Setting up a home recording studio is a dream shared by many musicians. However, only very few musos ever do it. They think it's too difficult or too costly.
That's totally untrue.
Setting up a home recording studio can actually be accomplished in just a few steps, and the benefits of doing it are enormous.
For example, with your own studio you get...
- Flexibility. With your very own home recording studio, you’ll be able to work when you want, at any time of the day or night.
- Convenience. Traveling to and from a professional recording studio can be extremely time consuming (and hassle-some lugging gear with you).
- Affordability. Owning a home studio will keep you from paying the often exorbitant fees charged by professional studio owners.
- Fun. As musicians will tell you, having your own studio will provide you with hours of fun.
- Innovation. We've all heard the 'recorded by 2 kids in a bedroom anecdotes' - well it's true. Some of the best modern music comes from homegrown studios.
- An education in music engineering. Your own studio makes you a guru of making and engineering music, as opposed to just playing it.
Here's what we're going to cover in this ultimate guide:
- where you should put your home recording studio
- the equipment you'll need (hardware and software)
- how to soundproof and 'acoustically treat' your studio
- a step by step guide to recording a song
- post production tips to make your music sound awesome
Below is a navigator if you want to jump to a specific section. If you're just starting out, I recommend you start at the beginning.
Setting Up Your Own Home Studio
- Where Should You Put Your Home Recording Studio?
- The Equipment You'll Need (Hardware and Software)
- 1. A Computer
- 2. An Audio Interface
- 3. Microphones
- 4. Headphones
- 5. Studio Monitors
- 6. Midi Controller
- 7. Real Instruments
- 8. Cables
- 9. A Digital Audio Workplace (or ‘DAW’)
- Ideal studio layout
- Acoustical treating / soundproofing your studio
- Step by Step Guide To Recording A Song
- Post Production Tips
Where Should You Put Your Home Recording Studio?
When you’re ready to build your home recording studio, the very first step is deciding where to put it. You have three potential places for this project—a spare room, the garage or a mobile studio—here are the advantages and disadvantages associated with each option.
1. The Spare Room
If you have a spare or unoccupied room in your home, maybe a bedroom that never gets used, you may want to consider setting up your recording studio there. Here are some of the pros and cons associated with this option:
- Very convenient. Just a few steps away.
- Temperature Controlled. Work in any type of weather, day or night.
- Easier to Sound-Proof. Much easier to sound proof than an open and airy garage.
- Takes up space. You’ll be eliminating the possibility of using that room for other purposes.
- Can Be Noisy. No amount of sound proofing is fool-proof.
- Strangers in the House. If you plan to work with different bands and artists, a spare-room studio will give them access to your home.
2. The Garage
The garage is another popular destination for home recording studios. However, like the spare room, there are some advantages and disadvantages associated with this option, including:
- Out of the House. No strangers in the house.
- Easy access. A garage studio has easy access from both the house and outside.
- Weather Sensitive. Garages can be very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter.
- Difficult to Sound Proof. Garages have plenty of open spaces for noise to escape and come in, making it a difficult room to completely soundproof.
- Lose Car Access. By opting to build your studio in the garage, you are sacrificing a space that you may be parking your car (s).
3. Mobile Studio
Our final option—the mobile studio—can be a terrific option for some, and a not-so-terrific option for others. Here are some of the most obvious pros and cons:
- Flexibility. You can actually go to the musicians rather than having them come to you.
- No house or garage noise. You won’t have to worry about upsetting the neighbors with noise.
- Can Record Anywhere. You are not limited by distance, allowing you to branch out and expand your operation.
- Sacrifice Acoustics. In almost all cases, you will probably sacrifice the acoustic quality with a mobile recording studio.
- More Difficult to Set Up. Unless you have a large motor home, trying to fit everything you will need into a mobile recording studio can be quite the challenge.
- Expensive. The price-tag for a mobile recording studio is much higher than with the other two options.
The Equipment You'll Need (Hardware and Software)
Once you’ve chosen the “where” with regards to your home recording studio, it’s time to start assembling the equipment you will need to make this all happen. Here we describe the most crucial pieces of equipment you will require.
1. A Computer
The computer is typically the most expensive item in any home recording studio. And while conventional wisdom would suggest you should get the fastest computer available, most of today’s machines are powerful enough to handle the job. That being said, if you already possess a modern computer, you may just want to use what you already have—and upgrade later as your needs change.
