I recently began the project of recording some of my favorite short classical guitar pieces. In this article, I would like to share how I am going about things in case it can be of help to anyone considering a similar project.
I will keep it brief, as this is intended to be an overview of the method. This method is in no way intended to be expert advice on recording. I don’t consider myself to be a professional audio producer or engineer, although have had quite a bit of experience in radio, TV, and home studio recording.
I am on a very limited budget, so if you are in the same situation don’t worry. There are few requirements for expensive equipment in this method.
Thanks to recent advances in recording technology, my setup is amazingly simple. Besides the obvious need for a guitar, There are 5 main components.
1) Microphone (or two)
For this project I decided to use a single microphone. There are many recording technologists who would advise using two microphones in order to create a stereo effect, but I have found that a single microphone actually keeps the sound more pure. Stereo effects can always be simulated later by duplicating the track and placing them in separate areas of the mix.
I am using an Electrovoice N/D267 vocal mic for my recordings , not because it is the best one for recording guitar, but because it is the best microphone I have . Keep in mind this article is about how I am doing it on the cheap, not on what the best way to do it is!
2) Microphone Stand
Luckily, I have a boom style mic stand. These are well suited for recording, especially when you will also be using a music stand. A boom style microphone stands allows you to place the vertical portion of the stand comfortably out of the way of the music stand. This allows you to more easily position the mic exactly where you need it.
3) Computer with Digital Audio Interface
I am using a $600.00 Toshiba laptop PC with Windows 7. These computers come with a built in sound card of course but this is really not sufficient for recording anything close to professional quality.
To get good quality audio recordings using a laptop you will need what amounts to an external sound card. These are usually called “audio interface boxes”. I am currently using one called the Edirol UA4-FX. These devices connect to you PC via your laptop’s USB interface.
4) Audio Recording and Mixing Software
Once you have a way to get high quality audio into your PC, you will need software in order to do the actual recording of the audio. There are countless software programs available to do this, and most popular among professionals is called “Pro-Tools”. I for one cannot afford Pro Tools, so after trying out several other options I have settled on a program called “Reaper”. Reaper is an amazingly powerful program and is available as shareware for xxxx dollars. I highly recommend it. Here is a link to their website.
Having a good set of headphones can actually make or break your recording sessions. You will want the enclosed kind that completely cover your ears. Don’t even think about recording using the earbud type of headphones. With a good pair of headphones, you can really get a feel for what your recording will sound like even before you do any actual recording. True to my low budget nature, I am currently using a set of Proformance P-6000 headphones. I think they are great, but they only cost me about $75.00 a few years ago.
Once you have a mic, a stand, a pc, an audio interface and recording/editing software and a good set of headphones you are ready to go.
Where to Record
Since we are recording a solo instrument you won’t need much space. Any room in your home will do. Try to choose a room that your guitar sounds good in. This could be an office, a bedroom, a basement or even a bathroom. I once had a house where I like to record in the middle of a stairwell because I loved the sound of the guitar echoing off the high ceiling and the narrow walls. Whichever room you choose, be sure that you will have a minimal amount of noise. Keep the doors and windows shut and be sure to turn off things like your cell phone ringer and computer notification sounds.
The actual recording process will depend on your chosen software and this is not intended to be a tutorial on the many aspects of using that software. There are some performance related things however that would be useful to discuss.
More than anything else, where you position the microphone in relation to your guitar has a great effect on the overall sound of your recordings. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Be creative and experiment with different mic placements. In general, the closer the mic, the louder the signal, so put some headphones on, play the guitar, and listen to the sound you are getting in the headphones. You might choose to position the mic directly in front of the sound hole, near the bridge, or near the neck. You might decide to angle the mic this way or that way, it doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is what kind of sound you are getting. You decide. You are the engineer in this situation. As you are deciding where to position the mic, be sure to monitor the peak meters and adjust your input signal for maximum level without distortion. It would be a shame to perform your best take and find out later that you were not at the optimal signal level.
