Okay, so you've got the songs ready to go. You've got the sound in your head, every nuance perfectly arranged, even artwork ideas already kicking about. But there's just one problem: you don't have the veritable fortune needed to book a month at Ocean Way to capture it all for posterity.
Worse yet, you're not sure you have enough time to get the tracks down in one shot, and the budget situation is not helping anything where taking time is concerned. You know vaguely enough to do it yourself, but your demo-quality gear just isn't going to cut it for your latest masterpieces. It would seem all is lost.
But in this age of universal components, second-hand sales, online marketplaces and widespread dissemination of formerly-secret audio engineering expertise, a few small (although progressively expensive) tweaks and acquisitions can move that raggedy answering machine-cassette demo towards something resembling respectable.
Step One: Upgrade Your Cable Service
This is the simplest yet most-overlooked element of nearly every home recording rig ever assembled. Instrument and microphone cables won't specifically enhance your sound, in that they won't add any kind of texture or coloration to what you're recording. Rather, installing premium cables works through addition by subtraction. Lower-grade cables not only add unwanted distortion, but tend to introduce excess noise through shoddy connectors and thin shielding against interference. Monster manufactures high-quality, reasonably priced (around $50 for a 12' length) instrument cable, although those with money to burn and a serious hatred of harmonic distortion may wish to step up to the $75 10-foot Silverlines by Maolla. Microphone cables run substantially more, although the Monster 20' XLR-to-XLR can be had for just over $60 while retaining substantially more of your instrument or microphone's true sound than most low-end patches.
Step Two: Rack 'em Up
One of the most frustrating elements facing most home engineers is the built-in limitations of not only what their recordings sound like, but the relatively small number actual sounds they have at their disposal. Maybe it's a cool electronic drum fill they're looking for, or some type of manufactured machine noise, or some pads and strings to add atmosphere to their tracks. Whatever the need, the most daunting aspect is usually the sheer number (and cost) of hardware out there. Fairlights, Moogs, Mini-Moogs, Poly Evolvers – to the small-time artist in need, the possibilities can be overwhelming, and even worse than the prospect of paying too much is that of needing more or never finding the right sound at all.
For the home producer willing to learn the nuances and wonders of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), it's possible to assemble a treasure trove of sound combinations without breaking the bank – or at least without having to mortgage the house you're trying to rock in. Many major (and quite a few minor-yet-awesome) keyboard and synthesizer manufacturers also create rack-mountable versions of their sound banks. These banks only have input in the form of some front knobs for tweaking and a few standard MIDI and instrument in/out jacks, but that's where the real wonder lies. For the producer in need of those sounds rather than those actual keyboard-based instruments, it's suddenly possible to have an infinitely scalable library of sounds at the ready. A basic MIDI controller keyboard will be necessary to actually tell the banks how the sounds should be played, but from there the possibilities are endless. It's possible to start with a CME 49-key or M-Audio 25-key controller for under $100, but eventually your tastes are going to evolve to something more along the lines of the Access Virus ($3,300), which has both the widely-favored Virus sounds on board as well as full 24-bit input and output.
Like their keyboard counterparts, synth modules vary widely in sound quality and price, but these are one category of gear that truly lives up to the maxim of getting what you pay for. The GEM piano modules, for example, may work fine for the beginner or the low-budget operator ($600), but pieces like the Nord Electro2 Rack are a steal at $1100 compared to the $3,000 you can spend on their keyboard counterparts – especially if you went with one of those $100 controllers.
Step Three: Do an About-(Inter)face
As much as people worry about what's coming out of their instruments, it's just as important to worry about where it's all going. That cheapo sound card isn't going to do you any good now, but chances are you don't have $20,000 for a C|24 Pro Tools console (and if you did, you probably wouldn't have read this far). Of course there are decent USB and PCI computer audio interfaces for less than $200, but those don't offer much in the way of on-the-fly mixing and don't record in the full sonic resolution your work demands.
If you demand (or simply prefer) working with Pro Tools, the Digidesign Personal Studio bundle may be the way to go. Based on the company's Mbox portable console architecture, the system also comes with specially tailored monitors – all for a mere $500. But to move up to full self-fulfilling extravagance, either of the Music Creation Studio ($900) or 003 Rack ($1,200) should do the track, each with the full 96 KHz per channel just like the guys at the real studio use.
For the non-industry standard types, or the non-computer savvy (or both), TASCAM manufactures the stand-alone, hard-disk based X-48 workstation with a built-in mixing console, 48 channel recording capability at 24 bits/96 KHz, and all without the hassle of maintaining or configuring a personal computer to also handle recording duties. The X-48 is fully scalable with MIDI, S/PDIF, and 1/4" input and output jacks, meaning all those racks you just bought will work as well, and all of that isolated recording power can be yours for a mere $5,000.
Step Four: Work the Room
Now you've rewired everything. You've assembled a bank of sounds to rival what even the Brian Enos of the world are capable of, and you've got your sweet new recording and mixing rig ready to go. If everything you do is either software based or recorded through direct output (i.e. no microphones involved), you're all set and it's time to get to work.
But what if that's not all? What if you've got all this great gear but something's still missing? Maybe there's too much extra noise being picked up by your microphones, or some strange echo and reverb going on with the room you're recording in. Chances are this can be fixed in one of two general ways.
While recording the second Chroma Key album, producers Kevin Moore and Steve Tushar were working in Moore's home studio located next to the Los Angeles freeway, leading to a lot of extra ambient sound on the tracks for Moore's demos. Rather than work against the space they were in, the two invested $3,000 into a Neve preamp to allow greater amplification on Moore's vocals without creating the need for a separate recording space. In one move, the two drastically improved the quality of the input signal chain, in turn making the source tracks easier to filter and edit in the later mixing stages.
Had they chosen the other route, Moore and Tushar could have simply gone to work further acoustically treating or soundproofing the room they were recording in. The simplest approach is to lay down extremely thick carpet to reduce echo of a wide open floor, or to pad the walls of a tiny and enclosed space such as a closet to minimize direct echo. To really take it to the limit, and to create a recording space totally worthy of that top-flight gear you just bought, you'll need to line the floors, walls, ceiling, and any windows with foam-based acoustical treatment panels. A savvy shopper can find serviceable 1' x 1' panels by the carton (24 panels) for around $100, but the more acoustically sound (and soundproof) foam wedge panels run $350 to $400 per 12-pack, and the super-absorptive 2' x 4' fiberglass panels start at $120 apiece. A 2' x 8' x 10' closet, for example, could cost anywhere from $200 to $4,000 to fully shield and isolate.
More often than not, this last step is usually both the dealbreaker and the difference-maker; the cost of actually creating a studio out of a space that was never intended to be one can ultimately be so much higher than that of renting out a purpose-built space for a few days. Racks, microphones, and top-flight instruments are portable enough to make sense beyond mere knob-twiddling, but for the casual producer it may not make much sense to get too involved in home studio building beyond creating an acceptable demo. For the more adventurous, the toys are there to be played with – and possibly rented out to your fellow muso-engineers.