This article is about recording music using a computer, so the first thing you’re going to need is a desktop or laptop.
You don't just want any old computer.
Here are the main things to consider when buying a computer for recording music:
CPU (Computer Processing Units)
Music production is resource intensive on your computer so you’ll want to choose a computer with a high processor speed - or ‘CPU’ (computer processing units).
The CPU is the brains of your computer so you’ll want a dual core processor at the very least.
Can I just upgrade the CPU on my existing machine?
The CPU sits on your computers motherboard and isn’t something like an extra battery pack that you can just bolt on. Unless you’re tech savvy, you’d need to take your machine into a professional to get the CPU upgraded. Watch out though, it may be cheaper just to buy a new machine.
RAM, or 'Random Access Memory', is the computer’s virtual memory and is another thing that gets hammered with music production.
You know the feeling when you’ve got too many applications open, or tabs open in your browser and your machine becomes really sluggish? You hear the fan kick in too? That’s your computer’s RAM overloading.
As a rule of thumb, your computer should have at least 8 GB of RAM.
Your hard drive is where your PC stores files, including your sound output files (once you’ve created them).
Sound output files are pretty huge in size, so you need a decent size hard drive to house them. You don’t want to run of disc space.
As a rule of thumb you’re going to need at least 500 GB of hard drive space, preferably a Terrabyte (1000 GBs) so you never have to think about it again.
Can I upgrade the hard disc myself?
Like the CPU, this is another one where you’d be better off speaking to an expert about it - your hard drive stores everything on your computer, including operating system files, photos, your xmas mailing address and you don’t want to be messing with those things.
How about an external hard drive?
Yes, great option. The price of hard drives have shot down in recent years, allowing you to get a decent size hard drive without breaking the bank. You plug them in via USB (or Lightning if you’re on a Mac) and voila. More space.
Laptop or Desktop?
Laptops are incredibly versatile, you can literally take them anywhere. But you get far more bang for buck (in terms of sheer power) with desktops.
Because of their size, laptops have to pack a lot in to a confined space. Inevitably, the performance is going to suffer slightly compared to a desktop.
If you’re serious about building a home studio, I’d go with a desktop all the way. You’ll need a laptop if you want to use a backing track at a gig, so a laptop is good in that scenario.
If you’re never going to need to use your laptop for live reproduction, then a desktop is your better option.
Mac or PC?
That old chestnut!
When it comes to music and most other creative endeavours, the Mac is the undisputed king of them all. Some DAW’s will only run on Macs, so choice of software is another consideration.
The major downside of the Mac is the cost. Mac’s are ridiculously expensive compared to your average PC. They do tend to hold their value better than PCs, so you could always sell it on.
2. An Audio Interface
Whether you’re going to use real instruments or a microphone for recording vocals / sounds etc, you’re going to need an audio interface.
Audio interfaces usually look like this:
What audio interfaces do?
How are you going to get the sounds of your guitar into your computer?
Sure, you could try using the inbuilt microphone on your computer, but trust me it will suck. You need an audio interface.
An audio interface is a bit of kit that lets you plug your instrument into your computer and maintains (and sometimes enhances) the quality of your instrument.
Audio interfaces have multiple input jacks for simultaneous recording too. So let’s say you want to record you and your mate both playing guitar, but on separate tracks.
An audio interface lets you plug both guitars in and each guitar track will appear on a separate track in your DAW.
There are dozens of audio interface models out there you should check out. For beginners, go with something simple, you don’t need sixteen inputs for your bedroom studio.
I’m not planning on recording vocals, do I need a microphone?
The short answer is yes.
That built-in microphone on your laptop really isn’t going to cut it here. Depending on what you need to record, you’ll want to pick up a couple of microphones at least. If you have a singer, that’s one.
Recording drums? Another for each piece of the kit, unless you don’t mind doing multiple recordings. If you have any other acoustic instruments you’ll also need microphones for them, or cycle through what gets recorded.
Let’s say you have a lovely Gibson E-330 playing through a King Royale K-35 head (trying to emulate the Elliott Smith sound) and you want to quite rightly record that sound. Well, the only way you’re going to capture that sound is by micing up your amp. Hence the need for the mic.
Condensor vs dynamic mic? What’s the difference?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of mic to consider. The condensor mic and the dynamic mic.
