Home Recording Studio Essentials


Two years ago, my “home recording studio” consisted of two things: a 13″ Macbook and a $12 Logitech microphone.  Though it wasn’t fancy, it did the job, considering I was simply recording music therapy songs for the students at my school.  But the more songs I wrote and the more interested I became in home recording, the more sophisticated my setup became.

Now that I sell my self-recorded music (in addition, of course, to my studio album) both in my own store and on larger platforms like Songs For Teaching, I have a much higher standard of quality.  That comes with a need for higher-quality equipment, which is the topic of today’s post.  The picture above gives you an overview of my home studio, but I’m going to break it down for you even further.  Let’s go!

The #1 most important component in my setup is my computer.  My 15″ Macbook Pro powers the software I use, which is Garageband.  This program is included with the price of the computer, and for entry-level software, it is really quite powerful.  Although I’m sure there are great recording programs for PC, I am most decidedly a “Mac person” and simply love the intuitive interface, ease of use, and integration of Garageband with iTunes.

Pictured on the right is my M-Audio USB MobilePre Preamp, which I use to record my acoustic-electric guitar and monitor my sound input.  I wrote a detailed post about the preamp earlier this year.  The Sennheiser headphones I use are awesome; they cover my ears completely, are crystal-clear, and have a long coiled cord that reaches from one end of my studio to the other.

This 24″ Dell HD monitor was a birthday gift from my husband, and for someone who spends so much time in front of the computer, it has truly been a game-changer.  The wide screen view is especially useful for Garageband; when I’m tracking instruments and vocals, it’s nice to be able to see big chunks of audio at a time.  The monitor is connected to my computer with an HDMI cable and adapter.

Next is my M-Audio midi keyboard, which I use to record keyboard and other instrument sounds.  It connects via a USB cable, so basically, all I have to do is plug in (Garageband immediately recognizes the MIDI input) and then I’m ready to play.  I have a super duper deluxe model at school, which has so many features I haven’t even learned half of them yet.  That will be a project in itself when school starts!

The piece of equipment that I’ve had the longest (December of 2008) and that I recommend to anyone who asks is my Blue Snowball USB Microphone.  I get lots and lots of emails from people wanting to know what I use to record my vocals, and I delight in telling them that it’s a simple USB mic that costs less than $100.  I have a ringer shockmount attached as well as a pop filter.

My speakers are relatively new, and I’m head over heels about them.  These Logitech Omnidirectional USB Speakers are inexpensive, loud, and high-quality.  They also look really nice!  Although I listen to all of my recordings through headphones, I also want to make sure they sound good through speakers, since that is how most other people will be listening to the songs.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ve noticed that 4 of the pieces of equipment I’ve covered connect via a USB port.  Any Mac user knows that the computer only offers 2 USB ports, which is why I use a Rocketfish USB Hub to power my entire studio without plugging and unplugging anything.  It only takes up one USB port on my computer, and the best part is that it has a suction cup, so I can attach it to the backside of my desk in order to hide the spaghetti factory of wires and cords.

Two last pieces of equipment to mention, and then I promise I’ll end this insanely long post :)  These are crucial if you use an external monitor: the Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse.  As you can see in the first picture, I record my vocals relatively far away from my computer and monitor, so instead of walking back and forth in between takes, I can bring my keyboard and mouse over to control things remotely.

So there you have it: the Listen & Learn home recording studio.  There are definitely things I’d like to add to it over time, but for now, I’m quite happy with it.  I’m also more than happy to answer any questions you might have about the equipment I’ve mentioned, or just home recording in general.  Let’s tackle them in the comments!

Inside the Recording Studio: Day 4

Today’s recap will be a short one, because I was only in the studio for a little over two hours!  On Day 3, we had finished all but vocals for song 9, so I went to the vocal booth to work on those right away.

Getting good vocal takes is much easier at 1:00 pm than it is at 11:00 pm!  I finished the melody and harmony for song 9 in just under an hour, so next, we moved along to song 10.  We’d already decided that song 10 (which isn’t the actual track number on the CD, just the order in which we recorded it) would be an acoustic-only track to balance out the other 9 songs, which are much more “produced”. 

