top of page

Recording & Audio Production 101: What You Need To Produce Great Music

Updated: Mar 24


Hey everyone, it's Joe here! If you want to get better at the basics of recording your own music at home, we've got the perfect guide to help you. This is Part 1 of our Recording & Audio 101 series of tutorials - which will each focus on one or two important aspects of the recording process that you need to know. We're kicking off here with some reassurance about why home recording is a viable option, and covering the tools you need for the job.


thumbnail for a blog article on Recording and Audio Production 101. The thumbnail features a black microphone.

Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better


We’ve all seen photos and videos of huge recording studios. In the movies, it’s pretty common to see massive studio spaces with teams of people working there. It's easy to believe this is necessary if you want a professional sound for your production. But is it?

Answering that question in full involves many different factors - but the short answer is no. This is great news if you don't have a million dollars to spare!


The Steps In The Recording And Production Process


To start understanding why the answer is no, let’s broadly discuss the main steps involved in producing a song - from the very start of the process to the end.


  1. The songwriting

  2. The performance of the song in the studio

  3. The instruments used to record with

  4. The gear used to capture the performance (the recording itself)

  5. Mixing of the song

  6. Mastering of the song


Think of these steps as the signal flow for the whole process. It starts in somebody’s head when they’re writing the song. This then flows through to their body in performing it, which in turn flows into their instruments. The instruments (including any effects pedals, amps, etc) then flow in the recording equipment, and that recorded audio then goes through the process of being mixed and mastered.


There is also the halfway step of editing, which comes between recording and mixing, but we won’t focus on that one here.


A person writing music

The Hierarchy Of Importance


Now we know the steps involved, let’s look at their order of importance.


  1. The songwriting

  2. The performance of the song in the studio

  3. The instruments used to record with

  4. The gear used to capture the performance (the recording itself)

  5. Mixing of the song

  6. Mastering of the song


Do you notice any similarities in the order of the two lists? They’re exactly the same! And the equipment on offer at the biggest and fanciest studio in the world is down at number 4.


So… what does this tell us?


Well, the song itself is always going to be the most important factor, followed by the performance of the song. If you put your heart and soul into performing it, people will intrinsically be able to tell - which will connect them with it. Therefore, a big fancy studio and expensive gear is never going to be as important as the song and the performance, which are what captivate people. If it’s the best song ever written and it’s recorded on an iPhone, it’s going to get more interest than a terrible song recorded with the best studio equipment in the world.


Then, at number 3 on the list, we have the instruments you used to record your song - which are once again more important than the studio equipment used to capture them. Recording a terrible guitar with expensive gear will not sound good.


However, I'm not here to tell you the quality of your recording gear is irrelevant, either - which is why the mixing and mastering processes are below at 5 and 6 on the list. Recording something well will always be more effective than trying to fix a bad recording through mixing. Likewise, an expensive master will absolutely not fix sloppy recording or mixing. You can read more about that particular hierarchy of importance in this tutorial I previously wrote.


What does all this mean for you?


Like I mentioned at the top, this is a big positive for you, because you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars a day in a world-famous studio to produce music that people will love.


There are many different pathways for you, including:


  1. Finding a local studio or engineer specialising in your genre (which will be much cheaper than using a big studio, and very effective if the engineer is experienced in your genre)

  2. Collaborating with producers online who specialise in your genre (you might record some parts and send them to the producer to do the rest)

  3. Getting set up so that you can record yourself at home


This tutorial series - Recording & Audio Production 101 - assumes you’re most interested in being able to produce your own music at home, so that's the pathway we’ll focus on.



A home recording setup in a lounge featuring a keyboard, laptop and big blue couch


It’s Never Been Easier To Record At Home


As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, consumer-grade recording gear really didn’t cut it. Many components were cheap and nasty, and it was hard to capture the elements of your song in beautiful detail, clarity, and depth. However, this is no longer the case!


There are two reasons why right now is the easiest time in history to capture a superb recording at home. Firstly, those nasty components have been replaced by much nicer features - even in entry-level products - and secondly, the 'entry-level' is priced a lot more reasonably. Back in 2004, I paid $600 for my first interface to record my music at home. Adjusted for inflation, that's the equivalent of almost $1000 today. Now, however, for just $200, you can buy a far better interface than the one I took home!


But I’m getting ahead of myself. The next step on our journey is figuring out exactly what gear is required to get up and running, so that you can record at home in great quality without blowing the bank. Let’s discuss what you’ll need, and cover exactly what each piece of equipment does.


The Gear You Need To Get Recording


There are a few essential items to a home recording studio. Your requirements may differ however, depending on the style of music you make, and exactly what you’re looking to record at home. For example, if you only make electronic music that doesn’t use any real instruments, there are a few things you won’t need. But if you’re wanting to record a drum kit to a high standard then you’ll need a few more things.


Let’s begin.


Essential Item Number 1: Audio Interface




The audio interface is the core of the home studio - especially if you want to record real instruments. It functions as the 'interface' between your instrument and your computer, and as such, it's a central piece of the audio puzzle you’ll need to invest in. It’s also arguably the piece of hardware that has technologically advanced the furthest over the last couple of decades. Let's do a quick rundown of the basic features you’ll find on every interface out there.


Microphone preamps


These boost the level of the microphone’s signal to the required level for capturing audio from a microphone. Microphones have a very low output directly out of the mic, so this signal needs to be boosted to be usable. The preamps inside audio interfaces have come forward in leaps and bounds in recent years, and today they let you capture your source with nice detail and clarity.


