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Tips to Improve your Home Recording Setup

October 10, 2021
Home Recording setup with Cello and Microphone

Whilst live music was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in the recorded music market, with many musicians having to adapt to producing recordings at home. Whether you have to provide a recording for an audition, a professional remote recording soundtrack, or are just keen to record yourself, here are my tips to improve your home recording setup!

Room acoustics

  • Sound bounces off hard surfaces, creating an echo, so avoid large, empty rooms. Furniture, such as curtains and pillows are effective ways of softening the surroundings, absorbing some of the sound and dampening the echo. This will create a more focused sound from your instrument/ voice to the microphone.

Microphones (placement and equipment)

  • Mic placement: start by placing your microphone within a couple of feet of your instrument/ voice. The closer it is, the less background noise it will pick up. However, test out a few distances to find out what is the optimal distance for your instrument/ voice in the room you are recording in. Have someone walk around the room as you are performing, listening to your sound from various perspectives. Also, experiment with the height of the microphone.
  • When choosing microphones, there are three main types used in recording: condenser mics, dynamic mics, and ribbon mics. Condenser mics are highly sensitive, picking up detail and accuracy, and are better for recording higher frequencies and vocals. They are generally preferred in studio settings. However, they do not often work as well for louder sounds, such as bass amplifiers. For loud, strong sounds, dynamic mics are often best. They are generally cheaper and more durable; however, they are not very sensitive to quiet or high frequency sounds. Dynamic mics are generally used in live settings under high sound pressure levels as they can withstand loud inputs before distortion to the sound occurs. Ribbon mics are able to capture sounds much like your ear will hear it. They are highly sensitive and are meant to be used on softer sounds, such as voice and strings. However, they are extremely fragile and expensive.  Condenser mics are generally considered the most versatile studio microphones.

             These examples of microphones are all made by the company, Røde.

  • When choosing microphones, you may also see the terms ‘cardioid’ and ‘omnidirectional’. Cardioid means that the microphone will only capture the sound directly in front of it, whereas an omnidirectional microphone will capture sounds from all around. Omnidirectional microphones are good if you want to record your instrument with some room ambience. Cardioid microphones are suitable if you want to record the direct sound of your instrument/ voice.
  • Most portable recorders have in-built microphones; however, it is still worth investing in an external one. 

Audio Levels

  • When noise levels are measured with a sound level meter (e.g. a recorder), the intensity of noise is measured in decibels (dB).
  • 0dB usually refers to the loudest level before distortion begins. When recording your audio, make sure the peaks in sound do not hit 0dB or go above 0dB. They should stay on the negative side, otherwise the sound will get distorted. A good range to keep your audio is around -10dB to -12dB (you can see the audio peaks on your recorder where you can adjust the recording level). 
  • Once you have recorded and are going to deliver your audio, for example on YouTube or Vimeo, make sure the peaks are as close to 0dB as possible (-2 or -3dB is a good level). Under 0dB means you won’t have distortion, and as it is close to 0, your audio be as loud as possible, meaning that on any device your recording will be heard well.
  • If you are recording directly into your computer, you will need to use an audio interface. Like a portable recorder, you can adjust the audio levels here. An audio interface is a device that you plug your microphones into for recording, as well as headphones for listening. They connect with your computer via a USB or Thunderbolt port.

Headphones and Speakers

  • If you are recording along to another soundtrack or click track, make sure the headphones you use to hear it through are fully enclosed. This will prevent your microphone picking up noise from your headphones. Also make sure the headphone volume is not too loud, especially if recording quiet tracks.
  • When you have produced your recording, listen back to it on a variety of speakers (phone speakers, Bluetooth speakers, headphones etc…) to give you an idea of how others will hear it when they play your recording through their own devices.

Filming Quality

  • Make sure the room is well-lit, and don’t have a bright light source behind you (e.g. a room light or windows), as this will leave you in silhouette.
  • Horizontal videos are more commonly used (unless you are filming for an Instagram reel, for example), so bear this in mind if you are filming on your iPhone or other smartphone.

Recording on an iPhone or other Smartphone

  • Make sure that the phone microphone is not covered.
  • Invest in a phone tripod so you can change the height and position of the microphone, and if filming on your phone too, it will keep the image steady.
  • It may be worth investing in an external microphone. A USB microphone can be plugged directly into your phone (or computer) and read by a recording software. Most USB mics are condenser mics; however, there are adapters that can turn dynamic mics into a USB mic.
  • Choose a good audio recording app. Look out for one that has an audio level indicator. WaveEditor is a free audio recorder and editor app.

                       Example of a USB Microphone     

Editing

  • If you are mixing multiple soundtracks, make sure you have edited them individually first!
  • Watch out for audio peaks (see Audio Levels)
  • There are some great free audio editing software programmes, such as Audacity and Ableton. Adobe Audition is also another good audio editing programme; however, it is not free (£19.97 per month).
  • If you want to edit your audio and video at the same time, you can do this in DaVinci Resolve (there is a free downloadable version). 

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