The greatest part of being a musician is sharing your music with others. While live performance is the most fulfilling means of exhibiting your talent, being able listen to or pass someone a recording of your music at any time is a fantastic convenience that can open many doors—including more opportunities to perform.
As an aspiring musician, you’re bound to find yourself in need of a demo at one point or another; it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, musicians are often limited in time and funding when producing a demo record, and the only viable way to make one is by doing it yourself at home.
The options are limitless when it comes to home recording. But “limitless options” is just another way of saying “many decisions to make.”
Let’s look at the whole process of recording a demo at home, from start to finish, how to sort through all of the options and make a quality recording without wasting more time or money than necessary. And most importantly, how to have fun with the process!
The first and most important step in making any recording—be it DIY or otherwise—is to be thoroughly prepared. If you aren’t absolutely ready to record, then you are going to burn through money and time until you’re frustrated and overwhelmed. Although the process of recording a demo at home is incredibly time consuming, it can be among the most fun experiences of being a musician so long as you go into it with adequate preparation.
Know exactly what you’re going to record and how
I’ve wasted countless hours trying to decide whether I should be recording one song or another. If you’re undecided on what you should or shouldn’t be recording, you’re likely to find yourself starting songs, scrapping them, starting other songs, and wasting hours of your own time and the time of whomever is helping you. If you know exactly what you want to record, then the process is simple- perform it until you get a take that you like.
Know whether you will be recording instruments one at a time and then layering the recordings over each other or if you will record everything together at one time. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, but tracking individual instruments is typically seen as the more professional option. Although it takes longer, it allows you to capture each instrument more clearly.
Before you even think about getting into recording a demo at home, you should be able to play your songs perfectly every time. While it’s possible to fix minor mistakes in post-production, it’s much easier to record it right the first time. Practice, practice, practice, until you can play the tunes in your sleep. It will make recording a breeze, and save more time and headaches than you can imagine.
Do your research
There are so many resources available to learn about recording a demo at home, there is no reason not to spend some time learning about the theory and techniques of audio engineering. A book on recording will go a long way in simplifying the process and will allow you to put out the highest quality demo possible. Also, spend time learning how to use whichever equipment you choose to record with. Audio gear often has a number of features and options that can simplify your recording tasks if you know how to use them effectively. Preemptively learning the inner workings of all the gear you have will save a lot of time down the road.
Making a recording that accurately captures the music that you’ve put so much of yourself into is more than a science; it’s an art. There is much to know on the subject and there are many skills that can help make a demo sound more professional without excess gear. Musicians and aspiring recording technicians typically run in the same circles and have many of the same friends. As important as it is for a musician to have a demo, it is equally important for an aspiring audio engineer to have a portfolio of work. If you can find friends who are trying to work in audio, you can easily develop a symbiotic relationship where you help each other develop your portfolios. Audio techs will typically have the gear and skills to make your recording higher quality and make the experience more productive and valuable. If nothing else sound-geeks always have a wealth of knowledge to share, and they’ll usually be happy to offer some guidance and advice to a novice who’s going into their first home recording.
Decide How You’ll Be Recording
There are two main options for recording a demo at home: you can either get an all-in-one recording device, or you can buy the individual gear necessary to set up a home studio. While the former is much more cost effective, the latter offers a great range of options for many different budgets.
Systems like the TASCAM DP-008EX or BOSS BR-800 are simple plug in and record options that can offer decent-enough quality for an at-home demo. You will, however, need to purchase the necessary microphones, and depending on which device you are using, you may need a computer in order to put the recordings on a CD.
Seen as the more professional option, setting up a home studio can be expensive, but the value that it can provide is worth the cost. There’s an overwhelming amount of recording gear available, the majority of which is optional. There are a number of pieces of gear that are absolutely necessary in order to make a simple recording. For a bare-bones home studio setup, you’ll need:
Microphones and cables
While a major recording studio will use dozens of microphones on one recording, it’s possible to make a decent sounding demo with just a couple versatile mics. The microphones you need will depend heavily on what you’re recording and how much you want to spend, but for the simplest of setups you will want one dynamic microphone and one condenser microphone.
Dynamic microphones are capable of tolerating a huge range of input levels, are very durable, and are the most versatile microphones. They have a fairly wide frequency spectrum that they record, so they are good for many different instruments. The Shure SM-57 is the most iconic and versatile microphone of all time. It is a great, basic mic for vocals, guitars, and certain frequencies of drums. The SM-57 offers immense value for its low cost which makes it great for recording a demo at home.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamics, and they are capable of picking more subtleties in a recording. In a simple setup they are typically used as a room microphone to capture the ambience in a performance. They also make great vocal microphones, and a common technique is to use a condenser and dynamic mic together, blending them to get the best tone.
Computer and software
The industry standard for recording professionally is ProTools software with a Macintosh computer. This is an expensive setup, but there are many other cost effective options. The entry level ProTools software does include an audio interface, allowing you to plug the microphones directly into the computer. As third party audio interfaces can be quite expensive, this makes it a good value. There is a considerable learning curve with ProTools, or any software. Whichever software you choose, there are countless guides available to learn the basics of operating the programs.
Once you have all of the gear set up and ready, recording is as simple as pressing record and playing the song. As long as you prepare thoroughly and research the gear you’ll be using, you’ll be able to get started with recording a demo at home with decent sound for much less than it would cost to go to a professional studio.