Recording method for original songs
Even though I am pretty happy with the quality of the two original songs I recorded for YouTube, I am still relatively new to modern PC-based home audio recording. I have created this page to provide a brief overview of how I have recorded my originals, as numerous people have asked me about it. For anyone truly interested in diving into home recording, this page might point you in the right direction, but I strongly recommend that you do some more reading before making any purchases or investing much time. Here is a site that I highly recommend for learning about home recording. I referenced it quite a bit while I was learning: http://www.tweakheadz.com/guide.htm
Note that the process I used to record all of my cover songs is completely different than the process for recording my originals. You can learn about how I recorded my cover videos in the Recording: Covers section.
Quick Rundown of Hardware and Software Used for Recording My Original Songs
Here is a list of the hardware and software I have used to record my original songs. Further explanation of some of the terminology can be found below.
Line 6 POD X3: This device serves as my guitar preamp/processor/direct recording box AND the external audio interface / sound card for my PC.
Home PC with Windows XP SP3: My computer is relatively powerful, but you don't need a great computer for home recording unless you plan to use lots of soft synths or other CPU-intensive plug-ins.
KRK Rokit5 Powered Studio Monitor Speakers: It's a good idea to have some studio monitor speakers if you're serious about home recording, although if you're just getting started and are not too serious, you can probably get by with headphones or computer speakers.
Sennheiser HD280 Headphones: This is a good pair of professional-grade headphones for the money. I use them when I need to be quiet.
Cockos REAPER: Digital audio workstation software (this is the key piece of software for recording your own music). REAPER is not as well-known as some other DAW software such as Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Sonar, etc., but I have yet to encounter something it can't do. Additionally you can try it for free for 30 days, and if you like it a full license for non-commercial (revenue less than $20k USD) use is only $60—an incredible bargain when you look at the prices of other more popular DAW software packages.
Toontrack EZdrummer Plug-In: This is a drum machine software that works as a VST plug-in within a host program such as REAPER (it does not function as a standalone program). It is one of the more popular drum programs and costs around $150. I also have the Drumkit From Hell add-on for EZdrummer, which adds many more drum sounds and MIDI loops.
Line 6 Gearbox: This is the Line 6 program that interfaces with my POD X3. It offers a graphical interface for creating and modifying tone presets, and transferring presets to and from the POD.
Line 6 POD Farm Plug-In: This is a guitar processing plug-in that works within a host program such as REAPER. It has all the processing capability of the POD X3. You can read more about it below.
A Note About Connections:
As I mentioned before, the setup I use for recording my originals is completely different than what I used for my covers. For my covers, I did not use the POD as an audio interface for my computer. Instead, the output of the POD was captured using my computer’s internal sound card. This worked perfectly fine, and I could still use this method with my new POD X3 if I chose. However, the POD X3 is capable of connecting to a computer via USB and functioning as the computer’s sound device. With this setup, the POD X3 becomes an external audio interface for the computer, and the sound card in my computer is not used at all for the recording process. This is the setup I used to record my original songs.
When POD X3 is used as computer’s sound device, speakers or headphones must be hooked up to it instead of the computer’s internal sound card. The POD X3 must be chosen as both the recording and playback device in your recording software.
A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is an electronic system designed to record, edit and play back digital audio. For PC recording, a DAW includes the computer itself, an audio interface or sound card, and digital audio editing software installed on the computer. Often, the term DAW is used to describe only the audio editing software. The DAW software is used to control interaction of the computer and the audio interface, and to provide a graphical user interface for recording, arranging, editing, and playing back audio. Some popular DAW software packages are Steinberg Cubase, Apple GarageBand, Digidesign Pro Tools, Sony ACID, and Cockos REAPER, which is what I am now using. All of these programs are multitrack DAWs, which means they are capable of recording, playing back, and editing multiple audio tracks simultaneously. For my original songs, I typically record one guitar part at a time, and the DAW software allows me to layer many tracks to create the sound of a full band. I should point out that Audacity is an open source (free) DAW software, but it lacks many of the features included with the commercial packages listed above, so I would recommend it only for very simple home recording projects with few tracks (like my cover videos). Some of these programs will only work with specific operating systems (GarageBand is an Apple product and will not work on Windows-based PCs), while others are tied to specific audio interface hardware (such as Digidesign ProTools).