The condensor mic: ideal for recording for high frequency instruments such as acoustic guitars, cymbals and pianos. These tend to be more versatile and a good addition to any home recording studio.
The dynamic mic: ideal for recording low to mid frequency instruments such as drums and typically used for vocals.
Sophisticated recording studios may have dozens of microphones used for creating different sounds, but for now, merely one or two microphones will be sufficient.
Two more microphone accessories you're going to need:
A microphone stand: Hands-free recording, which is essential for great audio quality, is only possible with a microphone stand.
9. Pop Filters
A microphone pop-filter: If you have ever seen footage of musicians recording in the studio, you have no doubt seen a pop filter. Pop filters are the mesh devices that cover the microphone in the studio, producing a much cleaner and clearer sound quality.
You’ll also need a good pair of headphones or studio monitors.
In the raw recorded form, even if you’ve been extremely careful and had the perfect take, you’ll still need to clean the sound up a little bit. Nobody is expecting you to do a perfect mix and master for a demo, so don’t try to beat the pros with the studios.
All you’ll want to do is remove any noise, adjust the EQ a bit and set the volume levels so that everything can be heard properly. If you’ve never done this, we’ll get into that soon so don’t worry.
If you try to do this with ordinary headphones or speakers, the sound will be coloured by them, rather than giving you an accurate representation of the recording.
But having a pair of headphones is handy for one simple reason: when it’s late and you don’t want to bother anyone else, you whack on your headphones and you can blast the music to your heart’s content (though not too loud, ear damage is a real thing).
5. Studio Monitors
You’re going to need to hear what you record, and to do that your computer speakers won't be fit for purpose.
So what are your options? Well, the most common solution is to buy a pair of studio monitors (monitors is a fancy word for speakers). Studio monitors are called ‘active speakers’ (as opposed to the passive speakers that you get with your average hi-fi set up).
A “studio monitor” is music-speak for a speaker used for mixing music. Initially, you will need at least one or two studio monitors.
Why are studio monitors called active speakers?
Studio speakers are called active speakers for one simple reason: they have an amplifier built into the speaker cabinets themselves. Which means they don’t need an external amplifier to power them. Think for a moment about your typical hi-fi set up. You have an amplifier powering those passive speakers don’t you.
With active speakers, no need. The amplifier is built in, which means you can plug a computer directly into them and they’ll amplify themselves.
Is there any difference in sound between studio monitors and normal speakers?
Monitors are specifically designed for music production, so they tend to sound better. They tend to manage the lower bass sounds better too. Hearing your music through monitors will help when it comes to translating your mix to other sound systems.
What do I mean by translate? Once you get your music to sound nice and punchy on your studio monitors, you can pretty much guarantee your music will sound great on lesser sounding devices such as car stereos, earplugs, etc
6. Midi Controller
Another additional bit of kit that any music producer who’s worth their salt will own, but which you don’t need when you’re starting out, is a MIDI controller.
A MIDI controller lets you control any of the virtual instruments in your DAW. That could be a drum beat, a bass line, a bit of swirling synth, anything basically. Without a MIDI controller, you need to use your DAWs virtual controller which is ok, but not ideal.
You can also get 88 key MIDI controllers which give you more piano keys to play with.
7. Real Instruments
You could in theory never touch a real instrument and use only virtual instruments that come with your DAW.
You could do that, but it’s not advisable. Samples of live instruments from guitars, keyboards, etc sound much better than a virtual equivalent.
Using real instruments can also reduce the workload on the processing your computer has to do too, which will make it run smoother and quicker. Another plus.
The only snag is that real instruments can cost an arm and a leg, so you’ll probably want to prioritize the real instruments that are going to be most useful to you.
MIDI controllers are great for tapping out a beat or bassline, but aren’t great for playing a guitar solo. For that, you need a guitar. Same with a piano. You could try playing a piano through a MIDI controller, but you’re going to be limited by the number of keys the controller have.
That’s why having instruments to hand when making music is a good idea. They also add an extra dimension to your production too. There’s something about a real instrument that digitally reproduced instruments can’t match.
You obviously need to know how to play the instrument in the first place, so whether it’s guitar, drums and percussion, keyboard, ukulele it helps to know how to play.
