DIY Recording Guide
By Danny Lights
Download the PDF version HERE
What this guide is
This guide contains a set of guidelines, tips and requirements to be able to get good sounding source tracks to be sent to a mixing engineer and guarantee good results. This implies recording guitar and bass DI and midi drums and synth, giving the mixing engineer the ability to reamp and sculpt the tones in a proper recording and mixing environment and with their good judgement and hearing sensitivity, as opposed to using tones that may be affected by a less than ideal recording room and gear that the musicians might have at hand. This guide is meant to be as brief and to the point as possible, if you have any specific doubts or would like to expand on something, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on facebook at www.facebook.com/lightsoutstudios. You can also ask any specific questions to your mixing engineer if you already have one decided before starting to record. This guide is meant to go over the basics that most mixers have to repeat to every band, specifics should be handled on a project by project basis.
This guide includes recommendations of gear and software for the sake of brevity, but none of it represents the “only” way or should be taken as a hard and fast rule, there are always alternatives within the same budget that will be just as valid. Also, I am not endorsed by nor do I work for any of the companies whose products are recommended in this guide.
Keep in mind that although modern technology allows for this, sculpting guitar tone and choosing drum sounds is not considered part of the mixing process in the traditional sense, but an important part of the production and engineering process. Therefore, although it is currently possible to leave these crucial decisions until after the recording session, most mixing engineers will not be expecting to have to do this as part of their normal work, and might charge extra for the additional time and creative input it requires. Always let your mixing engineer know beforehand if he will be required to reamp guitars and work from midi drums and/or synth, and absolutely always give reference tones to the type of sound the band is aiming for, this will avoid unnecessary mix revisions and re-doing processing because as talented as a professional mix engineer can be, I have yet to meet one who can read an artist’s mind.
What this guide is not
This is not a guide about mixing. If you want to learn to mix your own material and possibly even make a career out of mixing and mastering albums for other artists, there are plenty of incredibly helpful resources online for that. I recommend Nail The Mix and Creativelive first and foremost, but there are plenty of free alternatives as well.
Part I - Requirements
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation): Reaper has a 30 day trial with all the functionality of a full version, and a personal non-business license is incredibly cheap. Its stock plugins are also perfectly usable and lacks none of the basics. www.reaper.fm
Audio Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2nd Gen. Some digital guitar processors can be used through USB connection as an audio interface, Axe FX by Fractal or POD by Line 6 are common examples, although a dedicated interface such as the Scarlett is recommended nevertheless. If you can afford a bit more, Audient iD14 has preamps and conversion of considerably higher quality while still being very affordable.
If you’re going to record straight DI without any external amp or FX unit such as an AXE FX, you need an ampsim to monitor while recording. TSE X50 V2 is cheap, easy to use and very versatile for metal guitar tone in general. There are also plenty of free options such as the LePou range of ampsims. Make sure to have an impulse loader as well. X50 V2 has one incorporated, LeCab from Lepou is a free alternative.
A dedicated DI Box such as a Countryman type 85, Radial J48, Littlelabs Redeye, among others, is desired and will improve the quality of the tone compared to the instrument input of a Scarlett, but not absolutely needed if your budget doesn’t allow for it. Some cheap DI boxes will make little to no difference when compared to using the instrument input of a Scarlett or similar interface.
Guitars and bass
The guitars themselves are an eternal matter of discussion and taste, in general, just avoid using very cheap low end brands or even some of the low end models from well known brands. In terms of pickups, for guitars Seymour Duncan is an industry standard for passive pickups, as is EMG for actives, particularly the 85 and 81 models. For bass there’s less of a consensus, but EMG and Bartolini are generally well regarded. The choice between active or passive is a matter of taste and the desired tone.
All guitars and bass must be properly set up by a professional for the tuning it’s going to be used in, and to the preference of the player(s) in terms of string action.
If the guitars and/or bass have active electronics, always have a fresh battery installed at the start of the session. This is very often forgotten about and will mess up the output of the guitar, so don’t forget!