DAW Software Plug-Ins
A key feature of DAW software is the ability to use software plug-ins to create or process audio. For example, just about any guitar effect you can think of (distortion, chorus, delay, reverb, etc.) can be applied to an existing audio track via a software plug-in. Additionally, some plug-ins, called virtual instruments, create sound based on programmed input (usually MIDI). These plug-ins either generate instrument sounds like a synthesizer (soft synth) using the computer's processing power, or they play pre-recorded audio samples as commanded by MIDI information (sampler plug-in). Most drum machine software plug-ins (such as Toontrack EZdrummer) are sampler plug-ins. There are many free plug-ins, as well as many expensive plug-ins developed by software companies. One of the great things about plug-ins is that they are non-destructive, meaning that they do not permanently change the raw audio or MIDI files that they are processing. You can experiment with many different plug-ins until you find a sound that you like..
Electric Guitar Recording Methods
Amp and Microphone
The traditional approach to recording electric guitar has been to use a microphone to capture the sound generated by the speaker of a dedicated guitar amplifier. The vast majority of guitar tracks on professionally-recorded albums are still recorded using this method.
Amp Emulation / Modeling
Amp emulation / modeling is the process of digitally processing a raw guitar signal to closely mimic the sound you would get when using the traditional amp and microphone recording approach. The main advantages are incredible tonal flexibility and versatility, lower cost, and convenience. Many of the most popular tube guitar amplifiers cost upwards of $2000, whereas a modeling device such as the POD X3 costs only a few hundred dollars and includes models of dozens of different amplifiers. Further, modeling devices allow you to record the signal directly, eliminating the need for a microphone and an acoustically-treated room, and sparing the ears of your friends, family, and neighbors. In recent years, digital amp modeling has improved quite a bit (to the point where many professional artists are using it on their studio albums). However, some people still feel strongly that the sound of digital amp modeling simply doesn’t compare to that of a real tube amplifier. After all, these digital emulation devices are simply models of the real amps. If money is no object (or you already have the amp of your dreams) and you have the facilities and equipment to record amps at high volumes, then the amp and microphone technique is probably still the method you’ll want to use. For many of us, amp emulation offers a more flexible, lower-cost alternative that still sounds excellent.
I want to make something clear about amp modelers such as the POD, because a lot of people send me messages complaining that their PODs sound “muddy”, “dull”, or otherwise poor in comparison to what they’re accustomed to hearing through guitar amps. What many people fail to realize is that recorded guitar tracks do NOT sound like someone is playing a live amp in the room. In other words, when an amplifier is recorded with a microphone and then played back through computer speakers, headphones, or studio monitor speakers, it will NOT sound just like it was being played live through the amp in the room. This can be attributed to a number of factors. The position and orientation of the microphone in front of the amp are different than those of your ears while you're playing (listening position makes a big difference due to room acoustics and speaker directionality). The microphone doesn't capture and process audio information exactly like your ears. The speakers you use to play back the recorded clip don't behave exactly the same as the ones in your guitar amp. Keeping all that in mind, recall that amp emulation devices like the Line 6 POD are supposed to mimic the sound you get when using the traditional amp and microphone recording approach. So when you play through any type of amp modeling/emulation device, you shouldn't expect it to sound like you're playing live through a cranked up amp in the room. It's going to sound like you've recorded the amplifier with a microphone and are now playing it back. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of this distinction and mistakenly label the sound of the POD as "dull" or "muddy". When people have asked me why their PODs sound so bad, I sometimes ask for sample audio clips. The clips usually sound perfectly fine to me, and I have to explain that the POD is not going to sound like playing live through an amp in the room.
Implementations of Amp Emulation / Modeling: External Processing vs. Software Processing
The POD X3 is a standalone device that performs amp modeling and effects processing on the raw guitar signal. All of the tone processing is performed by hardware within the shell of the device. This is what I would call “external processing”. It should be noted, however, that there is emulation software available that processes the raw guitar signal using the power of a computer. For instance, Line 6 offers a series of products called the POD Studio (formerly the Toneport series), which are essentially just USB interfaces for the computer that come bundled with tone processing software (POD Farm plug-in) that you install on your computer. The devices themselves do not perform any tone processing—they just send the raw signal to the computer via the USB connection. For people who are mainly interested in recording, these products offer a couple of advantages over external processing devices such as the POD X3. First, they are significantly cheaper than the standalone POD hardware devices. Second, the bundled tone processing software allows you to change the guitar tone after a guitar track has been recorded! This process is called re-amping. Only the raw (unprocessed) guitar signal is captured to the computer, and the software plug-in can be used to process that signal to apply amp modeling, effects, etc. as many times as you’d like until you’re happy with the sound.
