How to Record a Song Professionally and Get It Heard — Part 2: Setting Up Your Recording Studio
In Part 1 of our series of “How to Record a Song Professionally and Get It Heard,” we discussed the fundamental first step: know your genre of music before ever taking the next step of going into a recording studio. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the building blocks for setting up your recording studio. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to be booking studio time in a professional recording studio fully staffed with a sound engineer, you’ll want to keep an eye out for future articles in which we discuss how to rehearse and prepare to maximize every moment in the studio — especially when time is quite literally money!
However, if you’re setting up your own studio, this article will show you how to do it — one step at a time. Unless money is no object, you will likely have to purchase one piece at a time. It takes patience. To help out, this article points you to free resources wherever possible. If you do decide to purchase some equipment, you can get just about everything you need at stores like Guitar Center. Please consider supporting our site by purchasing your gear through our Guitar Center affiliate link to the right.
But first things first. Before you get your gear, you have to pick a physical space for your studio, and this requires some thought.
Picking a Room for Your Studio
If this is a home studio, try to pick a room that is not in close proximity to other sound sources — i.e. the laundry room, traffic noise from the street, the next door neighbor who blasts ABBA songs at three in the morning. If you have a spare room that has a closet that sits between you and the rest of the house, the doors and wall of the closet actually add an extra layer of insulation from the sounds in the rest of the house.
Once you find a quiet room, avoid setting up your recording “station” — which would be a desk, computer, and studio monitors and other items — in a corner. If your speakers are in a corner, the bass frequencies will tend to collect and get trapped in the corner, which will warp your perception of how the bass sounds in the mix.
The next step is to reduce sound reflections in the room and break up the wall with acoustic treatment. This topic could earn its own volume of articles. One excellent online resource for the serious student of acoustic treatment is this essay provided by the University of California, Santa Cruz. It’s mostly in laymen terms and easy to follow. Some of their suggestions cost insanely big bucks, but others — like Step Two, for example — are more practical.
If you don’t have time to click through that link and read yet another article, here are a few quick tips:
- Try to eliminate flat, hard surfaces using diffusive material, which is anything that absorbs sound and is rounded or has some complex shape. You can buy foam padding for this purpose at Guitar Center. Place them on the walls or even hang material to absorb sound.
- Don’t over-deaden the room as this will make it too bassy. Use a moderate amount of diffusive material.
- Put drapes over windows.
- Fill in any cracks around the border of the room’s door.
- Go to Radio Shack and buy an SPL meter, which measures the noise level of a room. Using the meter’s “C” scale, if your noise level is brought down to between 10-20, then you’ve got the ideal noise level for a home recording studio. That level might be very difficult to attain depending on your situation, but it at least gives you a measurable goal. Just try to get as close to it as you can.
Pro Recording Software
This article takes the digital route for setting up your studio, so the next step is getting a computer and some recording software. If you have the money, purchase Logic Pro for Mac or Pro Tools if you use a PC. These are they industry standards for professional recording studios, though they cost a few hundred dollars (i.e. I bought Logic Pro for $200, though prices can vary).
If you don’t have a serious budget yet for a studio, there are fortunately some decent free (or very inexpensive) software options that will get you started.
The Best Free Recording Studio Software
The following free (or very inexpensive) programs have been highly rated by users and critics alike:
it offers unlimited audio tracks. However, it does not support MIDI. If you’re not planning on using MIDI, then Audacity is the best free music studio software around. It has a nice range of mixing effects and dynamic processing to help you mix and master your song.
Anvil Studio Software
Anvil Studio Software Program’s free version for PCs only allows unlimited MIDI recording, which is somewhat rare for free music recording software. However, it only allows two one-minute audio tracks for the free version. The software is very easy to use, with clear instructions throughout. For a one-time fee of $19, you can upgrade the software to allow up to eight tracks of unlimited audio. It is extremely user friendly and is a nice set-up for people who have never worked with recording software before and are not especially computer savvy.
Jokosher comes from the same bright minds who built Sound Forge, which is one of the most popular audio editing programs out there. Jokosher provides free audio recording software for both PC and Mac that offers a full mixer. It also has a user-friendly layout for people who do not have any expertise in sound engineering. Instead of using the jargon of audio production, they renamed the tools and buttons with intuitive descriptions that anyone off the street could understand. It’s actually quite brilliant. Unfortunately, Jokosher does not support MIDI.