Strings: Ernie Ball and D’addario are common brands. Specifically for bass, some producers especially favor D’addario Prosteels over other types and brands when recording picked metal bass. For string gauges depending on the tuning, I recommend the video The Guide To String Gauges! By Ryan Bruce. The video also has a link to a .pdf guide as explained in the video.
Cables: Short cables are favored, brands such as Planet Waves or Monster cable are common industry standards.
Strings must be brand new when starting to record (really brand new, not “just a few months old and I haven’t played it much”). For guitar, some producers will put in new strings after every song, others every 3 or 4 songs or once a day, and some will do a whole album’s worth of rhythm guitars with one set of fresh strings, ask your mixing engineer for his preference. This also depends on the durability of the strings, some brands keep the fresh string sound longer than others. As a general rule, when starting a new song, compare with the first takes of the previous to check if there isn’t any noticeable loss in brightness and body in the tone. Do the same at the start of the day, comparing with the songs tracked the previous day. More or less the same applies with bass, although they generally last a bit longer and are more likely to be able to do a whole album with just one or two sets of strings without a noticeable loss in quality.
This is tricky to do in a home studio setting, because the room will always affect the sound recorded through the microphone, so some steps must be taken to minimize it as much as possible, as a bad sounding room (and a bad microphone) can ruin a mix and stick out like a sore thumb and instantly give the recording a “cheap” quality that is nearly impossible to get rid of in the mix. In terms of microphone choice, a dynamic mic will generally take in less room sound than the average large diaphragm condenser. The classic handheld Shure SM58 is always a clear choice, and a Beta58 or even SM57 are also great if you have those at hand instead. SM7B is another classic, but its output can be pretty low so make sure the preamp on your interface has enough gain to handle it before buying one. In terms of acoustic treatment, a micscreen (the t.bone Micscreen is an example) is recommended to tame the presence of early reflections coming from the wall the singer is facing, and any additional drapes and even a mattress or two will help with the overall high end reflections being minimized before being caught by the microphone. This is assuming vocals are being recorded in a spare room in a house or apartment. Recording vocals in a rehearsal space is also an option, but depends entirely on the space, some can be decently appropriate while others might be much worse than your average spare bedroom, so it’s impossible to give a general recommendation.
If drums will be entirely programmed, the only special requirement is any virtual instrument plugin that can reproduce a full drumkit from the midi file you use. I recommend something with pre-processed samples and ready to go presets such as Ezdrummer 2 by Toontrack, preferably with one of the expansions specialized in metal drum tones such as Metal Machine or Made of Metal. This will be used as a reference for tracking everything else with little to no tweaking required in order to make them cut through and sound pleasant enough to record with. The process of recording real drums is outside the scope of this guide.
Part II - The Recording Process
Programming: There are several ways of programming midi drums, on which there are plenty of tutorials and guides online, so they will not be touched on in this guide. However, note that if you use Guitar Pro or any similar tab based program for songwriting and write drums in it, you can easily export the midi from the drum track and import into your DAW as is, with your VI (virtual instrument) of choice as an insert in the track. If you use EZdrummer, the same midi map used in GP will work with no required changes. If you use a different VI, check the midi map it works with (it’s usually included in the manual) and compare with the General Midi map which is what Guitar Pro uses, you might need to switch some of the notes to match it correctly.
Tempo Map: The tempo of the song (and tempo and time signature changes, if any) should be decided during songwriting or preproduction. Always make sure to have the tempo map information embedded in the midi file of the drums.
Make sure to include notes for the mix engineer about specific cymbals or special hits (sidesticks, rimshots, etc.), as different VIs and even different presets on the same VI will vary the cymbals. For example, effect cymbals such as splashes and bells should be mentioned in a note: 55 = short splash, 52 = China, etc.
