diy ?

On this page we attempt to honestly discuss the pluses and minuses of attempting to do your own recording.

The technology is making it more feasible, no doubt about it, and a very good professional quality recording can be made at home today.

But, like most things, it’s never quite as simple as it seems at first glance.

For example, assuming you are a professional musician, the cost of a poor recording is high to you personally. So if your DIY ego bias has you thinking you did some kickass work work when it’s not,  It could result in things not happening for you that would be happening if you had a great recording to upload or press into a CD, etc.

So at this point, if you are reading this, you may have already talked to some of your friends who are doing their own recordings and you may have asked them, “how difficult is it”? Their response may well have been like “pffft, piece of cake” and you may have taken that at face value.

So what you didn’t ask is how good is the result.

In other words, your mom could probably go out back and run a 50 yard dash and come back saying…”pffft piece of cake”, but then ask her how her result stacked up against a world class sprinter. Something to think about.

Related to this subject, on our links page we have a long list of technical articles related to recording and update this section regularly.These links cover in depth, subjects you need to understand in order to make a good recording.  It is a good resource for those who are interested in recording themselves so please feel free to utilize that resource.

We do own a studio, so maybe there will be a bias in this discussion. Maybe, but you can judge for yourself the facts and tidbits we will present below.

The fact is that recording studios exist for a good reason. Even with modern state of the art technology, it takes an awful lot to put one together in terms of time, money, space and expertise, and the experience of doing it over and over is invaluable.

So when you book studio time, you are paying for the gear, the space, but most importantly for the experience and the trained ears of the people who are working the machines and are solely focused on getting you a great sound while you are solely focused on making great music to record. Something to think about.

So first ask yourself, “do I like buttons and knobs”?.

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Neve Mixing Console with buttons, knobs, faders, meters, and a big headache for you if this is not where your aptitude lies

Are you the one who programs the stereo remote or do you hand it to someone else? Do you hook up your stereo system or do you find all of that confusing? Have you ever spent a few hours in the audio section at bigbox futzing with their gear for fun? Were you asleep in geometry class? These are sort of acid test questions which determine if you have the aptitude and personality to attempt to record your own work, and the answer is that it depends.

Be forewarned, if you attempt this without the proper personality profile, it could give you a headache or cause your person to experience intense frustration.

If you are a solo artist or a duo, diy may work out, depending on many factors we discuss below and the acid aptitude test above. Everything is easier the fewer instruments and performing artists involved. For anything more than that however [like for a band], it is less likely to be a successful or economically feasible endeavor, at least beyond the early stages. This again however is not a blanket statement. Nickelback records in Chad Kroeger’s barn, because Kroeger himself is well versed in recording.

There are several factors we are going to discuss and consider

1.) Gear.

The gear you need to get a satisfactory result is fairly expensive, fairly complex, and in some cases requires quite an extensive background in order to truly use properly and get professional results. You need a fair amount of education to even know what gear you need ! [please visit our links page for various how to articles on gear and recording].

2.) Training.

The gear you will purchase not only requires time to learn to use it properly, there is the whole background of recording science and electronics which you need to understand in order to get a good professional result with any gear regardless of the cost. For example, iIf you attempt to record a great performance and clip it, that great performance is gone forever because a clipped digital waveform is no good.

As a matter of fact, the way it generally works is that with less expensive gear, it requires more work and fine tuning to get a good or even usable sound, and with more expensive gear it’s easier. That is supposedly why it’s more expensive in the first place. Supposedly. So that works against the DIY’er, because while it may be practical for a studio to outlay $ for an important and expensive piece of gear, it may not be so practical for a Diy’er.

So if you are a solo artist, you may be willing to make the investment in gear, in time to learn to use the gear, and in general some of the basic in’s and out’s of recording, mixing, mastering, etc. Since you are a solo artist, the cost of the gear you need is greatly reduced compared to that of a 4 pc band.

A point to note….

One advantage all musicians do have in terms of becoming a recording engineer and producer is that you possess the greatest microphone ever devised, and you have two of them built in. they are called your ears.

You probably can remember how your ears were when you first started out versus how trained they are now.

When your ear is trained to discern pitch or pick an instrument out of the mix to listen to, this is something that can’t really be taught in a classroom and it is invaluable for recording.

They can teach you techniques, but all those hours of practice for a musician give the benefit of a trained ear, and that trained ear is very valuable in the recording process. It’s really the most important thing because when you think about it, when all is said and done and you’re staring at a chip the size of your thumbnail with your finished work on it, it all comes down to “what does it sound like”? Right? So with good, trained ears you can judge for yourself how good a recording sounds or not. If it were only that simple however.

