Are you trying to produce quality music from a home recording studio? You picked the perfect time! From Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, to Charlie XCX’s fan-collab how i’m feeling now, to Taylor Swift’s folklore, a number of successful releases have been recorded outside of a traditional studio.
But those albums were still made with the backing and financial benefits of a major label. What about someone who doesn’t have a few hundred thousand dollars to install a cutting-edge recording studio in their home? Or who can’t hire the most in-demand producer? Or who doesn’t even own an expensive microphone?
How can you produce a great-sounding record without heading to a professional studio, and without dipping into your savings? We’ll show you how in this article. But first let’s get some context on just what it means to “produce” music.
What is music production?
Here’s the short answer: Music production is the process of capturing analog sound waves on a reproducible medium through a recording device. The person who specializes in capturing these recordings is called a music producer. They oversee the recording process and try to make the music sound as good as possible while also working with the musician(s) to realize their artistic vision.
Over the past 120 years of recorded music history, the scope of a music producer’s involvement has shifted as technology has advanced and stylistic trends have come and gone.
Let’s see how technology and trends have evolved by going way back to the origins of recorded music.
The beginnings of music production
Back in the late 19th Century, music was cut directly into a cylinder, usually made from aluminum, by a machine called a phonograph. At this time a producer (a term that hadn’t even been invented yet) was simply whoever was present to operate the machinery. Production duties, such as they were, amounted to no more than knowing how to work the equipment so the artist could record their performance.
This limited specialization continued through the early parts of the 20th Century with the music industry’s adoption of the gramophone for recording and the wax master disc as the medium. At this time, all music was recorded live; not necessarily in front of an audience, but with single-take performances. This limitation meant that one mistake forced the entire recording to be scrapped and restarted from scratch.
Magnetic tape makes music production easier
Magnetic tape made its debut in World War II when Allied audio engineers monitored German radio broadcasts and discovered they were somehow being pre-recorded instead of dictated live. After the war, American audio engineers discovered the new medium and brought it back for use in commercial recordings.
By the 1950s magnetic tape had supplanted record discs in the first revolution in the history of recorded music. Tape’s biggest advantage over gramophone recordings was its ability to be spliced together from multiple recording takes, a process known as “editing.”
No longer would an entire recording need to be scrapped due to one flub. Not only that, but band members could record their individual parts separately as opposed to all together in the studio. Musicians could record multiple takes and edit them together to get the preferred version.
The music producer as creative director
The increased flexibility of magnetic tape recording led to the true birth of the modern record producer; that is, someone who not only operates the recording machinery but also provides creative and artistic guidance in the performances, arrangements and even songwriting. A producer’s input starts to affect how the final recording sounds from more than a simple technical standpoint.
By the ’60s, producers like George Martin with the Beatles and Phil Spector with R&B artists like the Ronettes and Ike and Tina Turner popularized the idea of the record producer as an essential part of the recording process. Spector in particular pioneered the use of the recording studio as its own instrument with his “Wall of Sound” production style; a dense, orchestral approach to pop music that influenced other visionaries like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to further embellish their recordings with more instrumentation.
(We should also state here that our discussion of Spector as a producer in no way overshadows his actions later in life that led to his imprisonment for murder. However it’s impossible to talk about the history of music production without mentioning Spector and his influence.)
Producers develop their signature sound
As outsized personalities like Spector began to loom larger over their recordings, the idea that certain producers could create a signature “sound” became prevalent. Experimental pop artist Brian Eno saw himself in demand as a producer for other artists starting the mid-’70s after his self-produced records gained popularity.
While many producers stuck with one or two genres they were comfortable with (or only one in the case of jazz producers like Rudy Van Gelder), others sought to venture into any genre they pleased. Tom Wilson jumped from genre to genre, recording folk artists like Bob Dylan, proto-punkers the Velvet Underground and avant-garde jazz prophet Sun Ra, all in the 1960s alone.
As larger music producers in mainstream pop music grew their sounds with state-of-the-art equipment, innovators also thrived around the world by making due with limited technology. In late ‘60s Jamaica for example, producers would make a single copy of a new song to test its marketability. Those copies became known as “dubs,” and soon producers were making instrumental mixes of the song for use in clubs. This practice birthed the sub-genre of reggae appropriately called “dub music” in the ‘70s.
