Tool Time: Home Studio Tricks and Tips, Volume 2

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 more ways (check out the original Tool Time: Home Studio Tricks and Tips) to improve the output of your home studio.

Poor Recordings And Performances: Remixing May Save The Day

1. Let's face it, sometimes a vocal performance can be slightly out of tune throughout the entire song. Two tricks that may help involve the use of chorus and pitch shifting effects. Running the vocal track through a chorus helps thicken the sound and since the chorus effect works by manipulating the pitch of the source sharp and flat, the original vocal part will appear to be more in tune than it is. If the vocal seems consistently sharp or flat, using a pitch shifter allows you to shift the pitch a few cents to compensate, and you can try blending the shifted vocal back with the original for a thicker sound as well.

2. One of the biggest problems that can cause mixing problems is excessive drum track leakage. You spend two hours setting up six microphones to record six separate drum tracks, and after it's all recorded, the snare track sounds more like a composite snare, cymbal and tom track! This creates a problem when heavy processing (reverb, flange) is required on the snare drum alone and not on the rest of the kit. In this case, hauling out a noise gate and processing the snare track alone will help to ensure only the snare drum is heard, and not the 'noise' between snare drum hits. It's important to experiment with setting the proper attack time (fast) on the gate so that the start of the beat is not cut off. Also be careful when setting the threshold on the gate; if it's set too high, then you'll risk cutting off the beginning of the beat, because it won't be quite loud enough to open the gate. Once you have the threshold set such that the snare drum sounds clean, listen carefully to the whole snare track in solo. You may have inadvertently set the threshold too low, and unwanted sounds are popping up occasionally. You may have to make a subjective call on the threshold setting, trading off a few undesired sounds for a cleaner snare drum attack.

3. You might have a situation where the sound of the bass guitar track is just not satisfactory. If the bass guitar is competing with the bass drum, try boosting the bass guitar at 60-70Hz with your low EQ, and cut the bass drum track slightly at the same frequencies. This will help separate the two sounds in the mix, while also rounding out the sound of the bass guitar. If the bass player used a pick throughout the track, sometimes the sound of the pick can be excessive. Try cutting the frequencies around 4kHz until the sound of the pick is less noticeable. To simply strengthen a weak bass, try a slight boost somewhere between 100-200Hz.

4. If your killer distorted guitar is overwhelming everything else in the mix, including the lead vocal, don't just turn down the level--that may cause you to lose all the power of the guitar in the mix. Instead, pan the guitar to the left or right so that other elements such as the vocal have enough room in the stereo spectrum. If it's the rhythm guitar you can dub a copy the guitar track to a spare track and pan one track hard left and one hard right. EQ each guitar track slightly differently. Then you can lower the levels a lot, and still have a powerful guitar track that doesn't overpower the other important material in the overall mix.

Recording With Effects: If You Gotta, You Gotta

5. How many of you have all the effects devices you could possibly use? Not one of you? I didn't think so. Not many of us can afford to buy separate effects processors for every track in a mix. The solution is called 'printing with effects', i.e. recording certain tracks to tape or disk with the effects selected and in-line with the original track. Just as you would normally record a guitar solo with your wah-wah pedal, try recording your solo with a flanger in-line. You may find you can record a better (or more creative) solo if you are in sync with the sweep of the flanger, and you can 'play into' the effect.

6. Try recording your lead vocal track with a reverb in place that seems to really bring the best out of the singer, due to the great boost that the reverb provides to the singer's confidence. Some people let the vocalist monitor the reverb vocals as they record the vocals dry, without reverb. That's great, but if you're going to be squeezed for effects processors later, try printing the vocal with the reverb. If you don't like it later however, you'll have no choice but to redo the part.

7. Another situation you can get the most out of your effects processors is in a MIDI/Tape or a MIDI/Hard Disk recording environment. Normally, MIDI tracks (keyboards, drum machines) are not recorded to tape; you'll record them into a MIDI sequencer and play them back in real time when mixing down. They are thus known as 'virtual tracks' for the very reason they do not physically exist as tracks on the multi-track recorder. However, when mixing, if you are short one reverb unit, and you happen to have one spare tape or hard disc track, you can record one of the virtual tracks (say, a snare drum) to the spare track with full effects. The nice part about this is if you mess up and find the effects too heavy-handed, you can simply erase the track and try again. Once you have the snare drum sounding great, you can mute the snare drum track in the sequencer, and use the reverb unit for another virtual instrument.

Studio Safety

8. One of the most common causes of electrical fires is the improper use of extension cords. If you've got a single, living-room quality extension cord running from the wall to all of your studio equipment, say, twelve to fifteen devices or more, please invest in a halogen fire extinguisher, which are specially designed to put out electrical fires.

9. In addition to buying the fire extinguisher (it will only set you back fifteen bucks or so), try to prevent a dangerous extension cord situation, buy investing in quality chords, rated at 15 amps or better. If you're the type of person that likes to daisy-chain power strips (I confess to this weakness), then make sure you buy the power strips with the built-in circuit breakers, which hopefully will trip in the case of a short in any device plugged into it. Try to avoid stretching or excessive bending in any of the AC wires in your studio, especially those coming from the wall or the power strips. If not, excessive heat may result and a fire is certainly possible; the idea here is to have the fire extinguisher handy, but never need to actually use it.

10. If any of your gear has internal fuses (power amplifiers, older synthesizers, speakers), use only the fuses recommended by the manufacturer. These devices have fuses for a reason; if there is a problem, believe me you are going to be happy you had the proper fuse in place, doing what it was intended to do--shut down the device. It is a good idea to have a spare fuse for each device in the studio that requires one. Otherwise a great session can be cut short by a blown fuse (and most hardware stores around my house are closed at 2 A.M.)

No More Bad Acoustics

11. Ideally, all home recording environments would be as quiet, non-reflective and 'in-tune' as a commercial facility. We all know that's not the case. A little acoustical treatment in the typical spare room or garage that serves as a home recording space can go a long way. To reduce reflections that might cause unwanted reverberation when monitoring, replace your reflective (hard and flat) wall surfaces with soft, absorptive areas. You can use commercial material like Sonex, or hang heavy drapes, it basically accomplishes the same thing.

12. Phase cancellation can occur in home studios with improper placement of monitor speakers. If speakers are located in the corners of your studio room, pronounced phase cancellation can occur due to the fact that short reflective paths (short distances between the wall and the sound) cause interference with the direct sound. If the speakers cannot be relocated, you might try treating the area around the speakers with absorptive material.

13. A common problem in home studios is the phenomenon of standing waves. Standing waves can easily occur in rooms with parallel walls (i.e. your basic square or rectangular spare room), as the walls reinforce a particular set of frequencies. The distance between reflective surfaces determines the frequency of the standing wave. Since the standing wave represents a boost in that frequency, you'll be tempted you cut that frequency out of your mix in order to get the correct tonal balance. Upon playback in another room, the results should point out a needless cut--blame it on that darn standing wave. Better yet, avoid the standing wave phenomenon by locating your studio in a room with non-parallel walls. Since I know you're not about to do that, I recommend making one of the parallel walls absorptive. Another idea is to use diffusers, which are wall treatments that have rounded or complex surfaces (i.e. pyramids, both two-sided and four-sided) that tend to reflect sound evenly throughout the room. The advantage of installing a diffusive surface material is that it will also help to eliminate dead spots in the room.

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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