Wherever you can, using MIDI-capable instruments will let you record directly to your audio interface without using a microphone. Not only is this much cheaper (assuming you have electronic instruments to start with) but it’s also easier as you don’t have to clean up the sound as much in post-production.
The XLR cable is a style of electrical connector, primarily found on professional audio and video equipment. You will initially need 3 XLR cables: 1 long XLR cable for your microphone; and 2 shorter XLR cables for your studio monitors.
9. A Digital Audio Workplace (or ‘DAW’)
So you’ve got a computer powerful enough to program the next moon landing.
The next thing you’re going to need is some software to help with the music production side of things.
Enter the digital audio workplace, commonly referred to as a ‘DAW’.
What does a DAW do?
Back in the day, music producers used multi-track recorders which were a physical bit of kit that allowed you to record multiple audio tracks and layer them on top of each other.
While multi-tracks are still a popular option, they are severely limited compared to what a DAW can do.
But in effect, they function in similar ways. The term track is still used in DAWs, which is a hang-over from the era of tape-based (or 'reel-to-reel') recordings.
DAWs have standard layouts that include transport controls (play, rewind, record, etc) track controls and a mixer, plus some kind of waveform display.
Like a mixing console, each track has individual controls that allow you to manage the levels of each track including overall volume, equalization and stereo balance.
The beauty of recording tracks in a DAW is, as you’re using a computer, you can undo any track changes with a couple of taps on your keyboard (unlike the old school tape-based recorders).
Should I use a free or paid DAW?
There are entry level DAWs that will suit any level from beginner to intermediate, and many are free - all the way to full blown, heavyweight DAWs that’ll let you make symphonies if you wanted to.
With entry level DAWS such as Audacity (which is free) are usually somewhat stripped down but for recording rather than full electronic music production you’ve still got plenty of options:
- You can record multiple tracks, adjust the sound and apply several effects.
- You also get the option for non destructive editing, which will save you a lot of time if you make any mistakes or change your mind halfway through the process.
- It’s also a fairly simple piece of software, but that’s also its greatest limitation.
That said, if you don’t mind splashing a bit of extra cash, a fully fledged DAW like Logic Pro X can come in handy.
- You get access to a much wider range of effects, the ability to add in other virtual instruments, vocoders and a full EQ controls.
- Editing and arranging recordings also becomes much easier if you use MIDI-inputs, as you can completely alter any individual note and achieve things that would take far longer to replicate with Audacity.
If you’re a serious musician chances are you already have access to a high end DAW, but if not then you should try out many of the free versions available.
In the world of DAWs, it’s also common to use software plug ins (called VSTs) to get specific sounds.
There are a number of free VSTs which are worth checking out too.
Ideal studio layout
Before you start hauling in all your gear, you should create a mental map as to where everything will be positioned. Here are some helpful ideas for setting up your studio:
Computer Work Station
The computer work station, or 'engineer station' (if you want to get fancy), will be the focal point of the room. To create this station, choose a position near one of the walls, and move your desk and (hopefully comfy) desk chair into position, leaving ample room on both sides of the desk (remember, you're better off getting an office chair with a decent back - don't be tempted to use a guitar stool or anything without decent back support). Next, center the computer on the desk, again leaving ample room on both sides for your work materials. Make the necessary power and component connections with your computer, making certain that all connections are properly grounded.
Vocal Set Up/Recording Station
The vocal area, also known as the recording station, is the next piece to your studio puzzle. This is where the musicians will record their vocal tracks, and thus the place in which to put the microphones and the microphone stand. Many amateur music editors tend to locate their recording station very near the computer workstation, allowing them to record, mix and edit music from the same station. And while this is certainly acceptable, you may find that this setup sacrifices the acoustic quality of the music, as the fan from the computer and other nearby devices may be picked up by the microphone.
A better option is to essentially split the room in half, with one side serving as the vocal recording area and the other as the computer workstation. This strategy will not only eliminate the aforementioned background noise, but allow you to work more efficiently with other musicians.
Acoustical treating / soundproofing your studio
To get the best out of your home studio you need to reduce unwanted noises and add sufficient soundproofing.
Reducing Unwanted Noises in Your Audio
A certain amount of unwanted noise in your audio may be inevitable, but there are several steps you can take to reduce this noise.
Because the room you have chosen was probably not built for great sound, you may have to fake it using a digital reverb software program, which can simulate the sound of almost any acoustical environment, making it sound as if the recording was actually made in a room other than your studio.
