Tool Time: Home Studio Tricks and Tips

A lot of guitarists have discovered the many benefits of owning a home studio. You can record at any time, day or night. You can experiment radically with effects and recording techniques. You can learn a great deal about the recording process, and what makes a great track or a killer sound. If it requires 50 takes to record a great solo, then you have the freedom and unlimited time to record that great solo. Best of all, with the escalation in quality of home recording gear, it is possible to create your master tape(s) without ever booking time in a 'real' studio. The amount of money required to outfit a master tape quality studio has dropped to the point where it is to any musician's benefit to consider putting together a writing/rehearsing/recording space that can be used for multiple projects.

Those of you who already own a home studio, whether it's modest or quite extensive, know that a lot of responsibility comes along with the benefits of freedom. Most recording equipment requires at least some minimal maintenance. It's now your job to troubleshoot connections and eliminate squeaks and rattles. Without engineers and producers around, all the decisions about what to do and how to record are yours. There may be many times where the opinion of someone else would help to create a better track or enhance a mix - will you end up simply settling for mediocrity?

All home studio owners will definitely benefit by at least attempting to find other musicians (in your local area or all over the world on the Internet) that also are recording in home or project studios. By sharing our common experiences and individual knowledge we can all benefit greatly, and the odds of us all achieving our goals are increased. At Guitar Nine, we are starting a registry of home studio owners on the Internet, so that when you've made the decision to go it alone, you can at least find help and support within the global community.

In the meantime, there are plenty of time-tested tips and tricks that you may not have thought of, or may have known about and forgotten, that you can use to enhance your home-studio tracks and reduce the chances of having to book time at $100 an hour. There are probably an endless number of ways to improve your studio and your music. This topic lends itself to a regular update of new tips and ideas. Without further ado, let's look at some ways to improve the output of your home studio.

Drum Machines: A Home Studio Necessity?

1. Avoid quantizing drum tracks whenever possible. The feel of the drum tracks is usually completely ruined when quantizing the tracks to 16th, or even 32nd notes. Many sequencers and modern drum machines offer an 'imperfect' quantization option or method, that moves notes close (but not exactly) to where they should be. If you are not a drummer, some quantization will almost certainly be necessary, but try not to overdo it.

2. Look for creative ways to enhance drum tracks. Many musicians hook up a drum machine and expect all the percussion to come from it alone. Use a keyboard sound module to layer additional sound or completely replace certain drum parts. For example, you might take the snare part and have a short percussive noise sound from a sound module play the same part. This serves to enhance or beef up the original part, as well as making it unique (let's face it, Alesis and Roland have sold a lot of drum machines). You might even delete the original snare part if it seems to improve the track.

3. Don't own a sound module? Consider adding some real-live percussion to the drum machine mix, such as a shaker, tambourine, or even a non-instrument sound like a spoon against a television screen (careful!). You only need a halfway decent microphone to do the job, and it will add a touch of realism and originality to the percussion track.

4. When using the step-entry function of a sequencer to enter your drum tracks, remember to go back and alter the dynamics of the parts by adjusting individual note velocities. Step-entered drum parts can be the most robotic, not only because they are quantized, but because there is no dynamic variation, no accents, no flams, etc. If you have the patience for it, go back and adjust individual velocities (especially with high-hat parts) to the point where the track doesn't seem so static. If your sequencer offers a 'feel' function, to adjust drum hit timings and velocities, then take advantage of it, because you will save tons of time editing. You can always go beck and edit some more...

Effects: Or in This Case, the Lack of Them

5. Own a sampler? Lucky you - did you ever use it to get around the lack of effects devices at mix down? You can sample the snare drum from your drum machine as it goes into a reverb unit for example, then edit your sequence to have the snare part trigger the sampled snare, with the reverb. This frees up the reverb processor for use with another instrument or track.

