Home Sweet Home Recording: 10 Tips to Make Your Tracks Shine

So as to set the record straight, I’m going to make the following disclaimer: I am not Mutt Lange. I am not Rob Cavollo. I am not Jimmy Iovine or Daniel Lanois or Steve Albini, nor will I ever be in the same orbit as those stars, unless you give me a broom to sweep up their studio floors.

But I’ve had my peak moments. A song remix I did for a Disney movie beat out several attempts by Maurice Joshua (Beyonce, Michael Jackson). I scored an award-winning indie film, start to finish, in 2013. Just prior, Special Olympics commissioned me to write and record an album for young athletes. I’ve mixed, mastered and recorded albums by pop, blues, modern rock, and folk acts; singer-songwriters and weekend warriors; family bands and theater ensembles.

My partial resume is relevant here for just one reason: I did it all at home, bouncing from my basement to office to bathroom (not just for pee breaks, mind you).

Home recording presents a real challenge, especially if you lack the resources of the Big Boys. But you’d be amazed how ingenuity, creativity and an adventurous spirit can make up for the gear you don’t own. No baffles? No mix board? No drum room? No problem! By way of analogy: My Italian mama cooked up incredible spreads that beat anything I’ve eaten in a fancy Italian restaurant.

So are you ready to whip up some home cookin’? Here are 10 tips for maximizing the quality of your recordings so that they stand out from the cheesy demo crowd.

1) Use mic distance to your advantage.

The late Jay Bennett of Wilco once noted that most musicians fail to realize that recordings aren’t just stereo: They’re also perceived by depth, too. Experiment with recording guitars, amps and even vocals at some distance from the mic. If you have two mic preamps, try one mic up close and one 5 or 10 feet away.

2) Pump your bass through a pedal or amp simulator.

Unless you own a top-flight preamp, bass signals plugged in direct to your recorder will tend to sound flaccid. You can always try to “fix it in the mix,” but I much prefer going through a SansAmp—one of the all-time great pedals for a bass—or a Line 6 Bass Pod. Look around and you can easily find either one of those items for less than $200. In a pinch a Tube Screamer, lightly overdriven, works well too. (Also: I love Tube Screamers on cheap keyboard horns to get a funkier sound.)

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3) Rehearse and rehearse your performance before you hit record.

In the digital age there’s too much temptation to throw anything down and edit the crap out of it. But you’ll capture much more energy and excitement if you can nail that instrument pass or vocal in a single take. Know the part by heart before you record; if you must edit, try splicing between whole sections of various takes to preserve a live feel.

4) Beg, steal or borrow the coolest instruments you can.

OK, don’t steal them. But chances are you have friends who own killer guitars, keyboards, amps and mics. I’ve loaned my gear out to my musician friends, and they’ve loaned stuff to me. Always consider odd instruments you hardly ever hear on home recordings: bass harmonicas, baritone guitars, Omnichords (a kid’s electronic instrument) and four-string tenor guitars (popularized recently by Neko Case). Think different, sound different.

5) Help out that drum machine.

If you’re using a drum machine, you’ve got an uphill battle: repetitive patterns, sub-standard samples, tambourines that lack dynamic, sounds that lack soul. So try doctoring it up any way you can: Distort it. Phase it. Turn various effects pedals on and off. My favorite trick for drum machines is pushing them really hard through a budget compressor, in this case a dbx 163x. It has one slider on it. Bonehead simple, even for me.

6) Don’t mix on a full stomach.

As a chowhound, this one’s tough for me. But mixing on a full stomach draws blood away from your ears and places a strain on them. Save the big meal for afterwards as reward for a job well done.

7) Audition your mixes before and after.

Sufjan Stevens proved you can mix great albums using headphones. But it’s advisable to bounce back and forth between headphones and monitors, even if your speakers are cheap. Get the best headphones you can afford; a pair of Grado SR225Is will run you $200 new, and they sound fantastic. After you mix, audition your results in several environments—your car stereo, on headphones, your home stereo—to see if you’ve nailed the results.

8) Zap “demo-itis” with proper mastering.

The typical home recording often sounds cheap because it isn’t mastered properly. I master my own recordings now, but for years went to a big studio to get the job done right. It’s a small investment (maybe $100) to get multiple cuts gussied up. Remember: A recording without mastering is like cake without frosting.

9) Don’t be so quick to erase your “mistakes.”

Miles Davis once said, “Mistakes? There are none.” My go-to acoustic guitar recording setup resulted from a mic stand that accidentally drooped. I’ll never forget the out-of-tune scratch guitar that chorused beautifully when I laid the “keeper” track down. Be open to how a particular sound, track or texture can produce a one-of-a-kind feel. The corollary: Tracks that sound homely on their own can feel exciting when placed correctly in a mix.

10) Always, always experiment.

I like to take days off where the red light (and its accompanying jitters) turns into a green light. I have fun. I try to make myself laugh. I’m a kid in a sandbox: Anything goes. This is how you’ll come up with your own sounds and tricks that not even Mutt Lange knows. I once made an entire recording with a Blue Snowball mic just to see if I could: guitars, vocals, everything. The bass went through an Orange Micro Terror amp. So did the slide guitar, which I think I played with a nine-volt battery instead of a proper slide because I felt lazy. Terrible choices, right? The finished recording rolled over the final credits in that award-winning indie film I mentioned earlier.

Music is, was and always will be a communal activity. Talk to other home recording wizards and ask how they do it. As they share their secrets, share yours as well. None of us has all the answers and chances are you’ll learn something cool—even from a beginner. Keep that community vibe going, even if you like to record solo in your coat closet.

Hmmmm. Coat closet. Haven’t tried that yet.

About the Author:

Lou Carlozo cuts and mixes almost all his music at his sweet home in Chicago. He’s been a home recording enthusiast ever since he used grant money to buy a Tascam 246 Portastudio instead of the home computer recommended by the Rutgers College dean. He still owns that Tascam; the computer would’ve wound up in a junkheap decades ago. Address your home recording questions to him in the comments.

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