10 Things You Could Be Doing Wrong When Recording at Home

The recording process is equal parts art and science. Some engineers choose to carefully dial in precisely calculated delay times, reverb tails, and EQ curves—others simply spin the knobs until it sounds good. There's no right or wrong approach, but there are a few guidelines that can help you capture quality recordings. Check out these 10 common mistakes people make when recording at home.

Recording Too Hot

Seriously, turn it down. Most modern engineers record their signals as loud as possible without clipping. That approach makes sense when working on analog systems, but in the digital domain it's a high-risk/no-reward move.

Analog and digital systems are fundamentally different. Analog systems measure level in dBvu, while digital systems measure level in dBfs. While these two units both measure amplitude, they do so with different scales. Think of it like this: If someone told you it was 75 degrees outside, that would make for a very pleasant day if you're measuring in Fahrenheit, and a global emergency if you're measuring in Celsius.

Pushing signals above 0 dBvu on an analog system introduces a subtle yet pleasant harmonic distortion that can fatten up tracks and help them cut through a mix—but no signal can exceed 0 dBfs. Pushing signals into the red on a digital system only introduces unwanted artifacts (unless, of course, you want such artifacts for creative reasons).

So, what level should you record at when using a DAW? Ideally your average signal level should be around -18 dBfs. That may seem low, especially when looking at the meters in your DAW, but -18 dBfs is the digital equivalent to 0 dBvu.

By recording with average signal levels around -18 dBfs, you run virtually no risk of peaking and creating unwanted artifacts. It also makes mixing easier, as you won't have to adjust the clip gain or lower the faders as much to keep your mix bus from clipping. Most digital audio manufacturers also design plugins to operate best when receiving signals at -18 dBfs.

Using the Wrong DI Box

Direct boxes are essential tools for recording instruments in the studio. They come in two basic flavors: passive and active. Passive DI boxes use a basic step-down transformer to convert instrument signals to mic-level inputs. Active pickups require a power source—like batteries or standard AC power—but offer advanced noise reduction, amplification, and more.

Most home studios have one or two cheap, road-worn passive DI boxes, but if you plan on tracking electric guitars or basses with passive pickups, you should get a nice active DI box. Acoustic/electric guitars tend to sound best through active DI boxes as well. Passive DI boxes are great for recording active sources like electronic drum kits, keyboards, and guitars with active pickups.

Improperly Using Plugin Presets

Plugins are designed to make your job easier, but some engineers use them as a crutch. Slapping a channel strip plugin on every track and selecting a preset from a menu does not make for a good mix. However, leaning too far in the opposite direction doesn't do you any favors either… If you frequently work within the same genre of music, it can save you a ton of time by making presets for common signal chains.

The best idea is a blend of the two approaches. Have presets available to save yourself some time, but don't be afraid to experiment. Use them as starting points and tweak settings to taste. Try something new and see what happens.

Using the Wrong Mic(s) for the Job

Home studio technology has advanced a lot over the last couple decades. Modern DAWs have made the process of making a record infinitely quicker and easier, but they've also made us lazy. With the advent of limitless track counts, some engineers have adopted an approach of setting up every mic they own and picking a favorite later.

Deferring decisions doesn't make good recordings. Try setting up a single mic and adjusting it until it sounds good. If you feel the sound is missing something, add another mic. And if you still feel the sound is missing something, start over.

Using the Wrong Pickup Pattern

When working with condenser mics you often have a variety of pickup patterns to choose from, but many engineers set them to cardioid and never think about it again. Experiment—it only takes a second to switch patterns and see what the other settings have to offer. Omnidirectional works great for capturing natural, realistic recordings, while figure-8 can offer the best of both worlds: a strong direct signal, with a controlled amount of ambiance.

Recording Vocals too Close

Singers have to be in a specific mental space to deliver a powerful vocal performance. Most singers feel they can deliver a better performance with the mic one to two inches away—or even touching their mouth. While that may be true, it certainly doesn't produce a better recording.

On-Stage Dual-Screen 6" Mic Pop Filter

Singing that close to the mic captures more unwanted mouth noises and creates a huge boost in the low-end due to the proximity effect. Most importantly, it creates a very unnatural sound—like that of someone signing directly into your ear at full volume.

When recording vocals it's best to place the singer up to 6" to 12" from the microphone.

Not Using an External Hard Drive

As technology continues to advance, we continue to push its limits. If you have a state-of-the-art processor, with a terabyte of storage space and 200 GB of RAM, then feel free to skip over this tip—but the rest of us can keep our DAWs from crashing in the middle of a session by springing for an external hard drive.

By storing your audio and session files on an external hard drive with a high transfer rate you leave more processing power for your operating disk to run complex tasks inside your DAW, resulting in fewer crashes and smashed keyboards.

Poor File Management

The life of a song is a long and arduous journey. It starts with a scratch recording to capture the idea, then a fully fleshed-out demo, then the studio recording, the edits, the rough mix, the revisions, and finally the masters. Oh, and don't forget about all of the MIDI files, samples, references, and session files.

Creating a file management system and sticking to it can save you a lot of time and energy in the studio. If you always save things in the same hierarchy you'll spend way less time searching for missing files and more time creating.

The system itself isn't important—whether you want to categorize it alphabetically, chronologically or however else is up to you—what's important is that you have a system and you stick to it.

Part of proper file management is routinely backing up your sessions too. Schedule a time to backup your operating system frequently, and try to archive sessions on a regular basis. It's also a good idea to backup your work in multiple places—preferably an external hard drive (separate from your session HDD), as well as a cloud storage option.

Spending Money on Gear Instead of Acoustic Treatment

SoundAssured Acoustic Foam Panels

Most home studios are built in bedrooms or basements with less-than-desirable acoustics. Most engineers choose to spend their hard-earned money on new gear thinking it will improve the sound of their music, but forgetting that the room you record and mix in has the biggest impact on your production.

It may not be as sexy as a new guitar or mic or compressor, but springing for professional acoustic treatment is one of the best returns on investment you can get in your home studio.

Not Having a Plan

When working from home it can be tempting to wing it. You inherently take the process less seriously when you're not putting money on the table for a session in a professional facility.

Treat your home studio sessions just like you would a "real" studio session—do pre-production, schedule a start and end time, and—above all else—give yourself a deadline. Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." If you don't give yourself a deadline and stick to it, you'll just keep working on the same songs until you hate them.

Don't be ashamed if you're guilty of some of these. All great artists break the rules sometimes, and one quick way to lose your creative spark is to be overly fussy. But avoiding these behaviors—and setting some better recording habits for yourself—will allow you to create with even greater abandon later.

Have your own tips and tricks for recording in your home studio? Let us know in the comments.

Basics of Home Recording: A Guide to Building and Using Your Home Studio
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