Writing 13 steps for anything is no easy task, but I believe these steps may help some folks that need guidance in their early home recording journey.
I started my bedroom recording with just a two-channel interface, laptop, and a simple dynamic microphone. Now I have grown that into a professional studio where I work with clients from all over the world daily.
It can be done. In fact, it is getting easier by the day to have great quality work coming from someone in their home with a similar setup to what I started with. The recording industry is changing so much in a good way. I will dive more in-depth in this article.
- 1 Step 1: Identify the purpose
- 2 Step 2: Getting Started With An Interface
- 3 Step 3: Getting Started With A Computer
- 4 Step 4: Which Microphone?
- 5 Step 5: Which Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)?
- 6 Step 6: Are Cables Important?
- 7 Step 7: Plugins
- 8 Step 8: Headphones
- 9 Step 9: Monitors
- 10 Step 10: The Space
- 11 Step 11: Tracking
- 12 Step 12: Mixing & Mastering
- 13 Step 13: Always Be A Student
Step 1: Identify the purpose
Before you venture any further into the field of recording, identify the “why” behind it. I can categorize the initial desire to record into two scopes of purpose.
One is that you are an artist that would really like to have the ability to record your own music without the astronomical expense of going to a professional, multi-million-dollar studio.
I would say that this is the most common purpose for getting into recording, although you may find that recording becomes something you are passionate about as you progress further into the field. This was me.
I had no desire to become a studio engineer. I only wanted to be able to track my own songs in a way that wouldn’t sound like total garbage, and I ended up falling in love with the art of recording.
The other scope would be someone intrigued by the art of recording simply because of the recording challenge and the desire to make other musicians sound as “good” as possible.
I put the word “good” in quotes because it really has so many different meanings in the realm of recording. For me, when I can call a project “good,” I know that the song or album fully expresses the emotion, the idea, and the character it was intended to have from the beginning.
It is not so much in the context of proper recording technique per se. You should be able to identify what a “good” recording is before you even learn about how to record.
If you are someone that likes taking those ideas, emotions, and characteristics and turning them into the most amazing expression of art in the world called music, you are ahead of the game. This is one of the most important pieces to have when starting out.
Before you get into the nitty-gritty of recording, always remember the purpose of recording: to properly express every single emotion, vulnerability, and passion of the artist. It’s not about having the right gear or software. It’s about having the right purpose.
Now, let’s have a look at some of the basic essentials needed to start recording at home.
If you are curious whether you need professional-grade equipment to start, find out more with this article.
Step 2: Getting Started With An Interface
You’ve got your purpose down. You understand the “why” and what makes a project “good.” Now, you need some practical steps to get you comfortable with recording.
First things first, get your hardware. If you are tight on a budget, look for a great two to four-channel interface to get the ball rolling. There are many articles about which is the best, and I don’t really want to venture into that realm on this article, but I can tell you about a few.
Focusrite has some great quality interfaces for the price. Universal Audio (UA) also puts out some of the most incredible interfaces on the market. What’s great about UA is that they have a range of interfaces to choose from that cater to pretty much any budget.
If budget is not an issue, look into the Slate Digital VRS8 bundles. These are incredible interfaces, and they offer bundles for their microphones and software as well.
You may also want to check out the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2, which are incredibly popular! Check out how they compare in this article!
The key is to make sure you purchase the right interface for your needs. If you are tracking drums, I would suggest not getting anything smaller than a four-channel interface, and even that is pretty slim for drums.
Here are some of our recommended interfaces that are a bargain for their prices.
Step 3: Getting Started With A Computer
Take some consideration before you go out and buy any old laptop or start using Aunt Sue’s old PC that’s still running on Windows ’95. I would also tell you not to go out and buy the most expensive computer either if your budget wasn’t an issue.
There are specific things you will need to look at to make sure the computer you get fulfills not only your current needs but also has the ability to fulfill potential future needs.
Look at the RAM. I would suggest not have anything less than 16GB of RAM. This is how much your computer will be able to handle at once as far as processing power goes in the audio world; the more, the better.
You don’t want to be 16 hours into a session and have it close down on you because you are running too many plugins for your computer to handle. You also don’t want a million errors popping up when you are just trying to learn how to use the program.
It is not a huge necessity for a computer to have. I run my studio off of a Mac Pro with only 256 GB of storage. The only things I have on my computer are the software programs themselves and a few documents.
All of my audio files I keep in two separate, external storage hard drives. This is safer and easier, especially when I am moving from studio to studio.
