Commercial studios have procedures and systems in place to make the recording process run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Their gear is inventoried and easily accessible, session documentation is standardized, and their personnel know what they need to do to.
Home studios are less organized by their nature. While that’s not usually a problem when you’re working alone, it can be if you’re doing a larger, more complicated session that’s outside your comfort zone, such as recording a band or ensemble. In such cases, the more you plan, prepare, and get organized in advance, the better the result will likely be.
This article focuses mainly on preparing for a session at a home studio that involves a group with a drummer, but many of the ideas will translate for other types of recording situations.
The first thing you want to do is figure out a step-by-step workflow for the session, taking into account the physical and gear limitations of your space. Making it up as you go along on the day you record is flirting with disaster.
If you’re recording a drummer, you’ll probably want to start by capturing basic tracks (drums, bass, and possibly rhythm guitar or keyboards), and then overdub the additional instruments and vocals. Depending on your equipment and the layout of your studio, it may be more efficient to focus on getting usable bass and drum tracks, and consider everything else you record to be scratch tracks that you’ll subsequently replace.
The most significant logistical conundrum you’ll face when planning your basic-tracking session will likely be where to situate the drummer. It is important to place him or her in another room, if at all possible, to achieve some isolation. The farther the room is from the rest of the open mics, the better.
If you have a cable snake and live in a house, try putting the drummer on a different floor. If you don’t have a snake, you can extend the reach of the mic cables by connecting two or more together and use headphone extensions to run the headphone mix to the drum room. It’s not an ideal solution, but it will work in a pinch.
Even with the drummer out of the room, there may still be too much bleed into the other mics—such as on the guitar amp—and you may need to record anything else that is not a scratch track, direct. This means that, unless the guitarist is going to record through an amp-modeling hardware device—or you have interface that lets you record with amp modeling in the low-latency mix—the guitar will sound totally clean and dry (with no amp tone) as you’re recording. The guitarist probably won’t be happy with that, so he or she might want to use a hardware amp-modeling processor as a DI in order to record with some tone.
Unless your music is strictly instrumental, you’ll probably want the vocalist to sing a reference track as you record each song, to keep the other musicians from getting lost in the arrangement. That’s another reason to locate the drums in another room: You don’t want those scratch vocals leaking into the drum mics. Bleed such as that can make mixing a nightmare.
INS AND OUTS
Once you have your workflow sussed out, it is time to figure out if you have the correct number and types of inputs—mic, instrument and line—to make it work. I’ve found it helpful to use a spreadsheet application such as Microsoft Excel when figuring out what I need and what I have (Figure 1, above). I start by listing the instruments in the left-hand column, with a row for each instrument or vocal track, the number of inputs and the mic or DI that I plan to use.
Once you know the total input count—let’s say it is eight mics and two direct instruments—compare it to what you have on your interface. For recording basic tracks with drums, it is quite possible you’ll need more mic inputs than your interface offers. There are a few ways to expand the number of mic inputs: If your interface has more line inputs than mic inputs (which is typical), use standalone mic preamps if you have them. (You could also borrow or rent them.) Then, connect the line output from all of the mic preamps into the line inputs on your interface.
If your mic preamp has optical (ADAT) inputs, and you have or can borrow another mic pre or interface unit that is also ADAT compatible, you can expand the I/O that way. Each ADAT Lightpipe connection can pass 8 channels of digital audio.
If you have access to another interface but it doesn’t have optical connectivity, you could use your computer to create an aggregate device that lets you use them together. That way, your DAW will recognize the inputs of both devices. On a Mac, it is simple to accomplish using the Audio/MIDI Setup application that comes with the OS. On Windows, it’s not always possible, but some people have had success using the ASIO4ALL utility for creating an aggregate interface.
Aggregate setups are probably best as a last resort, as they can have clocking issues and may not give you the same performance that you would get from a standalone interface, or from interfaces that are connected using ADAT Lightpipe.
If you don’t have the I/O count that you think you’ll need for the session, ask bandmates and friends if you can borrow additional gear. If that doesn’t solve your problems, consider using a smaller miking setup on the drums to save inputs. A little online research will yield plenty of information about two- and three-mic methods for recording drums. They won’t give you the same flexibility when mixing as you would get with a larger configuration, but you can still get quality results.
CHOOSE YOUR INPUTS
The next step is to figure out which inputs you will use for which sources. When tracking basics, allocate your best quality mic preamps to the most critical elements, such as kick, snare, and overheads. Use the lesser ones for any room mics and for scratch tracks.
Put the input device name in the next column over from the corresponding source in your spreadsheet, so that you know which sources are going through which device. Being able to see them laid out like this makes it easier to refine your decisions about those assignments.
Next, inventory the mics and DI boxes you have at your disposal, and decide which will be used for what source and put that into the next column in the spreadsheet. Hopefully, you’ll own or have access to a dedicated bass-drum mic and appropriate mics for the other drums.
You’ll also need to calculate how many and what type of stands and cables you’ll need. And as long as you’re in inventory mode, check that you have enough headphones, as well. Most musicians own a pair of decent headphones, so ask your bandmates or friends to bring their own if you don’t have enough.
