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Diy home recording is great but don’t ignore the details

If you could somehow time-travel to 1965, to Abbey Road Studios (at that time known as EMI Studios) when The Beatles were recording the album Help! and tell them you would be able to do all that they were doing in your bedroom 50 years from then, there is a high chance they would scoff at you and just ignored your presence altogether as a naive studio intern.

Cut to 2020, audio technology has developed in leaps and bounds in the past decades, especially with the advent of digital and the incorporation of computers into all spheres of the process of music-making and publishing. Today, you really can record a full-length album of any genre you might imagine (including classical) with just a computer, an audio interface of some kind, a pair of decent speakers or a headphone, and the required software and instruments to meet your particular needs. This whole setup can be had for 1/10th the price of what it would have cost, at minimum, to record music 20 years back. If you can afford a mid-end smartphone, you can afford to buy this setup. All this can be in your bedroom or a spare room that you have converted for this specific purpose, which you also have lovingly named ‘XYZ’ studio. You don’t have to carry your heavy instrument and go to another studio anymore, pay an hourly rent (or it could be your friend’s setup for free), be commanded by the recording engineer (even though you don’t want it), practice your parts well before you go into the studio to keep bill under budget, and of course, pay extra for lunch for everyone.

At home, you have none of the above to think of. You can sit down any time you want, connect your instrument or start programming your ideas straight into the recording software (it’s called the DAW, short for Digital Audio Workstation) and work for as long as you want to without having to worry about studio bills. You can send your parts to your bandmates, who can add in theirs in their own home setup and the process can continue till you are happy with the final product. Rinse and repeat. Sounds easy and fun, right? It is, but as with anything and everything in life, all this DIY audio work also comes with limitations.

Firstly, I am not agaist everyone having access to technology and the ability to explore their creativity with affordability and accessibility. It is truly another milestone of the modern world that this is available for almost every musician living today.

But with great accessibility comes greater responsibilities, or rather greater attention to details. There are basic technicalities involved with the operation of any equipment, however easy or complicated they might be. A musician does not have to know every function that their DAW has to offer. But he/she has to know how to dial in a proper gain structure on their soundcard, when to connect to a Mic input, an Instrument input and a Line input, whether to record to stereo track or mono, how to do proper crossfades with overlapping takes, how to edit out anything that is unmusical, how to export the tracks in the session before sending for mixing, etc. And I am not even going to go into how easy it is to be lazy and record an “okay” take when you know you could have done much better with someone else there to push you.

These are very simple things that most musicians recording at home seem to ignore, just wanting to get their ideas recorded and be done with it. There are numerous free videos on YouTube that teach these simple technicalities, and once you learn them, they become second nature. It is like driving. When you start learning to drive you have to keep track of when to press the clutch, when to change the gear, while at the same time keeping a lookout for the random pedestrian. A lot of musicians feel demotivated with the thought of having to get into the technical nitty gritties when they sit down to record, but hey, if you want to DIY and save money it does not mean you can skip the technicalities or leave it for someone else. You just have to, well, do it yourself.

Digital audio also leaves the possibility of doing a lot more at the mixing stage, so a lot of musicians prefer to leave a lot of decisions open while recording. But instead of giving references of other tracks whose snare tone you want right at the mixing stage, why not start with the reference when you are recording? Why not try to see how close you can get to your favorite bass or guitar tone before hitting the record button? Today, all guitar and bass amps have a digital simulation of some kind, which you can use to get close to your favorite tone from some other artist. You just have to do a bit of research about what gear is being used and that is easier today than getting a no-refusal yellow cab.

Most musicians have some kind of finished idea of their song in their head. It is almost as if they can hear how the song sounds even before recording it. If you use that as a blueprint while recording and then getting the tones for your drums, bass, guitars, synths, vocals or any other instrument that you play, your song will sound much closer to the version running inside your head instead of waiting till the mixing stage to imprint that, whoever might be mixing it, be it you or your bandmate or a professional mix engineer. Yes, it takes a lot of practice and back-and-forth and critical listening to match the sound in your head to what you are actually listening to from your speakers, but that’s the ‘price’ you pay when you want DIY to save money.

In the early days, when musicians recorded on analog consoles and tapes, there was very little that could be done at the mixing stage considering every analog eq, compressor or effect cost a lot of money. So they had to get most of the sound imparted while recording. By the time the mixing started, the song already sounded close to what they had visioned and mixing couldn’t make or break it. The song and recording had already made it from the artist’s mind.

If you keep recording your song with the lookout that certain things will be fixed during mixing, more often than not you will be disappointed. So, it’s best to research what you want even before you record or consult with a professional on how you could achieve that sound.

Finally, the most important part of any audio work is the monitoring, which includes the speakers that you are listening through and your room. What you are hearing is not actually what is being recorded. Unless you constantly keep referencing on decent headphones with reference tracks, you are bound to be misled by your speakers and the room. It is a limitation of home setups where any kind of meaningful acoustic treatment and proper speaker placement is not possible. But then again DIY has its limitations.

I am not trying to discourage any musician trying to do DIY home recordings, but for the sake of their own music they should try to be aware of the problems that come with it. Only when you accept the problems, can you take necessary steps to try to solve them. With the plethora of information available right now, finding ways to tackle these problems is also very accessible. Agreed some of them come with a cost. But if you go in with the mindset that i will take whatever comes, you will slowly lose love and motivation for getting better at your craft. Making and recording music to sound like the music that inspired you to make it, that comes for a price.

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