6. With only one or two effects devices (or effects sends on your mixer), printing effects to tape or disk may become a necessity. Those of us who do this realize that a perfectly good track may be ruined by adding too much effect. One tip when recording to a hard disk recorder is that you can record your guitar dry, for example, then solo the guitar part and run it through a multi-effects device. You can record the effected guitar to a second track. If the effect sounds good you can delete the original track, or if it sounds too unnatural, undo the recording and try again. If you have the disk space you can keep the original dry guitar track (muted), in case you need to change your mind later.

7. If you find you have to record with effects to tape or disk in real-time, experiment with the effects settings when you are setting levels for the recording. If you're a normal musician, you will tend to set the effects a tad too high. When you think you have your effects settings right, take a deep breath and give the wet/dry mix knob about a one-eighth turn back to dry. You'll have to trust me on this one.

Noise Noise Noise

8. The number one way to reduce noise in your studio (aside from moving out of the city) is to optimize the operating levels of all the gear in the studio; mixers, amps, effects devices - everything. I have written an entire article devoted to this topic called "Setting Levels". By applying the techniques in that article, your home studio should be sounding A-OK. Think of it as a studio tune-up...

9. Use a noise gate when recording miked instruments to eliminate noise between musical phrases. A noise gate won't help with hum or hiss from high-gain amplifiers, but most of that noise is masked by the music itself. When recording to a hard disk recorder with a graphic editor, just throw away your noise gate because you can select sections of the track without actual music and simply 'cut' out the noisy 'silence'! This has an additional benefit - available hard disk space is increased with every eliminated section.

10. Use cardioid microphones wherever possible, which are directional, and reject sounds outside of their pickup pattern. If you find noise from the street coming in from a single direction, just using a directional mic facing the opposite direction will keep the outside sounds to a minimum.

11. If your recorded tape tracks already contain hiss, even if audible just at the softest sections of the track, your best bet is to use a single-ended noise reduction system like the HUSH system by Rocktron. The unit can be inserted between the noisy tape tracks and the mixer, and the results can be controlled so that a good balance between tonal loss and noise reduction is achieved.

Keeping It Hooked Up And Ready To Go

12. As much as possible, keep your studio ready to go at a moments notice. If you can wire your studio gear so that the equipment you use each day can be turned on with one switch, you will be far more likely to run to it with a new idea than if you have to power up ten or fifteen different devices. Also, while it's great to keep dust out by covering everything, you may be sending a signal to your subconscious mind that your studio isn't ready to serve you at a moment's notice. Invest in a good electronics vacuum instead - and use it.

13. If you use a computer for sequencing, keep it on and running. I discovered this about five years ago when I bought a fax/modem and I realized that to receive faxes I would have to keep my computer running all the time. Once I got over that initial shock, I found out the computer would work just fine (the computer is still running today, by the way). Now I keep my sequencing programs open all the time, I only have to turn the monitor on and I'm ready to work...a huge time-saver.

14. Avoid rewiring your studio every time you want to experiment with the connections of your effects units by buying a good patch bay. It will double the cable costs of any device you hook up to it, but it allows you the flexibility to be spontaneous, and prevents you from causing more problems by forgetting how things were originally connected. If key devices (effects, guitar outputs) are wired to the patch bay, experimentation becomes easy and intuitive.

Monitoring The Mix

15. My favorite way to get a reality check on my mix is to play a CD of the same music style with similar production through the mixing board and A/B the sound with my mix. This a great way to verify your mix if your monitor speakers are not the greatest, or your headphones have seen better days. As long as your mix is close to what you are hearing from the CD, you're probably on target. This will prevent you from boosting the bass, for example, simply because your monitor speakers are weak below 80 Hz.

16. Always make a cassette/CD-R mix of a tune and listen to it in the car as you're driving. I have heard things in the car that didn't come out even over the 'best' speakers; it goes along with the advice that says you shouldn't commit to a mix unless you have heard it in a variety of listening situations. I trust the car; others trust a boombox or an old faithful stereo system. Find a second and third location in which you can listen to your mixes to get a different perspective than the studio can provide.

I'm planning to share a lot more tips for home studios in future columns. Please let me know your favorite tips and techniques for getting the most out of your home studio. And don't forget to join Guitar Nine's Home Studio Registry. The project you save -- may be your own.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

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