In 1975, Queen spent £40,000 making A Night At The Opera, featuring the hit “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It was the most expensive album of its time. 14 years later, Motley Crue’s chart-topping mega-hit Dr. Feelgood cost $600,000, while their self-titled follow-up album cost more than $3M (and was a massive flop).
But why should all the fun go to the super-rich?
Home recording is more accessible now than ever. Approximately 60,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify every day, roughly a song every second, and Soundcloud.com is host to more than 250 million home recordings.
Although these recordings vary drastically in recording quality and, as midi keyboards and amp simulators slowly replace traditional instruments, full-band recordings are becoming increasingly sparse. If you’ve chosen to take the path of recording real instruments, power to you.
You’ve chosen the road of problematic drum sounds, noisy guitar cabinets, and the ever-present cable slurry. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to getting a great sound in a home recording environment. Most of us are at the mercy of limited space, acoustics, and budget.
However, a little bit of know-how goes a long way to producing a great sound and an end result that’s fully unique. We’ve pulled together some pointers to get you started:
It’s easy to get carried away when it comes to equipment. When budgeting for new recording gear, have a goal in mind: what’s important? Big drums? Big guitars? What’s less important?
You want at least an 8-channel interface (preferably with a -20 decibel pad setting but not essential), a powerful computer, good headphones, plenty of cables and a range of microphones. Drum mics will set you back the most, but you get what you pay for. If you’re having trouble deciding, invest in a bunch of Shure SM57s. They are tried and true and work wonders across the board.
The cornerstone of a great album. Recording live drums will separate the men from the boys. First, tune your kit to your preference and tune it well. The slightest overtones will pierce through in a mix. Using a piano to tune at minor third intervals gives a better rock sound.
Next, set up your kit. Keep the cymbals and hi-hat as far away from the drums as possible. Don’t be precious about reaching that extra bit further: it cleans up your tracks. If you’ve struggled with cymbal bleed before, try this once and you’ll swear by it for the rest of your life.
Mic placement will have a drastic effect on the end result. For the kick, if you have a soundhole in the skin, putting the head of the mic an inch or two inside the shell will increase the bass pickup; moving it away will decrease the bass.
There are many types of snare top mics but a Shure SM57 works wonders. If you’re using a top and bottom mic, try a large-diaphragm condenser underneath. They really capture the punch of the snare. Remember, when you’re using more than one mic on anything, phase comes into play. If your snare sounds weak or thin in the recording, try flipping the phase of one of the snare mics.
Overheads are an essential part of recording drums. Two small-diaphragm condensers are ideal. Place them above the kit, 3 times apart from each other as they are from the kit, 3:1 ratio. Kick, two snares, three toms and two overheads are 8-channels. Label your cables and switch on the -20 decibel setting on your interface if you have one.
The range of guitar tones is endless. A guitar player should already know how to dial in the sound they’re going for, and after that, it’s still endless. Separate the cabinet to a different room because you’ll want to play loud, ideally where you are going to record vocals to eliminate noise reflections. When the volume reaches a certain level, you’ll get ‘cabinet wash’. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Point a torch at the grille on the cabinet to find the cone. Mic placement is crucial: toward the center of the cone for a bright tone, and toward the edge for a dark tone. Millimetres matter. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Try a combination of mics: a dynamic and a condenser; a dynamic and a ribbon mic; a ribbon and a condenser. Ribbon mics are extremely fragile but excellent for recording cabinets.
Have a bright and a dark mic, run them to a mixer (it doesn’t need to be expensive), adjust your EQ and plug them into your interface. If you have an EQ pedal, mute everything below 100Hz. This will free up the frequencies reserved for the bass and kick drum and your compressor won’t have to work with anything inaudible.
Singer’s must be wary of the proximity effect: the closer they are to the microphone, the more the bass will be picked up. This can be a useful tool to aid the singer, depending on the range of the song. Likewise, it can be a useful tool to blend harmonies. If you’re recording backing vocals, the singer should take a step or two back from the microphone.
Recording vocals can be reasonably straightforward. Record 5 takes and use the best snippets of each take.
The recording process with a full band can take hours or months. It can be a time of failure or a time of victory, but it’s never time poorly spent. In a world of synthesized sounds, you’ll have something you created from scratch. A sound nobody else has.
But you’re not done yet. Once you’ve recorded all your raw sounds, it’s time to begin mixing!
About Ben Roper
Ben Roper is a multi-faceted performing and recording musician based on the West Coast with 10+ years of experience playing shows and festivals in covers and original bands. Since building Electric Island Studios in 2020, Ben has recorded three EPs of original music under the stage name Jimmy Bartell.