How to Record Great Studio Demos at Home (What I've Learned)
When I first started writing songs, I needed a way to share them with people when I couldn’t drag my guitar to them and perform in person. I knew there were studios in larger cities around me that I could pay to rent, but I wasn’t familiar with recording techniques and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. I contacted a few studios and began to ask questions, but I could tell that renting a studio was not an option for a beginner and, frankly, I didn’t have the extra money needed to spend on something that was simply a hobby. That's why I decided to build my own studio at home.
Why Should I Record at Home?
Being able to record my demos from the comfort of my own home allowed me to produce them at my own pace without breaking the bank. This helped me save enough money and record enough takes that I was finally able to send my songs to places I hadn’t dreamed of when I first started writing. Eventually, I was able to send some of my demos to publishing houses in Nashville. They were happy to hear the quality of my songs, as well as my talents as a singer. There are few things more rewarding than making your own songs.
What You'll Need to Record Great Sound at Home
After some additional online research, I found that I would need:
- a microphone
- a windscreen
- a preamplifier (or some type of equipment to boost and control the signal)
- multi-track recording software
- a computer
Best Recording Practices
- Utilize the best equipment you can find.
I’ve long heard that the best tool for any job is the one you have with you. Since I was working on a small budget, my tools were limited. Still, I wanted to be sure to capture the best sound I could, so I saved my money and bought an Audio-Technica 4033T condenser microphone. It was primarily a vocal mic, but it could double as an acoustic instrument mic (even though that wasn’t the intended purpose). I also bought an M-Audio interface that had preamplifiers built into it, and would connect via USB to my laptop or desktop computer. This allowed me mobility and gave me access to Pro-Tools, which was a higher-quality multi-track software than the free application I had been using.
I learned how to squeeze every ounce of performance out of these basic tools, rather than place blame on a lack of expensive equipment. I focused on understanding how to use what I had, or could borrow, rather than believing I needed something else I didn’t own.
- Practice the “garbage in, garbage out” philosophy.
In addition to mastering the equipment I had, I practiced the “garbage in, garbage out” philosophy. While some things can be fixed using recording software, I learned I would obtain the best final results by recording the best signal I could to begin with. This meant finding the best room to record in, away from barking dogs and flushing toilets. I also made sure that input levels were correct, and not too quiet, or too loud which would cause them to be distorted.
Before recording, I made sure that my instruments were tuned properly, that odd buzzes or hums were tracked down before recording, and tools like mic stands and windscreens were used to reduce hand noise on the mic and wind pops on the vocal track
- Keep all non-essential electronic devices out of the recording area.
One of my final demos has a low, but audible, iPhone text notification sound right in the middle of a vocal track. Unfortunately, it was the best vocal recording I had all night. Now I know to keep all non-essential electronic devices out of the recording area, because there are some things that are difficult, if not impossible, to remove from a track you need to use in a final mix.
- Highlight the vocals as the star of the recording.
Since a song often tells a story, and the singer is the storyteller, I highlighted the vocals as the star of the recording. A songwriting mentor told me early on that if a listener couldn’t understand the words of a song, there wasn’t a point in making a demo, so I quickly learned several techniques for highlighting the vocals. If I didn’t have access to an actual sound booth, I would use makeshift sound panels from whatever I could find to help dampen the sound around the vocalist. This would help to deaden the natural reverberation of the room, eliminate the extra sound from harsh surfaces, and isolate the vocal to make it as clear as possible. I used a windscreen to reduce popping noises in the vocal track and learned to aim the vocals over the top of the microphone when necessary. This stopped them from bouncing directly off the surface of the mic and reduced pops and hisses. I recorded vocals sitting down, standing up, while reading lyric sheets, with lyrics memorized, and any other way to get a different feel and sound to a vocal track. I also learned to record multiple takes of vocals. That way I could edit out flaws and replace them with better attempts. I adjusted the mix of the other instruments to sit in different spaces sonically so that they wouldn’t compete with the placement of the vocal track.
- Evaluate your recording capabilities honestly.
Because I knew I had a limited set of skills in the studio, I evaluated my recording capabilities honestly. This could also be called my “less is more,” or “work smarter, not harder” principle. Although I was tempted to try to add in spiffy guitar solos and nifty drum tracks, I recognized that I am not a lead guitarist, nor am I a drummer. Trying to get extra creative in areas where I didn’t have specific talents typically led to unsatisfactory results, and they often sounded amateurish—exactly the opposite of what I was trying to accomplish. I learned to understand my limitations and be ok with them. I learned to avoid the practice of overproducing and to not fall in love with a part of the demo simply because I recorded it. Everything was up for evaluation. Additionally, I learned to pull in other resources when I could. My best friend in Nashville has recorded keyboard, string, and piano tracks on several of my demos through the years. Those parts add to my demos, rather than taking away from the final product.
