Recording Priorities

Building your own project studio? Here are some general ideas that might help you sort out what your priorities are and where to throw your money. There is so much information online about recording that a person could easily get lost for eons so I’ll just provide a broad outline that will help your further investigations. It’s rather artificial to “rank” priorities in the studio because any weak link in the chain can really diminish your results and a few weak links can make you miserable: one bad plug-in or a poorly shielded cable can ruin all your attempts to capture and create music.  So, the common approach to buying budget gear at first and building up may work against you in the long run. Buy the best and buy once or buy products that, to get any better, you’d have to spend exponentially more.

Generally speaking, the things that count the most are not technological at all. The most important things are: first, good material, songs, or ideas and, secondly, the musical skills and talent to play your instruments. After these things are in hand then tools and architecture become important. So, let’s try listing your priorities for a project studio space in which you’ll combine both direct recording and microphone recording on acoustic instruments:

1. Songs, material, musical ideas: If people love your music or noise or whatever you’re recording they will overlook a lot of defects in the production quality. And, in fact, if your music is really good then people will merely think that your “low-fi” sound was intentional and part of the vibe. Lots of bands are quite perplexed when fans complain later that they’ve sold out or gone commercial once they can afford a “real” studio album professionally recorded and mastered.

2a. Musicianship and skill: Great players with good ideas make the most of their tools and can create magic with very modest means. We’d all prefer to hear a master musician play on a toy guitar than a hack on a $10,000 work of art. Taken together, the above are probably equally important: great songs played by mediocre musicians can still be cool and a master musician working with mediocre material can really make the music come to life as they put their personal stamp on it.

2b. Being in tune – you’d be surprised how often stuff is not tuned properly before being recorded. Make sure stringed instruments are INTONATED and make sure the drums are tuned, etc. I suspect that more than 75% of guitarists do not even know what intonation is or that they can adjust it on their guitars.

2c. High-quality instruments are easier to tune and keep in tune.

3. If you’re recording acoustic instruments (drums, guitars, bass, etc.) then you need a great sounding room. This is where you can easily sink thousands of dollars and, oddly enough, it’s usually the last element many people think of. There’s nothing very sexy about buying diffusers and bass traps, and so on. There is a whole science and art of room design. Good books you may consult are those by F. Alton Everest – they’ve become classics in the field with lots of good ideas.

But, keep in mind, if you’re stuck recording in a 10x10 bedroom, a run-of-the-mill garage, or basement with 7-foot ceilings, then you’re facing grave limitations on how good your space can sound (especially if you choose to do nothing to the room vis-à-vis its acoustical properties). All is not lost but, at the same time, you can’t expect to capture amazing acoustic sounds.

If your studio is in one of these mundane and everyday environments then aim for creating a dead space then add in ambience with effects. Better, use as much direct recording gear as you can get away with – i.e. a direct box to your computer rather than putting a microphone in front of your cabinet or hyper-cardioids close to the speaker grill to minimize room reflections.

When obtaining materials for improving the acoustics of your room consult the experts but when they’re suggesting that you spend a bundle on manufactured products remember there are many uses for objects you already own such as books and bookcases. They make, for example, great diffusers and you can get books almost for free these days – nobody wants to read anymore. And you can make your own bass traps out of ordinary materials – and there are free plans online.

4. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that you’re going to record your audio with microphones rather than relying on direct boxes. If you do rely heavily on DI then get a really good preamp or channel strip with EQ and compression to run your instruments through. But, if you’re going to use microphones you might have to chose between putting the bulk of your funds toward either the mic(s) or the preamps. Which is more crucial? I used to think that amazing preamps get the most out of mediocre microphones (and make world class microphones sound ethereal) where as a great microphone never lives up to its potential in front of a mediocre preamp. But over the years I’ve changed my mind: the difference in sound quality between high-priced and ‘affordable’ pres is pretty slim whereas the difference in sound between high-quality (and therefore expensive) and ‘affordable’ microphones is absolutely staggering. Put it like this: if I had $1,000 to spend on a microphone and a preamp I'd spend $800 - $900 on the mic. The most I've spent for a pre is $750 per channel and nobody can tell the difference between that and the pres in my M***kie mixer.

5. Next up is monitoring: if you cannot hear to mix what you have recorded then everything is pointless. This is where a lot of folks cheap out by using junky speakers or $100 tracking phones. And this all comes back to the room you are trying to mix in. If your room is sub-standard then spend more on headphones and less on speakers. If you have a good, treated room, spend on the monitors. Let’s assume that the room is mediocre or worse: get a pair of affordable active/powered nearfield monitors to rough out mixes (I use the older Tannoy Reveal Actives) and then fine tune the mix using a pair of world-class headphones with more or less a flat frequency response curve (+/- a few db) out to the bass guitar’s bottom E fundamental (e.g., AKG K 702 or 701 for the audiophile experience).

Always mix at low to moderate volumes.

6. After monitoring comes the interface/converters that get the audio from your room/instrument into your computer. Years ago you had to pay for good sound and low jitter, etc. But these days a lot of companies are offering good sound and low jitter, etc., for not a lot of money. Don’t forget that the drivers are as important as the actual hardware. For the last 10 years the industry leader in driver development has been RME – and most of their hardware is manufactured in Germany, the drivers and analytic tools that come with their cards are top-shelf, the gear just works, every day, with no problems. I have a Multiface that is ten years old that actually works better now than the day I bought it due to ingenious firmware updates.

7. Your DAW of choice: they all sound the same so just get what works for you. I suggest REAPER because you’re getting a $2000 value for the price of a cheap distortion pedal – everything you need is there. Also, for plug-ins, keep in mind that a lot of software effects are actually generic code written years ago by larger firms that license the stuff to other companies that make a new GUI for it and give it a new name. Furthermore, a lot of plugs acquired reputations 15 years ago when there were not a lot of good, free or affordable plugs-in available that, today, are simply substandard but still considered ‘good’ based on old reputations and mindless babble. Use your ears and do not trust hype and rumor. I suggest looking at the Breebaart plugs if you’re using a Windows machine.  These would be good at any price but, it just so happens, they are free. If you’re on a Mac or Windows you might check out Voxengo – again, the price is right and the designs sound good and are often clever.

(Update: the Breebaart plugins are now ToneBoosters)

8. High quality cables and connectors. Nothing is worse than cheap microphone cables and whatnot. What’s the point in buying good preamps and such only to hook it all up with junk? Unfortunately, this is where a lot of people think they can cut corners to save some money. Bad idea!

Do not waste your money on Monster brand cables.  Learn how to make your own:
Buy some cable, connectors, and learn to solder!
(Disclaimer: if you burn your  house down, don't blame me).

Like I said at the beginning, “listing” these priorities is rather artificial because all points are really important. One lousy plug-in can ruin your day. One bad microphone cable can send a great guitar solo to the “recycle bin.”

Above all, though, knowing how to use the tools you have, learning from your mistakes, reading, keeping a journal or a notebook, and so on, are vitally important to improving over time – and, really, that’s what you’re aiming for. You’re not going to create great recordings and mixes at first. It will take time but, if you’re paying attention and making the right decisions, your recordings and mixes will continuously improve.

Also, before you spend money research as long as you can. I spent nearly two years reading before I decided on an RME interface. That turned out to be a good decision. And the stuff I’m least happy with are the things, not surprisingly, I researched the least or relied on forum hype and sales guy BS.

One of the best pieces of advice I can share with you regarding the documentation of music is simply this: never be satisfied with your results and processes. Once you become satisfied you'll stop developing.