In an age where you don’t even need actual instruments to produce a song or a record, why would you ever need an engineer? There are plugins that will even “auto master” recordings for you. Some sound programs come with pre-recorded loops and all you have to do is cut and paste them. So why bother going to a sound studio?
First, I like to use an old favorite adage I frequently reference, “I can’t make chicken salad out of chicken poo.” In terms of sound, this means if you recorded with a terrible mic, or didn’t put the snare hits on 2 and 4, what can I as an engineer possibly do to make it sound better? Especially if it’s not multi tracked? Answer: not much.
Years before I had a home studio, I worked at Main Street Music recording and engineering there. I sat behind my boss and watched him work as much as I could. After using the Protools systems at work, I then bought my own copy and began to self record. But because I didn’t have the equipment I needed, know-how and only three or four years of experience, my results were somewhat lacking. The theory and structure of the song was there, but the mastering wasn’t. So, for my first album, I wound up farming out the mastering.
The first production software I ever used was a free software called Audacity. It is completely free, and somewhat simple to use. For a complete newbie, I would recommend the now discontinued Protools SE. Our studio here at Main Street Music now runs Protools LE.
Here’s a beat I did years ago in Audacity. As you can see, the levels aren’t quite there, some parts aren’t faded in and out correctly, and although it’s musically sound the engineering isn’t there.
A few years later though, while using Protools SE I utilized and learned from the presets that came with the software. The biggest thing I learned was you always have to tweak your presets. This is one of the first dynamic tracks I ever produced. That is, for dramatic effect, the track’s volume gets raised a few tenths of a DB at the end to hook in the audience a little more. Granted I’m not a giant fan of the vocals on this, but you’ll hear a major difference in this track. It has a lot of different layers to it, from the wind and solo guitar to the very end. Needless to say it also helped that I have a workstation keyboard that had some of the sounds native to the original track as well. I even redid the iconic drum fill.
Let’s get back to the main subject, when does home recording work? Well, it will work when you have the right mics and knowledge to make your track work. Otherwise, you may want to simply record the tracks and bring them to a studio to be mixed and mastered.
Since cell phones are ubiquitous these days, every musician– professional and armature– loves to pull them out and record live performances. Needless to say the major problem is, most phones, yes even iPhones, will not replicated amplified sound very well. Sometimes it will distort and live sound almost never translates to a good recording. Usually engineers setup two systems to record live; one for the house and another for recording.
That being said, depending on what you’re recording, there are ways to make your cell phone record better. First download an app that is made to record music and second purchase a cheap lavaliere mic you can connect to it. This is the one I use for both my phone and mp3 recorder. You don’t need an expensive mic because the mics made for these devices are lavalieres anyway.
If you’re doing this with any recorder, mic placement is a must. In this video of my jazz trio playing at the Norwalk Inn, you can see my recording mic is right behind me to ensure the sax will cut through the drums.
If you’re dedicated to being self sufficient in recording, record as much as possible and learn from others around you and resources you can find on the web. But leave the professional stuff to us engineers who have more experience.