There are probably many artists who are considering or hoping to produce an album for the first time but are unsure as to where or how to begin. I thought I would detail for them (or perhaps those who have already had success and wish to compare notes on) the process I used. This is by no means an authoritative or definite summary of how to proceed but merely the road I took to go from ground zero to a published album. Note that this is also geared entirely to a home studio recording and mix. For those who have the luxury or ability to use a professional studio and engineering these topics will prove to be pretty pedestrian. However, I hope it is useful in some fashion and I welcome your comments or questions on the contact tab to the left. Also note that while I will be discussing numerous brand equipment nothing I say should be considered an endorsement of these products (although I will likely speak very highly of some of the ones that played an integral role.)
As this is a guitar website let’s assume you already have at least one good guitar ready to go. More on how to prep and make ready your guitar will be addressed below. We’ll then start with a few basics:
Recording Space and Equipment: Ideally, you will have a separate room to set up as a studio. A dual use room (bedroom, office and studio) will not be nearly as effective or efficient. One purpose of the room is usually at the expense of another. I converted a designated room into my studio and did a small amount of acoustic preparation, and was pleased with the outcome. Also note that today’s modern digital processing equipment, with its many options and plug-ins, may make up for some small discrepancies in the recording process or the room itself.
Once you have your recording space selected and set up, let’s begin with the first essential, the means to get the sound from your guitar to your recoding platform - the microphone. At a minimum and if you’re only going for one multi-purpose microphone it should be a large diaphragm condenser. There are a myriad of options out there ranging in price from just less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Major studios obviously opt for the very best but if you’re on a budget, research and choose wisely. I have a few acquaintances who have experience behind the mixing panel in a studio. All of course have different options as to the best brand of microphone and some even scoffed when I opted for a Behringer B-2 Pro Condenser. However, the price point was great (about $150) and the reviews were uniformly positive. I found it be a sturdy, very well-constructed and reliable piece of equipment, and will be using it on all my recordings in the near future.
If you plan to record a lot of acoustic guitar you might consider augmenting the condenser with a pencil mic designed for that purpose. Again I chose a Behringer for this purpose, their model B-5. I don’t do vocals but if you plan on adding them choose a pop filter for the condenser mic. It will eliminate a lot of headaches in the mixing process later on.
While you can theoretically prop up a microphone on anything sturdy do yourself a favor and invest in a solid microphone stand for each one. It allows you the flexibility to reposition the microphones quickly and efficiently as you require, and provides for the surest and best sound reproduction quality.
Next on the list is to get the sound from the microphone to an audio recording device. Back in 2005 I purchased a Boss BR1200 Digital Recording Studio. It was my only means of private recording for many years and allowed me the opportunity to record, mix, master, and eventually produce digital files and hard CD’s, ALL on one platform Over time, however, I personally found it to be a little more cumbersome and time-consuming to use as efficiently as the new computer based recording programs (Digital Audio Workstation - DAW). There are many of these available with pro and con reviews of each. Note, however, that if you have an Apple product, particularly an iMac, you already have GarageBand at your disposal. It may be an introductory program leading to their much more professional Logic Pro, but it still hosts an enormous array of tools to help you get going. There are also still many fine stand-alone digital recorders out there as well. Just choose what you are most comfortable with and which fits your budget the best.
If you're using a stand alone system (such as the BR1200) you’re all set to go as it will provide the phantom power you'll need to power your mic(s). If you opt for a computer based system you will need something to power the mic(s) and then transmit the analog signal to the digital program. Again, there are so many to choose from at all different price ranges. After doing some research I again opted for a Behringer product (UMC204HD) and it served my purposes for my first CD perfectly. Note also that many of these systems are expanded to include numerous microphone banks to facilitate recording of many different instruments. I found it unnecessary or additional microphone inputs when I am limited to two. Again, do your research and let your overall needs and budget be your guides.
