All you really need to produce your own music is a laptop, an audio interface, and a microphone - and some people manage with just the laptop. While spending money on better gear can be tempting, most problems bedroom producers encounter in trying to make high-quality home recordings are musical rather than technical - or if they are technical, they involve mistakes that have nothing to do with the quality of gear being used. What follows is a list of suggestions for DIY artists, based on my experience working with bedroom producers and seeing firsthand the sort of problems they encounter.
One of the best things you can do for your music is make demos before you record properly, even and especially if you don’t plan on booking studio time. Think of making a demo as a chance to try out every idea you have about how a song might come together on record, no matter how crazy or dumb it may seem, before you actually have to commit to it. Test out ideas you have for instrumental leads, backup vocal parts, additional percussion, textural layers, fills… whatever you feel inspired to do. Try all of it without being too attached to any particular outcome.
Your demos won’t come out perfect. That’s the point. The imperfections should point to things you need to work on between demoing and recording the final versions - arrangements that need to be worked out, parts that should be removed entirely, or things that you just need to practice more. Listen critically to how the music sounds coming out of your monitors. Are there lines that just don’t work together? Are there parts that were poorly performed, poorly recorded, or seem like they were played on the wrong instrument? Take note, and then get to work solving those problems so that your final version will be stronger. If you do happen to capture some sort of crazy moment of inspiration during the demo phase that you just can’t seem to recreate later, then you can just use the version you recorded for the demo. Whatever! There are no rules. (Note: it is much, much easier to reuse parts from a demo if you’re consistently working with a metronome.)
Get the Sound Right at the Source
First off: make sure you’re capturing good performances! Yes, DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, Reaper, etc. etc. give you a ton of flexibility to edit your tracks. If a note is a bit early or late, it’s incredibly easy to nudge it until it sits just right. By all means, if you need to do that sort of editing, you should! But that doesn’t mean that you should record a sloppy take, hear it and recognize it as sloppy, and then say “it’s fine, we’ll fix it later.” For one thing, that sort of editing can be very time consuming! Tuning vocals or adjusting parts for timing can easily take hours. It is almost always much quicker to do a few more takes of something until you get it right, or at least until you have enough material that you can comp together the best moments from different takes to get what you want.
It’s also crucial to make sure you like the sounds you’re getting as you record them (i.e. the sound you hear live in the room as you play the part). Do you like how your amps are dialed? If not, then take a moment to get the sound right. Setting the tone and volume controls on an amp is not something you can ignore and then make up for with EQ later. Are your drums tuned? If not, no amount of EQing or compression is going to get them sounding good when you’re mixing. If you don’t like how something sounds as you’re playing it, you’re only going to like it less when you hear it back on record.
Experiment With Mic Placements
Even if you’re working with a limited selection of microphones - or just a lone, hard-working SM-57 - mic placement will give you a ton of control over the sort of tones you’re able to get. Though it is standard practice to mic some instruments point-blank - most notably guitar and bass cabs - there’s a lot to be gained from more spacious mic placements. Try moving your mic back a foot, two feet, or five or ten feet, and see what happens. We’re used to hearing sounds in a space, and roomier mic placements can often sound more “natural” because of that. Room tones are also a great way to add depth, ambience, and contrast to your production.
Some instruments, notably drums, sound best through a combination of close and far mics. Others, like piano, can really open up when recorded in stereo. If you have the mics and spare preamp channels, play around with different combinations. There’s no shortage of resources available for ideas on how to mic up just about any instrument. If you’re making demos of your songs, that can be the perfect time to try out new mic placements with very little risk. Check the links at the end of the article for a nice run-down of common mic techniques, and check back on this blog for more of my favorite mic combinations soon.
Get Your Monitoring Right
Good monitoring is crucial. You can’t trust musical or technical decisions you’re making if the speakers you’re working on don’t accurately represent the sounds you’re working with. Consumer speakers and headphones (home stereos, laptop speakers, etc.) are designed to make music sound good. What you’re looking for in a monitor speaker, though, is not “good” as much as “accurate.” Consumer speakers tend to mask some of the most common audio issues you may be dealing with. If you are running your laptop into your stereo to monitor your recordings, consider putting just a little money into monitors before you spend hundreds of dollars on a something like a high-end condenser mic or a new guitar.
If you’re open to buying used gear, there are lots of options out there that will be a huge improvement over consumer speakers or earbuds that won’t set you back all that much. KRK and Yamaha both make some affordable and popular monitor speakers that can be found for around or under $200 used. If you can’t swing that, or if you work in a space where you have to use headphones out of concern for neighbors, you can pick up a pair of decent used headphones for as little as $50 (check out Sennheiser, Shure, and Audio Technica, to name a few). The ear pads on them are usually replaceable (I got new pads for like $5 on ebay), so you can restore a used pair to like-new condition pretty easily. Check out the speaker and headphone buying guides linked at the end of this article. If you can’t afford the list price, then get on Craigslist!
Nearfield monitors are meant to be positioned so that you and the two speakers form an equilateral triangle when you’re sitting in the mix position. That means that when you’re at your computer, both speakers are the same distance from you as they are from each other, and angled in 30 degrees. Genelec makes a handy speaker alignment app (called SpeakerAngle) that will help you get the angle just right. Your speakers should be at a height where your ears are midway between the woofers and tweeters when you sit at your desk. Here’s a diagram, if you’re having trouble visualizing:
To get the most reliable results out of your monitor speakers, room treatment is also strongly recommended. Websites like acoustimac sell affordable bass traps and acoustic panels, and there are numerous resources online for building your own on the cheap.