By the 1980s, a seeming reaction to the “more is more” mentality of the previous decade’s rock excess was underway, led by producers like Rick Rubin and Steve Albini. These producers became sought after for their minimalist recording styles, with Albini in particular famously claiming he was just an engineer and simply hit “Record”. These producers’ popularity was primarily among newer or “alternative” genres with younger musicians like metal, punk and hip-hop.
How hip-hop producers are different from other genres
Speaking of hip-hop, we should address one differentiation when we define “music production”: the production techniques used in hip-hop, electronic music and other sample and beat-focused genres.
In these genres, a producer takes a much more active role in the creation of the music than they do in genres focused on acoustic instruments.
Just as with rock and pop, certain rap producers have their own sound and accompanying larger-than-life personalities. Dr. Dre pioneered the West Coast G-funk sound with its suitably funky basslines and trademark whining synths.
At the same time and on the other side of the country, RZA was endowing the Wu-Tang Clan and its members’ solo projects with a considerably grittier East Coast sound comprised of samples from obscure soul records and lo-fi VHS rips of ‘70s martial arts flicks.
Hip-hop producers create the instrumentals emcees then rap over, while also providing guidance to the emcee in the studio. They create these beats in a few different ways:
- Sampling a few seconds of drum beats (called “breakbeats”) and/or melody and other hooks from records using a turntable and DAWs
- Creating their own beats with equipment like drum machines, synthesizers and DAWs to make digital version of real instruments
- Recording actual live instruments
They combine any or all of these pieces together with other little touches such as one-shots (one-time single notes, chords or other sound effects used to add variation to a beat loop) into a cohesive beat using the same mixing software producers in other genres use. (We’ll cover all that engineering software later in this article.)
Hip-hop producers and beatmakers
You might also sometimes see hip-hop producers referred to as “beatmakers.” While can certainly be (and often are) the same thing, there is a distinction: a beatmaker only makes the instrumental.
Beatmakers work on their own (or in teams), usually without being in the studio with the emcee. In contrast, a hip-hop producer can not only create the instrumentals, but also coach the emcee as they’re performing in the studio and provide engineering expertise.
Music production in the digital age
By the ‘90s, women had started to break into music production, with trailblazers like Sylvia Massy working on major, platinum-selling records from rock acts like Tool, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and System of a Down.
The ‘90s also saw the increasing evolution of digital recording and engineering carry over from the preceding decade. Major albums like Paul Simon’s Graceland from 1986 were recorded to analog tape but transferred and mixed on new equipment called a digital audio workstation (DAW). DAWs became standard in ’90s recording studios, and by the ’00s the vast majority of music production became entirely digital.
Music production AS songwriting
Today, music producers often ARE artists and songwriters, and the other way around too. The previous distinctions have broken down.
As electronic music production tools have become ubiquitous, more songs are being written in the moment. They’re built from the ground up AS a production.
The rhythms, hooks, and other instrumental elements are referred to as “the beat,” which takes center-stage early in the process. Often, a topline songwriter (or vocal producer) is then introduced in order to create vocal melodies, lyrics, and harmonies.
What do I need to record music at home?
All that history brings us to the present day, where DAWs have coupled with advances in computing power to make DIY music production accessible to just about anyone determined to make their own professional-sounding record at home.
But it’s not just software you’ll need. If you’re looking to record music at home, here’s a checklist of the things you’ll need to get started:
1.) Computer: If you own any computer made in the last few years, chances are it will work for music production. The key component you’re looking for is RAM. Most DAWs require at least 8 gigabytes of RAM, which really isn’t much for new-ish computers (my 2015 Macbook has 8GB of RAM, to give you an idea). That’s enough memory to process up to 25 audio tracks with multiple instruments and effects, which is more than enough for all but the most ambitious Brian Wilson disciples.
You’ll also want a hard drive with at least 256 to 500 gigabytes of storage, which is also pretty standard for modern computers. The large space is to store your audio files, which will be uncompressed, so they’ll take up a lot of room. Solid state hard drives (SSDs) are better than actual discs for writing and reading speed. SSD is much more affordable now than it was even a few years ago, so if you’re in a market for a new computer for home recording you won’t need to spend a ton for the added luxury.
2.) DAW: This is the main software you’ll be running on your computer. There are tons of DAWs with costs ranging from free to a few thousand dollars. Many offer monthly subscriptions with different tiers, with more expensive tiers getting you access to more functions.
That said, even the most basic tiers of most DAWs offer 16-track recording and most of the features you’ll need. And any of the popular ones will work fine as long as they’re compatible with your computer:
3.) Audio interface: These are physical boxes that plug into your computer’s USB port and turn analog sounds (those from a voice or instrument) into digital signals. They generally cost a few hundred dollars and, like DAWs, mostly have the same functions with minor differences in button layout.
