The Basics of Home Recording: Our Expert Guide
Published on 24 March 2020
So, you've been playing the guitar for years and have finally decided to take your first steps into recording at home. First of all, well done! Taking a leap into something completely new is intimidating, there are no two ways about it. However, once you get over that, the very basics of recording at home really aren't that tough to get your head around. So, we reckoned we'd break down the simplest steps to help you guys get started on your journey.
What do you need?
Don't worry, we're not going to bog you down too much with any gear chat but we will run through the essentials in case anything is confusing you. You want a simple, straightforward set up right? Well, you're going to need the following:
So, a computer is a fairly obvious one. It doesn't need to be a NASA level supercomputer either folks, just a fairly up to date rig that doesn't run too slowly. Even if you have an older machine that's seen better days, sometimes all it takes is a little time spent clearing it out and performing some basic maintenance that you may have neglected. You may find as you start installing software and getting more in-depth with your recording that you need to upgrade but what you have at home should be enough to get you started. Remember, there are always options to record on your phone/tablet if not, so don't be disheartened early on!
An interface, to put it simply, is essentially a tool to allow you to plug your guitar into your computer. There are loads of different brands and options out there but Focusrite, Native Instruments and Presonus all make fantastic affordable interfaces that won't break the bank. Think of this as a tiny version of a traditional mixing desk - you plug your guitar in and use it to record, simple as that! These tend to be pretty easy to set up with only minimal installation of drivers required to get you going.
Next up is your DAW. What's a DAW, we hear you cry? This is the software on your computer that allows you to use it record. You've no doubt heard of the likes of Ableton, Cubase, Logic and other similar platforms, these are all DAWs. Mystery solved, now go and record your masterpiece!!!! Just kidding, the DAW you choose will probably depend on what feels best. A lot of companies give users free trials, these are often included with interfaces so keep an eye out to see what you can nab when you're buying your gear. In our honest opinion, what you use doesn't really matter, it's what you do with it that counts. They all have different strengths and weaknesses but we'd be sitting here all day if we tried to list them all. If you have friends who have been recording for a while, get their advice or have a chat with us about what's going to work for you. Play around with a few different platforms and see what seems like the best choice, you're going to spend a lot of time on this so choose wisely!
- VSTi, VST and Hardware
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, in other words, software which takes the place of the rows of blinking studio equipment you've seen in all your favourite documentaries. Music production has become so advanced that almost all of these tools are now available in a software equivalent, as are VSTi or VST instruments. That means that some of the most coveted effects units, compressors, synths and mastering gear of all time can be right at your fingertips and that, studio boffins, is a seriously powerful thing. These will vary depending on what DAW you choose, but pretty much all of the main players have plenty of cool effects and instruments to get stuck into right away. It's worth wrapping your head around the basic, built-in plugins before you start buying new ones but when you do, there are VSTs for everything under the sun and you'll have a blast shopping for some new software to use on your tracks. Many guitarists who are totally reliant on their effects on stage use software effects in the studio so don't knock em til you try em, there's a lot of fun to be had in playing with computer-based gear. Native Instruments offer some seriously comprehensive bundles that pretty much kit you out with everything you need, now while these maybe seem like quite an investment for beginners, they're definitely something to aspire towards, or if you feel like committing, trust us, they won't let you down.
Okay, this one is pretty self-explanatory, if you don't have monitors or headphones, how are you going to hear what you're working on!? Prices of both can either be fairly inexpensive or an absolute fortune depending on what you're after but for just starting out, nab yourself an affordable set to get you going. A lot of experts gag at the thought of mixing entirely in headphones and to be fair, they're probably right. However, in the learning stages, it's not going to make a huge difference, work with what you have available until the time comes to step up your game!
Okay, but what do you actually do!?
Right, we tried our best to keep that brief... and it didn't really work out, but that's the way of the studio folks! A huge amount of production is problem-solving and we want you to run into as few problems as possible, so take in the info above and use it to inform your choices as begin to build your studio up. Getting going is as easy as following the setup instructions of your chosen kit and making sure it's all working together. Thankfully most brands make this pretty easy nowadays so you should be rockin'. Remember if you're ever struggling, we're just a phone call away.
