It’s about listening. Why are you in this business? Audio! A home studio should be a listening space, not a gear showcase. It doesn’t matter if you have the coolest gear, if your CD doesn’t translate outside of your studio. Many of a room’s serious monitoring problems can be solved by getting the speakers and the listener in the right position. Finding the proper positions can be difficult and time consuming—even with good measurement gear—and the process is too long to explain here. An inexpensive alternative ($99) that can achieve about a 75 percent solution is RPG Diffusor Systems’ Room Optimizer program (rpginc.com). It can help calculate the proper speaker placement for rooms with parallel walls—in other works, your basic home studio.
Expand your sense of what’s appropriate. Amp Farm, AmpliTube, and Sansamp are useful on just about everything but guitars. Experiment! Do vocals in the backyard. (The fidelity wasn’t there, but it was punk enough for a Bad Brains session directed by producer Ian MacKaye.) Use a Shure SM57 to mic a kick drum (it didn’t hurt the pounding groove of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik.) Be fearless. To paraphrase the mythic ideology of the legendary Joe Meek, “If it sounds right, it is right.” Who cares how you got there?
Get a digital camera and use it. Stumbled upon a fabulous mic setup? Shoot it, and you’ll find it much easier to duplicate the setup in the future. Want to remember the control settings on a hardware device? Sure, you can write down where the dials point, but a few shots of the front panel might be easier. Recording an instrumentalist? Take a picture. Then, when Guitar Player interviews you and asks, “Hey, what guitar was The Edge playing when you recorded U2?,” you’ll remember. Digital photos are the best, because you can store them in the same folder as other project data.
Consider old-school options. “I only had one track left to work with, and I still wanted to do a bunch of vocals,” remembers producer/engineer Malcolm Burn (Iggy Pop, Chris Whitley, Daniel Lanois) about an 8-track session he did in the ’80s. “One of my mentors, who came from the 4-track world, said, ‘In the old days, we would bounce the bass and the tambourine track together.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but what if you want less tambourine later?’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s easy. You just cut the top end out, because that’s really not going to affect the bass. And the same goes for you want more bass.’ It was a pragmatic, minimalist approach. The experience led me to believe further that it’s a good thing to commit to something and stay with it, rather than come back to it a second or third time. That way, you come up with a solid piece of work, rather than a bland mix. Even with the band I’m recording now—the String Cheese Incident—their manager was like, ‘Why are you only using 24 tracks? We have 52 inputs.’ And my answer was, ‘We’re only going to 4 tracks for drums. If we have 6 vocals, we’re going to comp them together and put them down to one track. And when we mix the record, it’s gonna sound done. That’s why.’ I’m still immersed in that same simplistic mentality that is far more concerned with creative decisions than technical nonsense.”