Recording music at home requires no formal engineering knowledge, thanks to advances in digital audio technology. Using commercial-grade recording software, you can record original tracks by just clicking “Record,” playing your music, then saving your work. This alone, however, will leave you with an amateur sounding product. If you want to create the kind of music that sounds professionally-produced and radio friendly, you will need to employ more advanced techniques, such as those music engineers use in professional studios.
Open a digital multi-tracking program like Garageband, Audacity, Mixcraft, Acid or Pro-Tools. If you do not own this type of program, you can purchase one from any music supply store or electronics store. You can also download a free multi-tracking program.
Hook up your equipment. For a truly professional sound, connect an audio interface to your USB port and hook up your instrumentation to the interface using the appropriate instrument cables for the cleanest music transfer. An audio interface is a type of external sound card that connects to your PC and resembles a small box with different audio jacks for instruments, microphones, speakers and headphones. You can purchase this type of device at any music supply store and many electronics stores. If you plug your instruments into your Line-In port one at a time (instead of using an interface), your recordings will pick up excessive unpleasant background noise from the computer’s internal hum.
Record a song using a separate track for each section. Each track represents a recording layer, and appears as a section of your recording window. Your tracks together should look like a stack of long horizontal bars, comprising the majority of your work window. You may also think of them as appearing like lines on a sheet of college rule paper, with the space between each line representing a recording track. This basic arrangement applies to almost all multi-tracking programs. To record on a track, select it with your mouse and click the “Record” button. Then begin recording with your instruments and microphones plugged in. Start with a drum beat to set the pace, then continue with subsequent sections like your leads, bass, vocals and any other essential instrumentation.
Mix your tracks. Set your percussion or kick drum track at 0 db (decibels) to set the basic foundation for the main volume of your song. The volume measurement in decibels appears alongside each track volume slider (or knob, in some cases). Once you have your percussion volume set, adjust the volume of your bass track so that it blends smoothly into the background while still remaining present in the mix. This will typically require you to choose a volume lower than that of your kick drum. Additionally, always set the volume of your snare drums, hi hats and additional drums lower than the volume of your kick drum, and use your best judgment when setting the volume for guitars, keyboards and additional instrumentation. With enough practice, you will develop an ear for the correct levels, and the process will become second nature.
Pan your tracks between the left and right channels. Your bass, lead vocals and kick drum must always sit in the center of the mix, but you can pan additional tracks between the left and right channels to prevent your final product from sounding thin and overly-centralized. To pan a track, locate the “Pan” dial, usually appearing like a round knob, directly on the track. Drag it to the right to move the sound into the right channel (or speaker), and drag it to the left to move the sound into the left channel.
Add compression to any tracks that sound “on top” of the mix. You may find that certain tracks just stick out, or generally feel out of place, no matter how much you adjust the volume. To remedy this, click the track, locate the “Compressor” or “Compression” feature, which usually appears among the “Effects” options for each track, and raise the level of “Gain” in the compression window until the track blends smoothly into the mix, usually by about 2 to 3 decibels. Even if all your tracks sound good, you should always add a touch of compression to your lead vocals, in order to help them blend seamlessly with the instrumentation.
Adjust your EQ settings for each track (sometimes labeled “Equalizer”). Depending on your software, your EQ settings may appear as a series of frequencies with a low-to-high graph, or simply a series of sliders with indicators like “Treble,” “Bass” and “Mid-Tones.” Even if you have limited knowledge oF frequency manipulation, you can improve the sound of each track by listening to it and adjusting the EQ accordingly. For example, if your bass line does not sound deep enough, raise the “Bass” or low frequencies in the EQ window. If your guitars do not sound bright enough, try raising the treble or lowering the bass. Experiment with different adjustments until each track sounds perfect.
When mixing your tracks, always wear a pair of monitor headphones. This will ensure that you have the most precise possible perspective.