[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Sirma Munyar, and is the first in a three-part series. Stay tuned for parts two and three!]
One of the positive impacts of this surreal time we’re living in is the surge of artists and songwriters who are drawn to home producing their demos and records.
Some songwriters flocked to Zoom to co-write during quarantine and many musicians have recently started making music in the same room again.
But let’s face it – collaborations are not for everyone. Translating your vision into reality can prove to be a struggle especially if you lack the ability to give your producers a solid starting point with a rough demo.
Whether you’re interested in learning everything you can about music production, or simply want to know enough about it to make your own demos at home, the beginning stages are the same for everyone.
1.) Pick a digital audio workstation (DAW) that inspires you.
I cannot stress this enough: if the software you’re working with looks boring or daunting to you, then it’s not the right fit for you.
You have to pick a user-friendly but professional DAW in order to learn the layout, as well as basic audio and MIDI recording and editing techniques quickly.
Apple’s Logic Pro X is my personal recommendation for especially Mac users for this reason. You can try it for free for 90 days and it’s one of the most affordable options you can own. Logic comes with practical templates, all kinds of software instruments and audio effects as well as a vast loop library that’ll give a starting point to producers at every level.
If you’re looking for a free option and interested in using your iPad in your creative process, you really can’t go wrong with Garageband.
No matter which option you choose to go with, remember this: you don’t have to become a professional engineer to record your music. There are so many online courses and video tutorials out there and lucky for us, every DAW comes with a manual.
2.) Volume faders and panning knobs are your best friend.
Don’t let all the fancy effects and larger-than-life sounds fool you: every mixing engineer starts their mix by simply turning the volume faders up and down, and the panning knobs left and right to achieve a good balance.
With faders, you can increase or decrease the volume of each channel and the entire mix. With panning knobs, you can place each instrument and voice anywhere from all the way to the left to all the way to the right.
Familiarizing yourself with this universal concept will not only help you at the mixing stage, but also at the recording stage.
Say you’re about to record a few background vocal harmony takes, but not quite sure how to sing along to the lead vocal without getting distracted by it. Here’s a useful tip: lower the volume of the lead vocal and pan it slightly to the left or right. That way, the background vocal part you’re about to record will be separated from the lead vocal part just enough to help you achieve a smooth and focused performance.
3.) Learn to record at a healthy level.
The term “signal flow” might sound a little too technical at first, but what it really stands for is the relationship between your microphone, audio interface and computer.
Once you hook everything up, you should test the quality of your recording and make decisions about whether you want to turn the gain knob on the interface up or down. If the practice take ends up being too quiet and you turn the volume fader of the channel in your DAW up to compensate, you’ll notice that the hissing mechanical noise of your gear becomes amplified, too. If the signal is too hot at the recording stage to the point where you detect distortion in your take, then it might be a good idea to turn the gain down.
Generally speaking, it is advised to keep your audio signal peaking at around -16 dB to -7 dB. You can watch the peak level display on the channel you’re recording into to see the loudest moments of your performance and how it translates into your session.
While running a test recording session, make sure that the fader of the channel you’re about to record into is at 0 dB. Not sure what that means? Here’s a tip: when you open an empty session, you’ll find all the volume faders set to 0 dB by default.
4.) Accept that the mix is supposed to be quieter than the master.
Many musicians who are new to music production complain about how quiet everything sounds in their session.
Your music is not supposed to be at a streamable volume level at the production or even mixing stage.
If you’re desperate for more volume, use the monitor or headphones knobs on your interface to turn it up. If that’s not good enough, try inserting a limiter plugin on the master (or stereo out) channel in order to boost the volume via the gain knob within the limiter without damaging the mix. Refrain from adjusting the master and stereo out faders: keep them at 0 dB at all times to avoid clipping issues.
5.) If you’re about to record vocals or an acoustic instrument, pay attention to the microphone placement and room acoustics.
Work with what you have but don’t set yourself up for failure. You might enjoy singing in a spacious room because the natural echoes help you get in the mood, but that’s the last thing you want in a recording.
Pick a small room with some furniture, thick curtains, bookcases and a carpet instead- and stay far away from windows!
If your microphone is a large diaphragm condenser with a cardioid setting, which is the most common type of microphone found in professional and home setups alike, make sure that you don’t sing into the back of it by mistake! Here’s a tip: usually, the logo of the microphone is placed right at the front.
When it comes to microphone placement, the best way to learn is to experiment. If you’re going to record vocals with it, make sure you use a pop filter, and that you leave about two to three inches-long space between the pop filter and the microphone, as well as yourself and the pop filter. If you sing right into the center of the diaphragm of the microphone, you’ll get that warm, full and crisp sound. If you sing into the top of the microphone, your vocals will sound much thinner in comparison.
This rule of thumb applies to acoustic instruments, too. Whether you record an acoustic guitar or a violin, the position and angle of the microphone will highlight some frequencies while concealing others. Until you actually record a few takes with the mic placed differently each time, you won’t be able to tell which placement makes your instrument sound the best. After all, there are many variables to consider: every room, microphone and instrument is different- and so is every personal preference. Therefore, your goal should not be to do everything by the book. You should aim to discover and achieve the sonic and tonal quality you’re going for.