Next up, the fun and (slightly...) more straightforward part. Recording!
So everything is plugged in, installed and good to go, let's lay down some guitar. This really is as simple as plugging your guitar in, opening up your DAW and beginning to play. Once you've checked you have sound, arm the track on your DAW. You may have to make sure you're set to monitor mode so that you can hear it - this is generally a little speaker shaped icon but you'll no doubt know that already if you've been messing about with your new system. Remember if you have a trusty amp or pedal board at home this is when you can bring it into play, there are loads of ways to connect to your computer but either plugging straight into your interface (known as a DI) or running from the output of your amp are probably the most simple.
Next, is where things really start to get interesting.
So you've jammed your heart out and have a guitar track laid down, you can now begin to experiment with it and manipulate the track. This means implementing things such as compressors, EQs and all of your usual guitar effects to take it from a home practice sound to a mainstage at your headline gig tone. You don't always need to be over the top and fancy and remember, the simplest solution is often the best (just ask the Ramones...) The one thing you don't want to compromise on though is your tone, so spend time tightening it up and not stopping till you get that special sound in your head. Play about with EQs and compressors in particular as they can really help to fatten up your tone and provide separation to different parts. Effects such as reverbs and subtle delays can also add a lot of depth to your recording so don't be afraid to get a little bit wild with it til you find a good balance.
With your newly acquired plugins, you should be able to track down other instruments as well if you fancy recording them into your mix. For this, a MIDI keyboard would be a really handy piece of gear to own, allowing you to play the notes on a keyboard and trigger the sounds on your computer. However, if what you're doing is strictly guitar-based while you start to learn, there's still loads of fun to be had. Experiment with layering up sounds, switching up your tone when you record new tracks to bring the feel of a second guitar and behold as your mind wanders. Recording is an incredible thing and while there are absolutely loads of benefits to doing it in a professional studio, at home is where you can spend a lot of time going on a journey of your own and getting lost in the process. At the very least you'll be more informed next time you're working with a producer in a full-scale studio. Side note - you'll be pleased to hear that recording vocals, while it has its complications, is also fairly straightforward at a basic level so if you have a mic at home, spend some time laying down demo tracks and trying to get them as natural sounding as possible. Even wordless vocals can add a huge amount of depth and ambience to a piece so don't be afraid to try it out, it all helps the learning process.
Remember, recording doesn't have to be overly complicated or difficult, it is simply about putting down the idea in your head and letting it develop into a finished track. The most important thing to focus on as a total newcomer is learning the ins and outs of your DAW, which thanks to the glorious power of the internet, is easier than ever. Our staff are unashamed gear nerds too and we're always here to help, so don't hesitate to give us a shout, we literally live for the chance to geek out on some recording issues (we're sad like that...). Then, try out some VSTs on your recordings, see what different effects do and learn to adapt them for your sound. Giving each instrument its space in the mix is a key element of good production and it's worth recording a few guitar tracks to give you a chance to try out panning and different EQs to make sure each one sounds punchy, proud and powerful, even if it's just a subtle element. Most importantly, have fun and have a mess about! Rick Rubin didn't grow that beard overnight and he didn't learn to be a master producer either. You have the benefit of being in the comfort of your own home so there's no judgement. Spend time practising, getting used to the software, learning and asking questions and we PROMISE you, you'll notice some big differences.
This is, of course, merely a toe dipped into the ocean that is recording. Every day is a school day and it takes time to learn and develop your skills but we want to help ease you into the process and get you doing the basics before you start producing the next Dark Side of the Moon. Once you have that knowledge no one can take it away from you and it's a vital skill as a musician in this day and age. Amazing sounding production does happen at home and it's never been easier to make your dreams of recording that one classic album a reality. Try your hand and see what happens, you never know where it might take you... Oh and stop back for plenty more tips from us, we'll be building upon this entry-level article with more advanced pieces and it'd be great to hear how you're doing - let us know in the comments below!