I'm pleased and honored to have Jami McGraw offering you this guest post. Please be sure to check out Jami's bio at the end of the post.
This is a list of tricks and tips that will allow you to get a great sounding song/album, from your bedroom, basement, living room, bathroom, garage… well, you get the point. All you need is a computer, some recording software, and an audio interface.
For discussion sake, I am going to base this on a standard 4-5 piece band. (Drums, bass, guitars, vocals). As a rule of thumb, I always start with the rhythmic element of a recording. In this regard, it will be drums, but it could also be just the acoustic guitar. Whatever instrument will be the designated “time-keeper” will begin the race… alongside a solid “click” track or metronome.
People often ask, “Where do I point the mic in relation to the drums?” There are a number of methods; but the easiest is to have the drummer hit his drum as you pass your hand over the skin. You will feel a wave of pressure coming from each drum in a distinctive spot. This is the place you want your mic pointing at roughly a 30-45º angle… (many have their own methods, and there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat, but I have found this to be the best method.)
Now, depending on how many microphones and/or inputs you have, set your drum session up as below. We will cover setup for 2, 4 and 8 channel tracking microphone combinations.
8 channel drum tracking
your 8 channel setup will consist of Kick, Snare, Tom1, Tom2, Tom3 (if applicable), Overhead Left, Overhead Right, and a Hi Hat (or Room mic). Room Mic should be placed roughly 4′ off the ground, and 8′ away from the kit (if possible) otherwise, you can skip the room mic.
4 channel drum tracking
this will consist of Kick, Snare, Overhead left and Overhead Right.
2 channel drum tracking
Simply two room microphones in an X-Y pattern. (The idea is that if you were to draw a line from the tip of these two mics crossing at a 90º angle to one another, that would be the sweet spot of the room) Approximately 8′ feet away and 6′ high facing toward the drummer’s chest. (There are other methods such as ratio mic’ing 3:1 and 2:1, but we will refer to X-Y today)
Once mic’d and ready, and levels are set appropriately, the drummer is only going to play to the click track. (He should know the arrangement through; but if he/she doesn’t, lay down a scratch guitar track to the click, and put it very lightly in his headphone mix to give him a sense of the arrangement, keeping the metronome dominant in his cans.)
Once you have a solid drum track, move onto the next rhythmic counterpart. For this article, we will move on to the bass guitar.
It is now at this point that I bring the bass player in. Your bass player is going to plug in direct, and should be performing to a very specific mix. For the bass players mix, boost the kick drum for your bass player, and pull down the Room and OH’s. This will push him to lock with the Kick drum to create the “heartbeat” of the song that sub-consciously keeps the ear of your audience. *When tracking a DI instrument, make sure that you get a good sound out of the gate. If you don’t have a nice preamp to send his/her signal through, I recommend using a D.I. box, like a Sansamp or something comparable. If he/she plays with effects, they can always be added afterward. Start with the most natural sound you can get. Don’t be afraid to make them fix any problematic parts. Punch the track if necessary, punch the bass player if need be, but remember, drums and bass are our foundation, and we need a solid rhythm section to build on. Never fix it in the mix…
Now that the bass player is complete, it is time to bring in your guitar player(s). Here is the deal with electric guitars…
Yes, you can spend all the time in the world mic’ing the amp, changing positions of the mic, distant, far, on-axis, off—axis, so on and so forth….OR, you can use the direct out of your amp and go directly into your interface. The benefit of this is two-fold, you are getting the sound the guitar player is looking for both for monitoring while they are tracking and on print. Most DAW’s come with a built in guitar application, which emulates amp models, and multiple guitar tones, pedals, amps etc. Some that are proven to be pretty cool are GTR, Guitar Rig, Peavey, Eleven Rack and Virtual Guitarist. My rule of thumb is to always track without reverb, and with EQ settings neutral. Any “specialty” sounds can be achieved in post. The last thing you want to do is paint yourself into a corner.
Acoustic guitars are a bit different. I recommend using a two or three input combination. These can be mixed as below…
2 input- 2 mic’s, or 1 mic and 1 DI (direct input).
3 input- 2 mics and 1 DI.
Microphone techniques for an acoustic guitar can vary. For simplicity, I recommend using the same approach as listed above for a two microphone setup on overheads.
Debatably, the most important part of your session is going to be the vocals. If you are not recording in a properly treated acoustic area, the best thing you can do is to dry out the session. Start by taking a rug, a blanket or some towels, and placing them on the floor to create a 5′ x 5′ area where your vocalist will be standing. Then, through some form of improvised clothe apparatus, create a virtual “booth” around this 5′ x 5′ square; using speaker stands, mic stands, a coat rack, crutches, old ski poles… etc. to hang some towels, blankets, sheets… you get it, anything to dampen the sound.. Ultimately, we want to create a corner for your vocalist to sing into. Closets work as well. Simply open the door, spread the cloths hanging, and put the mic stand right in the middle, and have the singer face the inside of the closet. Perhaps not the most inspiring view, but I suppose that depends on the closet and the individual whose belongings are in it. End game, when you are finished, you will have created a make-shift vocal booth to record your vocal tracks in.
You would be surprised how many albums and songs you have heard were recorded in the most unexpected locations. This goes to show how far technology has taken recording, and how far basic ingenuity has taken the recording process. At the heart of it all, remember the words of the great Miles Davis, “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is”.