Song Creation Process Overview
My song creation process usually involves 3 phases: riff writing, arrangement, and final recording. During riff writing, I try to come up with and record guitar riffs that seem to fit together well. Usually these riffs will be in the same key / scale (I don't know music theory, but I can usually determine this by ear). I will usually also write (or find an existing MIDI loop) a drum beat for each riff, and possibly even record a bass line. Often, I find that a riff won't really come alive until it has bass and drum accompaniment. During song arrangement, I attempt to organize the riffs to form some semblance of a song structure, and set the desired tempos. Sometimes I determine that certain riffs won't work well, and they are thrown out. Other times I determine that some more riffs are needed. I also compose the lead guitar parts during this phase. In the first two phases of song creation, I am not concerned with sloppiness in my playing. Often it takes me a while to be able to play the riffs I write accurately at the desired tempo. For this reason, the third phase of song creation involves re-recording all the tracks, trying to take out most of the sloppiness (a little bit of sloppiness is okay in my opinion—it adds a bit of character). Additionally, I will double (record twice) all of the rhythm guitar tracks (with the exception of harmony parts) to add some thickness. I may also apply some effects using plug-ins for certain parts, and draw volume envelopes on tracks to control transitions involving fade-ins, fade-outs, or cross-fades.
Creating Drum Tracks Using Software
I do not play drums, so to create drum tracks for my songs I use computer software. I have employed two different methods for creating drum tracks for my original songs. The first method involves using a standalone drum machine software to program drum beats, which are then rendered as WAV files. The WAV files are then imported onto an empty track in my DAW software project. This is the method I used for "Arrival". The drum machine software I used is called Acoustica Beatcraft. I have experimented with some free alternatives in the past, including Hammerhead and Hydrogen, both with limited success.
The method I am now using is a software plug-in based approach. Toontrack EZdrummer is a plug-in (not free) that is hosted by my DAW software (REAPER), and it plays very realistic drum sounds from samples as commanded by MIDI information. Note: EZdrummer does not function outside of a host program (DAW software). There are many pre-recorded MIDI files included with EZdrummer, which allows the user to drag and drop beats into the DAW project to quickly form a complete workable drum track. Alternatively, one can use the host program's built-in MIDI editor (or another MIDI editor) to manually create beats from scratch, or modify some of the included beats. For my original song "The Rising", I created all of the beats from scratch using REAPER's MIDI editor. Generally, you must be familiar with how a drummer uses different drums together to form basic beats in order to build beats from scratch. Otherwise, you're better off sticking to the included drum beats (MIDI files). Musicman1066 wrote the drum parts for his original song "Memories Lost" using Guitar Pro 5, which he then exported as a MIDI file that could be imported into a DAW project for use with EZdrummer. For a good illustration of how EZdrummer works with REAPER, check the video in my Favorites called "EZdrummer in Reaper".
With a plug-in based drum machine software, the drum sounds are not stored as audio information in your DAW software. Instead, as you play back a project in your DAW, the MIDI track tells EZdrummer when to play pre-recorded drum samples. When you render/mix-down your project to a single stereo track, the drum audio is captured in the exported file.
The drum machine plug-in method, although more difficult to learn if you’re unfamiliar with MIDI and plug-ins, is much more convenient and powerful than the stand-alone drum machine software approach. Something as simple as modifying a single drum hit is easily done by editing the MIDI track when using the plug-in based approach; however, if you're using a stand-alone drum machine software, you will need to make the change in the software, export a new WAV file, and then re-import the WAV file into your DAW project. Since it is likely that your drum beat will go through many changes during the songwriting process, the plug-in based approach will save you A LOT of time. Also, if you want to adjust the relative volume levels of the different drum sounds, it can be done easily with a drum machine plug-in, whereas with the stand-alone program you will need to create a new WAV file. Another important advantage of the plug-in based approach is that the drum beat from the plug-in will follow the tempo change markers in your DAW project, and you can take advantage of the beat/measure gridlines in the DAW to synchronize beats with the rest of the tracks. Trying to get all of this right in a WAV file generated by a stand-alone drum program can be very time consuming, especially for a song with tempo and/or time signature changes. Unfortunately, I'm unaware of any free drum machine plug-in software with quality acoustic drum kit samples. I haven't spent a lot of time looking though.
