By now we’ve probably all heard the stories of grammy-winning albums being produced in bedrooms, basements, living rooms, and garages. We know that it's possible to make great music in a modest space, but what’s really essential to making that happen? Let’s assume that you have some great songs or music that you’ve written or have a great concept for, what’s it gonna take to make those ideas into great recordings? There was a time when just a demo would be made in a home studio but now, full-fledged, major label releases are being produced just about anywhere. Let’s look at 5 essentials to creating a great bedroom-style studio.
1 - Environment is everything- the feel and functionality of your room
First, let's talk about your space. The environment you are in will contribute greatly to how you feel and how you feel will contribute to what you are able to create. If you have the choice between a bedroom, living room, a garage, or something similar, consider the comfort and amount of space that each room offers. You want to have enough space to be comfortable but no so much space that you feel detached from your instruments or the other people you may be working with. It may sound silly but if you have to walk all the way across the room to reach your guitar or your keyboard, you’re losing time and energy that you need to create. Think about the temperature of your space, does it get hot, stay too cold etc. You want to create an environment where your creativity can flow freely. Think about what inspires you and surround yourself with those things. In my studio, I have several vintage pieces of equipment, some that I don’t even use, that lend themselves to creating a vibe. If you and the people you work with feel inspired in your space, you’ll get better results. If you have the option of having natural light, I highly recommend that as well. If you or someone you’re working with prefers it to be dark, simply install some curtains. Another great trick, if you’re dealing with a small room, is to use very light colors in the room to help it feel bigger. In my studio, I have mostly white acoustic panels as well as white walls and natural light. This helps my room feel bigger and more open.
2 - Start with the source- your voice or your instrument
As tempting as it is to get excited about plug-ins and recording software and hardware, it's crucial to think about the source of your creativity. If you are a singer, a guitarist or a musician that will be recording sounds with a microphone, this is for you! If you are an “in the box” kind of producer, I’ll get to that in a minute. Before you think about what plugs in you’re going to use on your voice, or even what microphone you’re going to use to record your voice, let's talk about your voice. Along with having a comfortable environment to sing in, take great care in preparing your voice for recording. Get lots of sleep, be well-hydrated and well-nourished. As simple as these things sound, they will contribute greatly to your success as a vocalist. Similarly, if you are a guitarist and you’re going to record an acoustic guitar part, take time to make sure your guitar is set up well. Change your strings, get it set up with proper intonation and really listen to the source sound that you are creating. Something as simple as the pick you are using when you play can have a huge impact on the sound of your recordings. Many issues that we face when editing or mixing our music can be fixed if we get the sound right from the very beginning at the source. Make sure everything sounds right in the room before you go to record it. This goes for creating in the box as well. Make sure the sound you are choosing feels complete right away. Although you can always change a sound at any point in your creative process, you will have less work to do later on if you get the sound dialed in right away. This will also help you make more informed choices for the rest of your production. It's always more difficult to change one piece of a puzzle once there are many pieces in place.
3 - Capture sounds accurately- choosing a microphone
Let's talk microphones. There’s so much discussion about pre-amps, compressors and plug-in packs that we often overlook the need for a great microphone. As someone who has used many styles and qualities of mics, I can say with confidence that this decision is incredibly important, more so than your pre-amp or even recording interface. ff you have the right mic for the job, you will have a much easier time putting the rest of your production together and mixing it. The first step is to go to a local music store and ask to try some mics with headphones. Even though there are many options, you won’t know which mic sounds good with your voice or instrument until you try it. Take your guitar or instrument with you also and try the mics with your particular instrument. Although there are many great advantages to purchasing gear online, this particular purchase is most often best made in person. Try to find a microphone that compliments your voice. If you have a brighter voice, consider a warmer or darker sounding mic. If you have a darker or warmer voice, consider a brighter mic. If you have a less-than-ideal sounding space or a space with very little acoustic treatment, there’s a good chance that a dynamic microphone may be a good choice for you. It's no secret that the Shure SM7B is a great, affordable dynamic mic that works well on almost any instrument or voice. If you have an additional $100 or so, invest in a cloud lifter or a similar impedance booster for your SM7B, this will give you more clean headroom and open up the sound of the mic. If you have a well-treated or particularly quiet space, a large-diaphragm condenser might be the right choice. There are many affordable large-diaphragm condensers on the market so again, choose the one that sounds the best on your voice or instrument.