However, before you can simulate this good reverberation, you will first need to remove the natural, unwanted reverb of your studio.
To perform these acoustical treatments you will need three things: Bass Traps, Acoustic Panels and Diffusers.
Bass traps are portable and porous broadband absorbers that are ideal for eliminating/absorbing any low, mid and even high frequency noise. Designed to go into corners of the room, they are essential pieces of equipment available for reducing unwanted noise in your studio recordings.
Acoustic panels are foam panels designed to line the walls of your studio. These panels are very adept at absorbing mid to high frequency noise. However, because they are essentially useless for absorbing low bass sounds, they should always be used in conjunction with, and not in lieu of, Bass Traps.
Sound reflections can create problems in your studio because they get trapped in one spot, amplifying some frequencies, while canceling out others. This problem can be handled with diffusers. Shaped almost like backwards cubby holes, diffusers work by scattering reflections around the room, preventing them from getting trapped, and thus preserving the natural sound tone.
Soundproofing The Room
Once you've acoustically treated your new studio, it’s time to soundproof the room. Soundproofing is a technique designed to keep outside noises out of your studio, so as not to disturb your work; and to prevent inside noises from escaping your studio, so as not to disturb your household members or neighbours.
There are four steps for properly soundproofing a room: adding mass, damping, decoupling and filling air gaps.
Much like it sounds, the process of adding mass or density is one in which you must thicken the inside walls of your studio, as thicker walls = less noise. This can be accomplished using panels known as Mass-Loaded Vinyl, or Sheetblock. Where you have windows, it's a good idea to introduce noise cancelling curtains to reduce echoes on your recordings and keep out any external noises.
Damping is a soundproofing technique that helps diminish the energy from sound waves by converting that kinetic energy into heat. Now this sounds really technical, but it’s actually quite easy. Using a compound known as “green glue” or any similar product on the market, you can create a makeshift sound barrier around the walls, floors and ceilings of your studio. Simply use the glue to attach two rigid panels—such as sheetrock or plywood—together, and place the barrier completely around the room.
Whenever two structures in your studio are in direct contact with each other, the sound vibrations from the first structure can transfer to the other, creating unwanted noise that can be picked up on your audio recordings. To remedy this problem, you will need to “decouple” or separate these structures by placing some sort of pliable rubber between these two contact points.
Filling Air Gaps
Every room has little cracks or holes, some more than others. Together, these deficiencies can allow outside noise to enter your studio, and vice versa. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you will need to fill these air gaps. Smaller holes in the walls and ceilings can be filled with a product known as “acoustical caulk,” while the space under the door can be eliminated with automatic door blockers. Finally, foam gaskets can be used to seal up holes around electrical outlets, windows and inside doors.
Step by Step Guide To Recording A Song
OK. You've got the gear. It's time to start making music.
Planning your song
How do you get an idea for a song? Well, we won't cover the subject of how to write a song here, but some general things to think about are:
- The Genre
- The Tempo (or speed)
- The instruments you're going to need
- The number of tracks
Let's look at each in turn.
First, research the genre you’re trying to create.
You may think you’re song is truly original and doesn’t fit any genre. This may well be true, but in the majority of cases your song will fit in a genre. Which is it?
Many genres have typical beats per minute (BPMs). Pop music is often 90 BPM whereas House music is often a quicker 120 BPM.
Which are you planning to use, if any? If you’re going to use instruments, can you play all the parts or will you need to find someone who could play them? As a listener and fan of this genre, what instruments do you like to hear?
The number of tracks
As a rule of thumb, you want to limit the number of tracks you have to 5 or 6. There are many exceptions of course, with some tracks having dozens of tracks. But for the beginner you don’t want to overcomplicate it.
A great tip is to record a rough version (called a ‘scratch track’) before you do anything else. Grab your smart phone, find the microphone, and record a quick and dirty version of the song on a guitar, piano, or any instrument you have at hand. Have a few takes and see which you like best.
Let’s go through the steps to making a song. We're going to do it in this order:
- Software Instruments
For the purposes of this tutorial we’re going to use an entry level software that actually comes free with any Mac - Garageband. While a serious producer will turn their nose up to Garageband, for the novice it’s the perfect introduction to music production using a computer.
