangle with the two speakers and your head at each point. (see illustration)This
(make sure your speakers are angled in a little pointing at your head, not straight - passing on each side of you)
This “Listening sweet spot will help you avoid those nasty phase cancelation problems we spoke about earlier.
Don’t set up your mixing desk right up against a wall directly in the center. This will cause room resonances to build up and distort what you are actually hearing. If you are limited with space and have to be close to the wall, a little off center to the left of right can help. With parallel walls, the room resonance build up happens in the center of the walls more often.
Don’t set your speakers directly on your desk or whatever mix surface you are using to put your speakers on. Instead get some speaker stands or pads designed for this. Arulex makes some affordable pads. I use IsoAcoustic speaker stands. A little pricey but not too bad. These pads and stands make sure that your speakers are secure and don’t move while mixing, which can cause all kinds of misinformation and listening problems.
Don’t set your speakers too far apart from each other. This can cause stereo imaging problems. It’s better to lean on the side of closer together.
Position your speakers to face your ears. Don’t have them facing straight forward past your left or right sides. Just angle them in a little bit to form that triangle. This helps with accurate monitoring.
As your mixing, reference your mix on all kinds of different monitoring systems.
Your main monitors
Crappy boom box
Listen in mono. ( pan master fader pan knobs up the middle)
There is a cool $20 plugin called Audreio that you insert on your master fader and it syncs up with your phone via bluetooth and allows you to monitor your mix in real time through your Iphone or phone speaker or earbuds!
This is really useful so you don’t have to waste time bouncing down the track, exporting it, attaching it to an email or dropbox, then listening from there on your phone. It saves a lot of time. I just started using this. It is a little buggy at times though and has audio drop outs.
Most people listen to music on their phones and earbuds so this is useful to see if our mix is translating in that environment. For Example: If you kick is not cutting through the iphone speaker, you can adjust your EQ in real time in your DAW as you listen through your phone until the kick cuts through! Sweet!
Headphones can be a great way to check your FX processing moves. Sometimes checking in my headphones allows me to see if I’ve added too much reverb or delay on a track.
If you have extra outputs on the back of your interface, you can route your mix to a crappy boombox and see how it works on that. How is the bass reacting? Are the vocals cutting through?
Listening in mono can help you make volume adjustments. If something is way louder than everything else you will be able to spot that easily. It is also very helpful with making proper EQ decisions.
Listening in all of these different monitoring environments periodically as you mix can help you tweak your mix as needed.
IsoAcoustic Speaker Stands
When setting up your home recording studio you must think about Acoustic treatment. It's boring, I get it! It’s the last thing you want to spend your money on when setting up your new home recording and mixing space.
DON’T overlook it! It’s as important to your chances of creating a well balanced competitive mix as having a set of near field monitors!
But don’t worry, It’s not that hard to get right, and I’ll do my best to steer you towards affordable options.
There is a lot of science and terms like “Phase Cancelation” , “Comb Filtering”, “Room Resonance” and Boundary Effects.
I am not smart enough to tell you all the scientific explanations that go into each of these common pitfalls of less than ideal listening environments that home recording studios are plagued with….
But I will briefly tell you what each one is in the simplest way I can.
Phase Cancelation - When two waveforms from the same source hit your ears at different times and at different positions in their waves (peak, valley) they can cancel each other out. You will lose tone and volume of the sound source when this occurs and is not an accurate depiction of what it actually sounds like. This happens when waveforms are bouncing off your walls in different places and times and reflecting back to your ears at different times.
Comb Filtering - Kind of like phase cancelation but in only certain frequencies of a particular sound source. Some frequencies will be fine and others will cancel each other out. There will be spikes along the frequency graph making it look like a comb. You get an inconsistent portrait of your sound source.
Room Resonances - Frequency build ups and drop outs (modes) throughout your room causing spectral imbalances and frequency responses all over your room. Basically from one position to the next you get a different sound. This is not good for mixing. This happens a lot in the corners of your room with a massive amount of low end build up. Occurs anywhere two walls or the wall and ceiling meet. This mainly affects the lower frequencies.
Boundary Effects- If you set your speakers up right against a wall you will get bass build ups and bass boosts from 3db to 6db if you tuck them into a room corner where two walls meet. You can imagine how hard it would be to get your low end just right with this problem.
How to Fix these?
