If you’re a creative type of person, then you are living during a very exciting time.
You are now able to do things with your ideas that would have been out of the question a few years ago.
When it comes to music, the tech revolution has enabled anyone to turn their kitchen table into a recording studio so that they can share their musical brilliance with the world.
In this article, we provide a step-by-step guide to professionally recording a song in your own home.
You’ll discover just how easy, inexpensive and rewarding it is to become a bona fide recording artist.
What You Need
The foundation of your in-home recording studio will be your computer.
But you don’t have to go out and buy a brand new computer, especially for your recording sessions. The computer that you already own will be just fine.
An audio interface is a box that you will plug your guitars, keyboards and other equipment into in order to be able to record them on your computer.
You can pick up a high-quality audio interface for less than a hundred dollars on Amazon. The brand we recommend is Focusrite.
You can get by with just a single microphone. Ideally, you should get a large-diaphragm condenser microphone.
You can pick up a top-quality mic for less than a hundred dollars online.
Studio headphones, or monitors, will allow you to listen back to the music that you are recording. Ideally, you should use a closed-back headphone. This will not have open mesh over the ears.
Recording software is referred to as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). There are lots of free DAWs available online.
Our preferred option is called Pro Tools First. This is a free version of Pro Tools which provides you with everything you need to record songs.
You can also use GarageBand (for Mac users) or Audacity.
If you are wanting to add virtual instruments, you will need a keyboard controller.
This will plug into the computer’s USB port, allowing you to produce all sorts of instrumental sounds with the help of your computer software.
M-Audio produces some top quality, inexpensive keyboard controllers.
Setting Up to Record
Let’s assume that you have an idea for a song in your head. It’s not fully fleshed out yet but you want to get your idea into your computer so that you don’t forget it.
The first thing you need to do is to create a guide track. To do this follow these steps (based on the free version of Pro Tools).
- Plug your audio interface to your computer.
- Open up Pro Tools
- Create a new session and name it.
- Check that Pro Tools is able to communicate with your audio interface. At the top of the screen, click on Set Up, then Playback Engine. Your audio interface should be listed there.
Create a Click Track
It is a great idea to create a click track (also known as a metronome track). This will provide consistency in your recording so that you are playing to the same tempo each time.
To create your click track follow these steps;
- At the top of the screen, click Track.
- Click on Create Click Track.
- Listen to the default tempo; if it sounds right for your song, leave it as is.
- If you need to change the tempo, click on the Window tab at the top of the screen and then Transport.
- Unclick the Conductor to put you in manual tempo mode.
- To determine the ideal tempo for your song, click inside the tempo screen. Now tap the ‘T’ key on your keyboard in time with quarter notes as you hum the song to yourself.
- Pro Tools will automatically calculate the BPM of your song.
Record the Scratch Track
The scratch track is an instrument that creates the main hook of the song and tells you what to play along with.
This is the first rough cut of your song. At this stage, you may only have the main guitar riff. Play this along with the tempo and create a loop out of it.
Begin by creating a new track:
- At the top of the screen, click on Track and then New.
- Select that you want to create a mono track (because you are just using one microphone). If you were using two microphones, you would choose to record in stereo.
- Rename the track to something that you will remember.
- Plug your guitar into your audio interface in Input 2.
- Switch the button on your audio interface from the line level to the instrument level.
- Adjust the Gain on the audio interface to an appropriate level.
- Set the input on Pro Tools to Interface – Input 2.
- Click on the Record button in Pro Tools.
- Begin playing your guitar and check that you are getting the signal on Pro Tools.
- Edit your piece by cutting and trimming to create a 4-bar loop that you are happy with.
- Hold down Command D to multiply the riff four times.
You have now created a foundation for your song, with a tempo and a scratch guitar track to provide you with the hook you need to build your song.
Record Other Instruments
Having created the Scratch Track, you are now set to add instrument layers to the song. You may wish to add drums but don’t have access to a drum kit.
Fortunately, you are able to use drum loops that are already created. The problem with most of these drum loops, however, is that they are simple and repetitive.
However, if you know-how, you can customize them inside your software.
When looking for drum samples online, audition them against the scratch track that you have created to see whether they will fit the tone and style of your song.
Let’s now see how to use Pro Tools to customize a drum loop.
- Find a few drum loops online that you think will work with the riff you have created and save them on your computer.
- Drag your favorite loop into Pro Tools.
- Use Command D to duplicate the drum loop a few times.
- Play the guitar riff and the drum loop together.
- Use cut and paste features to get the drums to work with your riff just the way you want it. Move the various kick drums, high hats or bass drums to line up with specific parts of the guitar riff.
- Repeat this process with each of the drum loops you have selected to create a customized drum backing for your song.
Laying Down the Bass Guitar
Having created your drum loops, you can now lay down the bass to provide a nice tight rhythm bed. To do this create a new mono audio track and name it bass.
Now plug your acoustic guitar into Input 2 of your audio interface. Click the interface control to instrument signal.
Set your Bass track in Pro Tools to record and check that you have the signal coming through.
Make sure that the Gain knob on your interface is not too high or you will overload the converter on the software. Less is more when it comes to bass.