This is something you will want to have even if you have a computer with a terabyte of storage. It is just the best way to go and protects you from any unfortunate mishaps.
Step 4: Which Microphone?
We’ve all done it. You go into Guitar Centre or any local music store with a pro audio section and drool over the $2,000 microphones with the beautiful microphone grills, the fancy polarisation options, and the incredible shock mounts that make the microphones look like they are just floating in the air.
Such excellence. “If I just had THAT microphone, my mixes would be INSANE!!” Well, the truth of the matter is, that’s not the case. We are in the day and age where microphones sound pretty stinking good on almost every budget level.
There are SO many articles on which mic sounds the best and blah blah blah. Sure, some mics sound better than others for certain purposes in different artists’ genres and styles.
Of course, if someone were to offer me a vintage microphone worth $10,000, I would probably cry real tears of joy.
I am just making the point that the microphone is NOT making or breaking your mix. Your mix is making or breaking your mix. Do some research, get a mic, and get the recording. I started with a $99 Sennheiser dynamic microphone. There is no excuse, my friends.
You can Learn More about the Types of Microphones from this post: Guide to Recording Microphones
Step 5: Which Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)?
This is a crucial part of the process of getting started. Determining what DAW software you use will also determine the means of how you learn audio recording. This may be the smallest step in this article, but this is an easy decision.
Whatever you can learn with the help of aids like Youtube, get that DAW. The most common DAW is Pro Tools and is found in practically every major studio around the world. It is worth the investment.
The other major DAW is Logic. This is Mac-based and will not work on a PC, but Pro Tools works on both. You will find that most tutorials or courses use either Pro Tools or Logic. The truth is, this is the preference. Go with the program you feel like you could learn from really well, not necessarily the easiest.
Step 6: Are Cables Important?
Most everyone you talk to does not include this step in getting started a home recording studio. They usually skip over this incredibly important part of the process. If you were going to spend a considerable amount of money in one area, spend it on good, quality cables.
Some folks may disagree with me on this front, but hear me out and learn from my mistakes. For years I just bought whatever was cheapest and fit into the right slots. DO NOT do this. You end up buying some really poor quality cables and can even damage instruments, speakers, or gear.
Do your own research. I’ve done mine. Everyone looks at the Mogami cables, asks “Why would I ever buy cables that expensive?” and move on to buy terrible cables that they need to replace every year and therefore end up spending WAY more in the long run.
I spent the first three years of recording wondering and wondering and wondering where all my buzzing and digital distortion was coming from. I bought power conditioners and split up all my power cables to multiple outlets with absolutely no luck.
I was having a great week in terms of income one week and decided, “You know what? I am going to buy those Mogami cables just for the heck of it!” I came back, replaced all my cables and I had the cleanest signal I have ever heard from my studio monitors.
The best part is that these cables will last a lifetime. Well worth the money. Just think of it in these terms, you wouldn’t put gas in your car if you knew that gas had dirt in it would you?
Same principle. Start out with clean gas and you won’t have to pay to repair your car in the future.
Step 7: Plugins
Programs like Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton Live will all come with generic plugins that are great and are a very good start to learning how each category works. I still use generic “stock” plugins all the time.
If you want to expand your ability in recording, you will want to get some great additional plugins to fill up your library. Essentially, these are your tools in your toolbox. Companies like Waves, Slate Digital, iZotope, UAD, and many others have amazing plugins that will rock your mixes.
I will warn you, do not get carried away with buying any and every plugin that has a great promotional video. Although most are really great, you don’t need them all.
Plugins are NOT what makes your song better. Your song is what makes your song better. Your voice, your instrumental ability, your passion, your emotion. Those are the qualities that define a good mix.
Plugins only help you shape a mix around the original heart of a song. That said, it is getting easier and cheaper to get access to industry standard gear.
Companies like Slate Digital have transformed the industry by creating a way to buy some of the most incredible emulations of gear that is worth thousands of dollars and making them affordable to the everyday producer like you and me who don’t have that kind of cash just laying around.
Step 8: Headphones
This is such a simple step. Get the best pro audio headphones you can afford. Don’t buy Beats. Look for headphones specifically designed to have a flat response and are made for audio production.
You aren’t looking for headphones that have a ton of bass and power. You are looking for headphones that have the most revealing response. By revealing, I mean that it quite literally is such a clean response in terms of frequencies that it doesn’t boost/cut any lows, mids or highs.
You want a clean, flat response for your headphones if you are going to be mixing from them. I would also look into getting headphones that you know you can wear for an extended period of time.
