At some point in any forward-moving band’s career, an important question will cross your minds. How do you record a full band? And when you first dig into the answer … yikes. This crud is expensive!
Recording a demo in an even lower-end studio can cost anywhere from $500 to $2000, and it’s more than likely going to dip into that fourth digit price-wise. The alternative is to buy equipment and record it all yourself at home. But how much will that end up costing you?
First, we need to preface this with a big disclaimer. If you want professional results in a hurry, you’ll need to visit a professional recording studio. There’s simply no getting around that.
Need a great demo to land that big gig at the end of the month? Does your bassist’s cousin’s best friend’s former college roommate know a guy at an indie label, and it just can’t wait? You’re going to have to pony up the dough and get to a proper studio.
Learning how to record your own band at home isn’t rocket science … but it’s definitely engineering. This isn’t going to be as simple as dropping a few mics in a room and hitting a big red button.
This guide from Parlor City Sound is meant to help you record your own demo, or even a whole album, without needing to visit a professional recording studio. This isn’t going to be simple, but we can help get you started, and Parlor City Sound has lots of other guides to help you advance all of this knowledge further. So let’s get to it!
What you’ll need to record a full band at home
We’re going to approach this as if you’re brand-spankin’-new to the whole recording process, because some majority of you reading this probably are. So let’s break this down one component at a time.
A Computer and a DAW
If you decide to go this DIY route, you’re going to hear the phrase “DAW”, or digital audio workspace, a lot. Simply put, a DAW is a program (or application) you run on your computer that allows you to record and produce music. The phrase also generally refers to the whole setup of the computer, the software, and an audio interface (more on those things shortly).
There are a lot of DAWs on the market, from freebies like Audacity to professional tools like the feature-rich Presonus Studio One and the industry-standard Pro Tools.
There’s a DAW for every budget, with some being free and others costing hundreds of dollars, or even charging subscriptions. Check out our guide on DAWs to learn more about what DAW software does, how it works, and what your options are.
How powerful does the computer need to be?
The two computer specifications that matter most in audio production are processor speed and the amount of RAM, or memory, the computer has. But you don’t need a NASA supercomputer for recording music. Most desktop and laptop computers sold in the past four to five years or so should be up to the challenge.
An Intel i5 or an AMD Ryzen 3 processor should suffice here. If you’re buying (or building) a new computer for recording, you should aim for a processor with at least four cores (usually referred to as a “quad-core“). Faster processors are of course better, but naturally more expensive.
As for RAM, you’ll want a bare minimum of 8 GB to run most modern DAW programs efficiently. We strongly recommend having 16 GB or more if that’s an option, and 32 GB is pretty much perfect for any DAW. Beyond that, performance gains get to be a lot harder to notice.
Last but certainly not least we have the hard drive, which stores all of your takes and mixes. A lot of modern computers ship with at least one terabyte (1TB) of storage space, which is perfect. Again, more is better. This is where desktops are better than laptops: you can add internal hard drives to your desktop for more storage in the future when it’s needed.
We have a guide on recording studio computers you may want to read for more information. But we’ll end this bit on computers with this: try to not go overboard budget-wise on your DAW computer. Audio processing isn’t as demanding as video editing, and that extra money is better spent improving your microphones or audio interface. Speaking of which …
The audio interface, or AI
An audio interface is a device that plugs into your computer (usually via USB) and converts analog signals from your microphones to digital ones your computer can use. This is why you’ll see them frequently referred to as AD/DA converters, where “A” means “analog” and “D” means “digital”.
Most audio interfaces accept input from XLR cables, ¼” cables, or both. But make sure you check what inputs it takes, because some only accept DB25 cables or use even more obscure Phoenix connectors. That means you need to convert from mic and instrument cables to fancy expensive ones, and that drives up the price by a lot. You’ll usually only see those on higher-end audio interfaces, though.
Once the analog signal enters the audio interface, the AI converts it to a digital signal and then sends it off to your computer. Most audio interfaces use a USB 2.0 cable, though some use Thunderbolt, FireWire, or even Ethernet cables. Some audio interfaces can even be added directly into your desktop computer via a PCI port, though these are expensive and require pricey additional hardware.
You need to make sure your audio interface has enough analog inputs for your needs. You should also read our guide on audio interfaces, and if you’re recording drums our guide on recording a full drum kit could be useful to you as well.
Here are some audio interfaces we recommend checking out:
|Behringer U-Phoria UMC404HD||$180||4 XLR/TRS||USB 2.0||192 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Tascam US-4x4HR||$200||4 XLR/ TRS||USB-C||192 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Behringer U-Phoria UMC1820||$300||8 XLR/TRS||USB 2.0||96 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Tascam US-16×08||$470||8 XLR||USB 2.0||96 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Focusrite Scarlett 18i20||$550||8 XLR/TRS||USB 2.0||192 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Roland Octa-Capture UA-1010||$640||8 XLR/TRS||USB 2.0||192 kHz/ 24-bit|
|PreSonus Quantum 2626||$700||8 XLR/TRS||Thunderbolt||192 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Behringer X Air XR18||$740||16 XLR/TRS||USB 2.0||48 kHz/ 24-bit|
|Mackie Onyx24||$950||18 XLR/ 24 TRS||USB 2.0||96 kHz/ 24-bit|
Next, you’ll need to figure out what microphones you want to invest in, and this can be a big decision. Mics are expensive, but more mics generally lead to higher-quality recordings. The mic count can get silly when you have the budget for them, so you may want to make some strategic budgeting decisions here.