So this is one strong positive in favor of the do it yourself camp. You have a good ear. So now you have to buy the proper listening gear [studio quality headphones, amplifiers, etc cha ching$$$], then you can probably tell if what you recorded is good, or not, and in fact could use a completely trial and error approach until you find specifically what works for you. We don’t recommend that approach, but it could work.

That said, the Neumann U87Ai microphone which is generally regarded by sound engineers and producers as a very good vocal and general purpose recording mic, ubiqutious in studios around the world [Zen Duder has one], goes for $3,600 street price today without tax or any of that jazz.

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U87Ai at Zen Duder Studio and bright sunny day outside

So please don’t take this as snobbery, and we will refrain from using pejorative terms such as “budget”. There are much less expensive mics such as the Lewitt LCT440 Pure that are very good and will yield very professional results in the right hands, it’s just that in the studio, you have choices. Usually, a lot of them.

We can try out a lot of different things to get the sound we want. We might try 3 or 4 different really good mics and 2 or 3 different [expensive] preamps, baffles, etc. on a vocalist to get it sounding just the way we want it, and being able to do that involves a substantial expense that is generally not practical for the DIY artist.

You can attempt to model microphones today with software plug ins, many workstatations and hardware effects units also have it, and it may sound ok, but we are going for much better than ok. This is the point to take away. We say ok no way. Something like that.

No one wants to make a recording that when completed, people say it sounds ok. That’s a fail.  At Zen Duder we want it to sound spectacular.

So in your DIY efforts, maybe you just blew an almost $4k hole in your wallet for something as pictured above that doesn’t do anything except convert sound into electricity, you are scared to even touch the thing or breathe into it for fear of messing it up [which is actually quite possible not to make you paranoid], and that’s just for a microphone and you don’t even have anything to plug it into yet.

You can spend $100 on a microphone, but it isn’t going to sound like a studio grade microphone whose condenser element alone may run several hundred dollars wholesale. Trust us. You are going to have to spend some money for a microphone capable of giving professional grade results across voice, instruments, etc.

So the financial aspect is a big hurdle and a big commitment. It doesn’t end with the major components either, all the wigglin pins and wobblin shafts [good quality cables are expensive] add up. Trust us on that.

That said, if you buy good used gear , you can usually turn around and sell it for close to what you paid if you need to.

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API lunchbox, Canare Quad Star Cables and World Class set of preamps pictured here tracking in studio A

If you decide to DIY, you will probably churn through a fair amount of gear until you find what suits you and your music. The sheer volume of gear along with the marketing hype and everything else can be daunting and very confusing to the beginning DIY recording artist. We ourselves buy and sell gear in a constant process of being able to offer a broad spectrum of choices and sounds.

Depending on the route you take, you might be able to figure ~ $3k for a basic recording setup that is capable of producing good commercial quality results, if you buy used gear, are using it all properly, etc.

One thing of primary importance to remember is that unfortunately the way it works is that your final result will only be as good as the weakest link in your signal chain.

In other words, you could have spent a bizillion dollars on all the best gear, and if the third link in your signal chain is a crappy  cable, you are going to get a crappy end result.

You could have made a perfect recording, and then somehow jazzed it up from a bad connection…etc.

We have equipment here to test our signal chains such as signal generators and oscilloscopes. We can verify the performance of our signal chain at the studio, and this is one area that is probably beyond the reach of most DIY artists. We trust our ears, but at the same time we verify the performance of our equipment and keep it properly calibrated.

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Getting out some gear for a session. Tascam DAW, LA-610 Mk Ii preamp, ART Voice Channel Preamp, Peluso P28 Tube Microphone, Rudistor NX03 Headphone Amp

A good starting point would be a good but low cost general purpose condenser microphone . That said, maybe you play sax and you might prefer a ribbon mic. This is where all the education comes in.The choices out there in microphone land can be daunting. There are a lot of good microphones on the market. Everyone has an opinion and not everyone knows what they’re talking about. You have to deal with sophisticated marketing propaganda and hype.

So all that said, you want to get the best microphones you can afford, suited to your purpose, as the microphones are a primary determinant of your final sound.

At Zen Duder we have a Neumann U87ai that produces very good results. It’s like the McDonalds of studio microphones. Experienced artists know what to expect and know what they sound like on one. We also have an exquisite sounding Peluso P28 tube, a Neumann U67 tube clone, and the most accurate, articulate, precise, scientific mics in our locker are a hand matched pair of Neumann KM184’s that we like to use on acoustic instruments and field recordings.