A little bit of acoustic treatment can go a long way.
Auralex has some affordable panels, but you can go the DIY route and use thick mineral fiber insulation as well. Roxul makes some thick insulation batts that conveniently come in like 2 x 4 feet panels that you can make a wooden frame and cover with the material of your choosing. I did this and used wood frames with burlap covering. I picked mine up at Lowes or Home Depot. You can probably order them off Amazon also.
The thicker the better for absorbing frequencies. I think mine were 3-4” thick. Be careful, they will make you itchy! Protect your eyes and skin and maybe wear a disposable face mask when working with them.
When positioning your acoustic treatment just think of the reflection points in your room. It’s good to cover
Behind your speakers
This will help with phase cancelation and comb filtering but you will need “Bass Traps” for the corners. The thicker the better here. You need thickness to absorb all that low end. See the pic below for an illustration.
A 3 square feet of coverage at each position should do the trick. I’d advise against covering your entire walls with treatment. It’s not a realistic listening environment. You need some reflection and some absorption.
You can also use “Diffusers” which disperses sound in all different directions so that it doesn't reflect right back to your listening space. You can use Book shelves that have all different shapes and sizes of books that will do this for you. A good spot to put this in is right behind you on the back wall.
I actually created my own (a lot of work) by cutting 1” x 1” (square) x 8 foot pieces of wood down to 1”, 2”, 3” and 4” lengths and randomly glued them onto a lightweight piece of plywood. It looks cool and does the trick!
If you are in an apartment, or a house where you don't have the option of playing back and mixing your music over studio monitors because the kiddos or wife, or roommates may be sleeping, then you can start with a good pair of headphones.
You need a good pair of headphones AND Studio monitors eventually, but to get started this may be a better choice to begin with.
Can you get a good-sounding mix with headphones? YES! But......
Some would argue that you can only have “good” mixes on monitors. Some will say headphones are a no brainer because they cup around your ears and you don't need all that
Both are right, to a degree. You need to learn how to mix on both. The typical way I mix is to start out on monitors, and get through the bulk of my mixing this way, and then switch to
headphones to reference my mixing decisions and levels.
For example. I tend of have my reverbs and delays too loud when I mix in my room on my studio monitors. So I always check my reverb and delay levels in headphones to make sure
that I didn't over do it.
That's just one example of 100, but it's important to get good on both. Again, you can get a good mix on just headphones alone. So don't let the studio monitor purest steer you away from thinking other wise.
Do a little research on headphones, fnd a pair that fts your needs and your budget and make a decision.
I currently have a pair of Sennheiser HD 280 pro for tracking and monitoring. They are a nice affordable set of “Cans”!
Playing commercially mixed songs from whatever genre you are mixing before you start mixing and during your mix on your system can help you have a starting point and guide as you mix.
You are listening for the tone of the reference tracks. How is the low end feeling? How loud and where do the vocals sit in the mix? How bright or dull are certain tracks sounding?
You should play these tracks through all the monitoring environments and different speakers as well and take note of how they are interacting on each system and speakers.
That way, when you listen to your mix through those monitors and crappy speakers, you can see how well yours is measuring up which can give you a path on what you need to do.
Ways To Listen
We will never be able to create the perfect listening space inside our bedrooms, garages, and basements. They just weren't built for recording and mixing.
That said, here are some ways to listen to your tracks to help you out even in the less than ideal situations.
Walk out into the hallway outside your mixing room, or go into the neighboring bedroom. Leave the doors open and play your mix. It doesn't have to be loud. Listen from a distance what your mix will sound like. Listen to your reference tracks. How do those sound and feel compared to yours? Adjust accordingly.
Listen at low volumes - This can help minimize room reflections. Listening at lower volumes actually helps you make better volume adjustments. You will be able to hear if your snare is too loud compared to the vocal. Listen at a volume that you can have a normal conversation with someone and not have to raise your voice at all.
Walk around your room- Listen to your reference tracks and how they react in different spots of your room. Then do the same for yours.
Take frequent breaks- Don’t mix for hours. You will lose context and your ears will adjust. Your ears can lie to you when you mix too long. Take a break every 30 minutes or so. It can be for just 5 mins to let your ears reset. I’ll come back and listen to my mix the next morning and can hear exactly what is wrong and the adjustments I need to make. Trust me… This works