Done right, home recording can be creative, expressive, fun, liberating, and an accessible way to execute your musical ideas. Done wrong, it can be frustrating, taxing, and discouraging. The good news is, there are so many seemingly little things you can do and steps you can take to ensure you set yourself up to succeed. So many of the things that will kickstart you are easy to implement, and equally so many potential hurdles are easily avoided.
Here’s a list of 10 essentials when recording guitars at home, to ensure you have a positive experience. It’s worth noting that many of them could be boiled down to being prepared and patient!
1 – Create a good recording space
This has multiple meanings. A good recording space means equipped, set-up, quiet and distraction-free. Make this a room with all your musical equipment in, and make sure that equipment is prepared, plugged in, easily reachable, and so on.
Ideally, this will be one of the quieter rooms in your house to begin with, but can be customized to be quieter with blankets under doors, shut curtains and so on. Finally, leave distractions elsewhere. No TV, computers other than those needed to record, or anything else that detracts from your focus on the process.
2 – Have your equipment ready
Being accessible and in position is covered above. Here, ‘ready’ means in good working order, all guitars fully strung and in tune, effects pedals working and suitably powered, with working capos in position, batteries in tuners, a box of different plectrums, and so on.
This is about avoiding a situation that regularly occurs – where you come to record, and find actually you need to re-string a guitar, buy some new plectrums and find a capo. This slows, delays and frustrates the entire process and is more likely to make recording in general something you put off doing.
3 – Understand your software
This is an absolute essential. Spend some time getting to know your software – how it works, what it does, what its strengths and limitations are. This means that a) You can work quickly when inspiration takes hold, and b) Your musical ability is not restricted by your technical knowledge – a source of great frustration for many musicians.
What often stops musicians from doing this crucial step of learning to use the software first, is impatience (wanting to get started immediately) and perfectionism (being unwilling to create random, messy, inconsequential recordings – never to be released – for the purpose of learning how the software works).
If you’re using physical recording units and multitrack recorders, the same principle applies. You have to know how it works!
4 – Separate demo-ing from recording
It’s ideal to record a song twice, if possible. There’s the ‘demo’ – in which you try layering parts, learn what does and doesn’t work, experiment with sounds, and try things out – a practice attempt, essentially.
Then there’s the proper recording itself. In which you apply everything you learned in demo mode to create a cleaner, clearer, better version. This is highly recommended to ensure you get the best possible recording. So often we record a song, then later think about what we would’ve changed. Demo-ing like this gives you the chance to actually make those changes.
5 – Listen back and learn
This relates very much to guitar parts. Often we discover when we come to record a guitar part, that we have to change it slightly. Sometimes a guitar part that works well in rehearsals or live needs tweaks to make a great recorded guitar part.
Perhaps it leaves a space, or creates noise at a certain point in time, that is swallowed up by a live atmosphere but is exposed on a recording. Or it may be anything else – essentially, recording can be an exposing process. So make sure you listen back to your guitar part, identify any questionable moments, and then revise what you play to make it work.
6 – Research recording techniques
Hopefully recording is something you enjoy, want to continue doing, and want to improve at. There is so much material available on recording techniques, different schools of thought, even how expert bands, producers and engineers work, so you can learn from the best.
Spend some time researching this topic and practicing and applying anything you learn along the way. This is about immersion in the subject and art form of recording. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll come out a better musician and home recording engineer.
7 – Warm up!
To reiterate, recording is an exposing process. And simply put, just as a live performance is better after warming up, a recorded one is too. (Especially because a recorded performance is essentially a live performance, captured).
Even if it’s only noodling for 10 minutes, a few scales and a run-through of the song you’re going to record, at least then when you hit record, you also hit the ground running, warmed up and ready to go. If you don’t do this, it’ll likely just take you a couple of takes longer to record well.
8 – Have patience with takes
Just accept that it’s probably going to take a bit of time. You might nail it first take, it can happen, but you won’t with every guitar part, for every song. First takes will be very much in the minority.
Many guitarists, even if happy with the first take, record a few more anyway. Because often it’s not until you get that kind of context that you can make an informed decision. So enter the process expecting it to take a little bit of time, and you won’t be disappointed.
9 – Set limits
Recording for 12 hours straight is not healthy! And it isn’t good for the song either. Take regular breaks to ensure you’re focused and fresh.
Furthermore, a recording session can involve getting quite deep into a certain mindset and it’s so easy to lose clarity, and the bigger picture.
A little bit of time away from the session means returning and hearing things you’d previously missed, and renewed energy for what comes next. Don’t go crazy!
10 – Mix in simple steps
Mixing is a vast, complex art form that it takes many years of dedication to truly understand and master.
So for the home recorder, it’s about how good a job you can do without that deep expertise.
The key to this is – besides research, seeking advice, and practice – is to break down your mixing into simplistic, small steps.
It’s really easy to add a whole load of stuff when mixing, and suddenly find yourself with a mix that doesn’t sound how you want it to, but a complex web of plugins and effects and EQ and sidechains and more, meaning you may not even know how to return the mix to something closer to how you want it.
Take mixing one process at a time, meaning every decision is reduced to a binary, comparable, “Do I want it like A, or B?” – This way you can gradually, manageably work towards a mix you’ll love!