Set the room.
Having a room to record may seem so obvious that it is not worth mentioning, but it is actually the most common oversight of a studio. The more space you have to work in the better. But a large room does not guarantee good acoustics.
For general use, interior rooms, low ceilings, parallel walls of hard materials and square-shaped rooms almost always play poorly. High ceilings usually give a more functional sound.
In addition, it is important to have a balance between reflective and absorbent materials. Too much reflective material makes everything sound like a high school. Too much absorbent material, and the recordings sound dull and lifeless. In a concrete basement or garage, try hanging some small rugs. They help to enjoy some of the excess reverberation.
Also remember that treating a room to sound good is very different from soundproofing. Hanging some carpets makes the room sound better, but will not reduce noise that leaks in from the outside world. Finding a space that is relatively quiet from the start is easier and cheaper than trying to obey it later.
Then select a recording platform.
This is the device used to capture your sound in some physical form. Some still use magnetic tape, DAT, CD-R, standalone hard disk recorders and other devices, but the most economical system for most people with a relatively new computer (purchased within the last 2 to 3 years) is to buy software and record on the computer’s hard disk .
Computers and software are always changing, but there are some constants. A faster computer is better because it allows you to use more tracks and more elaborate effects. If you have to share your regular personal computer with recording, it’s okay, but having a computer exclusively for music is the best option. For many people, buying an external hard drive that is only used for music is a convenient compromise. You need extra disk space, and the software will run faster because it does not need to be shuffled through all your personal files to get to the music.
Research software carefully. You want to avoid software that can only be used with limited hardware. Start with something that works with your computer’s existing sound card but may eventually receive an external interface.
Be careful with buzzwords in marketing, for example when the software claims to be ‘industry standard’. This does not always mean that it is the best choice for the average consumer who may want to record professionally. Talk to other people with studios and ask what they prefer and why.
Select a microphone.
You can never have too many because they all sound a little different.
If you have no idea where to start, a good first microphone is the Shure SM57, as it is inexpensive and sounds good enough to be used professionally. Once you know what they look like, you can catch them everywhere!
As an added bonus, they are ‘tough as nails’. It’s really hard to break one of these things, so they usually last for many years.
You have a computer and a reliable microphone, but you need to find a preamp to get the microphone signal at the appropriate level for recording.
Many cheap external recording interfaces have built-in preamps that work well. This tends to be the easiest option for most people, as it is cheaper and easier to insert preamps and interfaces into one device. However, if you are using a sound card or interface without preamps, you will need to purchase an external preamp that runs between the microphone and the sound card or interface. These can be relatively inexpensive devices or very expensive, sophisticated ’boutique’ equipment.
Get a good set of headphones before you get monitors.
Monitors look good and give it a ‘studio’ look, but if you can not afford a set of high-quality monitors and an acoustically tuned room to listen to them, they will not give you a good idea of how your recordings sound . Often, the recording of neophytes will be mixed for hours until it sounds good on their monitors at home, only to discover that their music does not sound very good on other sound systems.
Headphones do not completely alleviate this problem, but they take the sound from the room out of the equation when listening critically. In general, a balanced headphone mix sounds more consistent from system to system. A good set of headphones will run at about the same cost as an SM57 and will continue to be useful when you upgrade your setting.
The last step is to hit the record and start experimenting!
There are lots of books and tutorials on recording, but it is a very practical type of activity. Your first attempts will not sound like a professionally recorded album, but do not let this deter you. It’s the whole part of the learning process.
Tips and warnings
Learn the necessary steps to build a music studio in your home where you can record music, practice and teach. You can create a very minimal, ‘necessary’ studio or a more sophisticated system if your time and budget allow.