Note: This article is part 2 in the series Home Studio ABCs. Click here to read Part 1: Getting Started.
So, you’ve purchased all the necessary gear and are ready to tackle your first remote recording session–but where do you start? We’ll assume you’ve already connected everything in your system: the mic is plugged in via XLR cable to your interface, the interface is plugged into your computer, and you’ve confirmed that your interface is the I/O (playback engine) device in your DAW (for this article, let’s assume Logic Pro X or ProTools). Let’s start with two of the most basic but important parts of the recording process: file type and gain.
File Type: Most likely, whoever initiated the project sent you a few files including a score, a click track, a backing/reference track, and some instructions. Hopefully, the client/collaborator included audio file specifics. When working with audio, there are a few things to be aware of: first is sample rate. Without getting too technical, sample rate is the rate at which your computer takes a “sample” of the audio signal it’s receiving. 44.1k is the most common sample rate used for most consumer-level audio. In general, DAWs offer sample rate functionality between 44.1k and 192k. The higher the sample rate, the more accurate a recording is and less information is lost. Most people, however, cannot hear the difference between 44.1k and 192k, especially through their hi-fidelity Apple earbuds or AirPods. As higher sample rates capture more data, their file sizes are larger. Smaller sample rates equate to smaller file sizes. This is important when collaborating remotely and sending files over the cloud.
Next there’s bit depth. This is more difficult to explain, but in general, higher bit depths are used with higher sample rates and vice versa, and they come in three values: 16, 24, and 32. A bit depth of 16 usually accompanies a sample rate of 44.1k while a bit depth of 32 is often used with higher sample rates between 88.2k-192k. For the purpose of remote recording, a bit depth of 16 will be just fine and is less important when collaborating with others on a project.
Between the two, sample rate is “more important” as all the audio files in a project must have the same sample rate to playback at the same speed. They can have differing bit depths, but make sure your sample rate matches that of the audio files you were sent or what is outlined in the instructions.
Another important aspect of audio file type is the difference between MP3, WAV, and AIFF files. It is always best to work in the same file format as requested by the client or collaborator. If they send you WAV files, make sure your Logic session is recording WAV and not AIFF. AIFF is Apple’s counterpart to Microsoft’s WAV file format but is used less often in the professional world. In general, the best file format to use is WAV. Follow this link to watch a video on how to change the audio file type in Logic. ProTools will ask what type of audio file format you want to use prior to launching the session, so just make sure the settings are as desired.
Gain: Now let’s dive into gain structure. Gain control can be found on the front or top of your interface as a knob or dial. It may also be labeled “preamp.” This controls the “loudness” of your input signal. The quickest way to set this is to sing/play along to the backing track and adjust the gain level until you’re hovering consistently between -15 and -6db. This leaves headroom for louder parts of a performance but isn’t too soft. If your gain is too low, your input signal will be too quiet and you’ll have to try and fix it in post by using a compressor. This will bring out all the unwanted noises that you may not have heard but exist in the recording (air conditioning, breath noises, creaking, clothes shuffling, etc). Make sure your gain level is high enough to capture your sound well without clipping. If you clip your input, you will distort the input signal and it won’t sound good. You will notice your DAW and interface display a red light or marker on the meter if you clip.
Microphone Placement: Next, let’s discuss mic placement. For vocalists, the mic should usually stand 3-6 inches away from the mouth. In between the mic and the mouth should be a pop filter or windscreen to help control plosives–the popping sound caused by air from the mouth when making “p,” “b,” or “f” sounds. For instruments, a good starting point is to position the mic 6 inches to 1 foot away from the source. For string instruments, this is the f-hole. For piano, it is always best to use a stereo mic pair (two mics) and position them either high-low over the hammers or over the strings. If only one mic is available, a good starting position is over the middle of the soundboard with the lid open. Uprights can be miced from behind. Acoustic guitars also sound great with a stereo pair, one over the soundhole, and one on the 12th fret, for one technique. If using a single mic, position it over the 12th fret to start. If you want more body in the sound, move it closer to the soundhole, but know you’ll probably get more picking sound from doing so. Mic placement is key-if you position the mic too far from the source it will pick up more room noise. Recording from home is not like recording in a fully sound-proofed and acoustically-engineered studio. Your bedroom is not Studio B at Capitol; odds are someone else is home with you, the neighbor might decide to take out their trash or mow the lawn, or your AC might turn on in the middle of your best take. The closer the mic is to the sound source, the more directly it will pick up the sounds you want while unwanted noises are reduced or are imperceptible.
Now you’re ready to hit record! I’m not going into editing in this article; suffice it to say, if you do multiple takes and end up putting together a “comp” in which you edit together the best parts of different takes, make sure the transitions are clean. Use crossfades, watch for double breaths, etc. If you would like more information about how to edit your recordings, feel free to reach out to me and we can schedule a virtual editing class.
Bounce: Once you’re done recording and have cleaned up your final take, it’s time to bounce and send off your masterpiece. Bouncing refers to the process of creating the final audio file that you will send off to the client. When bouncing a file, make sure the audio file settings (sample rate and bit depth) match the settings of your session and the deliverables specified by the client. Also, make sure any backing or click tracks used during the recording process are muted before you go to bounce. After the bounce is complete, make sure you spot-check the new file. Listen through the whole thing making sure it sounds as it should.
A few notes for those on the flip side of this process: To those organizing collaborative projects, when you put out the cattle-call for vocalists and instrumentalists to collaborate and record on your project, please include the necessary files. A score by itself is not going to cut it. Here are a few best practices: send a score or scores, click track, backing track or stems, MIDI file (this helps those who know how to import MIDI files into sessions and will import your tempo map and meter information), and instructions for audio file settings and submission. Heck, an already-set-up Logic or ProTools session file isn’t too much to ask for and would be greatly appreciated by most professionals. Ask your musicians to make sure they bounce their performance with specific bounds, meaning that if you provide a click or backing track that starts at bar -1 and ends at bar 120, that every person who submits for your project sends files bounced from bar -1 to 120, aka, they’ll all be the same length and save you hours of editing time trying to align everyone’s performances.
This is certainly not the be-all, end-all of home recording, but I hope this article has provided some insight on how to start making excellent recordings. Knowing these basics goes a long way to show the client or collaborator that you’re capable of delivering professional results. This will help you stand out and keep you on their radar for future projects. If you have further questions or would like some one-on-one insight and instruction on the recording, editing, or bouncing process, I am available for remote instruction sessions.
Contact Ryland Talamo via email at email@example.com