These systems all provide a means of direct plug-in of your instrument but I have done extensive testing of all my guitars through both direct plug-in and microphone. To me there is no comparison, especially with acoustic guitars. The microphone provides by far the truest and most realistic sound. I found the direct plug-ins to muddy and distort the sound quality of the guitars with the possible exception of my nylon string and my acoustic bass. Both of these sounded tolerable plugged in but I used a Fishman Platinum Pro EQ Pre-Amp with XLR cables and phantom power to get the best sound possible. Of course there is one great advantage to the direct plug-in and that is the problem you may encounter with ambient noise if your studio is not completely sound proofed. (I had one take ruined by my doorbell ringing, another by the neighbor’s dog barking. The latter has “appeared” on so many of my takes I may have to give him credit on the CD!) But if you can, use a mic. Remember, however, that it will pick up everything. So, for example, if you have a cold and the sniffles, those sniffles will make their way onto the recording! It will record virtually the sound, such as the guitar moving around on your leg (so sit very still) and, if you have a soundboard pickup as I do on my nylon string, it will hear every sound of your hand moving along the soundboard. I found I had to alter my playing style a bit to elevate my hand away from the soundboard with this particular pickup. This was not a problem, however, with the saddle pickups I had on the other guitars.
Choosing Your Music: We'll return to the actual recoding process once we discuss what music to choose and how to prep everything prior to sitting in the studio before a microphone. I recommend your first determine a theme for your album so that it can be appropriately categorized upon distribution. The other important things to consider are whether your proposed songs are in the public domain or if there are royalties required for copyrighted music. Remember too that specific arrangements of a song may be copyrighted, even if the song is in the public domain. As an example, listen to my version of Deck the Halls. I first scoured the Internet to ensure no one else had a similar arrangement, and then recorded mine in a Samba/Latin style. As my CD is copyrighted, I would technically have a claim if anyone else released that song using this same arrangement.
And if you plan to write your own music just ensure it doesn't sound exactly like some other published piece. (There are a few examples out there of that occurring with even famous artists, some resulting in lawsuits.) I chose to go with an album of Christmas music for several reasons - the familiarity of the songs since early childhood, the large catalog from which to choose, and the availability of so much music in the Public Domain, i.e., no royalties to consider.
I started with a list of 30 songs. I dismissed a few at the outset as I didn't particularly like them in any case, and then started to narrow the list so I could come up with a final 15, with a few in reserve in case I just couldn't get the recording right on any one of them. Christmas music, however, is pretty basic in many cases. For example, I'm not a fan of Jingle Bells so that I can listen to a steady diet of it through the holiday season. But what, I thought, if I slow down the rhythm and play it on a jazz guitar, with a brushed snare and stand-up bass, and do a "lounge" version? That's exactly what I did and the end result on my album is a bit more unique.
This then leads to my next step - arranging the music by selecting the chords, rhythm styles, instruments to use for each song, possible medleys, etc. I sat down with the "Final 15" and a Martin 00-15M guitar (a great little guitar I bought initially just for practice while I watched TV) and worked out the arrangements on each. I found several tools to be particularly helpful. Just a plain piece of paper and a pen to note every planned change to the music. When working on numerous different songs, don’t rely on your memory to recall something that sounded particularly good or different as you practiced or arranged each piece. I also used the GarageBand app on my iPad, as this one was already installed and easy to use. And, finally, the best piece or equipment I invested in, a Zoom H1n Portable Recorder. This great little device is a constant companion and is arguably efficient enough to use it by itself for the complete final recording process (sans mixing). As ideas came to me I would do a quick recording on the Zoom, and then make some detailed notes on the chord changes, bridges, verse repetition, etc. This was important to me as I would easily forget things from day-to-day. For example, there are eleven key changes on We Three Kings/I Wonder as I Wander. There was no way I could remember these as I laid down different tracks on different instruments had I not detailed them in writing and/or made some preliminary recordings.
I also used several medleys on the album. The one above seemed to flow well together and I found rhythmic similarities in I Saw Three Ships/Here We Come a-Caroling. Then I recalled there being two versions of Away in a Manger, so I decided to combine them both. I wanted to do some old German and Austrian carols as I lived in both countries for many years. On their own the songs were appealing but much too short to stretch into long versions without being repetitive and uneventful. The answer then was then to construct medleys. The point here is only to be creative and not exclude any possibilities.
TO BE CONTINUED