Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Self Home Recording vs Paying a Recording Studio

By: Brandon Drury

Back in the old days (around 'Nam) recording at home was a new
miracle. You could actually hit record on a device and capture
sound in your own home. Your eyes would light up just like
Thomas Edison did when he first invented audio recording. Fast
forward to 2005. It's now completely affordable to outfit a
fully functional recording rig in your home for the price of a
high quality, American made guitar. While the price of getting
into home recording is much cheaper than it has ever been
before, it's still a lot of money. Is setting up a small studio
worth the price? What are the pitfalls of trying to record
yourself? Would you be better off just paying a professional
recording studio to do the job for you? Hopefully, I'll answer
these questions and more.

What It Takes You are going to need a lot of knowledge, gear,
time, and patience before jumping into the recording studio
world. I was a computer nerd half done with a degree in
electronics when I jumped into the recording world. I understood
electronic basics and had run live sound numerous times. I
totally understood how to operate a mixer/console. So all I had
to do was jump into the recording portion, right? ....Well, it
turned out that there was quite a learning curve to go from an
empty room to the creative process (which is the fun part) and
walk out with a finished cd in hand.

I had no idea how much time I would spend cursing Windows audio
drivers, failed hard drives, out of sync audio files, clicks and
pops, unwanted distortion, etc. Truth be told, I went from an
average computer user to a computer master in that couple of
monthes it took me to work out all the kinks in my system.
That's right. It took me a few monthes before I was ready to
record my first band. It was that tough. That was in 2001. Maybe
things are easier now. I'm guessing that you'll still have quite
a road in front of you.

After you get your rig fully operational, you are still going to
have to learn the software. I would HIGHLY recommend that you
buy a DVD and a book to teach you the software that you intend
to use. I could have saved myself hundreds of hours of headaches
if I would have just read the stupid manual and had a little
instruction. I learned a lot by tinkering (which may be your
nature too) but there is no point in learning things the hard
way if you don't have to. On my very first recording session, I
had my manual in my lap. You could only imagine how stressful it
can be if you have 5 guys staring at you while you desperately
push buttons on something you barely understand. I'd say it took
me a good 3 monthes of everyday tinkering before I felt
comfortable using the software for basic recording. Keep in mind
that I wasn't trying anything advanced here. No crazy editing,
no fancy automation. In fact, I had very little understanding of
audio when it came down to early reflections and multi-tap
delays. I'm talking about just getting the stupid song onto the

Okay, so I've kind of prepped you on how the learning curve
required for recording music. Let's talk about the gear.

These days, it's a waste of time to use the stand alone
recorders you see in the mail order company catalogs. While
these boxes promise to have everything you need to record your
demo (and they usually do) the learning curve requirements are
astounding. Yes, I just wrote an entire section on how tough it
was to learn computer recording. However, there is a big
difference between the learning curve of computer audio and the
learning curve of stand alone recorders. When you learn computer
knowledge, that knowledge is useful on just about every computer
on the planet. (I've kept myself from starving a number of times
with my computer knowledge which I mostly attribute to
recording). Also, computer recording software generally uses a
mixer that is a fairly close simulation of the real thing. The
concepts stay the same. When you are using the stand alone
recorders, you end up learning to hold E1 + Function + Menu to
get to Aux send page. Why do you need a page for aux send?
Anyway, I've had several friends who have used these boxes and
don't know anything about audio. They spent all their time
learning this foreign language that will be obsolete as soon as
the record is. In summary, I highly recommend that you go with a
computer for your digital recordings.

Okay, so you need a computer. The good news is you don't need a
very fast one by today's standards. In fact, I built my
recording computer for about $300 and it's overkill. I need a
faster computer than most because I do more projects than most.
It makes a difference when I'm rendering down mixes that I can
do it twice as fast because I have too many songs to mix on a
given day. I don't have 3 minutes to sit around and wait for the
computer to think.

On top of the computer, you'll need a soundcard. I recommend a
soundcard with a breakout box. This means that a cable will
actually come out of the back of your computer and connect to a
box where your audio connections are made. Setups with breakout
boxes are almost always preferred. In fact, I ownly know of one
professional audio company that doesn't rely on a breakout box
for their computer interphases. I do not recommend Sound Blaster
and those sorts. We are not playing games or watching DVDs. We
are recording music. The demands are certainly not the same. You
will find many Firewire and PCI soundcards in the mail order
catalogs that work great. Pay special attention to the number of
inputs and optional preamps. This is important. You may only
need 2 inputs for your recording. In fact, most projects I do
seldom use more than 2 channels 90% of the time. Of course, the
other 10% of the time we may be using 19 or 20 channels. If you
are recording electronic music and only plan on doing a few
overdubs with vocals or the occasional instrument, 2 channels
will probably work fine. If you plan on recording your entire 4
piece rock band live with rock drums you are going to need at
least 10 inputs (maybe more). So plan ahead and figure out how
many mics you plan to use at once.