Recording a real drummer is out of the scope of this guide, if this is your case it is highly recommended to go to a proper studio with a qualified engineer taking the helm, even if it’s only to record drums. I recommend the book “Agressive Drums” by Santeri Salmi for an in depth guide on recording real drums for metal. http://www.arthor.fi/aggressivedrums/
If you are going direct into your interface without an amp or digital device such as AxeFx or Pod, turn on input monitoring in your DAW on the track you’re recording and set up an ampsim and cab impulse loader, take a minute to find a tone that sounds pleasant and comfortable to play with. It doesn’t have to be your final tone, but it’s important that it feels comfortable and inspiring enough to record with. Always record the clean DI track, don’t render the ampsim tone, just leave it on to hear it with the ampsim but make sure you are recording the clean signal. Search tutorials for your specific DAW on how to do this.
For rhythm guitars, always record at least two performances of every single section. Some mixers will work fine with double tracked rhythm guitars, others prefer to work with 4, but only one will not be acceptable except for specific parts as an effect where the guitar will be panned to the center. When recording metal, rhythm guitars will always be hard panned to the sides while leaving space for bass guitar, kick and snare, vocals, and pretty much everything else to go in the middle. Recording a riff once and copying it to another track will not work, digitally identical tracks panned to the sides will simply sum to mono and sound centered. Even if you record several tracks (different amps and/or cabs) with one single performance, you will need at least two separate performances, regardless of how many tracks are recorded for each performance.
For lead guitars and guitar solos, single tracking each part is usually fine, except if the desired effect is for the part to sound “wide” instead of centered, in which case double tracking is better. If you double track leads or solos, make sure to label them properly, with “L” or “R” in the name so the mix engineer knows where to put each part. If your leads or solos are harmonized, track each harmony once.
Proper picking technique, fresh strings and tight timing is essential to a good sounding mix. Guitars can be edited after the fact but that can only achieve so much, it can’t make up for sloppy technique. Remember that there will always be at least 2 guitar tracks doing the same thing, so they need to be tight with each other or else the mix will sound lopsided and unprofessional.
Always check the tuning before each take, it’s important to keep an eye on the tuning when using brand new strings. Also, use the same tuner for all the instruments. For a detailed video on tuning properly for playing metal (taking the pick attack into consideration), watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvc2uGoKey4&
If there are parts where both rhythm guitars play slightly different things, it is a production choice if you want to record one part each side or record each part twice and have both parts playing both sides. This depends entirely on the genre, the type of riff, among other things; but as a general guideline: If both guitars are playing in the same octave and the difference is mainly harmonized parts or minor arrangements, they can be recorded once each and panned to separate sides. If one of the parts in in a higher octave or doing different chords or melodies while the other part is anchoring the rhythm and staying in a lower register, it’s best to record each part twice and have the higher one labeled as an “octave guitar” or “Dub guitar” to clarify that is an arrangement on top of the main rhythm part.
Always listen back after recording a take to make sure there’s no mistakes or missed notes, listen for intonation issues especially with open chords (make sure the note doesn’t vibrate too much and sounds out of tune. If it does, try recording just that chord separately and mind your picking hand: try not to hit too hard on the strings. Also, watch that your left hand is not fretting so hard that you make the chord go out of tune), and make sure the take is tight with the click and drums.
It’s advisable to mute the strings not being used for each part, to avoid extra string noise or open notes when string skipping. Something as simple as a (preferably clean) sock behind the nut can do the trick, and you can put it on the fingerboard between the nut and the first fret if the part has no open notes to keep the string from ringing out the open note when string skipping. Also, a napkin near the bridge muting the unused high strings when playing riffs will help avoid random harmonics and other noises.
Some people will record a song riff by riff (if you do it this way, I recommend doing every riff twice so you already have the double tracked parts down as you go), others will “build” riffs, going through small sections and punching in, others will do a whole song in one take several times and then compiling the best parts of each take into one full, well played take. You can do whatever is the fastest and most comfortable way for you, as long as the end result is tight and well played. Remember, the only thing that matters is the end result.
If you copy and paste repeated parts throughout a song, don’t forget you will still always need a separate performance for the left and right tracks, so never copy the left side into the right side of another part and vice versa.
The same principles of tight playing and minding the intonation when recording guitar will apply to bass guitar. Also, the same techniques to mute unused strings and avoid harmonics and string noises can be used.
Bass will be single tracked, no need to record everything twice, one good solid take per part is enough.