Virtual Amp Plug-In (POD Farm)
I touched on this briefly before under the heading "Implementations of Amp Emulation / Modeling". However, recently Line 6 decided to offer the POD Farm amp simulation software for free to owners of the POD X3, so I downloaded and experimented with this plug-in, and I will probably use it for my next recording project. To recap briefly, for both "Arrival" and "The Rising", I recorded the fully processed guitar signal (distortion, effects, etc.) coming out of the POD X3 via the USB connection. Using this approach, I had to be sure that I was satisfied with my processed guitar sound BEFORE I recorded in my REAPER projects. With the POD Farm plug-in, I can now choose to record just the raw (unprocessed) guitar signal sent via USB from the POD X3 (this is similar to plugging your guitar directly into your sound card, which, by the way, you shouldn't do due to electrical impedance mismatches). Note that I can still hear the processed tone coming out of the POD X3 while recording just the raw signal. Once the raw guitar signal is recorded in my REAPER project, I can apply the POD Farm software plug-in to process the raw waveform and make it sound just like it was being played through my POD X3. In fact, POD Farm allows me to load in the presets (.l6t) that I created using the Gearbox software for my POD X3. Since software plug-ins are non-destructive, the raw guitar audio waveform is not modified when POD Farm works its magic. This means that I can "re-amp" my guitar tracks as many times as I'd like until I'm satisfied with the sound, without having to play the parts over and over again on my guitar!
Creating a Bass Line without a Bass Guitar
If I had a bass guitar, I could easily use my POD X3 to record some simple bass lines, as it includes several bass amp models. Instead I record my bass lines using a regular 6-string electric guitar with clean tone, and then apply a pitch-shifting plug-in in REAPER. Credit goes to Julian (PetrucciFever) for giving me this suggestion. Strings on a bass guitar are tuned 1 full octave (12 semitones) lower than a regular guitar, so by shifting the pitch of a recorded guitar track down a full octave, a simulated bass guitar sound is achieved. It doesn't sound anywhere near as good as a real bass guitar, but with some massaging it can fill in the low end of the mix quite nicely. In addition to the pitch-shifting plug-in, I use some compression to smooth out the dynamics and a parametric equalization plug-in to shape the tone to my liking. Most of the bass lines I record just follow the root notes of guitar chords, which I think is fine for the guitar-centric music that I am writing.
Recording Guitar Tracks
A common practice used to achieve "thicker" sound is to double or even triple rhythm guitar parts. It's not a simple matter of copying and pasting the recorded track—you must play the same part twice. Slight differences in the recorded parts result in a much thicker sound compared to a single track. I double all of my rhythm parts except for harmony parts, and I tend to pan one to the left, and the other to the right.
Creating a Good Mix
To create a recording that sounds great, you cannot do without a good set of ears. There is no procedure that you can blindly follow, so you have to trust your ears when it comes to setting the relative volume levels of the tracks and making EQ adjustments. At the very least, you should have a good pair of headphones when in the mixing phase, but a pair of studio monitor speakers is preferred. Studio monitor speakers are designed to very accurately represent audio information during playback, without emphasizing particular frequency ranges like most home stereo and PC speakers tend to do. If you don't have studio monitors or good headphones and you can't afford them, don't worry—you can still create a decent mix with a bit of trial and error. I've created mixes using my PC speakers as monitors before, and the results were okay. I would suggest creating a mix that sounds good to you on your computer speakers, and then testing that mix through as many different audio systems as you can: your home stereo, your car stereo, a boombox, a portable mp3 player, etc. Chances are that it's not going to sound great on some of these devices, so you'll need to adjust your mix to fix the problems. If your mix sounds too boomy on some systems, then you should probably turn down the bass track, or cut some of the low end off the guitar tracks. If it sounds too harsh on the high-end, then consider cutting some of the highs on the guitar tracks.