Here are a few of the top-rated audio interfaces:
4.) Microphone: You need something to connect to your audio interface and record your music into. Luckily, you can buy a quality studio microphone for under $100. There are two main types of microphones, dynamic and condenser. Each has its own preferred application, so you’ll want to select one (or both) of the following according to how you’re going to use it:
Dynamic microphones use a moving coil magnetic diaphragm. They’re great for performing and recording at live gigs or recording loud instruments like amplified guitars and drums. Drum kits are notoriously difficult to record accurately.
Here are the five best dynamic microphones for around $100 according to microphone enthusiast site MicReviews:
Condenser microphones use a conductive diaphragm that vibrates with sound pressure. Their technology makes them more accurate than dynamic microphones, so they’re perfect for precision recording of acoustic instruments and vocals. Condenser mics also require an outside power source since they operate on XLR output, but you’ll have one already if you bought an audio interface.
Here are the five best condenser microphones for around $100, also according to MicReviews:
If your budget is a bit higher, state-of-the-art condenser microphones can cost upwards of $1,000.
Here are the top five condenser microphones for $200 to $1,000 according to audio superstore Sweetwater:
5.) Headphones: This is how you reference what you’re recording. You’ll want a pair of analytical headphones specifically manufactured for recording. Look for terms like “reference,” “studio” or “professional” when shopping. The goal is for the ‘phones to be as flat as possible in their frequency response so your playback is an honest representation of what you’ve recorded. Learn how to choose the best headphones.
You can also use special speakers for this purpose called studio monitors, but these tend to be more expensive than headphones. They’re also much louder since they’re actual loudspeakers, so they’re not ideal for apartment living.
Can I record music on my tablet?
If your space is really limited, or you’re mostly on the go, or if you just like the convenience of portable recording either for your main rig or a backup on the road, you can record music directly onto a tablet.
Advances in mobile technology have led to mobile devices like an iPad being able to capture quality audio with nothing more than the device itself, some after-market components and audio applications. Tablets normally have a few hundred GB of storage, and many have a microSD card slot to expand that by saving your files on external cards.
Here are the three best tablets for mobile recording:
Just as with a computer, you’ll need an audio interface to record music on your tablet. The IK iRig seems to be the most recommended, and you can usually find it below $50!
And just like on a computer, you’ll also need a DAW to process and edit the audio on your tablet. These are split between iOS (Apple) and Android, so you’ll want to search for one compatible with your operating system.
Can I record music on my smartphone?
If you’re looking to get really portable, you can even record music onto your smartphone. You don’t even need any more equipment than an iPhone or Android and an audio app!
Two popular music recording apps for Android are:
Two popular music recording apps for iPhone are:
If you want to enhance the recording quality on your smartphone, you can buy one of these external microphones for under $50:
How do I set up a home recording studio?
So you’ve got all your audio gear and you’re ready to get to work. But first you need to find a suitable room to record in. This is going to be your home studio.
You’ll want to choose the room for your home studio wisely. If you’re in a house with a spare room, you’re set! But if you’re in an apartment or somewhere with limited space, your bedroom might inevitably be pulling double duty as your recording studio.
Bedrooms (and really any room in the house) aren’t made to be used as a home studio. To convert your room of choice into a suitable recording environment, you’ll need to do something called acoustic treatment.
How do I treat my room for acoustics?
Your goal in setting up acoustic treatment in your home studio is to make the sound of the space as flat as possible. That means removing any reverb by acoustic absorption, so all that’s left is direct sound from your instruments or voice.
Follow these steps to remove any reverb from your home studio:
1.) Buy the three acoustic treatment items:
- Bass traps to absorb low frequencies
- Acoustic panels to absorb mid/high frequencies
- Diffusers to scatter remaining frequencies
2.) Walk around your room and clap your hands in every spot you can stand in. You’re listening for sharp ringing sounds. Those are bad acoustics, and they’ll really mess with your sound mix. If you’re in a standard four corner bedroom with a ceiling of average height, chances are the acoustics will be on the poor side.
3.) Use acoustic treatment to solve the following acoustic problems:
- Corners. Place bass traps in the corners of your room. Bass traps are the single most important piece of acoustic treatment equipment, and corners are especially problematic for bass reverb. Placing bass traps in the corners eliminates reflections and consumes any excess bass that might leak into your mix.