If you were recording a full band live, you might end up with a vocal mic, one or two guitar mics, mics on each individual drum, and two drum overheads. That setup is ideal but very, very pricey. You may want to try and plan for using fewer mics to save money. But you can get decent results—definitely demo-worthy quality recordings—from as few as three mics.
There are lots of different types of microphones on the market, but starting out your DIY recording studio only needs to consider two: condenser mics and dynamic mics.
We have a guide on choosing microphones that explains how they work in more detail, but here’s the short-short version: dynamic mics use magnets and are powered by whatever you’re plugging them into. Your vocalist probably uses a dynamic mic, like the Shure SM57, already. Meanwhile, condenser mics use electricity more directly and require phantom power to operate.
Phantom power is provided by most audio interfaces, as well as preamps, mixers, and more. Your setup should already have phantom power, but definitely double-check just to be safe. If you need to add phantom power, preamps are a great way to go.
What microphones does a band need in a home studio?
Understanding how to record a full band definitely requires a working understanding of microphones and the best applications for different types. Again, you should read our microphone guide for more information, but here’s a quick rundown:
- Dynamic microphones are best used for instruments. Examples include the Shure SM57 and the Sennheiser e 609 (both are great for guitar cabs and snare drums)
- Small diaphragm condenser microphones are most frequently used for drum overheads, but they work well on most instruments. Examples include the AKG P170, Rode M3, and Audio-Technica AT4041SP (any of these are excellent for drum overheads)
- Medium and large diaphragm condenser microphones are typically used on vocals, acoustic guitars, and guitar amps (especially when the amp isn’t cranked out to eleven). Some popular examples include the Presonus M7, MXL 990, Audio-Technica AT2020, Audio-Technica AT4040, and the legendary Neumann u87.
- “kick drum mics” refer to a broad range of microphone types, but they’re generally cardioid dynamic mics. Popular options include the AKG Perception P2, Audix F6, Shure Beta 52A, Sennheiser e902, and AKG D112.
Location, location, location!
With all of your gear budgeted out, we need to think about the next big element of making a quality sound recording at home: the space itself matters a lot here.
Arguably the two most confused phrases in the world of sound engineering are “soundproofing” and “acoustic treatment.” A lot of people think acoustic panels are used to soundproof a room, but this isn’t the case. All of that happens behind the drywall, if it happens at all. Instead, acoustic treatments absorb, reflect, or diffuse sound waves as they travel through the room and bounce off walls.
You know what we’re going to say next, right? Yep, you guessed it … we have a guide on studio acoustics for you to read. We said learning how to record a full band DIY-style was a big topic, right? Well, that’s an important guide to read as well, because acoustics are a huge topic.
Here’s the gist of it: acoustic panels/ “studio foam” is used to reflect sound waves and prevent them from bouncing around the studio too much. These panels can get expensive, so on a tighter budget you might consider stuffing some pillows into the eight corners of your room, and hanging up some heavy blankets behind drum kits and guitar amps. It’s not an ideal solution, but it works for getting your demo finished on the cheap.
Let’s get tracking!
With your space prepared, your DAW software installed, and all of your equipment powered up and miked, you’re surely chomping at the bit now to get recording, right? Well, there are ninety other things we need to … just kidding. You’re actually ready now. Yay! Recording is often referred to as tracking because you’re recording tracks of a song that get mixed together later on.
Ideally—and this is possible in most DAWs and with most audio interfaces—you’ll record each individual input to its own channel inside the DAW. When you go back and record other stuff later, you’ll put those inputs into different tracks. We call this multitrack recording, the process of recording multiple separate tracks and then combining them in a separate process we call mixdown.
There’s a tried-and-true order to multitrack recording. You usually start with the drums (using a click track helps), then the bassist records while listening to the drummer. The guitarist(s) and other instruments are then recorded listening to the drum and bass tracks, and then the vocals go in over the rest of it.
You’re by no means required to use this system, of course. You could record the whole band live, though isolating the sound can be challenging, or even downright impossible in a smaller space. Then again, you might want to just use one or two mics and get the full room sound. That’s okay too!
Some useful tracking tips when home recording
Some useful tips to consider when tracking:
- Get stuff right before you start recording. This means getting mic placements and levels accurate. It also means getting everyone to tune their instruments correctly (we’re looking at you, drummers!) and dial in their ideal tones.