That said we also have some very nice sounding ribbon mics. If you play brass you might be better off going that route. Unfortunately typically the diy’er has to pick only one or two whereas in the studio environment we have a lot of choices of very capable microphones.

So next you need something to hold the microphone. A microphone boom stand, a pop filter, and an isolation mount. In general you want to be able to orient the microphone to any x/y/z position as the angle and placement of the microphone, as well as the microphone pattern type, are critical factors in the recorded sound.

Next up, another critical signal chain item….a decent preamp/compressor/limiter/eq channel strip such as the LA-610 Mk II or the Avalon VT737SP.We have an LA-610 with hand selected vintage tubes that sounds sublime.

So the preamp connects the microphone to the recording device and allows you to fiddle with the low level signal until it sounds just right depending on what you are trying to do.

Next, a capable DAW such as the Yamaha AW1600 which is no longer in production and can be had on the used market for far less than it is worth ~$300 in 2017]. We hold that DAW in very high regard around here and have several. It is an affordable HQ pro piece of gear with very good built in effects as well, and that is compared to effecs units that cost way, way, more than the whole Yamaha DAW itself. Go figure. So whatever DAW you use, hopefully it faithfully converts the analog signals to digital and records the signals you produce on a hard disk or a chip the size of your thumb.

It all needs to be connected with high quality audiophile cables. This is another arena where there is a lot of confusing hype so resort to the specs. You want very low capacitance cables, very good shielding, and pure ofc copper or even silver plated copper conductors, and preferably gold plated low resistance connectors. You want to use balanced inputs and outputs wherever possible to minimize noise. We are switching over to color coded Canare cables in our studio based on our own trial testing which has run a few years now. We like Neutrik for connectors. We make a lot of our own cables, again, beyond the reach of most DIY’ers.

Also, importantly, you need to understand the A/D conversion process. In general you want as few conversions as possible, because each conversion in effect makes your “master”, a next generation copy. If you do that enough times it will sound like you are talking on a telephone because you are essentially creating a manual bit decimator.

We like to do as few as 1 conversions [you have to do at least 1 to make it digital] or as many as 3. Either A/D period the end, or A/D/A/D.  Therefore, we like to use digital coax or optical connections between all of our gear, or else into and out of each piece of digital gear you are doing an A/D/A conversion which is not generally regarded as a good idea.

Finally, you need a good reproduction system so you can hear a faithful rendition of what you have actually done [cha ching$$$]. The cheapest way to get true studio quality reproduction is with a good set of headphones and a studio quality headphone amplifier which will eat up a good chunk of your 3k overall budget.

If you want to do this with speakers, it’s going to cost a lot. Likely more than your whole 3k budget because good studio monitor grade speakers and amplifiers are very expensive. Just because they say they are studio monitor grade doesn’t mean they are. We won’t get into all that here but please check our links page.

So forthe critical task of listening to what you have recorded we suggest a good pair of studio monitor headphones and a high quality headphone amplifier which you can do for under 1k.There are a lot of them out there. We primarily use the ultrasone proline 650 and the AKG K702 or Tesla T1 headphones for this work, and we have several very capable very expensive audiophile quality [lab quality actually] reference grade studio headphone amplifiers. Email us about this. We can get you into one of the best headphone amplifiers in the world at an extremely affordable cost.

These are just basic suggestions to get you going. You have to do your own research and trust your ears. There is no one answer and no right answer for everyone. Even among the top pros, wildly differing methods are used and the gear really takes a back seat to the people operating the gear and the methods used with it. You have to trust your ears and for that your ears have to be good enough to trust. This is where you hopefully have a leg up if you are a musician.

If you are working in the realm of electronica, trance, house, trip hop, acid jazz, etc you may not actually need to record anything with a microphone, except maybe to take some samples. From that point on, everything can and should be done on a computer. So for these genres, the gear you may want might be things such as a Korg Kaoss pad,  maybe an AKAI MPC unit or some other type of groove box, a capable synthisizer, drum machine, etc. You may not even need a DAW depending on how you like to work. It all depends.

For a recording musician, a good mic, a good preamp, and a capable DAW plus some mastering headphones, cables and accessories. That will get you started in a meaningful way. That is a basic setup that when used properly could yield excellent, studio quality results in the right hands, or sound like crap in the wrong ones.

You could attempt to do your recording with a computer and some attachments like a lot of people are doing today, but BSOD in the middle of recording and wrecking a great take is very unprofessional, and something that can be easily avoided by using hardware specifically designed to record… and that is how we recommend to do it.

