It’s never been easier to create and release music than it is today. All over the world, people of all ages and musical backgrounds are writing and recording music on their computers, and the statistics show that an astounding amount of music is now being uploaded and released through streaming platforms. Today’s music industry is giving independent artists more chances than ever before to create, record, and release music on their own terms, but if you’re a musician that’s not particularly tech-savvy, figuring out how to record music from your home studio can be intimidating.
This is a special TuneCore Survival Guide to help make things easier for you. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know, from the initial gear you’ll need to purchase to tips for acoustically treating a space to getting your music mastered and released.
Recording Gear & Music Software
The first thing we need to talk about for getting set up to record music from a home recording studio is gear. If you want to produce professional-grade recordings from your basement, bedroom, or garage, you’re going to need much more than the stock recording and audio assets that most likely already live on your laptop or desktop computer. Piece by piece, here’s a list of everything you’ll need to start recording music with using a home studio:
Computers don’t have the ability to record and interpret high-quality sounds on their own. That’s where audio interfaces come in. Sure, your computer probably came with a stock microphone, but the audio assets that already exist on your computer don’t have the processing power to achieve pristine, radio-worthy recordings.
Audio interfaces are devices that give you the power to connect professional microphones and instruments to your computer. This means that skipping the audio interface means not being able to use professional mics and capture high-quality recordings of instruments. There are loads of audio interfaces to choose from online and in music stores. As the old expression goes, with all the gear and software we’ll cover in this guide, ‘you get what you pay for.’
A solid audio interface can help you produce great recordings, but many DIY musicians will want to improve their recording power even more by adding a preamp into the mix. Preamps are not essential to record music from a home studio, but they are a big help. These are devices that boost low signals to make your recordings sound warmer and shaper.
You’ll need different stands, cables, and some sort of microphone(s) depending on the material you want to record. For example, a basic studio microphone will be great for recording vocals and an acoustic guitar with, but if you’re planning on recording a drum set, you’re going to need more of an elaborate setup that includes special clip-on microphones and stands.
A good place to start if you’re planning on recording your voice and a couple of basic instruments is a studio microphone, mic stand, quarter-inch cable, XLR cable, and a pop filter. Quarter-inch cables plug into keyboards and guitars, and XLR cables plug into microphones. Pop filters reduce the loud, unintended noises singers create when they make “p” sounds.
DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations)
DAWs give home recordists the ability to record audio, edit, mix, and produce recorded audio with sound effects. They also let musicians compose directly within the platform through MIDI devices (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface). If you’re an Apple user, then you probably already have GarageBand stocked on your computer. This is a nice start, and some bedroom producers have successfully used the program to record music and launch careers, but you’ll want to upgrade to a better software program eventually. Every DAW is different and each offers unique benefits. We recommend giving yourself plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of yours before launching into a serious recording project.
Headphones are crucial in the recording progress for giving musicians audible click and reference tracks to play to while recording. This lets musicians hear isolated audio that won’t get recorded onto the final track. A word of caution here. Don’t use earbuds for any aspect of your home recording process, whether it’s recording music or mixing tracks. Earbuds aren’t designed for professional recording use, and they can do serious damage to your hearing over time. Use over-the-ear headphones instead.
When it comes to editing and mixing your tracks, your computer speakers won’t do. Desktop studio monitors will give you an accurate idea of what your recorded music sounds like during the mixing process. You can use headphones to mix, but it’s not recommended.
Building & Treating Your Recording Space
Now that you’ve got your recording gear and DAW software, it’s time to select and treat a space in your home for recording. You’ll need a dedicated desk area for everything you’ll do with your computer. This includes engineering live recording sessions as well as mixing and producing your tracks.
Then, you’ll need to treat the actual space you’ll be recording in. Some hugely influential and great sounding music has come out in recent years that’s been recorded in musicians’ basements, bedrooms, and dorm rooms. With a small investment, you can turn a space in your home into a setting suitable for recording. However, we should note that loads of money and expertise go into building professional recording studios. You absolutely can create a space that works well for recording by yourself, but a perfectly engineered and treated recording studio will run you anywhere from $50,000 to millions of dollars.
First, let’s tackle the basics. Remember the fancy audio interface and professional mics we talked about? Unfortunately, professional recording gear records more than just music performances. Pets, cars driving by outside, your apartment’s ancient radiator heating system––anything that makes noise while you’re recording will get picked up and muddle your tracks. Do everything to clear the space you’re recording in of unwanted external noise.