Song 10 didn’t take long at all.  I played the acoustic guitar part a few times through, and then moved to the vocal booth.  A half hour later, my work on this album was DONE.  It was so hard to believe!  All that was left to do was mix and master each track, a task that Jim (my sound engineer) will tackle this week and next. 

It was a little sad walking out the door of Jupiter Studios for the last time.  Jim said he’d never seen anyone make themselves at home on the studio couch like I had, which I can definitely believe.  It was my headquarters for the week!

There was a benefit to finishing early…I got to play a great April Fool’s trick on my husband, Zach.  I texted him as I was leaving and wrote, “just finished vocals and getting ready for mixing!” which of course, he believed.  But really, I was hitting the road for Springfield, which is just under a two-hour drive.  I called him as I pulled into our neighborhood to say that I was heading back to his sister’s house for the night, and right as we hung up, I walked into our house.  He was very happily surprised, since I hadn’t planned on coming home until the next morning.

So now I get to wait anxiously to receive the final tracks in all their mixed and mastered glory.  Luckily, we have a vacation planned for next week that will keep me occupied!  We’re spending the holiday weekend with family before taking off for San Antonio on Wednesday.

I owe you all some songs, which have been few and far between around here lately.  I promise to return to my regularly scheduled programming soon.  In the meantime, have a wonderful Friday!

Inside the Recording Studio: Day 3

As I write this recap, I’m getting ready for my final day in the studio.  I’ve spent over 30 hours here, and I’m going to miss this place when I’m finished!  Yesterday was a big day, so I’ll get right to it.

To be honest, I was a little bummed to be missing out on such a gorgeous day outside.  Here in St. Louis, the sun was shining and the temperature was 75 degrees (unusual for the end of March).  But as soon as we got to work, I completely forgot about the weather and turned my focus to the music.

We started with song 7, using the same process we’d gone through for the previous songs.  Jim (my sound engineer) laid down the drums, then keyboards, then bass and electric guitar, and then it was time for me to play my acoustic guitar part.  We did two takes, and when that was finished I moved to the vocal booth.  First, I sang the lead melody twice through.  My voice was still fresh since it was early in the day, so we got good takes right away.  Then I sang the harmonies three times through.  That was it for song 7!

While I was in the vocal booth, we went ahead and recorded the vocals for song 6 (which we had tried to do the night before, but it was 10 pm and my singing reflected that fact).  This went quickly, and it was time to listen to songs 6 and 7.  I was thrilled with both of them and couldn’t wait to send preview tracks to my mom, dad, and husband.  They have been my sounding board throughout this process, providing feedback on each track as they are completed.  The rest of you will have to wait, though :)

Song 8 is my new favorite (though so far, I’ve said that about every song).  Jim started playing the keyboard as he listed to the scratch track, and I instantly knew we were dealing with greatness.  He had some pretty complicated work to do on this one, so I spent some time on the internet until he was ready for me to play my acoustic guitar part.  After I did that, I went into the vocal booth to record the melody.  Instead of a traditional harmony line, I did some scatting to match the instrumentation and the result was pretty, pretty cool. 

We got to work on Song 9 just after 10 pm, as my energy started to dwindle.  Jim got through the keyboards, bass, and electric guitar, and I somehow managed to make my fingers form chords and strum well enough to lay down the acoustic guitar.  He suggested I do vocals, but after one take, we laughed at my poor exhausted voice and decided to call it a night.

At that point, it was 11:30 pm and another engineer arrived to do some overnight tweaking on my vocals. I got to listen to each of the songs as Jim showed him what he would be working with, which was really fun. 

Coming tomorrow: a recap of my 4th and final day in the studio.  Thanks so much for following along with me on this exciting journey!

Inside the Recording Studio: Day 2

I can’t believe my time in the studio is halfway over!  It’s gone by really fast, but luckily we’ve gotten a lot done.  We’re actually ahead of schedule: 5 songs are finished (except for mixing), and all that is left for the 6th song is vocals.  We’ll start Day 3 by recording those, and then move right on to the 7th song.

