Common Home Recording Stumbling Blocks and How to Avoid Them

I’m an enormous fan of all DIY recording scenarios. I haven’t ever looked back since I got my home studio up and running about six years ago. But for all of its perks—the theoretically “free” recording time, the freedom to record any time the mood strikes, the personalized gear choices, the bragging rights—recording music of professional quality in an environment that is not designed for the job has its dark side.

But here’s the kicker: most of the problems you’re likely to encounter have less to do with the tones you can achieve and more to do with mundane logistical problems. In this article, we’ll explore a few of the less-than-glamorous issues that can plague the home recordist, as well as a few tips to help you deal with them as best you can.

Ambient Noise and Other Distractions

If you’ve ever tried recording anything even remotely “delicate” at home before, you’ll likely share my astonishment at just how damn loud everything suddenly is. Seemingly innocuous things—fans, pets, airplanes, cars, furnaces, roommates crunching potato chips, even the fridge compressor—can become real take-wreckers. And while you certainly can’t control everything that the outside world is doing while you’re trying to artfully capture your next masterpiece, here are a few tips to keep in mind that might extend the life of your sanity.

Kill the AC/heater during tracking. Yes, this can get pretty uncomfortable in the dead of winter or middle of summer, but sorry, you just have to. Warn everyone you’re working with ahead of time to dress accordingly, and think of it as an excuse to “take 5” a little more often and pump these appliances back on for a few precious minutes. Actually, I’ve found that forced mini-breaks every 30-60 minutes or so improve everyone’s focus and performance, too.

Seemingly innocuous things—fans, pets, airplanes, cars, furnaces, roommates crunching potato chips, even the fridge compressor—can become real take-wreckers."

Explain your predicament. It’s worth taking the time to explain to anyone you live with that every move they make might get picked up by your microphones. Most non-musicians have no concept of just how powerfully sensitive a Neumann U 87 really is. As long as you do so respectfully, simply explaining your predicament will probably go a long way.

Communicate with those you’re recording. Since you probably don’t have a “little red light” in your home studio, try instituting your own homemade warning that you’re about to press record. This signal can be as “high-tech” as simply shouting “rolling in five!” five seconds before a take is going to start and “all clear!” when it’s over or pounding two times on the wall with your fist when you’re about to do something and three times when I’m done.

Strategize your working hours. To the extent possible, set your tracking times to correspond with times when the rest of your corner of the world is relatively calm and quiet. If you record in a rehearsal space, ask the bands around you what their schedules are like (astoundingly, almost all bands stick to regular schedules). If you’re recording in an apartment and can swing it, do your loudest work when people in your building are likely out and about, or within restricted hours on weekends. Where I live, most folks seem to be around in the mornings but largely at work during the day, so I usually start louder sessions, like those for a full band, no earlier than 11 AM and call it quits at 8 PM, so that I’m not incurring the wrath of anyone next door who may be trying to unwind or put a baby to bed.

Use it. I’ve found that, a lot of times, those odd bits of noise seeping onto the beginnings and ends of takes really add a lot of character to recordings. And usually, the bands I’m working with end up being pretty excited about them too. I’ve offered to edit out a car horn or dog bark from that’s just barely audible at the end of a take on numerous occasions, only to have the band stay my hand because everyone kinda digs it.

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Hums, Sizzles, and Grounding Issues

Fact: the “ordinary” power coming into a rickety old house or apartment wasn’t designed to run enormous chains of highly sensitive recording gear. Short of rewiring the whole place, you need a few workarounds so that you can forge ahead without tons of ground noise gumming everything up.

Power conditioners. Invest in as many of these bad boys as you need to run all of your boards, preamps, rack effects, computers, clocks, and other “control room” essentials. They’ll filter a good bit of the noise out of your electricity and prevent a power surge from frying anything critical. In addition to the traditional rackmountable options, you can also get power strip versions of these things, which are great for throwing around your live room spaces for use with amps, keyboards, and pedal boards.

Hum eliminators. Get a few spare ground/lift and hum-elimination gadgets to keep on-hand. I like the EHX Hum-debugger for guitar and pedal rigs and the Ebtech Hum Eliminator and Hum X a lot. In fact, Hum Xs basically live at the ends of all of my guitar amp cords. In my experience, frustrating “mystery noise” always totally derails a session, so it’s definitely worth the investment.

Trial and error. Try different sockets and outlets. I’m admittedly being pretty unscientific here, but sometimes certain circuits, and even particular outlets on those circuits, are just cleaner-sounding than others. If you find one, hook up one of those power-conditioned power strips to it and use it.

Good cable management. Use the highest quality cables you can get your hands on. Cheap cables are always asking for trouble. Keep cables and connectors clear of one another as best you can in those tight spots like pedalboards and outboard racks. And if you can help it, never use a longer run of cable than you need for any given job.

Of course, there will always be a few compromises when you’re recording at home, and none of these solutions will work for everyone in every situation. But like everything else in the DIY world, the whole point is to get creative with your problem solving so that you can get down to business. With an open mind and a little ingenuity, there’s no reason why a barking dog or sizzling amp should be preventing you from having epic recording sessions in your home studio.

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