- On your meters, red is bad! Yellow isn’t great either. We’ve all seen some guy in a movie “crank it” and ram the sliders as far forward as forward goes. That would sound like doo-doo in the real world. Fine-tune your levels (gain too!) to maximize clarity, keeping the bouncy lights in the green.
- Record at the highest resolution your gear is efficiently capable of. This gives you a more accurate reproduction of the sound and more headroom.
- Don’t add compression just yet. Set everything up to get the best natural sound from the microphones without coloring the sound before you even hit record.
- Put markers down on the floor that tell people where to stand, especially vocalists and anyone playing acoustic instruments. This keeps everyone on their mark so microphones are picking up the same sound again and again.
- Monitors and headphones matter! Your shelf speakers might sound glorious when you’re cranking up your favorite tunes, but consumer speakers and headphones color the sound, and that’s no bueno. Even cheaper Presonus or Mackie monitors will out-perform a fancy McIntosh stereo system when it comes to monitoring in a recording environment (and we really love McIntosh—they’re from Binghamton too!). Closed-back headphones are a must when tracking as well
Mixing things up … well, down … with a mixdown
When you’re finally done recording all of the tracks you need for a complete song, you can start the process of mixing everything down and then mastering your final product. This step can be just as nerve-racking as tracking, if not more, so you’ll want to really take your time to learn as much about mixing and mastering as possible before you get started.
A mixdown is a sound engineering process where multiple tracks are combined together into a smaller number of tracks.
Recording a full band and using lots of microphones in the process can leave you with a lot of tracks, especially when you layer in multiple parts to fill out the sound more. But your listeners only usually have two speakers, or maybe more if they have surround sound. In a mixdown, you’re combining, or mixing, all of those tracks into just two tracks, a left one and a right one.
Some engineers mixdown into even more tracks. But since you’re just starting out, we recommend sticking with a stereo pair of just two tracks. This will work just fine for your early demos, and there’s nothing wrong with stereo mixdowns for full albums either.-
Hints and tips for a great mixdown
Before you cozy up with our guide on mixdowns, here are a few quick tips for mixdown beginners:
- Listen to some professional recordings, then listen to your own Also, take some breaks! When you listen back to your own material, you’ll hear it all with fresher ears and can more easily spot problem areas that need your attention.
- Use panning to liven up any mix. Try to avoid parking too much (if anything) dead center. Everything else can be panned either left or right by varying degrees. Snare, kick, and bass guitar can anchor the sound in or near the middle, but keep guitars, keys, toms, and just about everything else to the left and right.
- EQ is your friend! Use equalization to cut out the low-frequency muddiness that can ruin an otherwise solid mix. Be especially mindful of frequencies around 120Hz, too.
- Don’t go bananas with compression. Compression is an incredibly useful and versatile tool, but all too often engineers abuse the crud out of it and end up ruining tracks as a result. Use compression to address existing problems, and for nothing else.
- Get creative with those extra tracks. Think of the stereo field as your tapestry, and paint something beautiful there (without painting over anything else, of course!). You can layer in more guitars, some key stabs, maybe some additional percussion … with most DAWs allowing for unlimited tracks, you have a lot of freedom to truly express yourself creatively.
- Listen to your mixes everywhere. Give it a listen in the car, on earbuds, through computer speakers … everywhere. Your audience won’t be listening to your music on professional-grade studio monitors, so try to make it sound good no matter what it’s playing through.
Mastering your mixes
There’s one final step to get through before your music is ready, and it’s one that’s spent about a century or so getting steeped in mystery and mysticism. To get your mixdowns mastered, you’ll need to buy a robe, obtain a large leather sack of animal bones, and travel to Greece where you’ll find the Mastering Oracle at the peak of … okay, yeah, cheesy joke. It was worth a try.
The dark art of mastering involves cleaning up and fine-tuning your mixdowns and preparing your finished work for distribution. And yes, mastering can be a very complicated subject. But honestly, in the modern age of computer recording and general format conformity, it’s not out of the hands of a beginner, especially not when you’re working on demos or an unsigned freshman album release.
Our guide on mastering can help you get started on the process. Beyond that, we recommend reading up on the subject, watching tutorials, and checking out the knowledge resources available for your DAW of choice.
We hope we helped you learn how to record a full band!
As you can tell by the forty-seven bazillion links to other guides we shared, learning how to record a full band isn’t a topic that’s super easy to sum up quickly. In a lot of ways, audio engineering is quite similar to learning a whole other instrument. It requires its own skillset, the equipment can get expensive if you let it, and it takes lots and lots of practice to get really good at it.
Building a home recording studio is a lifelong quest of endless learning and constant, costly upgrades. It’s hard to recommend to anyone really, but if you’re still reading this far into the article, you’re not just “anyone.” It takes a bit of commitment to really get into the DIY recording game, and you showed a bit of that already. Not a bad way to get started, we think!
For those of you who thought “meh, that wasn’t too many guides, I can always read some more,” you’re in luck: we’re closing this out with more guides for you all! Yay! We hope this guide was useful to you!