- Windows. Place acoustic panels on windows to close them off. Glass reflects very bright frequencies that can cause issues with your mix.
4.) Perform the clap test as you place more acoustic treatment until you achieve the desired sound. It’s usually a nice, smooth reverb.
5.) Use diffusers to scatter and control sound reflections if you prefer more reverb. You can combine strategic placement of diffusers with acoustic treatment material to get the exact room ambience you like.
6.) Use a reflection filter over your microphone if you’re recording acoustic instruments like acoustic guitars or vocals. Reflection filters keep the acoustics from bouncing around your space so you get an intimate recording instead of scattered sound.
How do I actually record my music?
The recording process — also known as “tracking” — can be a very personal and subjective experience.
Where you place the mics, what effects and processing you use, how you make decisions along the way — those things will differ from artist to artist, and producer to producer.
What sounds “good” or “bad” is also fairly dependent on your genre, so it’s harder to make specific recommendations here. However, YouTube is a goldmine of recording tips and I suggest you search there any time you get stuck.
With that said, I do have some general advice that will help you stay productive by setting limits for yourself.
How to improve your recordings by setting limitations
In a creative space, endless options can drive us crazy.
This is especially true with digital music recording because there’s almost no limit on your storage space. All the while, if you’re like a lot of DIY artists, you don’t have endless hours to spend recording, so time restraints amp up the pressure. In this environment, a limitation can be the very thing that keeps you sane.
In other words, it pays to make decisions as you go.
Have you ever seen The Five Obstructions? It’s a great film, and a great illustration of how arbitrary obstacles can help us focus and push beyond our habitual moves.
If you’re about to open up a new session in your DAW, consider some of these creative limitations:
1.) Set a maximum track-count before the session begins: It’s not uncommon these days for recording sessions to have 100 tracks. Sure, if you’re recording the next #1 single for Doja Cat and really need to layer 15 kick drums, go for it. But if you’re squeezing in recording time on the weekends, do you really want to have to sift through all those tracks every time you open your session?
Instead, set a rule for yourself: no song on this album will have more than X tracks. It could be 4, 8, 16, 24,… whatever. (But if your session is taking up more than 24 tracks, you’re not exactly limiting yourself, are you?)
So put your minimal hat on. It’ll force you to boil things down to their essentials, and save you lots of time and worry when you get to the mixing stage.
Hint: if you’re approaching your track limit and still need room for an extra kick drum, maybe you can submix the string quartet or the six backing vocals down to a stereo track. Which brings us to…
2.) Submix, submix, submix: If you’re working with a grouping of instruments that all belong in the same universe, create a submix of that grouping (strings with strings, brass with brass, background vocals with background vocals, drums with drums, etc.). Once you’ve got the right blend for each grouping, print it to tape (or save on the computer) and commit to it! Again, this move will save you time and stress when it comes to mixing, and open up more tracks if you need to add more instruments.
Hint: if you’re really second-guessing your submixes when it comes time to create the final mix, you can always go back into your session (unless you’re recording analog!) and create a new blend. Though that DOES kinda defeat the whole purpose of submixing in the first place.
3.) Set rules for instrumentation and sonic palette: Before you begin a recording session, decide what instruments will be used, what effects, what samples, what sounds… and stick to it for the whole project without introducing any other elements. Maybe you want all drums to be a vintage 808, but with a real shaker and tambourine. Great. Sounds cool. But you can’t add real snare or cymbals later! Maybe you want to use a clean sounding telecaster with some delays. Sweet! Forbid yourself to use any kind of distortion pedal for the whole album, and rely solely on the amp for crunch. By setting these ground rules, you get more creative with the instruments you ARE using (in order to diversify the songs across the album), AND you end up giving a cohesion to the project as a whole. These kinds of limitations are often what gives great albums a certain “feel.”
4.) Give yourself a finite amount of takes per part: Nothing is worse than listening back to 20 guitar solos to find the magic moments of each that can be comped together. Voltron tracks are for suckas! Don’t be a robot. Be a human. Say to yourself, “I’m going to nail this guitar solo in 3 takes. If I don’t, I’m moving on to something else and coming back later.” Then, if you don’t get something that sounds right, delete those tracks. Begin again tomorrow.
5.) Leave something out: Sometimes a song can take on a whole new life when you remove an element you’d previously thought crucial to the overall arrangement. What if you removed the synth pad from your latest hip-hop song and relied on the drum loop, bass, and samples to do the work? What if your acoustic guitar, accordion, and cello lullaby was actually more interesting without the acoustic guitar? Experiment with removing things. Give the song some breathing room. You might find that less is more.
