The experience of recording yourself and others at home is a varied and revealing process. You will feel the gamut of human emotions, from bliss one day to soul-crushing defeat the next. But recording at home has many benefits. The two best are: You’re on your own time and you can experiment endlessly. However, that’s also the downside!
I’m going to cover what I believe are the 10 biggest mistakes that budding recording guitarists make cutting tracks at home, and along the way I’ll offer insight and advice as to how you can make better-sounding recordings using proven techniques. I will also recommend some excellent gear—hardware and software—that will aid you in your productions, mixes, and overall efficiency.
Most likely, and regardless of your particular genre(s), you’re trying to make your home recordings sound as close as possible to your favorite records. You want that vibe, that tone, that production, that mix—in short, that sound.
However, the majority of truly successful and influential records have been, and still are, recorded at professional studios by professional engineers and producers, using the best gear in the world. This isn’t saying that you can’t have a No. 1 hit by recording at home. You certainly can! It’s my hope that this article, and my monthly PG column Recording Dojo, will inspire you to experiment and help you get your best recordings yet.
The good news is, home recording has blossomed over the past 20 years. Exponential increases in computer processing power, software, and other areas of technology have given us the ability to develop new instruments and model classic gear, rooms, mics, amps, and almost everything in between.
With all that said, let’s look at the 10 biggest mistakes guitarists commonly make in their home studios.
1. Not treating rooms.This is an immensely deep subject (trust me on this), often widely misunderstood, and probably the biggest mistake most home-recording guitarists make. Simply put, when a sound is activated in a space, the resultant waves are reflected and absorbed to varying degrees before fading back into silence. Controlling and balancing them is the challenge.
The dimensions of your room, the wall and floor surfaces, and the objects inside it effect its inherent acoustic properties. You might not even notice that you could possibly have several sets of acoustic nodes (aka standing waves) at varying frequencies in your room.
A couple things to remember: The human ear is capable of hearing from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The higher the frequency, the more directional the sound. Think of that laser pen you use to freak cats out—highly directional. The lower the frequency, the more omnidirectional the sound becomes. How many times have you heard low bass rumble from another movie theater while you’re waiting for your film to start?
Try this: Walk around the entire perimeter of your room and clap loudly. Listen for pings, buzzes, flutter tones, or a really quick delay. Next, do an internet search for “slow frequency sweep.” It should be a sine wave from 20 Hz to 20 kHz that moves slowly. Sit in your mix position and play that wave through your monitors. As it sweeps, you’ll start to hear certain frequencies jump out and others almost disappear. Do the sweep several times and take extensive notes for each and every frequency that dips or gets louder. Bass frequencies like to pool in the corners of the room, and if you hear them get louder, you’ll need to make or invest in some bass traps. There is a tremendous amount of DIY literature out there, and companies like Auralex and Primacoustic make various budget-friendly kits that will aid you immensely in tuning your room.
Even a modest selection of guitars allows you to cover a variety of core tones in home recordings.
2. Using the wrong guitar or amp.The next thing to consider is what guitars you need for recording. For example, if you really want that Led Zeppelin sound, or some authentic country twang, you’ll need a trusty Telecaster, not a Les Paul. Or, at the very least, a guitar with single-coil pickup options and not just humbuckers. If Steve Vai or EVH is your hero, you’ll need those humbuckers along with a locking trem to nail those dive bombs and pyrotechnics. Going for more of a Tony Rice bluegrass thing? A dreadnought acoustic guitar is your best choice, while a tasty OM-size guitar easily suits more of a fingerstyle approach.
The same goes for amps. I believe the majority of guitar amps can be reduced to three basic points of inspiration: Vox (for that chime and sizzle), Fender (for clarity and grit), and Marshall (for a punchy, saturated grind). Many modern boutique builders like Dr. Z, Matchless, Carr, Bogner, and Friedman started from these classic amp designs and added their own wonderful tweaks to make something new and inspiring.
3. Being cheap.Remember, cheaper doesn’t equal better. Do yourself a favor and buy the best gear you can afford, really learn how to use it, and always upgrade until you get exactly what you really want. Figure out how much gear (hardware and software) you need for the type of recordings you want to do. Are you just recording solo acoustic music? Or do you need to be able to handle multiple musicians and layer tracks for a full band sound, or create even bigger productions like film, TV, and digital gaming scores?
4. Using one mic for everything.Have a look at the graph above. This is the frequency graph for a very well-known vocal mic—the Shure Beta 58. Besides the gentle bass roll off from 900 Hz to 50 Hz, you’ll notice that there’s a boost beginning at 1 kHz and two big 5 dB boosts that center at 4.5 kHz and 9.5 kHz.
This is a bright mic, and very flattering on vocals. However, if you use this same mic on many different instruments (acoustic and electric guitars, piano, drum overheads, and horns, for example), you’ll end up with a huge buildup of these same frequencies across your mix and it won’t sound good. It’s like using too much salt on a multi-course meal. Pretty soon, it’s all you can taste. Could you fix it with EQ? Sure, but it would be tedious, and not because you need EQ, but because you’re trying to fix the problem of using a very bright mic on every instrument.
What you need is variety. If you only have one mic, really study its frequency response and make sure you experiment with different mic positions. This will help until you start a mic locker.
The foundation for a good beginning mic locker (left to right): the Shure SM57, Sennheiser 421, and the Shure SM7B.
How to build a mic locker? My advice is to begin with mics that have been used on countless sessions. My three favorites are the Shure SM57 ($99 street), Sennheiser MD 421 ($379 street), and Shure SM7B ($399 street). You can conquer the audio realm with these three mics if you really learn how to use them.
The SM57 is bomb-proof and has been used on more electric guitars and snare drums than any other mic in history. The Sennheiser 421 is a Swiss Army knife of a mic with a 5-position bass roll-off switch. It’s a mainstay on electric guitar cabs, and rack and floor toms, and sounds great on vocals as well. SM7Bs are highly versatile and have a long history as great vocal mics—Michael Jackson’s Thriller, for a start. They also sound great on acoustic guitars, bass amps, horns, and more. Begin with this trifecta and you’ll use them forever.
5. Not examining DAW options.All digital audio workstations are created equal, right? Not really. Before you make a choice, do some research and figure out which one will work best for you.
Some DAWS are stand-alone programs that you buy outright or pay an annual fee to stay current. Other DAWs come free and bundled with their maker’s proprietary hardware. Also, some DAWs are increasingly popular in electronic, sequenced, and loop-based related workflows (FL Studio, Reason, Maschine, Ableton Live, etc.), while others focus more on recording audio.
Right now, the industry standard is Avid’s Pro Tools, but there are many excellent alternatives (Logic, Cubase, Studio One). Most of these DAWs come with their own collections of virtual instruments for you to get started making full productions.
Currently, the one I’m really excited about is Universal Audio’s LUNA. It comes free with the purchase of UA’s Apollo X interface and offers built-in virtual instruments, outstanding plug-ins of classic outboard gear, and mic pres. You can also track with them at near zero latency, and UA has cleverly designed LUNA for those of us who have spent a lot of time memorizing Pro Tools shortcut key commands. You can use most of them in LUNA to do exactly the same functions.