When you are recording audio, there are two things you are mainly concerned with. Performing well, and capturing audio well.
In certain situations – for example, when you are recording the audio output from a virtual instrument leaving a MIDI or Instrument type of track (in your DAW) – there will be no need for you to perform, since the MIDI or Instrument track already contains the data representing your performance, and this simply has to be captured permanently while replaying the performance via MIDI data triggering the instrument.
For this, you will be using the Bounce To Disk feature in your DAW software. You should take your time, and get the most perfect levels and sounds you can (at this stage, it can be hard to decide what you need), since you are committing the sounds to an audio recording rather than a MIDI data recording.
The beauty of this method is that you can re-run the MIDI data any time you like to generate alternative sounds or parts that work better in hindsight. A second benefit is that the processor cycles of the CPU are now only needed to replay the audio track you end up with (after you do the bounce) rather than keeping the instrument samples in memory and playing the instrument plug-in from scratch each time, which would have mean replaying the MIDI data as well as generating the audio on the fly each time. This way, you just replay a single audio file, which is far less processor-intensive.
Back to the two things you need to care about when you record…
Facilitating an emotional (or deadly efficient) performance is one side of this coin, and the performance being captured as well as can possibly be expected is the other side.
The performer’s needs must outweigh technical needs in this equation, provided there is no barrier to capturing audio and things in your studio are working properly.
The mix you give the musicians to play to is for their benefit, not the engineer’s, so when you are at home doing your own thing you should always give the inner artist free rein to complain to the part of you that’s coping with engineering simultaneously. Artist beats engineer – it’s just like the way scissors always beat paper.
Generating appropriate emotion while playing or singing is the primary focus, not whether something looks a touch low on the meters or perhaps a bit too bright. These types of issues are not worth stopping a great take for.
Another thing you can do is set a nice vibe up in the room, for yourself and for any other performers. Room lighting is an obvious source of vibe you can control and plan for to some degree.
USE ADEQUATE LIGHTING
Consider the lighting in the room. You want enough light to see what you are doing and you may need to read pages containing lyric or music details while you play or sing. You may also need to find a cable connection in a hurry, so have a torch handy in case things are actually quite dark at the back of some of the equipment, as is often the case.
It’s also very important the lights are not so bright as to take atmosphere away if the performer is responding well to the light levels. Using too much bright light can make you feel as if you are in a no-frills budget superstore among the own-brand canned soups, rather than in a sensitive setting for baring your soul and performing your music.
I have always enjoyed hanging colourful Christmas lights around the room to add a cool glow and festive atmosphere. It works for me.
A clip-on light for a music stand is another handy purchase, and you should always keep a hand-crankable dynamo type of torch on hand for emergency lighting. Make sure you have a task light or two to bring into play if there is still a chance that people may be unable to see what they need to.
Finally, make sure the lights do not have a dimmer switch, and if they do, make sure you leave it set to full ON, not partly on, since this will normally prevent those stray, unwanted hums and buzzes and similar non-musical noises from being induced into audio signals due to emanating out of your lighting dimmer circuits. Using balanced cables and shielded cables goes a long way to preventing these issues from arising in the first place, since balanced cables are excellent at hum and noise rejection, by design.
MAKE PEOPLE FEEL AT EASE
If anyone is coming in to record with you that has not done so before, let them get used to the place for a bit before you dive straight into the red light. Everybody feels good having a warm-up to shake the cobwebs off and get the air moving in the room (and their lungs, if they are singing).
Warm-ups can contain some great ad-libs, so it’s a good idea to record everything all the time. All the time. All the time. All the time.
Get in the habit, and you’ll be glad you did! It also has the joyous side-effect of curing red light fever . It’s much harder to be worried about the record light if it’s ALWAYS on, whether you are ready or not, and this works whether you are simply noodling for an idea, or performing properly a part you are already familiar with and can execute well, time after time.
Most folks prefer to work in a clean and friendly space, so try to keep things clean and tidy and reasonably organized, without being too fanatical. Musicians are pretty casual folk too, for the most part, so streamlined efficiency can be off-putting for some. Strike a careful balance, not going too far either way.
PEN AND PAPER
Just because you have a digital doo-dah, doesn’t mean you have to whip it out every five seconds. Try leaving good old pen and paper on hand, so that no technical reasons can impede the flow of a good lyric idea or melodic line being at least written down for posterity, if not recorded.
When you are selecting the best bits of alternate takes (comping) for assembly of a master take, you might find pen and paper amazingly effective for noting the best lines or parts of lines in a vocal. Simply have the lyric to hand, and underline the bits you want to keep, using a different copy of the lyric sheet for each take. Soon, you will have a guide to where all the good bits are in every take. Now, you can make real progress with your comping activities, since you have a treasure map for the buried gold.
It can also be really handy for networking purposes if you don’t have a tech gadget to help and you want to keep a note of somebody’s email or phone number, or perhaps their website address or the name of a music supervisor the guitarist says would love your song.
Finally, pen and paper help with new song ideas, which can show up at the most inopportune moments.
It’s easy to get sidetracked with all the things you have to worry about when you are recording, but it’s very important to remember that the artist side should (almost) always beat the engineer side in an argument over technical details.
A bad song recorded exceptionally well is still a bad song.
A great song recorded over the phone lines long-distance is still a great song.
Most listeners will know the difference! Have fun, and good luck with your recordings. Enjoy! Tomorrow, the topic of recording drums arises. It’s a huge topic, so I’m approaching it in a conversational way, and I hope it will help anyone who wants to figure out how to enjoy recording great drums at home. What I can’t promise is that your neighbours will love you!