As a comparison to what is probably cost prohibitive for DIYer, the Zen Duder standard method is to record on hardware, then transfer all the recorded tracks to computer for post production using software, then run the mixdown through expensive mastering hardware [the same tools the big studios use] for a final master. The “Zen Duder Method” is outlined on the more info page.

So the calculation is that for just the cost of one microphone, you could get 12 tracks recorded at Zen Duder as a solo artist. For the cost of a complete setup, you could probably record everything you’re going to think up for the next few decades at Zen Duder without any hassles as described above, and with pro quality gear that is likely to yield a superior end result.

This is not meant to dissuade you, just to point out that the economic reality of getting set up properly is a hurdle for most people. Then there is the space. Do you live in an apartment with a lot of background noise, poor quality power, etc? If so this presents issues that may or may not be able to be managed [and more expenses]. Then there is also the impact on your life. What is your siginficant other or roomate going to think if you redecorate in mic stands and acoustical tiles? It may not go over that well.

To properly record a 4 pc band you need at least 8 simultaneous tracks [minimum some engineers like to use 9 mics on drums alone which means you are going to need at least 16 tracks], which means a capable mixer/DAW, 8 microphones, 8 preamps, cables, wigglin pins, wobblin shafts, etc. It all adds up very quickly.

Then there is the aptitude part. Many musicians don’t necessarily care for the technical end of things, and frankly some are not very good at it.

 

Please do not be offended. Recording is quite the opposite of making music in many regards, and it’s not where some people’s aptitude or interest lies. Everyone is good at something, and in general musicians are good at making music and engineers are good at recording it. Two different brain halves involved.

For example, Michelle has a great voice and is a talented artist, but if you were to ask Michelle to work the gear, she would probably say haha. She has no interest, at all, in learning to work the gear. It’s just not her cup of tea. That’s fine.

 

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Michelle pictured here at the resort wearing her bee keeping suit, which is fun for her. Working knobs on recording gear, is not fun for her.

So you have to be honest and ask yourself, do i want to immerse myself in all of this technobabble? Is this something I’m even interested in? Do I want to learn to be my own recording engineer and producer? Is it all worth my rather large investment in time, energy and money to attempt to go it alone? Am I going to suck at it or hate it after I spend all this time and money? Is it all going to distract me from being a musician? After all, you only have so much time in a given day.

These are all questions to ask yourself before you get started, and please refer back to the acid test questions at the beginning to help you answer.

The point above being, once you have mastered recording, then you have the whole subjects of mixing and mastering….to master.

At Zen Duder we have 40 years of recording experience. Craig has a 5 year engineering degree which required quite a bit of study as well as aptitude. He likes buttons and knobs. The more the better.

Do you know what an ohm or a milliamp or a sine wave is? How are you on resolving ground loops and EMC radiated electrical noise? Do you know the difference between Db and DBa?, what is headroom? do you completely understand the difference between a balanced and an unbalanced connection, etc.,etc. If not then you have a lot of background engineering work to learn in order to make a proper recording.

We have already learned from all the mistakes that you will make as you learn. Unfortunately the way it works is that you hear your mistakes in your finished work and they remain there forever.

So the answer is that it may be feasible, and it may not be. It depends on your personality, your aptitude, your interests, the time you have available, space, whether you have the cash to make the required investment, and a lot of other factors.

If you are a band it’s probably just not feasible due to the expense involved to get a proper recording setup. Then there’s the issue that you are supposed to be a band, but recording music almost certainly requires someone at the recording and mixing helm to record a band. Therefore whoever in the band is doing that work is not being a part of the band at that time.

So what do you do? Do you add a fifth member who is your recorder? You generally already have to be doing pretty well and have a record contract to keep an engineer and producer in tow, because their going rates are in the vicinity of $100/hr for each.

So there is a lot to think about in this rather rambling discussion above.

If you can’t wait to get started, then you probably should get started.

If you are still undecided,  maybe you just chill out, don’t worry about it and call Michelle at Zen Duder to book a few relaxing days and have someone treat you like the proper music making dynamos you are while they record you for way less than you could do it for yourself, and with a much better end result no offense.

Zen Duder is currently offering a one day crash course in recording as well as a week long extended course. Please see our main “about Zen Duder” page for details on that offer.

Finally, if you are trying to record yourself, if have any questions regarding anything for the craiger, he will be more than happy to answer them personally and with due consideration. So just call or email Michelle to get contact information.