6.) Commit to effects: Do you like the way something sounds while it’s being treated in monitoring? Maybe you’re singing with some reverb and your vocal performance responds to that effect. Maybe you have a synth sound with some dirt on it and it feels exciting. Great. Print it! Set it in stone, and move along. Again, mixing will happen much faster when you have fewer decisions to make.
How do I mix my music?
After you’ve recorded all the tracks for your song, the next step is mixing them all together. This results in what’s called a mixdown, which is the final product of all the different tracks of a song put together.
Why should you mix your own music? Because audio mixing is an essential part of music production and learning how to do it will make you a more self-reliant indie artist.
While it can get a bit technical, there are some basic steps any aspiring self-producer should follow to avoid mistakes while mixing:
1.) Choose your DAW: We already recommended some DAWs for home recording. They’re not only used to record, but also to mix. Once you’ve decided on a DAW, stick with it and learn all its intricacies so you become proficient with its mixing features.
2.) Set up your mixing session: You can use a pre-set template in your DAW for this. These templates tend to be geared towards specific genres like rock or acoustic, and they set the order of track mixing accordingly. You can also create your own mix template that suits your needs.
3.) Make sure your tracks are named accurately: Naming audio tracks by simple descriptors like “lead vocals” and “acoustic guitar” will make locating those while mixing much easier.
4.) Color code your tracks by instrument: Use your DAW to choose colors for your tracks by what instrument they belong to. If you have three rhythm guitar tracks on your song, code them the same color so you can locate them quickly.
5.) Combine your instrument tracks with a “bus”: This will make processing your tracks more effective and will create a sense of unity. For example, playing around with the effects processing of all your vocal tracks together to make them balanced in the mix.
6.) Level-match your tracks: Balance the levels for all your tracks. Take the time to raise or drop the levels of every track in your mix throughout the song to add excitement, calm and any other emotion where you want it.
7.) Use stereo to your advantage with panning: There’s a reason stereo mix overtook mono decades ago. You can pan the tracks to the left or right channels in your mix to achieve the desired effect for the listener. Panning a rhythm guitar on one side and the lead on the other makes a song more interesting and gives a sense of space in the mix. It also gives the impression that a full band is playing together in a room even if it’s not.
8.) Process your tracks with the following effects:
Equalizer (EQ), which is the balance of frequencies on a specific track. Go through each individual track and EQ it to your liking.
Compression, which raises or lowers the dynamic range of a track. Your goal is to get an even mix where nothing gets lost or is ear-shatteringly loud. Just don’t even everything out to the point where it’s all loud, or your track will become another victim of the loudness war.
Reverb, which is the reflection of sound waves. You already controlled some reverb when you did acoustic treatment to your home studio. If you completely flattened the frequency response, you can artificially put reverb back into your mix in your DAW. And if you happened upon the desired amount of natural reverb through a perfect placement of acoustic treatment and diffusers in your home studio, then congrats, you’re done with effects!
9.) Share your process with any other collaborators: If you’re in a band or are working with collaborators, chances are this process is more democracy than dictatorship. Even if you’re appointed in charge of engineering, share the files as you mix them with your collaborators through Notetracks.
Finish your recording with mastering
After you’ve tracked your song and mixed all the tracks together into the final mixdown, your song is 99% finished. But there’s still one more step to complete before your recording is ready for release:
You need to master your recording.
Music mastering is the final step in the recording process. During mastering, additional audio treatments are applied to your mix to correct problem frequencies and enhance the musicality of your track.
How do I master my music?
There are a few ways you can master your song:
- You can hire a mastering engineer. These are specialists who listen to the final mix and adjust the overall volume. If necessary, they also add any post-production effects or additional compression. Mastering engineers usually charge about $50 to $100 for minor touch ups, and $150 or more per song for full service treatment.
- You can use CloudBounce, an automated mastering program that works right in your CD Baby account! CloudBounce uses an algorithm controlled by settings you select to adjust the levels of your mixdown and create a final master. Mastering with CloudBounce only costs $9.90 per song. While it’s not as exact as a real human fine tuning every small detail of your track, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and faster. If you’ve already figured out your mixdown yourself and just need some level matching before distributing your song, CloudBounce is the way to go.
Release your music
Now that your mixdown has become your final master, your song is ready for release. Congrats! It’s time to introduce your song to the world.
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