You will also need a headphone amp to create enough feeds for everyone. If you don’t already own one and can’t borrow one, there are many, inexpensive 4-output models. You won’t get the same sound quality as with a higher-quality rackmount unit, but you’ll be able to get by.
Headphone extension cords are another essential item for sessions with multiple musicians. They solve the unavoidable problem of headphone cables being too short to stretch from your interface outputs or headphone amp across the room to the talent. You can get headphone extension cables for under $10 apiece, and they are well worth the investment. Figure on having one extension cable per musician.
If the drummer is in another room, you will need a talkback mic to communicate with him or her. If you don’t have an interface or monitor controller with talkback built in, create your own makeshift talkback system by connecting a dedicated mic to an input on your interface (yes, this will use up an input that otherwise could be for a recording source), and make sure it’s patched to the headphone mix.
Alternatively, you could use the open mic the singer is using for scratch vocals for talkback. Either way, the drummer can respond by speaking into one of the open mics on the kit.
A multichannel audio interface will likely have its own mixer software for creating low-latency (direct hardware-monitoring) headphone mixes (see Figure 2). The ability to create more than one mix is extremely helpful. Inevitably, at least one musician will need a mix that is a little different from the others; for example, if you’re using a click and the drummer is the only one who wants it in the headphones.
On the day of the session, expect that, after you’ve gotten sounds for the drums, bass and any other instruments, you’re going to have to spend a while dialing in a monitor mix (or mixes). Expect some grousing and grumbling when the musicians realize that each of them can’t have their own custom mix.
A note of caution: Interface mixer applications tend to be pretty complicated. If you’re not totally familiar with how to get around on them, study the manual and practice in advance. You don’t want to be in the position of having to look up and figure out features during the session, while the musicians wait impatiently.
TEMPLATES OF GOODNESS
Another productive task to accomplish in advance is to develop a custom session template in your DAW. You can create it once you’ve figured out how many inputs you need and where they will be patched.
You can create a template that includes all the inputs pre-assigned, and everything nicely organized and color-coded (see Figure 3). You do not want to configure all of this from scratch during the session; it will slow you down, considerably. Assuming you’re doing a multisong project, you could even use the template to create individual DAW files in advance for each song you’ll be recording.
Another important item that is often overlooked is drive space. First, make sure the hard drive you plan to use has enough free space on it to capture all of the songs. Second, make sure you have a way to back it up immediately after the session.
TEMPO OF DOOM
Now, we come to a sticky subject: song tempos. Let me start by emphasizing that you don’t want to decide song tempos at the session. Invariably, they won’t be optimal, and usually, due to the excitement and high energy of the session, they’ll be too fast. Therefore, it’s a crucial part of your preparation to have your tempos nailed down in advance.
The best time to figure out tempos is during rehearsal. Figure out the optimal tempos, and, if you can, grab your phone or a portable recorder and record the songs as you rehearse them. Check those recordings a day or two later, when you have fresh perspective, and see if the tempos sound right or need adjusting. Make sure to have your tempo list handy at the session or, even better, preset the tempos in those individual song files that you created with the template.
If at all possible, rehearse the material extensively before the session. A tight band will be much more efficient when recording. The more you turn the arrangements into muscle memory, the more relaxed, natural and mistake-free the playing will be on session day.
Another critical decision to make in advance is whether or not to use a click track. Some musicians are relaxed playing to a click and don’t find it to be a hindrance, while others recoil at the idea, saying it hinders the natural flow of the music.
There are tangible benefits when using a click. Most importantly, it keeps the tempos from straying during the song. Another advantage is that each song section will be at the same tempo each time it occurs in the arrangement, which opens up editing possibilities later on. For instance, if, a day or two after the session, you discover that the bass player didn’t totally nail his or her part in verse 3, you can copy that same measure from verse 2 and paste it to replace the faulty one. Without a click, the tempos between sections will likely be too variable to allow for such editing.
Click tracks also have a downside. Musicians who aren’t used to playing with them find them difficult to deal with. Also, for some kinds of music, and especially songs played at slow tempos, the rigidity of a click can detract from the subtle tempo fluctuations that normally occur and that make a song feel natural. The best way to know if a click is going to be practical on a given song is to try using it at a pre-session rehearsal. Based on the results, you may decide to dispense with the click on some songs.
One way to get the benefits of the click without freaking out those who are click averse is to only feed the click to the drummer, which you can only do if you have the capability to create a separate headphone mix. In that scenario, the drummer plays to the click and the other musicians follow the drummer.
On the day of the session, do as much prep as you can before anyone arrives. Place all the mics on their stands, run cables to your interface and put out the headphones.
Test all the mics by putting your DAW in record mode and making sounds in front of each one. Then, with some music looping in your DAW, check that all the headphones are getting audio. Whatever you can do to get ready before the musicians arrive will fill you—and them—with confidence and will get things started in a positive direction.
In summary, the more you prepare for your recordings, the less chaotic the process will be, and the more you’ll be able to focus on the music. If you don’t, you’re liable to be running around at the last minute to borrow another stand or mic cable, furiously configuring inputs in your DAW while the other musicians wait impatiently or having to do numerous takes because you’re not well-rehearsed.
There will always be unexpected hiccups during any session, but there won’t be nearly as many if you’ve prepared diligently.