Always record a clean DI signal. Additionally, you can choose to split the signal and record an effected track such as through a Sansamp BDDI, Darkglass B7K or other pedals, amps, heads, head/cab/mic or whatever you feel can add to the sound in the final mix, just remember the clean DI is important for the mix engineer to have enough flexibility in the mix, as a lot of mixers will depend solely on the DI signal for the low end, and some might have their go-to chains that they will apply themselves to the DI in the mix.
If the bass is passive, turning the tone knob all the way up is usually the way to go. If you’re not sure about the blend between pickups, using a full blend of both is the safest option.
For an active bass, you can experiment with the EQ section but be wary, if it ends up sounding too bright and/or muddy there will be no way to take it back after the fact. If you do end up recording with the knobs anywhere other than 12 o’clock, I recommend using a bit of tape on top of each knob to leave them in position throughout the whole session, it’s very easy to accidentally move them around if they are not locked into place somehow.
Using a pick or finger plucking is a matter of taste, but take into account that it is generally harder in extreme metal genres to get a good, bright, transient heavy and consistent sound out of a finger plucked bass track than when playing with a pick. Either way, make sure there’s enough attack for the sound to cut through, and try to make the dynamics as consistent as possible. In other words, play with good technique.
For backing vocals, it’s wise to at least double track each part, as a lot of mixers will pan them to the sides to make the vocals sound wider and more up front. For lead vocals usually one track is fine, but if the singer is good enough to record tight doubles, it’s recommended to double track them as the mixer may or may not find that the doubles help make the vocals sound a bit thicker and easier to mix. This is entirely dependent on the singer, microphone, mix engineer, style, etc. But if you manage to double track everything, the worst that can happen is that the mixer will mute the doubles and just use one take. No one dies.
If there is clean singing, don’t rely on autotune to make the vocals sound on pitch. In other words, be a good singer. Tuning can help perfect an already good take, but the more autotune has to work, the worse it will sound, and it will sound obviously tuned which is hardly ever a desirable effect.
As above, get good takes. Listen to the timing, listen to the sound and if you feel you can do a better take, do it again. Especially with vocals, the amount of “soul” and “attitude” that is brought into each take will greatly impact the way your song makes the listener feel.
Try to make the lyrics understandable. The concept of the song and the feeling it evokes (creepy, sad, angry, all of the above) will come across much clearer if the lyrics can be understood and they add to that feeling. Unless you’re doing “gurgle gurgle I eat pregnant bitches for breakfast” death metal (which is my favorite type of metal so no complaints from me!) you’re generally gonna want the words to be heard.
This can be handled in many different ways, whether it’s programming with a mouse or playing it on a midi controller, or simply exporting from guitar pro tabs. The mix engineer will appreciate having the midi files for the synths, but you should always deliver a rendered sound as well. If you have access to some great sounding libraries or keyboards with built in sounds, the mix engineer will probably use that because it’s what’s to your taste and it sounds good, but it’s always good to have the midi as a backup in case the mixer wants to layer sounds or try similar sounds with better tools. If you deliver just the midi files with no rendered files, at the very least give some reference sounds in your notes.
There’s a lot of debate on the right level to record at, but as long as the signal is not extremely quiet and is never actually peaking it will be fine and workable. When in doubt, it’s better if it’s a bit too soft than if you risk clipping (distorting) on the input.
Part III - Organizing the Files
All files should be exported as .Wav (or midi if applicable) files, at the same sample rate and bit depth. Ask your mix engineer before recording, but most mixers will work with 44.1 or 48 Khz sample rates, and 24 bit depth. I know one person who works with 32 bits. ONE. PERSON.
Each song should be in a separate folder with the song name. The track number in the album is also preferable if the order of the songs is already decided. For example: “01 - Bestowed into Despondency”.
All the .wav files should have the same name as its equivalent in the other tracks. For example, if the lead guitar is called “Gtr Solo” in track 1, make sure it’s the same on track 2 and not “Guit lead” or anything else.