1. How to Make a Drum Track in Garageband
Garageband is the best software for beginners thanks to a feature called “Drummer”, which makes it very easy for a beginner to create drum loops and quickly get started with songwriting.
The first thing you will need to do is to create a track or a channel in Garageband. This is a mixer channel that you may have seen in a studio, and for the purpose of this lesson, each channel will contain one element of the track.
In this case, we will create a channel for the drums:
Click on the Drummer box so that it is highlighted and then click on Create. You will then see your channel along with an array of controls.
The way this feature works is by providing a range of drummers, each with their own unique style of playing as well as a unique sound drum kit.
On the left, you will see a Library tab that contains a list of drummers named Kyle, Logan, Anders and so on. When you click on a different drummer, everything on the right will change.
To the right of the Library tab, there are two sections. The top section is the mixer channel that we created. This channel contains what looks like an audio clip of a drum loop but is actually more complicated, and more interesting, than that.
Before we go into more detail, let’s look at the lower half of the screen. Here, you will see a list of presets, a graphical interface and a drum kit with three sliders next to it. This is the meat of the Drummer feature. This is where you will control the intensity, tonality and timbre of the drums.
The feature that is probably the most interesting, and definitely the most fun, is the graphical interface in the middle. You will see that it has four parameters - simple and complex along the x-axis, and loud and soft along the y-axis. The yellow circle determines the amount of each parameter at any given time.
So in the screenshot above, the drums will sound loud and somewhat balanced between simple and complex. What this means is that the volume of the drums will be high but also the drums being played will be loud such as the main snare and the crash cymbals; and the rhythm will mostly be a straight beat with a few fills here and there.
The interesting thing about the y-axis is that if you were to move the circle down towards the soft parameter, not only will the drum hits be softer but they will also switch to softer drums - for instance, the main snare will switch to a side-stick or a rimshot and the cymbals will switch to a closed hi-hat.
So one way to go would be to copy and paste the loop a few times and have different settings on each one. The first one can be simple and soft for the intro of your track and you could build up the loudness and complexity for the verses and the choruses based on your tune’s requirements.
2. How to Record a Bass or Guitar Track in GarageBand
To record an instrument track for bass or guitar, you need to open a new audio track and select the appropriate track type from the dialog box.
Once you have the track set up, you need to make sure your input port is set to the correct one for GarageBand to record your instrument. You will also notice a bunch of controls appear at the bottom of the screen after you create the track, but we will come back to those after we have recorded a loop.
When you have selected the correct input port - it should be the name of your soundcard - you are ready to record. It is as simple as clicking the record button - the big red circle at the top of the screen - and playing along to the click track. By default, there is a four-beat count-in to give you time to get ready after clicking on the record button. When you are done recording, your loop should look something like this.
Now that you have your instrument loop, you can look at some features that allow you to process your sound. What you see initially is a basic amplifier that is commonly used in standard rock, blues and pop music. If you are happy with your initial sound, then you can simply adjust these settings to taste and you are done recording your loop!
However, if you are keen to experiment, then GarageBand has a wide variety of amplifiers and effects to choose from. Just above this amplifier window, you should see three buttons. The first one is simply a tuner that tells you which notes are being played. But the second and third buttons are where things get really interesting. The second button opens the pedalboard window.
This gives you access to the pedalboard effects, much like the pedalboards that are used on stage by bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater. You can rearrange the pedals and add new ones from the browser on the right until you find the right chain of effects.
GarageBand comes with some really great sounding pedalboard effects like fuzz, compression, chorus, tremolo, and so on.
The third button is the amp designer. This window gives you a slightly more detailed view of the amplifier that you can access in the main window, and it also allows you to switch to a different amp.
Again, you can browse through the different amps and cabinets available, and tweak all the settings till you find the effect that you are looking for. These amps and cabinets are modeled after real-world amplifiers and offer an accurate rendition of these signature sounds.
When you are done with your instrument track, you can adjust the settings on the mixer to make it sit well with your other tracks.
3. How to Use a Software Instrument in GarageBand
As with any new channel you create in GarageBand, all you have to do is select the software instrument track in the dialog box and you’re good to go.
By default, the program will load a classic electric piano along with a two octave piano keyboard that is already mapped to the relevant keys of your computer keyboard. This feature is known as “Musical Typing” and is very useful if you don’t own a MIDI keyboard. The middle row of keys are mapped to the white keys of the piano and the relevant keys of the top row are mapped to the black keys of the keyboard. You can also double click on the title bar of the Musical Typing window to change the view to a more traditional piano look and feel.