- Mix your demos with many different speakers
Because there are a myriad of output devices for listening to music, I mixed my demos with many different speakers. I quickly learned that a demo could sound great on my studio speakers, but could sound entirely different when played through the audio system in my car. Outside of my finely tuned recording system, people might use headphones, computer speakers, car stereos, home audio systems, or a hundred other ways to listen to my recordings.
I had to anticipate, and adjust to, as many of those listening options as I could before releasing my demo into the wild. I mixed at low levels and with the volume turned up loudly. I listened to the music while sitting at my computer and while driving down the freeway. I used earbuds, over-the-ear headphones, open-backed, closed-backed, old, new, and in between speakers. That way I could understand all the different things people might hear, depending on the speakers they might use. Ultimately, I was able to adjust the sound in my studio to accommodate most playback systems. When the sound seemed a little lacking in bass on my studio speakers, the track typically had just the right amount of bass in headphones and car audio systems. I learned to mix my demos to support the largest block of listeners possible.
- Don't overproduce.
My first instinct was to attempt to over-produce my recordings. I’d record my vocals and guitars, and then feel the urge to add in guitar solo parts, or bass or drum parts—none of which were my forte. If I really felt like stepping it up, I’d try to play some sort of piano or keyboard part, which I simply had no business attempting. I ultimately recognized that I was trying to make my songs sound more impressive by having more going on. I knew that if a song was strong enough, it could stand on its own with simple instrumentation and vocals, and I needed to be ok with stripping away all the extra fluff and highlighting the song itself. That was the purpose of learning to record in the first place. I had to be honest with myself.
Learning to record my own songs allowed me to live out some of my middle school fantasies of being a rock star. To a certain extent, some of those hopes came true for me, at least in very small ways. I regularly received compliments on my recordings and vocals, which gave me pride about what I was releasing to listeners and critics. I put my songs on a website and people, whom I didn’t even know, wrote notes to me about my singing. One person in Singapore even claimed to have all my songs on his iPod. He said that he was my biggest fan. In the end, I was happy that people were hearing my demos and enjoying them. By not over-producing, I was able to hone my sound and draw in enthusiastic listeners.
My First Attempt at Building My Home Studio
With a borrowed microphone, a preamplifier, multi-track recording software, my guitar, and the appropriate cables and stands, I had assembled a simple home recording studio.
I learned how to send two signals from the preamp (one for my guitar and one for my mic) to two separate channels so I could record them at the same time. It's important that you have them on unique tracks so that you can edit them independently of each other.
If my vocal track was decent, but I had made a mistake on the guitar track, I could save the vocal track and play it back while I re-recorded the guitar part. I could re-record each part until I was satisfied. I could now do everything that I could have done in a real, professional, studio. Or so I thought.
What I Was Missing
My first few efforts were not spectacular. My guitar seemed to pick up an unpleasant hum, and the overall sound wasn’t natural. My vocal tracks had popping sounds. I was pushing too much air quickly into the mic without any kind of screen to deflect that noise, and I was picking up other sounds such as doors closing and dogs barking in the background. I wasn’t sure how to make my tracks sound professional once I had them in my computer, so I used software plugins to add effects like reverb and delay. Without any real understanding of how to clean up the tracks, I had varied levels of success using these effects. I was often unhappy with my results.
How I Cleaned Up My Sound
At this point, I began to reach out to others who I knew had home studios. I slowly began to gather tips and tricks for how to get the best sound from the equipment and setup that I had.
I learned that I needed to:
- choose and aim microphones
- isolate the sound I wanted to record
- manipulate the recordings with equalization and effects
Without breaking the bank, I bought a few items that were key to improving my demos. These included:
- a windscreen for vocal recording
- a higher quality condenser microphone (my one recording gear splurge)
- and a digital audio interface to replace my analog preamplifier
With an improved arsenal of recording equipment, a new amount of tips, tricks, self-taught knowledge, and hours and hours of practice under my belt, I was able to produce simple guitar and vocal demos that I was proud to send out to family, friends, and critique groups.