How to Record Your Album at Home. (A DIY guide to record on a tight budget.)

How to record a professional sounding record at Home.

A DIY recording guide for the musician on a tight budget.
From first steps to the final master, all you need is patience, all you’ll get is much fun!

home recording guide diy

Hey ya, welcome!

This is the first of a serie of articles that I consider to be a sort of “Post Mortem” of the big, long adventure that was to record an entire 19 track rock album in the living room of a normal apartment.
The album is “Come Naked”, by rock band Black Market Aftermath.
Hopefully this and next episodes will be an helpful guide to the DIY recording and DIY sound production!

So many Guitar Amps. How to record them without hurting your ears (and those of your neighborhood)?

Amps that are easy to record with? Amps that work well with pedals, also at low volumes.
For “Come Naked” I used a Fender Deluxe Reverb, and I used the normal channel with pedals, as a clean platform to achieve dirty sounds with pedals. That’s because the frequency response of this channel is neutral, and offers pretty much everything from low to high frequencies, with no bright cap or sound alteration that would render the pedals less effective in the job they’re supposed to do: to alter a clean sound.
Sometimes it’s good to alter an already distorted or mid heavy channel, but that’s for other specific purposes.
In the landscape of a full length rock album, a clean and neutral platform like the Deluxe reverb is very powerful, as it lets you alter your guitar sound in a thousand of ways, colors and shapes.
Another amp used in “Come Naked” was the Orange Micro Terror, little brother of the Tiny Terror, but surprisingly powerful. One sort of a one trick pony, very usable and enjoyable on one kind of sound: the crunch.
A moderate overdriven sound that stays always musical, dynamic, and feels vintage in a way. Old 60s and 70s gibson riffs play beautifully through this amp, which excels with the almighty Ibanez tube screamer and any good Klon Centaur clone, but also delivers well with any other kind of pedal that you’d generally use to blow the cone of a vintage Marshall.

The small 8’’ inches Orange cabinet delivers tone for days. It looks ridiculously small, but put the right microphones in face of it, and it’s a joy and a pleasure to record with it. The small enclosure makes the sound very focused and “in your face” when recorded with a Shure SM57

Recording the Amplifiers

Recording the Amplifiers

or a Sennheizer. But that’s another story, and we’ll talk about the experience had with several microphones in a next topic. Anyway, the Orange Micro Terror is a very inexpensive amp that delivers good vintage old school rock n’ roll tones, and if you want to record decent (sometimes excellent!) tones at low volume in your living room, that’s the right amp!

 

If you want to listen to the Orange Micro Terror recorded in the album, one of the best examples is in the track “Pretty Rad”, where both rhythm and lead guitar play through a Gibson Les Paul (modified with a T-top hum bucker at the bridge position) with the switch placed in the middle or at the bridge. Only a light boost pedal was used in the solo, and an overdrive in some parts and guitar layers.

The best pedals? How many I’ll need?

These boxes define the guitar tone.

These boxes define the guitar tone.

When you’re on a tight budget, what are the best pedals that you need to make a professional sounding record?
The answer is: the pedal that you prefer, those that you know how to use. The pedals you actually need.
Another answer is: the pedal that work well with your song, with your amp, with your guitars. And…the pedals that work well with the other pedals that you have!

Pedals pairing:

Another thing to consider is pedal pairing. A good match between an overdrive and a coloured boost can give you nice results. Switching order of them in the chain can lend to more compressed, or more dynamic sounds. Using the few pedals that you have in their various combination can bring you many sounds on your palette.

Some great pairing used when tracking guitars in the album were:

  • Keeley 4 knobs compressor & Hoof Reaper Fuzz by Earthquaker Devices – Like in the song “She” on the main guitar riff.
  •  Electro Harmonix Soul Food & Ramble FX Marvel Drive like in the ending solos of “Baritone”
  • BOSS Blues Driver & Nine of Swords Headache, like, again, in some heavy guitar texturing in “She”.

I’ll dive much more into pedal pairings in a next episode, since this is a very interesting aspect of producing nice guitar sounds.

What about Guitar and Audio Cables?

Don’t save too much money on cables, IF you can. A bad cable sucks high frequencies. Which can ruin all the efforts of creating an interesting signal patch made of expensive guitars or pedals.

I’ve heard about acoustic treatment. Do I need acoustic foam?

Not necessary, but could be helpful to neutralize some reflections in your room. If your room has a really “bad sound”, use close miking, and then add reverb and stuff “inside the box”, with plugins.
Although, a couple of panels to make some kind of a “cabin” around you could be very, very useful when recording an acoustic guitar. In my case, I used a Gretsch parlor guitar in the song “Miss You” because it has a smaller body, and thus a more recordable, controllable sound. And it’s a guitar sold for under 200 dollars!
Also, having some panels close to singer’s microphone could help a lot. Nothing is worse than the voice recorded together with a bad sounding room’s reflection attached to it.
If you don’t have any other way to record voice, just record it dry and post produce its ambience later, depending on the song’s mood, mix and desired final effect.
A dry voice is sometimes very desirable, and you can’t have it if you recorded too much of your room’s ambience.