The browser on the left contains a whole bunch of presets that you can switch to once you have loaded your software instrument track. You can click and drag on the right hand side of the browser to expand it so that you can see the main folders. Garageband comes with presets in bass, drums, synths, orchestral and many more articulations for your kind of music.
You will also notice a set of controls at the bottom of the screen. You will be able to use these controls to modify the articulation of your sound to your liking.
Once you have chosen a preset that you like, all you have to do is click the record button and start playing on your computer keyboard or your MIDI keyboard to record a loop. This is what you will see once you have finished your recording.
The first thing you will see is that the bottom of the screen now shows a different view. This is called the “Piano Roll” and it is the interface through which you can send MIDI information to your software instrument. The green horizontal lines are MIDI notes and they carry the information that controls the instrument.
So when the seeker reaches the note, it sends a “Note On” signal to the instrument, which starts to generate its sound. When the seeker reaches the end of the note, it sends a “Note Off” signal to the instrument, which stops generating its sound. On the left of the piano roll, you will see to settings known as “Quantize” and “Velocity”.
If you have recorded yourself playing, you may not have triggered all the notes in time, especially if you are not trained in keyboard playing. Clicking the “Q” button will shift all the notes to the closest subdivision set in the Quantize box - in this case, it will shift all notes to the nearest 1/16 note.
If you are not accustomed to the piano roll, and are more comfortable with sheet music, you can click on the score button at the top of the piano roll window for the score view.
When you are satisfied with your melody or chord progression, you can switch back to your synth controls by double clicking on the title bar of the MIDI track - in this example, double click on Evolving Currents to switch to your synth view.
Now you can tweak the settings as much as you like, and you can even change presets if you change your mind. The possibilities are literally endless with software instruments.
4. How to Add a Vocal Track in GarageBand
To record vocals into GarageBand, you need to create a vocal track by selecting the microphone track in the dialog box that pops up when you insert a new channel.
When you first create the channel, you will see a list of different microphones in the browser on the left. These are actually effects, in the sense that they emulate the effect of their real world counterparts. The one you select will reflect in the channel name, and will provide an effect to the vocals you record.
For example, the Classic Vocal option will make your vocal track sound like it was recorded in a classic vocal setup, meaning that the tonality and timbre of your voice will sound like it is coming from a classic recording booth.
You will also see some controls at the bottom of the screen, which will allow you to control various aspects of your vocal sound like dynamics, equalization, echo and reverb. To the left of these controls, you will see a menu from which you can choose the appropriate input port for your microphone.
To record a vocal track, simply click on the record button, wait for the four-beat count-in, and start singing. Once you have your vocals recorded, you can use the controls at the bottom of the screen to apply effects or to polish your sound.
Dynamics refers to compression, which simply reduces the volume of any input signal that crosses the threshold value set by the Compressor knob. This is particularly good for controlling those pesky P’s and other consonants that often pop very loudly while recording. Equalization offers you the ability to control the volume of different ranges of frequency, in this case, low frequencies, mid-range frequencies and high frequencies.
In vocals, it is often necessary to reduce the volume at 5 kHz to compensate for harsh ‘S’ sounds, and an equalizer comes in very handy for this. Echo and reverb are similar in that they create a sense of space when applied to any sound, making it sound bigger and more natural.
On the top right, above these controls is a tuner and a pedalboard. The pedalboard contains all the pedal effects that one would normally use on a guitar or a bass, but GarageBand allows you to use them on any track. This is useful for the type of music that makes use of strange effects, like the robot voice in dance music, or the fuzzy voice in grunge music.
With all of these options, GarageBand allows you to process your vocals in a number of interesting ways for any style of music that you might want to make.
To help you on your way, here's a little glossary of Garageband terms:
- A Project Chooser.
The Project Chooser lets you sample and experiment with several different types of audio projects, including keyboard collection, ring tones, hip-hop music and electronica music.
- Control Bar.
The control bar has “smart controls; library and quick-help” functions that make it easy to learn how to edit music.
- Play Controls.
Much like iTunes, the play controls allow you to rewind, fast-forward, stop, play, and record audio selections.
- Display Area.
The bright Display area in Garage Band enables you to keep track of all your projects.
