Approaches to Home Recording

If you’re just starting out, it’s very easy to swoon at all the gadgets and options available to the DIY recording artist. After all, we live in an era when it is feasible to match the big boys without leaving our homes, and that can be an enticing lure. The reality that I’ve learned first hand is this: Gear doesn’t replace knowledge. It’s simple, but not too popular advice. I sure didn’t listen.

DAW (Digital Audio Workstations, or recording software) choices range from free, to inexpensive, to a bit pricey, to “The Industry Standard”, and what works best for one doesn’t necessarily work for all, and they each have their own learning curves. They all do things a bit differently, but what they do, generally speaking, is the same. They all take a signal from a microphone, instrument, or midi device, and, with various levels of effort, allow you to record, and release said collection of signals.

My first recording device was a Tascam 4 track cassette recorder. I never released anything on it, but I learned a little about setting levels, bouncing tracks, signal path, and the like. Eventually, I upgraded to free demos of various DAW packages while I figured out what would work for me, while remaining within my budget. I really enjoyed Propellerhead’s demo of Record (now part of their suite). Despite the limitations included in the demo, it was visual and easy to understand. It didn’t do everything that you would find on the larger, more expensive packages would, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and this was an important step at the time. My “interface” was actually a 1/8″ to L/R 1/4″ Y cable, plugged into my microphone jack. The tracks were noisy, but I was able to learn by leaps and bounds, and eventually made some decent recordings. Impressive, considering that the mic was from radioshack, and the cables weren’t much better.

Eventually, I graduated to a real, full blown DAW, an actual firewire audio interface, both from PreSonus, if you’re curious, real microphones, (stage and condensor), decent cables, midi capability, etc. An interesting thing happened when I got it though. Despite the learning curve I’d already gone through, all the extra studio gear didn’t magically transform my recordings into something ready for top 40 radio. Let me repeat that: Just having the gear didn’t transform my recordings. I had to learn how to use each and every piece to best effect. Heck, I even moved, and had to re-learn the room I was recording in.

Where you place a microphone, how you gain-stage your signal from the source to the DAW and back to the speakers, which onboard effects, and all their settings work best for your particular style of music, playing style, and voice, and oh so much more. What changed when I got the gear was far less signal noise. I got a cleaner signal, but it was still garbage in, garbage out, and until I knew how to capture my source well, and enhance, rather than garble that source, it wouldn’t matter how well I played.

Musicians who want to record have a few choices. They can buy studio time at a local big studio, find a smaller studio that may be cheaper, find someone who knows what they’re doing to record you on your gear, find someone to train you, or learn on your own. There’s a saying in many industries: Good, fast, or cheap… pick two. By going the home studio route, you can certainly produce good and cheap tracks, but they won’t come quickly without learning how. Fast and cheap usually results in a less than good product. Fast and good is nearly universally pricey as all get out. Home recording may not be for you, but if it is, try to resist the urge to blow your entire savings on gear. Start with a Daw demo or a full version, and a USB mic, and just put in time just recording and tweaking and figuring it out. YouTube, the DAW website and FB pages, blogs, etc. all have helpful information.

As you begin, just keep in mind, there’s far more ways to produce a great recording than there are to skin a cat. Everyone has their way, and ultimately, you will have to find your own. When you’re ready, the gear will still be there, and you’ll have even more to learn.

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