If you are like I used to be, the minute you begin recording you tend to freeze up. Nervousness sets in when you realize the red light is on and your every note is being recorded. This anxiety can ruin your recording and, besides that, it takes all the fun out of things. My recommendation for overcoming this fear is to simply hit the record button and start playing as if you were practicing. Pretend that you want to make mistakes because you are just recording yourself practicing. Once you are in that mindset, begin playing the song you want to record over and over. The idea is to keep playing until you completely forget that you are recording. If you are always recording, the fear just disappears after a while. Editing digitally is very easy and these days you don’t have to worry about the cost of tape anymore!
Everybody has a different process for performing while recording. Some players prefer to play the entire piece from beginning to end and others, if the song is a very difficult one, may choose to break the song into sections and record each section separately, later assembling it into what sounds like a seamless performance. Again, there are benefits to both methods, but since my chosen songs are (relatively) easy and short, I am choosing to record the entire song all at once. If I have too much trouble with a given phrase, I sometimes will record a separate take of that phrase and “punch it in” to the main track later.
Whichever way you choose, I think it is a good idea to do multiple takes of a song or section before doing any editing. You don’t want to be going back and forth between your guitar and your computer too often because you can lose focus on the fact that you are playing music. Before home recording it was a given that there would be an engineer present to do the technical work of recording. Now that home recording is commonplace the musician has to do the job of both and it can be difficult at times to keep switching hats between the role of the artist and the role of the audio technician.
Much of the software available today includes a large collection of digital effects that you can apply to your recordings. I have found that less is more when it comes to this subject. For my recordings, I am using only three effects (which some would argue is too many already). The three I am using are: equalization (EQ), compression, and reverb. Using EQ allows me to take some of the “boomyness” out of my bass notes, and add a bit of sparkle to my treble notes. Using compression squeezes the signal a bit and levels out the peaks and valleys in the volume of the performance. When it comes to reverb, I am particularly carefu l not to overdo it. It is much better to record in a room that has a bit of natural reverb (like a room with hard wood floors and high ceilings) than to add artificial reverb. That said, I am recording in a carpeted extra bedroom that I have converted into a studio of sorts, so I feel the need to add just a bit of digital reverb. If done correctly it can really open up the sound of the recording and give it the space it needs to sound mysterious.
These three effects can be applied to the signal as you are recording or after you have completed the recording. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages. I prefer to apply the effects after the recording because, in the case of recording classical guitar, I want to have the purest guitar sound as possible. Recording the guitar clean also allows you more flexibility in deciding which or how much effect to use. If you record the music with the effects “printed” on the signal, you cannot remove them or alter them later.
Evaluate your Work
After recording several takes of your song, put down the instrument and listen with a good pair of headphones. You will want to Listen in two different ways. The first way is to listen critically to your performance to identify any errors you have made that would cause you to either re-record the piece or do some editing. The second way you should listen is as your “audience” might listen. When you listen as the audience, you are listening for the overall sound quality. Are there any unwanted noises in the recording like dogs barking or the dreaded leaf blower outside your window? Beyond this obvious need for finding noise, simply decide if your overall sound quality is up to your standards and make any required adjustments.
Sharing your Recordings
Once you have made the best recording you can possibly make you will most likely want to share it with the world. Thanks to the Internet, there are many more ways than their used to be to do this. You could make a CD and sell it online, post the songs on your blog, email tracks to your friends or simply put them up on one of the many music sharing sites or social networks. You could also use the recordings as samples of your abilities in order to get gigs. Most likely, you already know what you intend to do with the music once it is recorded. That’s the easy part. Getting your flawless and inspiring performance down “on tape” as we still say, is the tough part!
My goal in recording the latest round of classical guitar recordings has several motivations: first I want to force myself to perfect the songs (and recording is the best way to do that) second, I want to have something to give to my students as a way of inspiring them to pursue classical guitar, and thirdly I would like to have samples of my work for my blog other than the very rough recordings I have made over the years.
Good luck on your project, and don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me if you think I can help you in any way.