So when budget and possibilities is tight, It’s always desirable to aim for a neutral sounding voice, guitar, bass, etc. and then to post produce it.
Sometimes then you realize you don’t want to add too many effects, and you end up pretty much using the voice track as it was recorded, like I did in the song Howling.

How many microphones?

IMG_2526I like to experiment with mics and their placements. I like to record (often, not always) a guitar cab with 3 or more microphones, and then pan microphone signals, use only one or a couple or all of them, in different mixes, to achieve the final sound. Playing with levels, adjusting pans or even playing around phase canceling effects can lend you to incredibly different results.

Sometimes, 3 microphones make your 150$ amp sound like a monster amp loading a monster guitar cab!

My favorite microphone used for most of the guitar tracking work in “Come Naked” were a Sennheizer e906, the always useful, almighty Shure SM57, and a Cascade Fad Head ribbon microphone, who delivered a more natural, organic, less in your face and more open and warm sound. Which was a great thing to pair with the raw and cynical sound of the SM57.

Do I need a compressor? What about a Preamp, or a good Audio Card?

831f3803edb26628d629a1c64146d3dcThe rule is: as long as the product doesn’t interfere with your creativity and peace of mind when using it to record your ideas, you can find good equipment in any price range.
If you’re on a tight budget, consider one of the following suggestions:

  • Golden Age Project preamps, EQs and Compressors are good, deliver warm sounds and don’t break the bank.
  • Focusrite and Apogee sound cards are great, and they have products in affordable price ranges. Try one of them, or read reviews and recordings made with them.

In my experience, I was able in the past to work on professional projects (my first jobs) with very inexpensive audio cards.
Try to find something that matches your basic needs: number of inputs, headphone and monitor outs, and easy to use.
These are just personal advices, but you can find anything at any price on the market today, really. Don’t think yo can’t achieve professional sounding mixes without spending thousands.
You’ll only need some hundreds, or if you’ll stick the an audio card alone, even less.

Monitoring. Which mixing speakers?

Bigger is not always better. Don’t look at huge super powerful speakers if you’re gonna use them in a tiny room. Don’t look at spur small mini speakers either, they’ll not have enough bass response and the you’ll loose a tridimensional sound. It won’t breathe.
Yamaha and Adam are great, respectively in low and mid budget ranges. Another great, very affordable brand is Fluid Audio. Very inexpensive and very precise.
Also, don’t be tempted to buy speakers that have monstrous bass response, if you’re gonna make a classical mix.
And don’t sacrifice bass response if you’re doing electro or dance. Easy.
Of course, the more balanced the monitors are, the better the investment will be if you need to work on several genres of music.

How to mix by yourself? Is mastering important?

IMG_9724So you wrote and recorded a bunch of pretty cool songs. But that’s only a part of the job. Mix and mastering are important, indeed. They can ruin your work or elevate it to its maximum potential.
Many experts say that you should never mix or master your own music. That’s in part true, but if you’re recording an album in your living room, who has the money to pay a mixing expert?
So the answer is: learn how to mix. Make mistakes, find resources online, google very single mix doubt that you have, and internet will have the answer.
Producing an entire 19 tracks rock album was the result of hours of writing, hours of mixing mistakes, trial and errors, and hours of searching on Google answers.
It took one year mainly because it was a learning process. Everybody can do it. You just need perseverance, time, passion, patience.

The great thing about modern technology and internet, is that they offer to everybody, democratically, an alternative to expensive recording studios. And this gives you the opportunity to record an album in your basement, almost for free, and to learn how to do it, completely for free.
Plugins are of course essential in mix and mastering stages. But they have a cost. You can also find freeware plugins, some of them are good. Search stuff like “top 10 free mixing plugins”, same goes for mastering, and same goes for everything you might need for free, if you’re broke.

I hope this was useful in someway! Of course this article doesn’t want to present itself like the “holy word” or bible of DIY recording. It’s more like a personal diary of experiences that I’d like to share. Internet is a great place for this reason!
This first episode was more like a generic introduction to several aspects of DIY recording, and to the most crucial points that many of us could worry about when facing the first difficulties of recording at home, on a tight budget.

Well, that’s all, for now! But you can follow us on Facebook to get updates on our next articles! I’ll make always reference to tracks contained in the same album, so that these are not just words of advice left in the abstract, and so that any report of how things were done can be related to the final results audible in the album’s tracks!

You can also listen to the full record on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, or follow our Youtube channel.

Thanks for reading, and see you in the next episode!

-Francesco
Black Market Aftermath