Next, you need preamps. Preamps boost the signal of a microphone
up to line level and are pretty much required. Preamps are
usually the top knob on the mixer of your PA. You'll need one
preamp for every microphone you plan on using at one time.
You'll want to have the same number of preamp channels as you do
inputs on your soundcard. There are many soundcards that come
with preamps. There are many many external preamps that CAN
improve you sound quality just slightly. If all else fails, use
the preamps in your PA mixer. If your mixer uses inserts you can
split the signal right off the preamp by only pushing in the
cable half way. I'm referring to the cable that goes out of your
preamp and into your soundcard.

Next you'll need mic stands. There aren't too many cases where
you don't need a mic stand. You have to be very very careful
with mic stands. If you buy a supercheap mic stand, you may have
problems with the mic changing it's position in the middle of a
session. The results can be absolutely horrible. So buy decent
mic stands. $30 per stand is a reasonable low budget stand. I
would not recommend that you spend any less on a mic stand.

Next is microphones. This is where it gets fun. There are so
many to choose from and there are so many tonal options. You'll
want as many mics as you have preamp channels and soundcard
channels (or you went overkill on preamps / soundcards).
Choosing microphones is beyond the scope of this article. You
can spend $50 on a mic or you can spend $3000 on a mic and you
have no way of knowing which will sound better on a given
source. This is a severely big deal when it comes to recording
and it's one major area that seperates the men from the boys, so
to speak. Home recording studios usually have terrible mic
selections to choose from.

The most important piece of gear in your studio is your studio
monitors. If you try to use a boombox you will be very
dissapointed when you burn a cd and try to show mom on another
stereo system. Of course, you'll probably be dissapointed even
if you have a $10,000 set of studio monitors because your
acoustics will be all wrong in you room and even still you
probably haven't mixed enough songs to be any good at actually

Okay, I've outlined what goes into recording your cd. Guess
what, any decent studio has all of this taken care of you. Do
you know about audio latency in XP? Do you know anything about
room nodes? The studio guy probably does. That's how he makes
his living.

So when you walk into a professional recording studio ran by a
serious engineer who cares about your music, you can expect to
focus on one thing... the recording of your music. You don't
have to wonder about the specs of the computer, the cables
connecting the preamps and the soundcard. You don't have to
worry about wasting huge amounts of time while the bass player
stares at a mess of cables. You don't have to buy the mess of
cables. In fact, I've recorded entire albums cheaper than you
would spend on mic stands. In other words, I've delayed charging
a high price so that I could get tons of practice and become
well known in my area. You might find a serious recording guy
yourself who might work cheaper than you think.

What an experienced recording studio engineer knows that you
probably don't. 1)The value of his time - An experienced
engineer isn't cheap (but could be much cheaper than trying to
record yourself) but he knows that his time is worth X dollars.
How is this an advantage? It's amazing how humans rise to meet a
challenge. When you go in knowing that you are about to spend
$20, $30, or $50 an hour on recording all of a sudden you take
the time to get your guitar setup beforehand. You make sure your
songs are mega tight and ready to go. You get your butt in gear
because you are about to spend some money. When your guitar
players tell you that he thinks he has the recording device
working right, you don't jump up get busy. You get frustrated
while he tries to figure out the problems on channel 1 and 5.

2)Advanced knowledge of acoustics - This is one of those areas
that you will entirely put off. At first, you are just trying to
figure out how to turn the computer on. Have you really put any
serious thought into the comb filtering effects of your room?
The odds are minute. In fact, I bet most bands put no thought
into their room acoustics. Guess what. Any good studio has spent
thousands and thousands of dollars pefecting their acoustics.
The only thing more important than acoustics in a recording is
the song, the musicians, and the instruments. After that,
acoutics is first. Proper acoustics are more important than
microphones. I'd gladly record an album with $50 mics in a
$2,000,000 room before I did the opposite.

3)Advanced microphone selection - Having the right mic for the
job is an extremely important part of being a recording
engineer. When you know that a guitar is too bright, you put a
mic on it that will reduce this brightness. When a vocalist
sounds dull, you put a bright mic on them. It goes on and on.
This is what really makes the sound quality part of recording.
Recording at home will make it hard to justify a $15,000 mic
collection (or much higher). Some studios have $15,000 mics.

4)Advanced knowledge of mic placement - Even more important than
the microphone is where you put it. A seasoned pro will know
what has worked on the past 10 albums he's done. He knows what
he likes and what he doesn't. He doesn't have to wait until
after the mixing is complete for him to figure out that the
snare sound sucks. You'll be experimenting like crazy, but it
will take a while before you get it right, more than likely.

When you combine all this knowledge together, it becomes quite
clear that there are serious advantages to letting the pros
handle the work. With that being said, if you really want to
learn audio, don't mind pumping thousands into a bottomless pit,
and are really that excited about taking years and years and
years to learn the craft properly, go for it. I did.

About the author:
Brandon Drury has written countless home recording
at his website, You can hear
a portion of the over 600 songs he's recorded and mixed at his
recording studio

If you want to try out home recording these are the best software products to start with:

Cakewalk Guitar Tracks Pro 3 Windows

Cakewalk Home Studio 2 XL

These are inexpensive and relatively simple to use. Have Fun!

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