Unlike standalone preamps, which colour the signal in a certain desirable way, the preamps in audio interfaces are generally as clean as possible (within limitations for the price you pay). This is good news for you, because you’ll be starting with a clean source that you can shape in your own way later.


Converters


When we listen to audio directly from a source - for example, listening to someone play an acoustic guitar - the sound waves are naturally continuous. However, when we record music digitally, the audio cannot be captured continuously. Instead, converters translate the analogue signal into tiny digital slices, which are called 'samples'. Generally, audio interface converters can capture sample rates from 44,100 samples per second up to 192,000 samples per second. So, even though it’s not a continuous signal being captured, it’s still a heck of lot of audio samples per second! When it's time to listen to the recording, the converter will also switch it back from digital to analogue.


Just like preamps, the converters in home audio interfaces have also improved substantially since I bought my first interface - helping to capture audio in better detail and higher resolution.


The other important factor in the resolution of your recording is bit depth. Generally, udio interfaces will have the option of recording in 16bit, or 24-bit. Always choose 24-bit. Bit depth determines the maximum dynamic range you’ll be able to capture. The lower the bit depth, the more noise you will have in your tracks.


Monitor and Headphone Outputs


This is a simple one - audio interfaces come with audio outputs you can connect your studio monitors (speakers) and headphones to.


DI Input


This is an input optimised to accept high impedance signals from your guitar, bass, or keyboard for recording. Plug in and away you go!


Essential Item Number 2: Microphone


If you want to record vocals or acoustic instruments, you’ll need a microphone. There are three main types of microphones used in recording studios:


  • Dynamic microphones

  • Condenser microphones

  • Ribbon microphones


They each have their place and purpose. However, when starting out with home recording, it’s best to buy a condenser microphone. This will be your best bet in the majority of scenarios for a well-rounded mic to capture vocals and acoustic instruments.


Of course, fancy recording studios have a variety of microphones, and may choose to use expensive ribbon microphones on some acoustic instruments - but this just isn’t practical in a home recording situation.


Essential Item Number 3: Headphones


To help you listen both during a recording take and on playback afterwards, you’ll need a decent pair of closed-back headphones. This means that the headphone enclosure is designed to keep as much noise in as possible. Open-back headphones can be fantastic for mixing, but they're a nightmare to record with - you’ll get a lot of click track (and everything else) feeding straight out of the headphones and into your microphone. Not good.


Essential Item Number 4: Microphone Stand


This is one of those items that doesn't bring much joy to spend your hard-earned money on, but is critical in the process! A few years ago, K&M was just about the only brand offering solid stands in most music shops, and you'd be looking at around $150 per stand - but these days, thankfully, there are other brands making good stands for around the $50 mark.


Essential Item Number 5: Microphone Cable


Another slightly bland necessity is a good-quality XLR cable to connect your microphone to your audio interface.


Essential Item Number 6: Pop Filter


If you’re going to be recording vocals, you need a pop filter. This small piece of hardware sits between the vocalist and the microphone to stop the rushes of air from sounds such as 'P', which create unwanted booms and pops in the microphone.


Essential Item Number 7: Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)


Lastly, you'll need computer software to record your music into, known as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). There are plenty of them out there - to help you decide, check out this tutorial we've previously written on choosing a DAW.


Now The Fun Starts - Let’s Get Recording!


With your gear sorted, it’s time to get stuck into the fun stuff - the recording! We'll go deeper into that in the next instalment of this tutorial series, but for now, I'm going to leave you with a couple of tips to get you on your way.


Signal Flow


Signal flow is the path the sound takes in recording. Using vocal recording as an example, below is a quick little flow chart to illustrate the path the vocal sound takes from one end to the other.


A flow chart of signal flow for recording audio digitally

Setting Levels


This is one of the most common mistakes I see amateurs making. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been sent tracks to mix and the levels haven’t been set properly for recording. When I say levels, I’m referring to how loud a track has been recorded. In the digital world, this is measured in dBFS (decibels relative to full-scale).


I'll explain the ins and outs of dBFS in more detail in a future tutorial in this series, but for now, note that levels are determined by two main factors: how loud the source signal is, and how high the microphone preamp gain is set.


The maximum level something can be recorded at without digital clipping/distortion is 0dBFS. When you hear people talk about 'headroom', they're talking about the gap between the actual level of the signal they're recording and the 0dBFS level where things get distorted.


Most amateurs try to record everything as loud as possible. And prior to 24-bit converters, it actually was more important to record at a higher level - because of the smaller dynamic range able to be captured, and the subsequent increased noise floor (unwanted background noise generated by the gear your signal is passing through). However, now in the 24-bit (and beyond) digital world, there’s really no need to have the peaks of your signal louder than around -10dBFS.


If you're trying to record everything with peaks of -0.5dBFS, all it will take is one slightly louder belt in your vocals or one slightly harder strum on your guitar to cause the signal to clip and distort. Sadly, I've often been sent tracks that are regularly clipping in this way. So keep those peaks down and keep your tracks safe!


Summing Up


That should be enough to get you started on your recording journey for now - but be sure to tune in again next time, when we start going into more of the technical details involved in the recording process. Until then, enjoy that wonderful experience of gear shopping!

Comments


bottom of page