Choosing a space to record in
If you can, choose a space that’s large enough to store your instruments and accommodate the musicians you’re planning on recording. Try to set up shop in a room that has hardwood, tile, or concrete flooring. This is because carpeted rooms absorb certain sound frequencies and not others, which results in unbalanced recordings. As far as rooms in houses and apartments go, your best bet will be to choose a large space with high ceilings. But since most musicians don’t have access to those sorts of rooms, just do your best.
Clear out the room as much as you can. This means emptying the space of furniture and stuff hanging on the walls. If this is a huge pain, you certainly can leave some things in the room, but try to at least clear objects lying around that might vibrate during recording. The emptier the space, the better.
Treating your space
How much you want to treat the space you’ll be working in depends on your budget and recording needs. Soundproofing a room is something done to minimize the sounds generated outside of a space during recordings. This is ideal for shared spaces like dorm rooms and apartments, but it doesn’t improve the sound quality of your recordings.
Acoustic treatment is a whole other ballgame. Reverb is a great sound effect to add to your music later, but it can be an unwanted guest during recordings. Acoustic panels––the fancy foam panels you see lining the walls of studios––absorb unwanted reverb and leave spaces with dry, direct sounds. Many musicians stop studio treatment there, but you’ll get the best results by combining sound absorption with sound diffusion.
Diffuser panels preserve the natural qualities of sounds by adding sonic variety and richness back into a space treated with acoustic panels. These panels are made of wood and other hard materials. A combination of foam acoustic panels and diffusers will give your space the right acoustic balance for recording.
First Recording Session
Not a lot of people talk about this when it comes to DIY home recording, but it can be massively challenging to get started, especially if you’re recording your own project. The key thing to remember when setting out to record for the first time is patience. It takes a great deal of trial and error to develop the chops needed to crank out great recordings, and this set of skills is completely different than the ones you’ve developed to become a competent musician.
Luckily, we live in a time where practical tech guidance can easily be found online when it comes to recording music. Check out video tutorials covering the ins and outs of studio recording, and give yourself as much time as you need to try, fail, and develop studio routines. Everything from getting the sound levels right to knowing how to place the microphone for recordings is crucial for producing great recordings, so do your research and be patient. You won’t become a studio wiz overnight.
Mixing & Producing Your Music
Once the recording process is finished, you’ll begin the long task of mixing and producing your tracks.
Mixing is the process of combining multiple sounds together, but its purpose far transcends that. In addition to gluing together different recorded sounds, mixing is the part of audio production where track levels are determined and different sounds are blended together to create a final track that’s musically pleasing and engaging.
At this point in the audio production process, sound effects like delay, reverb, distortion, EQ, and compression are strategically added to tracks to give them depth and character. The shaping of recorded music is sometimes called music production, but keep in mind this role is typically done through an outside person who often shapes the recording process from the very beginning all the way down to the final track. This is another area of audio production where researching guidance online can be a big help.
Mastering Your Final Tracks
Once your music has been recorded and mixed, it’s time to master your final tracks. This is the process of optimizing your music so that it sounds clear and consistent over all music formats and platforms. Through mastering, the “work in progress” stage that has defined your recordings up until this point becomes the final tracks that will later be played on streaming platforms, radio stations, and car commercials (if you’re lucky).
Mastering is a skill, and if you can afford to, your music will sound its best if you seek out a professional audio engineer to master your work. But lately, technology has come a long way in terms of digitally automating the mastering process. Companies now offer mastering tech to musicians for a fraction of the cost of working with a studio.
It’s Done – Now What?
When your music is finally finished, it’s time to distribute and promote it. Music distribution takes your finished music and makes it available for streaming and purchasing on digital platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and others. Record labels used to have an almost exclusive ability to do distribute music, but things have gotten more accessible for artists as music consumption has moved almost exclusively to digital spaces.
But long before your music gets distributed, you’ll need to put a great deal of time and thought into how to promote your work. Professional PR and radio campaigns will promote your music by sending it to blogs, traditional media outlets, and radio stations for coverage and potential radioplay, but this is expensive. Many musicians launch DIY music promotion efforts by pitching their music to blogs, playlist curators, and press outlets themselves. Promotion is hard work, but it’s crucial for connecting music with audiences today.
Like we mentioned before, learning the ropes of DIY home recording takes a lot of time and effort. It’s best to step into the process with an open mind and a great deal of patience because you’ll probably have to mess up a couple of times before you can truly develop the skills you need to produce great recordings.
Written by Patrick McGuire