Kristal Audio Engine
The creators of Kristal Audio Engine made an audio recorder and mixer that has great effects and specializes in dynamics processing. People who are new to studio recording always have trouble getting their songs to the right volume level. Kristal Audio Engine’s “Kristalizer” does automated dynamic processing for you to fix this problem. This is a great feature for musicians who are tired of songs being too quiet. However, Kristal Audio Engine is for PCs only and does not work with MIDI.
For Mac Users
Some of the freeware above works with Mac, but, honestly, the free software is mostly an issue for PC users. When you buy a Mac, it comes with Garageband is included at no extra charge. Garageband is better than all of the freeware options listed above, and it will be decent enough until you’re able to afford Logic Pro.
Samples and Beats
There are quite a few plug-ins and independent software programs to help you make your own drum beats and grooves if you’re not going to be recording live drums. One example is Beat Generals — Click here to view their product — which is one of our high quality affiliates (meaning you will support our site when you purchase their software).
The next step is to purchase an audio interface, which is essentially a box where you plug in your microphones and instrument cables. It takes the signal from those sound sources, digitizes them, and sends them into your computer. Depending on the product, you will need a Firewire cable. Because there could be quite a few variations on what cables you might need, it’s best just to ask an employee at the store where you purchase it. If you buy online, the product specs will often mention what additional cables you will need. If it’s not clear, call your nearest music store and ask an employee before you purchase online. You can get simple audio interfaces between $100-$200 at any music store (Guitar Center or Musician’s Friend online).
Studio Monitors and Headphones
Studio monitor speakers are specially designed for recording studios. These are common and can be purchased at any music store that sells recording gear.
You should also get a pair of headphones — preferably two: one for your singer when they’re recording their track and one for you to monitor the signal during the recording. For the headphones that musicians will use, buy closed back headphones so that the music doesn’t bleed into the microphone. For your monitor headphones, buy semi-open headphones because they have better frequency response.
If you can’t afford studio monitors yet or multiple headphones, just buy one really nice pair of close back headphones. This is only a temporary solution until you can afford speakers, however, because it’s never ideal to mix on headphones. It’s like trying to paint in the dark.
Oh, and when you get studio monitor speakers, set them up on either side of your computer station, level with your head so that the two speakers and your head form a triangle.
If you just need a microphone for vocals and guitars, a quality condenser microphone will do the job. These microphones require phantom power, so make sure your audio interface has phantom power capability. If you’re looking for high-end industry standard quality, Neumann is famous for its condenser microphones. However, you can get a condenser for much cheaper if you can’t afford a $500 Neumann.
If you plan on recording a live band with drums, you’ll also need a mix of dynamic and driven microphones. For starting out, it’s easiest to purchase microphone packages that music stores — especially the online ones — will sell at a discounted price. These packages will come with all the mics you need to record a drum set, for example.
You will also need a microphone stand and a pop filter, which is a screen that is clipped to the microphone stand and positioned in front of the microphone to block any transient noises from the singer’s mouth as they sing.
If you are familiar with MIDI and if you want to record tracks by playing the parts on a keyboard into your software as MIDI, then consider buying a MIDI controller. They’re typically cheaper than buying a full-size keyboard, and they are very useful if you intent to re-create instrument parts using digital synth technology within your software program.
Although this next item is not an essential right away, it might be if you have a ton of ambient noise coming from the place where you live. In any case, a reflection filter should be on your list of things to eventually buy. Placing a reflection filter behind a vocalist’s microphone will help isolate the recording and give it a cleaner sound free from standing waves and other reflecting sound waves that might arise in a home studio situation. Click here to see an example of a reflection filter.
External Microphone Preamp and Effects Processors
A microphone produces a very small signal when you sing into it — even with condenser microphones. An amplifier — much like one used with an electric guitar — is needed to boost the signal from the microphone. If you have an audio interface, it should have a built-in preamp. However, if you have the room in your budget, you can purchase an external microphone preamp to
give your vocals a powerful, clear signal. In this case, you would plug your microphone into the external microphone preamp, and then plug the preamp into your audio interface. Studios will also use external effects processors in between the microphone and the audio interface to further shape the vocal sound before it even reaches the interface. This isn’t essential in the beginning because recording software usually comes with effects processors of their own.
The Bottom-Line: It Takes Time
The basics for a recording studio is a good physical space, recording software, monitor speakers (or headphones), an audio interface, and a microphone or some other sound source depending on what you’re recording. You can add everything else one piece at a time. Don’t feel overwhelmed by all of the items listed above. It takes time and patience to build a top-notch recording studio.
And, once again, please consider supporting us by ordering your gear through our Guitar Center affiliate link. Thanks!