4 - Listen carefully- headphones and speakers
Now that you have your environment set, your voice and your instruments dialed in and a mic that compliments your sounds, you need to know what you’re listening to. Choosing speakers and headphones is so important because if you aren’t hearing your sounds accurately, you’re going to make creative choices based on the wrong things. Imagine if you were editing a photo on your computer and the screen displayed none of the color blue, you’d be sunk before you even left the shore. NOTE: I talk more in-depth about the speaker setup process in my post on mixing low end but here are some basics to get you started. If you can’t trust the sound of your room, rely more on headphones. If you're mixing, go for open-backed headphones as they will more closely replicate the sound of speakers than full closed-back headphones. The best way to test what you’re hearing in your space is by taking your tracks out of your space and listening in the car, in headphones or in someone else’s space. If what you’re hearing sounds different than what you’re used to, chances are, something’s not right in your space. If this is the case, start by listening to your work at a low volume. This will allow less of the sound into your room and therefore less of the room acoustics will impact what you’re hearing. Of course its less than inspiring to listen at a low volume but I guarantee you’ll get better results. If you want to invest a bit more time and money into your speaker setup, there are several elegant and simple solutions on the market that will aid in getting your listening environment right. Check out speakers that have modeling software with them. Some speaker manufacturers offer software DSP and a microphone that will help you tune your system to your room. There are also a few companies out there that have software and mics specifically designed to analyze your room and create a custom EQ curve to adjust for the problems in your room and will work with any speakers. As with each of these steps, keep it simple and straightforward. Do the work at the beginning to get things sounding right and you’ll be able to create more confidently.
5 - Tools of the trade- plug-ins and software
When it comes to plug-ins and software, I truly believe that less is more. The more options you have, the more choices you have and the more choices you have, the more decisions you have to make. Start with the DAW that feels most comfortable to you. Consider the layout, the way it looks, the way it functions and the learning curve to becoming an expert. I’ve used everything from Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Logic X and Cubase to Tracks Live, Sonar and Studio One. The only wrong choice is choosing something that feels uncomfortable for you to use or doesn’t make sense to you. With your DAW, choose the path of least resistance. The same concept applies to plug-ins. You don’t need 100 EQ plugins or 10,000 drum samples. More is usually not better in this case. Choose plug-ins that make sense to you right away. This can be as simple as liking the way something looks graphically or the options on the plugin make sense to you. I like plug-ins that have super simple user interfaces so that I can make an impact on my sound with minimal effort. Then I can judge what the plug-in is doing to my sound and make a decision quickly. If you’re just starting out, limit yourself to a handful of EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, etc. Then take the time to really learn them and know them inside and out. Once you have found the limitations and need something more, expand your tool kit. Most DAWs come with an incredible amount of plug-ins anyway, so start there and slowly add. When it comes to software instruments, again, less is more. I recommend having a simple set of sounds that are versatile. For drums, have a blend of new and vintage-sounding drum samples or kits. 808s, 909s, Linn drums, claps, snaps, risers, cymbals, and percussion samples. The same goes for synths, have a few modern synth models, including pianos, organs, and rhodes/wurlitzers and then a few old-school sounds like Junos, Prophets, Moogs and maybe a Mellotron. As powerful as plug-ins and soft synths are, they can, at times, be a huge distraction. The notes, the melodies, the lyrics and the emotions that you’re trying to convey are the most important thing about what you’re creating. Keep those things at the top of your priority list and only use the tools that support them.
When in doubt, keep it simple, trust your gut and limit your options. Using the steps above, do your best to eliminate variables and keep your creativity flowing. Remember, your best ideas are your greatest asset, not your room, your gear or even the amazing sample pack you just downloaded. Happy creating!