Nothing is worse than taking off your headphones after 3 hours and being in such pain because they weren’t comfortable. Be wise; do your research by going and trying them on. You will thank me.
Step 9: Monitors
If you can afford actual monitors to mix from, GET MONITORS. Headphones are a great start for recording and are really useful to check mixes on, but monitors will allow you to mix on a broader spectrum for folks that will be listening.
They more accurately represent your mix in the context of the end listener, which is what this is all about anyway. Again, get speakers that are designed specifically for pro audio. Don’t go to Best Buy and buy the speakers that have LED lights in them and look like they are made on an alien ship.
Though it is super fun to listen on speakers that the bass shakes your whole body, this is not practical and will actually give you horrible reference to what your mix sounds like to everyone else listening on their phone speakers or through their car systems.
This is the same as headphones. Do research on the frequency response of the monitors and base your purchasing off of a flat response set of monitors. Also, if you can afford it, get a sub.
The intention of the sub is not to blow your pants off. It is to add some really nice low end that will round off your mix if set correctly. This may sound strange, but you don’t want the “best sounding” speakers. You want speakers that are the most revealing to your mix.
This is a very common misconception amongst beginner audio producers. That is why Avantone CLA 10’s are the most popular studio monitors. They aren’t great sounding speakers. They are just very flat and boring, to be honest, but they help engineers sculpt their mix to be colorful and incredible on other speakers.
Want to set up your Home Recording Studio for Under 400$ or Under 1000$! Then you can Learn More about Some of the Best Setups for different price ranges we have prepared for you!
Step 10: The Space
When recording in a home, usually space is limited to a bedroom or an office and it is up to us to turn that room into a place that we can track, edit, mix and master a project with proper and suitable acoustic treatment.
So, how do you do this? Believe me, I am not an expert and many people writing articles about this subject that consider themselves experts, shouldn’t. Start out with the shape of the room you are in and think in terms of audio waves.
If you were to take a really, extra bouncy ball and throw it 1000 MPH at an angle towards a wall, assuming it doesn’t plow right through the wall, envision where it would go. Now you have to figure out a way to make sure that the ball doesn’t bounce all over the room, and you need to slow it down as soon as it hits the wall the first time.
That is essentially what you are doing with audio waves, and the “arm” that is throwing those waves are your speakers. You want to make sure that you have something to diffuse or absorb those waves so they aren’t bouncing to and fro and throwing off what you should actually be hearing.
Here is an article on acoustic treatment, which explains some of the commonly used basic ways to do it.
Step 11: Tracking
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received in my years of learning audio production is this, “Garbage in, garbage out.” This changed how I viewed audio engineering and mixing forever. Never compromise the process of tracking. If there is one thing that I could teach anyone in audio, it would be that.
Whatever goes into the DAW is what comes out. If you track a singer that can’t hold a pitch, there is only so much that autotune can do until it just sounds so artificial that even T-Pain would cover up his ears.
Don’t ever catch yourself saying that you can fix it later, because, in almost every instance, you won’t be able to. You need to fix it NOW. Whether you have a different engineer mixing than tracking, you need to be able to leave the tracking stage saying that it sounds “good”.
It captures what you want it to capture. Mixing and mastering are for further sculpting of what’s already there. Always remember that and live by it.
Step 12: Mixing & Mastering
It is always a good idea to have at least two different engineers for these processes, but I understand that this is not in the budget for most producers so you might have to do it all.
That being said, make sure you take time between these processes for your ears to have a break. I would suggest at least a week if you can. Like I said previously, at every stage of the project make sure you get it to the point that it sounds “good”.
Don’t get so excited to move on that you actually move on too quickly and take a bad mix into master. You will end up trying to fix things in the mastering process and that should never be the case.
Mixing is for refining. Mastering is for polishing. Learning how to EQ, compress and all that jazz will come with research and experience. Get to work and start doing it; you will learn with time and your ears will develop to hear differences that you can’t right now.
Step 13: Always Be A Student
Never tell yourself that you are an expert engineer. Find what you don’t know and learn it. There is a never-ending road to learning with audio.
Never settle with what you know and always look for that next level to climb. You will find that most Grammy-winning engineers have this mentality. It is one I try to keep every single day in production.
I am always looking for a better way to do the thing I love the most. You should too. It makes what we do so enjoyable.
If you are considering using a professional recording studio, you need to check out my thoughts on comparing both options of recording at home or professionally here.
Author: John Long – Owner of Arrow Point Studio in Kansas City, Missouri, USA