I discovered a new music group that I enjoy very much. The name is Postmodern Jukebox, lead by a brilliant piano player and arranger, Scott Brandlee. He has hit YouTube pretty hard. I’m not sure how long it would have taken him to become known without it, but the visibility certainly helped.
I really like his unique treatments of current songs. But, it’s the simplicity of his recordings that really make an important point. Today, all a group or artist needs is a basic audio recording system and a camera to get discovered. When I think about studio recording, the picture that comes to mind is of John Lennon standing with his young son Sean, pontificating over an extremely complicated looking mixing board. It doesn’t have to be that way to get a good sound today.
This article is intended to be a broad stroke guideline to setting up a home audio and video studio and not a detailed How-To. There are a lot of articles that go into product related details. I want to give you some general characteristics to get you started.
If there is one takeaway I want you to get from this, it is that all music distribution will eventually end up on YouTube and that’s where your music should be if you want to get discovered.
From Forbes.com: Youtube “is the leading online platform for music discovery, as well as the preferred music service for those 18 and younger. In fact, 38.4% of all its video views come from music, and 10 of YouTube’s top 20 channels are dedicated to music, according to the YouTube analytics firm Tubular.”
YouTube and the like have changed the way we consume entertainment in a profound way. When producing music, a plan to add video is a must. There are a number of ways an audio track can be produced these days. There are two basic ways to get a record: you either record in a studio or in a live setting. This blog post is about setting up a studio.
In the past, the only way to get a good audio recording was to rent a music studio. In the extreme cases of A+ talent with plenty of financial backing, that is still the way things are done. They use top notch, state-of-the-art equipment. Now though, more and more start ups are going to scaled-down recording studios or even setting them up in their homes.
What does an aspiring artist need to set up a home recording studio?
The Brains of the Outfit
The centerpiece of a home recording studio is the computer, and the software program. Whether Mac or PC, there are excellent recording programs. Apple computers come with GarageBand built in. It’s free, already on the computer, and adequate for basic recording. PC users have to buy a recording program separately as each PC manufacturer has its own suite of software built in. Whatever you buy, I suggest you consult with an experienced home recording user to get advice on the kind of computer and software that will suit your needs, based on your level of proficiency. One thing is for sure: if you are just getting started, you will upgrade as you gain experience.
Interestingly enough, the microphone is where most musicians and recording engineers consider the most creative aspect of the recording process. It is where everything starts and will change the tone of the recording. The recording can be as simple as a single mic or an entire array of them wired into a mixer.
On the simple side, one USB mic plugged directly into a computer is adequate for a track-by-track recording. The next step up is to use a traditional studio condenser mic with a digital interface. The quality of sound is generally better than a USB mic. It also opens you up to various mics, each with its own sound characteristics.
This is the plug-in device that turns analog signals into digital signals. An artist plugs their microphones and instruments into the interface in order to record directly into a computer. Interfaces come in all price points and can have one input, or multiples. The multiples have mixing capabilities but differ from a full mixing board. An interface can have both mic and line level inputs. An interface is still considered a device for more informal home recording.
Once you get to a more proficient level, you may want a full mixing board, like the ones you see in a recording studio. This gives you the ability to adjust the sound characteristics of each input before it gets recorded. The mix is recorded onto some sort of recording media and later turned into a digital signal after the mix is completed. Some artists prefer to create a “live” studio recording, having all instruments and mics plugged in at one time and then they go back later to tweak the mix.
The weakest link in any system is the cable. Whenever there is a problem in a system, the first things I check are all of the cables and connections. Most of the time that’s where the problem lies. I also find that cable is where most novice users cut corners. I can see why someone would think that all cables are alike…they look alike. But to the experienced recording engineer, the cable makes all the difference in the world.
You don’t necessarily need the most expensive cable, but the difference in cost between a really good one and a not-so-good one is usually not that much. Of course, we recommend Mogami for a number of reasons. Try buying two or three different kinds and compare the sounds. Another thing to pay attention to is the way a cable rolls and unrolls. This is important if you are moving it a lot. The lower quality cables will tend to kink up when they are packed up often. It’s that kink that affects the performance.
A studio monitor is what will play the recording back. This will affect your perception of the recording. No speaker is perfect; each one adds its own sound. That is the physics behind speakers. There is no avoiding it. There are speakers that will scope out to be perfectly flat. That doesn’t mean that they all sound alike. Listen to a number of speakers before choosing one. Remember that everything in the chain will affect the sound. So try and use the same electronics and cables so you are truly comparing just speakers and not full systems. Find the one you like the most, as the sound you are mixing is your vision of the music. There is no such thing as a perfect mix. Perfect is the sound you like the most.
A real studio recording is one in which the room is as “dead” as possible. Sound absorbing tiles will do just that, absorb the sounds, which means that the only sound the mic will pick up is the primary sound. As a test clap your hands. A hand clap will have no echo in a dead room.
A dead room has almost always been the goal of a studio recording. The opposite of that is a “live” recording, where room echo is a part of the sound. It seems that today, the trend is away from a dead room. There are numerous TV shows that are recorded in a live environment. Again, the sound is your interpretation. If you like the sound of a live room, that’s what you should have.
On the other hand, you definitely want to keep unwanted sounds out of the recording. A song with dogs barking and lawnmowers running in the background is not acceptable. Find the quite environment, and decide how much of the room acoustics you want. Items such as sound tiles and reflection filters are items you may want to use.
These are a few suggestions for your audio recording. In the next installment, I will discuss adding video to your creation. It’s the video that will help get the song discovered on Youtube.
Many thanks to Sable Cantus for his contributions to this article. Sable is a higher education instructor of Digital Arts at Goldenwest College in Huntington Beach, where he teaches digital music recording. He is also an accomplished musician, performer, music teacher, and arranger.