Day 2 began with vocals for songs 1 and 2, which went pretty quickly.  I sang the melody line for each song a few times until we had a usable take, and then we got to work on harmonies.  I had already worked out a few of those prior to this week, but most were created on the spot in the booth.  Luckily I’ve always had a weird talent for harmonizing almost any song upon first listen, so it wasn’t too painstaking.

After we finished the vocals for those two songs, we got to work on song 4.  (By the way: someone asked me yesterday via Twitter if I am keeping the song titles under wraps.  The answer is yes, at least for now!)  I spent a long time in the guitar room (pictured above) with this one; for some reason, I had a tough time remembering how many measures to play between verses.  Vocals were much quicker, however, which saved us some time.

Next up was song 5.  We called this our “Carpenters-inspired” song, which is reflected in the instrumentation.  I was pretty tired by the time I got into the vocal booth, and the first couple of takes were rough.  I didn’t think we’d get the vocals done on this one, but after some coaching from Jim (my sound engineer), I pulled it off.

Song 6 is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.  It’s just plain fun, and so was recording it.  I am so excited about the electric guitar part for this song, which Jim literally wrote as he went.  In fact, this is what I tweeted last night:

I just couldn’t believe how perfectly the guitar reflected the song’s message and my feelings about it, and as I listened, it really sank in that my songs were coming alive just as I had hoped.  It was a pretty amazing moment.

After Jim was finished recording his parts, I jumped back into the guitar room and recorded my acoustic guitar part.  At that point, it was 10 pm and we decided to wait until the next day to record vocals.  I was thankful for that, considering I had an empty stomach, no energy, and was ready to fall asleep any moment.  Next up: Day 3 recap, coming tomorrow!

Inside the Recording Studio: Day 1

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into Jupiter Studios yesterday.  I was feeling a mixture of excitement and fear; excitement for my first “real” recording experience, and fear that it wasn’t going to live up to what I had hoped.  Turns out, yesterday was one of the best days of my professional life so far.  It’s an incredible thing, watching and listening as my songs are crafted into something spectacular.

I knew that Jim Callahan, the owner of Jupiter Studios and my sound engineer for this project, was going to be amazing even before I met him.  We’d spoken on the phone and emailed back and forth since last summer, and he certainly knew his stuff.  When Jim walked into the studio yesterday, he explained the plan of action and we went to work. 

The first thing we did was set tempos for all 10 songs.  I would play and sing, he would adjust the click track, and then we would experiment until we found a tempo that worked.  Then I played a “scratch” guitar track for each song, followed by “scratch” vocals for each song.  Michelle Erfurt asked me if it was like what you’d see on TV, with the isolation booth, headphones, big microphones, the whole works.  It absolutely was; quite a difference from my home studio set-up (my computer, a microphone, preamp, and my guitar). 

After we finished scratch tracks for each song, I came back into the editing room and Jim got to work on instrumentation.  This is when the songs really came to life.  He started with drums, which he programmed using a MIDI keyboard (a much more sophisticated version of what I use at home).  Next, he got out his electric bass and recorded a bass track (which he wrote as he went, using the sheet music I gave him).  After that came the electric guitar, and then it was time for me to record my final acoustic guitar track.  We did do final vocals for one song, but most of the final vocals will be recorded at the end of the week.

The whole process for each song takes about two and a half hours.  That doesn’t include mixing, which will also be done at the end when the vocals are completed.  My part is easy; I record my parts, and then watch, listen and give input as Jim does the rest.  I could get used to this! 

I’ve been tweeting and text messaging from the studio (follow me on Twitter if you haven’t already) and of course, I have my Macbook by my side at all times to stay connected.  I’m just having the best time, and I have all of you to thank.  I would never have had this opportunity without your support, whether you made a pledge to my Kickstarter fund or are a regular Listen & Learn reader.  I can’t wait to share the finished product with you all.  Stay tuned for my “Day 2” recap tomorrow!

Pin It on Pinterest