As a bass guitar player, you should follow the kick drum as your guide. The bass should follow the kick drum to make them both sound awesome.
If you can record the entire song in one pass then that is ideal. Even if you make a mistake, don’t stop because you can go back and record other takes later.
You can then mix and match the best parts of each take to create the best end result.
Recording Virtual Instruments
Pro Tools comes with a virtual instrument tool called Expand.
Other software versions will likewise have a virtual instruments option that you can use to add background instruments to your song.
This provides you with all sorts of possibilities with an amazing array of instruments.
On Pro Tools, identify the part of the song where you want to add an instrument. Create a new track on Pro Tools.
This time, instead of selecting a mono track, you will set it to stereo. Name the track whatever instrument you are using.
Plugin your keyboard controller through the USB port on your computer.
Now go to Pro Tools, open up Expand and click on the instrument presets for the type of instrument you want.
Now simply record the instrument into the portion of the song where you want it to be added. This will be recorded on Pro Tools under Midi Data.
Within this section, there is a Midi editor. This will allow you to tweak it so that it works with your song just the way you want it to.
You can create a new track for as many instruments you want to add to your song.
Setting Up to Record the Vocals
As previously mentioned, you should ideally be using a large-diaphragm condenser microphone.
This is especially the case for recording vocals. This type of mic will provide the best sensitivity to pick up all the nuances of your voice.
You will also need what is called Phantom Power for your condenser. You will need an XLR microphone cable.
Plug one end into the microphone and the other into your audio interface. Now push the 48 Volt button on your audio interface.
Placement of the microphone in your home recording studio is very important. Most home recordings don’t sound that good because of the reflection off the walls.
The way to negate this effect is to get away from the walls. That means positioning your mic in the middle of the room.
You also need to be the right distance away from the microphone to produce the best sound. Most people get far too close to the mic when recording.
This often results in an extra bass boost that you probably do not want. Being too close creates another problem.
Any slight shift in the position of your body will create a very noticeable difference in volume picked up by the mic.
But when you back up a little from the mic, those body shifts will be far less noticeable in terms of changing volume.
For the clearest vocals, move back from the mic at least eight inches.
You should also invest in a pop filter, which you can pick up for around twenty dollars.
This allows you to get rid of the popping sound that often results when we pronounce ‘B’s and ‘P’s. You can also use the pop filter as a guide to getting the right distance.
Set it about 4 inches away from the mic and then set yourself up another 4 inches back from the pop filter to give yourself the ideal distance from the microphone.
To begin recording your song, create a new track in Pro Tools. Set it as a mono audio track. Name the track ‘vocals.’
Be sure that the input on Pro Tools is set to the same input that you have plugged your mic into on your audio interface.
Press Record. Now check that you have a signal coming through to the computer.
A useful tip here is not to record too loud. Many people do this, which requires them to clip the finished sound. This can negatively affect the result.
Back in the days of analog recording, the singer was always told to sing as loud as possible in order to overcome the noise pollution generated by the recording equipment.
But that is no longer the case today. The cheap, simple equipment that we have described in this article is far cleaner than the mega-expensive analog gear of years gone by.
As a result, you should sing with a moderate level of volume.
You should also be sure to clearly shape your vowels when you are singing. Shaping your vowels will allow you to deliver more emotion into the song.
You will also be better able to blend your vocals with the background instruments.
You want the loudest part of your song to go no higher than 75 percent up the volume meter on Pro Tools.
Make adjustments to the volume on the Gain knob of your audio interface rather than on the computer software.
You should wear headphones when you are recording your vocals. This will allow you to hear the music as you record so that the microphone will only hear your voice.
Plug the headphones into the headphone jack of your audio interface.
The interface will provide a volume knob to control the volume of music that you are hearing through the headphones.
Tip: With digital recording, you get what is called latency, which is a delay of a fraction of a second before you hear your voice through the headphones.
That can be quite distracting. Most software has ways to lessen this effect. In Pro Tools, they have Low Latency monitoring.
You can find this under Options at the top of the screen. Sometimes there will even be a feature on the audio interface that allows you to reduce latency.
Recording the Vocals
You are now set up to record. Here are some tips to help you get the best out of your recording session:
In the chorus, create a double track to make the chorus sound bigger and more powerful than in the verse.
To do this, create a new track and record enable it. Lower the volume of the first track and increase the volume of the double track. Now sing the chorus.
Experiment with layering tracks to get the desired effect. You can even layer three or four tracks on the chorus to make it more powerful.
You will notice that your finished product still doesn’t sound quite as clean as the music you listen to on the radio.
You may find that certain phrases and words are hard to distinguish. The reason is that they are lacking what is referred to as compression.
Most home recording studios will not have a compressor. But there will be a recorder in the software which you can use later to perfect your sound.
Once you have recorded the various tracks of your song, the next step is called mixing.
This is when you take all the tracks and enhance and tweak them to make them sound as good as they are going to get.
Recording your own, original song that is of professional quality in your own home studio is definitely doable.
But it is not something that you should rush into.
Take your time, spend a bit of money to get the right equipment and follow through on our step by step process and you’ll be able to produce a song that sounds as good as it gets.