Sound recording technology has advanced a lot and it made the sound engineer’s job much easier than before. However, the basic responsibility of a sound engineer remains the same – to take sound inputs and run through a series of audio equipment and reproduce it as best as possible to match the requirement - whether it is in a professional recording studio or a home recording studio. Be it a music track, voice over audio, dialog or special effect, it all start from one end of audio chain and end up in either sound reproduction speakers or some sort of recording media for further use. The venue and they type, capacity and number of equipment used in the audio chain very in each type of setup from a multi-million-dollar motion picture studio to a smartphone connected to a microphone running an audio recording app. However, the basic principle and components of audio recording remain the same.
Commercial sound production often goes through several stages of processes before the tracks are mastered, finalized and transferred on to the final media. It also must follow certain standards in order to ensure the compatibility more often the tracks are produced for broadcast and complex motion picture sound requirements. As the complexity of requirement increases, home studios have to grow out of home at some point. The good news is, today the scalability of home studios is much higher compared to the technology some years back. In my opinion, sound recording expertise is combination of natural ear for music and audio coupled with technical competency to make the audio chain behave the way you want it to give the output.
Essential Components of Home Studio
As mentioned before, the basic function of sound recording is to get number of sound sources, routed through an audio chain – a series of interconnected audio hardware and software – and goes through some transformations and reach the final output media in a desired from. Let us have a quick look at what are the essential components required when you are putting together your basic home recording studio.
1. Acoustic Space – Silence!
Before we go into audio hardware and digital audio workstations and how to put it together and make it work to produce audio tracks, one very important thing to remember. Your aim is to capture clean audio; this is very important especially when you are planning to record vocals and acoustic guitar or similar sound sources. Sound is a very difficult form of energy to control as it travels through anything. A typical household will have a lot of noises coming in from neighborhood which will get mixed with the sound source you want to record. First of all, you have to try and grab the quietest room, if possible, to setup home recording studio in order to eliminate the chances of background noises or ambient noises leaking into your mics. It is not going to be easy in many cases, but we will discuss in detail how to insulate and treat the acoustic space. Click Studio Space for more information.
2. Computer Recording Needs Power
In many ways, in a relatively simple home recording setup, your computer is the center piece, in my opinion. Your digital audio workstation and relative audio and effects plugins are run on it while you are on the job. More importantly several tracks of high quality audio data are recorded and played back in real-time. Whether it is a desktop, lap top, Mac or PC, it is really important to ensure the machine has enough power and fast enough accessories to handle the rigorous operations. The best way to determine what is needed is to go by the digital audio workstation specification and the audio interface specifications. Apart from the processor power and memory requirement, your system disk where the DAW software will be running should ideally be a SSD drive for faster performance. Have plenty of media storage space for your audio files and always have separate physical hard disk - with desired data transfer speed - for your assets. Articles on Computer and Peripherals.
3. DAW – Digital Audio Workstation
DAWs are getting better and better and. Also, many of the industry standard DAWs have moved subscription option where you do not need to spend all the money to buy it. Most of the leading DAWs come with similar kind of basic functionalities. There are endless discussions to choose the best digital audio workstation software. Depending on the kind of audio recording you will be doing, you can choose the one best fitted to your needs. Although many of the DAWs workflows are similar, there are ones which operates slightly differently and probably designed for other application than studio recording. Nearly every DAW has their recommended set of audio interfaces. Almost all interfaces come with one or more DAW light versions. This may be enough for start with. Another thing to check is the operating system platforms. There a few Windows only and iOS only DAWs are out there.
4. Audio Interface
Audio Interface plays a key role in your home studio audio chain. Many of the audio sources you would record may still be analog. A typical audio interface will have several pre-amps that takes mic, instrument or line level input. The quality of audio captured in a way a lot depends on the audio interface’s capability acquire clean sounding audio and convert it into digital audio data in high enough bit rate. There are many cost-effective audio interfaces in the market that uses similar quality pre-amps are their high-end counterparts. One basic deciding factor when choosing an audio interface is the number and types of inputs and outputs. If you are a person doing voiceover for your documentary, you do not need to record 8 channels of audio simultaneously and a single mic input may be adequate for this purpose. Digital Audio has something called latency, a minute delay in paying back the signals due the process of converting analog into digital and back to analog before it played through speakers. Even many smaller audio interfaces come with a ‘direct monitoring’ option where the analog signal inputs are routed directly to the output channels so that there is not latency. This is helpful, especially to performers. If you require several output mixes, for eg. headphone mix, console mix or to a second set of monitors, make sure you get an interface with enough output pairs and ability to have separate mixes to different output pairs. If you planning to you standard MIDI devices, ensure that your audio interface have MIDI in / out / though ports.
5. Near Field – Studio Monitors / Headphones
Studio monitors are an essential part of your home studio. General studio monitors output clean signals without any coloring in order for you to listen and make good mixes. There are loads of options and choosing can me confusing. There are active and passive studio monitors available. Active ones are with built-in amplifiers whereas the passive ones need addition power amplifier between your audio interface output and the monitors. There are several factors to consider when choosing a studio monitor like power, size, frequency rage handled, quality of sound and there are a lot of opinions and personal choices and price ranges. Apart from the technical specifications, the best choice for you is a lot depend on how it sounds and handle different frequencies. A good pair of professional quality headphones are also necessary, especially when you recording mic input sources.
6. Studio Microphones and Accessories
To capture clean sound, you need good microphones. Mainly there are three type of microphones widely used in different types of sound acquisition needs. Dynamic microphones, condenser microphones and ribbon microphones. Dynamic microphones are used main in live audio production and condenser and ribbon microphones are used primarily in recording studios and most rugged of the lot. Condenser mics are much more sensitive compared to dynamic microphones. It needs +48v power to work properly. This called phantom power. Ribbon microphones are most sensitive and most fragile of the lot. It is most sensitive and applying phantom power to tube microphone can destroy the mic. There are great sounding legendry dynamic microphones like Shure SM58 which can be used in studios also. However, more sensitive dynamic microphone is a popular choice in studio, especially for voice tracking. A lot of air can hit the microphones when ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds are pronounced. A pop filer can eliminate this issue. Also, shock mounts reduce the noises transmitted through microphone stands.
7. Other Accessories
To have a quality audio chain, we need to ensure all accessories used in the setup meet the required quality standards. Using balanced audio connections can eliminate the disturbances from electrical interfaces. In a very small home audio setup with the hardware is limited to your computer and audio interface, you will be using mouse and computer keyboard to do most of your DAW operations. There are several MIDI control surfaces available with motorized channel faders, transport controls buttons, and rotary buttons to change DAW plugin parameters and so on. You may also want to add some signal processors like EQ and compressors in your audio chain. Other things you would probably need to look at is sound control material like sound absorbers and acoustic curtains.
There are several options when it comes to selecting the home recording hardware and audio recording software. Start from your requirement and available budget, keep any future enhancement in mind. You will have some learning to do to operate your DAW and keep in mind that it may not be a good idea switching from one DAW to another. Working with two or maximum three DAWs will not be an issue; but I would not recommend more than that.