- Master Volume Slider.
As its name suggests, this feature lets you adjust the overall volume of your project.
In addition to these convenient functions, Garage Band comes with a great library of practice projects and a help bar through which you can receive tips from veteran music editors.
Post Production Tips
Now that you have your audio recorded, it’s time to make it sound even better.
The first step is called mixing down. “Mixing down” is the process of taking all the tracks you’ve recorded and reducing them to one single stereo track.
Keep each of your tracks clearly labelled, both in your track list and the mixer (if you’re using a DAW, which you really should be) to save time when editing. It’s easy to get lost when you have seven or eight tracks which are just separate drums.
Sort out your levels
Listen carefully to the recording at a medium volume. Sometimes the track might need more body, in which case you’ll want to increase the bass and lower mid-range to produce more clarity. Equally you may feel like the track needs more clarity, in which case you can bring up the upper harmonics. Pumping up the volume messes with the EQ levels, over emphasising certain frequencies over others. At this stage you’re looking for anything that seems to stand out too much or fades into the background when it shouldn’t. This goes for volume, pitch and noise.
Based on what you’ve found, and what you want the end product to sound like, it’s time to apply EQ to each of your tracks. EQ controls can look a bit complex, but there’s nothing much to them. The left-most controls are for the bass, the middle for the mids, and the right side is for the treble. The exact range can usually be adjusted. Simply move each area up or down to even out the overall frequency.
Without any post production tweaks, you’ll find quiet bits of your song sound too quiet, while louder parts of your song may sound too loud. Compression fixes that by making the quieter bits of song slightly louder (and clearer) and equally loud bits less loud. So to control unwanted noise you use compression. This lets you increase the overall volume of your recording without causing an awful hiss at the same time. In a DAW you’ll probably be able to find a good preset to start with, and work from there. The essence is to take whichever signal is loudest (even with a single instrument track) and reduce it to the point where it is roughly even with the quietest parts, and then adjusting the overall volume up from there. Of course, you’ll want some variation in softness and volume level, but this lets you get a much greater punch without those softer areas being lost.
Get a second opinion
You may also want to pass the recording on at this stage to somebody more experienced at mixing. Explain what you’re trying to do, and work together with them to achieve the right sound.
Exporting The Final Product
Now that you’ve got the sound just the way you want it, it’s time to make it ready for listening. To do this you’ll want to export everything into a single audio file. There are a few choices here, MP3, WAV and other file formats each have their advantages and disadvantages.
- Mix down at a high bit rate - First of all, a general rule of thumb is to make sure you mix down at the highest bit rate possible. We recommend 32-bit rate (that’s double the bit rate of CDs, so pretty high).
- MP3 is the worst choice due to the extreme loss of quality incurred by the compression. Unlike with the dynamic compression you did whilst mixing the track, this simply means as much of the data as possible is reduced to save space. Listening to the original file and the MP3 together will be like the difference between a laptop speaker and a nightclub PA system. The only advantage is the relatively low file size makes it easier to upload online and you can fit more songs onto a CD.
- WAV files are the polar opposite of MP3 files. You will have absolutely no compression whatsoever, making the files monstrously huge, but also preserving the sound quality. The higher the bit depth and resampling rate you choose, the bigger the file will be, but will also contribute to a better reproduction.
- FLAC files are something of a hybrid. Like MP3 files, they use compression. However, a different technique is used to prevent any loss of quality. This does result in the export process taking a long time, but it means you can transfer the file much more easily afterwards. The other problem with FLAC files is that they are relatively underused, and not all audio players are encoded to be able to play these files.
We've covered a lot haven't we!
In summary, this is what we covered:
- Choose the Room that Is Best for You. Spare rooms, garages, or a mobile studio—they all have certain drawbacks and advantages.
- Get the Equipment. For a very basic home recording studio, the items listed above are all you need to get started.
- Prepare the Room. Once you have chosen the room, you will need to make the proper acoustical treatments to improve the audio quality, and soundproof the room to keep outside noises out; and inside noises in.
- Learn to make a song. Follow the steps and learn how to make music. When you do, share a link to it in the comments. I'd love to hear it.
One final note: The best way to bring all this to life is to experiment and take action. There’s only so much you can learn from reading an article like this. At some point you’re going to need to experiment and see what works for you.
Go for it!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.