The Basics of A Home Recording Set-Up from The Abbey Road Engineering Team

Following our Online Creation and Collaboration Tools and Creativity In Isolation blogs from the last few days, we spoke to our engineers to give you some creative and technical tips for creation in self-isolation. Paul Pritchard, an Abbey Road recording engineer who has worked on projects with Kylie, Bastille, Dave and Paul McCartney talks us through the basics of a home recording set-up:
 

Home Recording Set-Up


Computer

Most bedroom set-ups nowadays will be based around some sort of DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) which means having to buy a computer / laptop which is easily the biggest initial expense. Luckily, we live in a world where a lot of people will already have some sort of laptop / computer and it can be used for a million different things, not just creating / recording music.
I haven't dealt with PCs for a while and I'm sure they're great, but any Mac you can buy nowadays will do a decent job (depending on what you're trying to do!). Initial considerations would definitely be budget and portability. Obviously, laptops you can move around and have a built-in screen, but may be more expensive than something like an iMac. Best get the highest spec that your budget allows as it’s an investment for the future. Worth getting something with SSDs as they're great for speed of recording, loading samples etc.
 

DAW

For recording / editing / mixing, I use Pro Tools. Lots of people use Logic Pro X, which is cheaper and more geared toward the home producer. People also use Cubase as well as others. All have their own strengths so again it depends on what you're hoping to do.
 

Interface

The interface is the device that turns audio signals into something the computer can understand, and there are loads out there. Focusrite, UAD and Apogee are a few names worth investigating. Key here is the amount of inputs / outputs, so it’s worth figuring out how many channels and microphones you want to record at any given time and balance that with your budget. They will also have headphone and speaker outputs so you can hear what you're creating.
 
 

Midi Keyboard

I think it’s always a good idea to learn an instrument if you don't already. Midi keyboards are a great way of inputting midi data if you're not recording anything acoustic; again it depends on your circumstances. There are loads by Akai, Native Instruments, M-Audio, Novation, Roland etc. Biggest consideration is whether you actually need one for what you want and then the size depending on requirement / budget / space available. The smallest are usually 25 keys up to 88 keys.
 

Virtual Instruments

Virtual Instruments are plugins in the DAW that take midi data and playout sampled / synthesised sounds. DAWs will have plenty of built-in ones, but if you're after extra think about what sounds you’re looking for and buy accordingly. Waves and Native Instruments do a variety of different sounds as do IK Multimedia amongst others.
 

Microphones

If you're wanting to record something acoustic, such as voice, acoustic guitar, etc, then a microphone is essential. The choice of mic depends on budget and what it is you're hoping to record and how many you want. RØDE make great cost-effective versatile microphones as do AKG, SE Electronics and Sennheiser. Appropriate leads and stands are a must and, if you're recording vocals, a pop shield would be a good idea.
 

Plugins

Most DAWs will come with a wide array of plugins that are useful for changing / sculpting sounds. Extras are sometimes useful. Waves, Soundtoys and Valhalla are good places to start. Most companies will give some sort of trial / demo, so definitely try before you buy and sign up to their mailing lists so you know when any deals are on. Black Friday is especially a good time to buy!
 
 

Speakers / Monitors

Not necessarily as essential as headphones are, but often a good option depending on your space / budget / neighbours! Adams, Focal and KRK are good companies to check out; considerations being budget and size (normally equatable to loudness) and passive or active. Passive speakers require an external power amp.
 

Headphones

A great pair of headphones will cost a similar amount to a cheap pair of speakers. Also, with headphones you don't have to worry about poor acoustics on the monitoring side and it keeps neighbours happy! A comfortable open back pair is good for mixing, writing and critical listening, as they are more detailed (I use Sennhesier HD 600), but a comfortable closed back pair is best to avoid spill.
 
 

Ergonomics

Most people will work better if they're comfortable and everything they need is within reach: appropriate desks / stands / even putting books under computer screens to raise them up can really help. Also a comfy chair! For me, perspective is important when working on anything creative. Everyone's different, but I like to take regular breaks in order to reset my ears and have a better 'big picture' view of what I'm doing.
 
Gordon Davidson, an Abbey Road recording engineer who has worked with Paolo Nutini, Sam Smith, Novelist and Shirley Bassey, adds:

"A simple audio interface is essential, allowing you to record your source and listen back. Nice quality 2in 2out interfaces can be relatively inexpensive like Motu M2 or SSL 2 for under £200.

A pair of headphones you trust is vital for working in untreated rooms or home studios where you may not want to disturb the household or be bothered by external noise. Closed back headphones are good for this as they keep out (and in) more noise. Something like the Beyerdynamic DT770 PRO for less than £100 would be a good place to start.

If recording vocals, experiment with distance from the mic, especially if using a condenser microphone. Listen for how proximity affects the different frequencies, not just the low end. When recording at home you have the luxury of time and so should experiment as much as possible to see how mic position can change the sound of the recording. Make sure whatever you are recording is in tune, unless it sounds cool out of tune and you know it won't annoy you later!”
 
 
Andrew Dudman, one of our senior recording engineers, who has helmed projects for Imagine Dragons, Robbie Williams, Underworld, Elbow and Chemical Brothers adds:

“Removing as much extraneous noise as possible is essential. Duvets can help dampen down ‘lively/slappy’ acoustics. In fact, making a ‘den’ a three year old would approve of might be the perfect home recording environment. If getting close to the vocal mic (I prefer a minimum distance of about 15cm) then trying to fashion some kind of pop shield out of thin material (tights for example) could also help.

Wear closed-back or in-ear headphones to minimise backing track spill onto the vocal mic. If the recording environment is really having an effect of the sound, then maybe consider trying to make it a feature in the sound. I’m thinking of the breakout Vampire Weekend album recorded in a home studio / room through a digi002 consumer interface.
 
Finally, recording and mixing engineer Chris Bolster who has worked on projects with The 1975, Harry Styles, Royal Blood, Florence + The Machine, The Killers and Bombay Bicycle Club ends our chat with a statement we can all get behind:

“This is a time for trying new and different things. You just have to use whatever, however you can within the current spaces you reside, with whatever you have to hand. There’s definitely room for making it up as you go currently. We cannot just pop out and grab a few useful tools; most trips out are now for food and exercises, not finding the right tools to make and record music with, and hopefully this current dark cloud is not forever.

So, explore and just try some crazy and creative ideas that excite and differ from what you may normally do. Obviously, you will find and feel different emotions and feelings in the different spaces, so move around a bit and take what does and doesn’t work and mix them up a little. And again, just grab what’s to hand and make sweet music, it’s all we can but do. Explore and share.”