It’s also appreciated to label each track with a unique number, with the order being somewhat logical, with tracks from the same instrument in subsequent order. For example, “01 Ld Vocal 1.wav, 02 Ld Vocal 2.wav, 03 Bk Vocal 1 L.wav, etc.” so that the mix engineer will have tracks of the same nature put together and will guarantee that the mix engineer won’t accidentally miss a track because it was randomly in between the clean guitar and guitar solo tracks in the folder. If you do this, make sure numbers from 1 to 9 have a 0 before them, to keep them in order when ordering alphabetically on an explorer/finder window. 01, 02, 03…. 10, 11, 12, etc.
All guitar, bass and vocal tracks should be mono. Rendered synths can be mono or stereo depending on the VI or keyboard used.
Make track naming as specific as possible. For example “Rh Gtr L DI” and “Rh Gtr R DI” are good labels for left and right rhythm guitar DI tracks respectively. “Guitar Dave” and “Guitar Drew” are not. Trust me, no one gives a shit who Dave and Drew are.
When exporting the tracks, make sure all tracks in each song start at the same time, so that any mix engineer can put them into a session and they align perfectly. It’s common to leave a space of one or two bars of silence before the actual beginning of the song. If you’re unsure how to do this, look up tutorials on how to “consolidate files” in your specific DAW.
Unless previously agreed with the mix engineer, the raw files in .wav and midi format should be enough, there’s no need to send a session file in any DAW, most mixers will organize and prepare a session “their” way and probably have a tried and true method to doing it.
Include a .txt file with all the project notes. This file should include: all the tempo information (in case the midi files don’t behave properly, which happens regularly), any specific notes about fade ins and fade outs of songs, other post-production FXs such as bassdrops, reverse cymbals and so on for each song, References of other recordings in terms of guitar tone, bass tone, general mix, synths, etc. (as a general reference, do not expect the mix to be “the guitar tone from X album with the drums from Y album” identically), any written notes or ideas about the tones and the mix, and preferably a rough mix of the songs to guide the mix engineer in terms of the overall desired direction of the mix.
Also include in your notes which is the first song you want to have mixed. Ideally, this should be the most “complete” song in the album, the most representative of the style of the whole album. It will be the one to set the tone of the main instruments that form the basis of the album.
If you have any doubts about format, sample rate, track labeling, etc. Ask your mix engineer. If you haven’t decided on a mix engineer when preparing the files, following these guidelines should make it possible for any mix engineer to work with your project without issues.
Keep in mind that although current technology allows for the possibility to record an album at home with a very small budget and still achieve a top level product, the ideal process still is to go to a professional recording studio and have your sessions handled by a qualified producer and/or recording engineer. The quality of the converters, preamps, analog gear; the sound of a well built and conditioned room and the creative and technical expertise of a person with the knowledge and experience to make great records will always play an important role in the sound of your recordings. If you listen to mixes by the best producers around today, you can notice that the ones that they also produced and engineered themselves almost always sound better than the ones that were self-produced by the band and mixed by said producer. Nevertheless, it can’t be argued that amazing records have been made using budget gear, and it is only logical for a musician to take advantage of today’s technology which gives us the possibility to make great sounding records with little money (but a lot of practice!), so this guide was made to help those musicians through that process while still maintaining a minimally acceptable standard of quality that a mix engineer can use to make a great mix.
Lastly, remember that this guide is not the only or the best way to do it, and other mix engineers might disagree with the tips expressed here or might have a higher standard for the quality of the tracks, and they are free to do so. Therefore, you must always ask any specific questions to your mix engineer in order to guarantee the level of quality that said mix engineer is known for.
Feel free to share this guide to anyone who might find it useful, although I appreciate it be unedited if my name is to be kept on it.
Special thanks to my friends and fellow producers Markus Hospenthal, Alex Cappa, Joshua Wickman, Dennis Israel, Athanasios Karapanos, Runar Magnussen and Brett Caldas-Lima for proof-reading and helping me with ideas and discrepancies while writing this guide.
P.S. If you want to hear an example of a song mixed entirely with midi drums and synth and DI guitars and bass, go to the sampler on my website and listen to “Epitaph (King Crimson Cover)”.