Despite what the big dogs might tell you, it's entirely possible to create pro-level recordings in your home studio. And despite what the forums might tell you, you don't need to spend a lot of cash on vintage gear to make it happen.
That said, home studios do present challenges that professionals don't typically have to wrestle with. Fortunately, these issues can be effectively dealt with and taken out of the equation.
And it’s not as difficult as you’d think — a home recordist can craft studio-quality projects simply by tuning their room, choosing their gear wisely, and employing proper recording techniques.
In this post, we'll explore a handful of ways in which a recording musician can transform their bedroom-style studio into a recording space capable of producing professional-level recordings.
Level Up Your Room's Acoustics
The first thing you need to do is take an honest look at the acoustic environment you’re recording in. Even if you prefer an in-the-box workflow with lots of virtual instruments, an acoustically inferior room will still affect your production decisions.
That's why acoustic treatment is a must have for creating an effective recording, mixing, and production space. After all, when you put expensive, high-end gear in a bad-sounding space, it just highlights the worst aspects of your room — expensive gear can actually make your recordings sound worse!
The two most common acoustic issues you'll encounter in an untreated production space are flutter echoes and standing waves. These issues can be especially problematic in the typical square and rectangular rooms found in most residential dwellings.
Flutter echo is a form of slapback that occurs in square and rectangular rooms as a result of their parallel surfaces. If you clap your hands and hear a high-pitched, reverberant ring, this is flutter echo.
Flutter echo lends a hollow, tube-like character to your tracks. And if you combine several affected tracks, you'll end up with an especially bad-sounding mix.
Standing waves occur at frequencies where the distance between two parallel surfaces is equal to one half its wavelength. If, when you play back a mix in your room, you notice that some frequencies (most notably lower frequencies) sound louder than they really are, and that others sound quieter than they really are, this is a result of standing waves.
You'll really notice how standing waves skew frequency perception if you walk around your room during playback. You'll observe that different frequencies get louder or softer, depending on where you're standing.
So, what do you do about it? The answer is acoustic treatment. Most rooms require a mixture of three types of acoustic treatment: absorption, diffusion, and bass traps.
Absorption is designed to eliminate flutter echoes and slapback. These panels, which are typically made of foam or fabric, will alleviate your room of unwanted reverberant and ringing artifacts, and you'll also observe a distinct improvement in the clarity of your studio monitors, as well as better stereo imaging.
Diffusion minimizes soundwave buildup, attenuating artificially boosted and attenuated frequencies. These block-like panels also disrupt standing waves and flutter echo; but rather than eliminating errant frequencies altogether like absorption does, diffusion simply scatters them about.
As a bonus, diffusion panels are a great way to make a small, bedroom-sized space sound like a much larger room.
Low frequencies are difficult to tame, especially in a small, rectangular room, where bass tends to collect in corners. If you've noticed an artificial boominess in your studio, and your mixes sound balanced in your mix space but bass-deficient everywhere else, you need to invest in some bass traps.
Bass traps are specially tailored low-frequency absorbers that you place in the corners of your room. After installing bass traps, you'll find that your room's low-frequency response is much better, and your mixes will translate much easier.
Wondering where to begin? Auralex's free room analysis offers an excellent starting point.
Bring Your Monitoring Up to Snuff
Effective monitoring is one of the most important elements of audio production. After all, if you can't hear it, you can't mix it.
Start with studio monitors that give you an accurate, uncolored picture of what you're hearing. This will help ensure that your mixes translate well to the outside world — headphones, car stereos, earbuds, club systems, Bluetooth speakers, etc.
The size of your studio monitors should correspond to the size of your room. Small, bedroom-sized spaces usually pair well with speakers boasting 5- or 6-inch woofers.
Even smaller studio monitors are capable of effectively reproducing low frequencies. If yours seem to be bass deficient, they may be placed too close to the wall behind them, resulting in boundary proximity problems.
Boundary proximity issues arise when sound waves reflect off the wall behind your studio monitors, resulting in nasty-sounding low-frequency dips, notches, or nulls. Thus, if you think your speakers aren't kicking out enough low end, it may be their positioning rather than their design that’s causing the problem.
You'll typically obtain better results by placing your studio monitors along a short wall to maximize the distance acoustic reflections travel to get back to your ears. This will decrease the volume of the reflections, thereby giving you greater accuracy.
You should also ensure that sound waves aren't reflecting off nearby hard surfaces. You don't want anything to affect what happens between the studio monitors and your ears.
Also, place your speakers in the shape of an equilateral triangle (where the length of each side of the triangle is the same). The speakers form two corners of the triangle, while your head forms the third.
In other words, the distance between the two speakers should be the same as the distance between each speaker and your head.
As far as height goes, your speakers' tweeters should be at or around ear level. Since high frequencies are highly directional, this will allow you to hear your mixes accurately and consistently.
You should also make use of your studio monitors' built-in adjustments (if they have them) to fine-tune their sound. Some models feature simple EQs, while others include full-blown room correction.
Want to learn more about how to maximize your monitoring? Check out our article, How to Mix Better on Budget Speakers and in Bad Rooms.
Optimize Your Analog Front End
The easiest way to maximize the quality of your productions is to try for the best sound possible right from the beginning of your signal chain. "Fixing it in the mix" is more often than not a one-way ticket to a bad-sounding mix.
To start with, keep your instruments in tune. Even if you record an out-of-tune instrument with a world-class microphone, it will still be out of tune.
So, set your guitars up properly and tune them between takes. Tune your drums and dampen unwanted creaks and rattles.
The same goes for your studio gear — proper maintenance is essential. So, replace your janky tubes and crackly cables, fix those scratchy pots, and lubricate anything that squeaks.
When it comes to gear, you don't have to spend a bundle to get a solid-sounding analog front end.
Start with one or two do-it-all workhorse microphones. The time-tested Shure SM57 is an excellent starter mic that's capable of tackling just about anything with respectable results.
Once you’re up and running, you want a large-diaphragm condenser, which is considered the centerpiece of most studios. Therefore, if you only have one of them, you'll want it to be as sonically flexible as possible.
A versatile large-diaphragm condenser like the Audio-Technica AT4050 sounds excellent on everything, and you'll get tons of mileage out of its multipattern design. Regardless of which model you choose, look for flexibility-enhancing features like multiple polar patterns and built-in pads and filters.
If you record lots of acoustic instruments, you'll probably want a small-diaphragm condenser (or a pair of them). The Rode NT5 has long been popular for studios on a budget, thanks to its pro-level sound and relatively modest price tag.
As for other outboard gear like preamps, compressors, and equalizers, thanks to budget-friendly companies like Warm Audio, Golden Age Project, Lindell Audio, and Klark Teknik, you can get your hands on respectable re-creations of many high-dollar studio classics for a tiny fraction of the price of their vintage counterparts.
When tracking, maintaining proper levels is essential. If your levels are too low, you'll get unwanted noise; If your levels are too high, you'll get clipping.
Ideally, you should adjust your settings so that peaks hit between -12dBFS and -10dBFS while you're recording.
Proper microphone technique is equally as essential. If you position a cardioid mic too close to your source, then its proximity effect will create low-frequency mud; if you position it too far away, your source will sound thin and distant.
Above all, tell everybody (and yourself) to chill out! A relaxed, comfortable artist almost always delivers a better performance than a nervous, self-conscious one.
Needless to say, this post is merely a primer — there's a lot more information out there when it comes to audio production. Whether you're a beginning home recordist or a seasoned pro, keep following our blog, and you'll be well on your way to achieving your musical goals.