Recording a Band on a Limited Budget

I got my start recording pretty early. One of my cousins gave me a hand-me-down Fisher Price tape player/recorder, with a microphone. Combined with my $100 Casio tablehooter keyboard, I recorded hours and hours worth of terrible pre-programmed beats and laser synth noises. Eventually, I got upgraded to a dual-cassette recording deck, complete with two microphone inputs. This allowed me to "bounce" tracks back and forth. I was also doing podcasts long before podcasts were even a thing; my best friend and I had a "radio show" that we would record every week onto cassette, complete with transition music and different sketch comedy segments.


A Fisher Price cassette player toy.

As I entered my teen years, home recording was still out of reach of the average person. We were just beginning to see digital Portastudios enter the market, and those were still out of my budget reach. But I was in a scrappy DIY punk band, and we were determined to record our EP.

I bought an 8-channel mixer, likely from Behringer. My drummer donated his Shure PG series mic kit. Through sheer force of will, we managed to record in a single stereo track via 3.5mm TRS cable to my low-tier Windows XP desktop, into Sony Acid. I shudder in horror now at the thought of this. Drums were panned hard left, guitar and bass ran through the same amp (!) hard right. Vocals and a second guitar track got overdubbed. I also scoured the internet and "Home Recording For Dummies" to learn how to mix our tracks. My first recording/mixing project was born.

And to be honest, for a bunch of 16-year-olds with about $200 of recording budget between us, it's not TERRIBLE. I've heard far worse. We were the hit of our small high school and sold a whopping eight hand-sharpied CDs.

That experience ignited something in me that festered through my first two years of university. I eventually dropped out  to attend the recording school at the community college. It was there that I really elevated my skills in a professional-level recording studio, and learned all the "studio magic" tricks. I won't lie, my first two big mixing projects are still pretty bad despite having access to SSL consoles and Genelec monitors. I went way overboard on reverb and the mixes are mediocre. They're floating around on the internet if you get really determined to find them.

After leaving recording school to return to university and get my BS and then MS in a completely unrelated field, I still continued to record. But I was now on a home studio budget. I was limited to a 4-track Behringer interface and about $300 worth of bargain-bin mics. My first DIY home recordings that I actually consider to be "good" are linked here for your listening pleasure.

Ever since that first project, I have increased my gear quality and really refined my mixing skills. I am now at the point where my little home studio is accepting paying outside work on a fairly regular basis. I have a very large upcoming project that's releasing in August (that has to stay under wraps for now). My own projects are lining up to record over this summer as well.

Recording a Band At Home

This article is primarily going to focus on doing full-band recordings. There are plenty of resources out there for solo artists and producers. As soon as you add multiple musicians, things get a lot trickier.

For one, you are limited by the capabilities of your computer and the interfaces available on a consumer level. I will assume for now that you are not spending $50k+ on preamps, summing mixers, and A/D converters.

There are four things that you need to record a full band in a home or garage studio:

  • The musicians and their gear (this is your problem!)
  • An audio interface. Alternately, a standalone multitrack recorder such as the Zoom R16 will knock out your interface needs and be portable, but will still need a computer to mix later.
  • Microphones
  • A computer with a DAW (not covered in this article. Processor and RAM are your big bottlenecks so choose wisely).

Choosing an Audio Interface

I'm not going to go into detail on what's on the market or recommend a whole listicle of products. What's more important is matching the interface to your needs and budget.

Ideally, you should aim for eight inputs. This is where most consumer-level interfaces max out anyways. It will give you enough inputs for drums, bass, and two guitars. You'll have to figure out how to prioritize microphones/inputs for each instrument on your own. I have made band recordings work just fine on four inputs. I would not go any lower than this if you can avoid it, although recording with just two is possible. It gets exponentially more difficult the fewer inputs you have.

If you plan on expanding your recording capabilities later, make sure that your current interface has ADAT. This will allow you to chain in another set of preamps or another interface to expand your input capacity.

The second consideration with an interface is compatibility. Some brands have better drivers than others. This is something that you will have to research depending on your OS and computer specs.

Another thing to watch out for with interfaces is their monitoring capabilities. If you plan on having everyone monitoring through their own set of headphones, you may need to buy a headphone amplifier to split the single output signal from the interface to multiple sets.

Microphones for the Home Studio

I tend to have a bit of a gadfly reputation when it comes to microphones and other minutiae of home recording. That's because, in my opinion, there is a huge level of diminishing returns with microphones and monitors in bad acoustic spaces.

After working in music retail for a while, I came to learn that the average musician really wants a nice condenser microphone for their home studio. They then come back three days later wanting a bunch of acoustic foam. Or worse, one of those microphone shields. They claim it sounds "really bad." Then it gets returned after 20 days and they get hit with a restocking fee for covering the mic in gross spit.

Personally, I only use dynamic microphones at home. If I'm in my warehouse space, which is actually pretty great acoustically, I will then bust out some condensers. But at home in a square bedroom with bad acoustics, I do nothing but struggle with a condenser. This is because they are much more sensitive and pick up a lot more of the room sound than a dynamic microphone. I'm also a very loud (trained) vocalist and simply do not need something to pick up whisper-quiet singing. An SM57 with a windscreen is my go-to mic for vocals.

In fact, I can mic the whole world with SM57s. I'm one of those recording people. My current mic locker is actually an armada of SM57s and a bunch of cheap CAD/Samson/other bargain bin microphones. I've never really felt the need for anything better for recording at my house. My favorite kick sound I've ever gotten was a CAD KBM412, which I used instead of the Audix D6 I also had laying around at the time.

For my upcoming band recording projects, I am actually using drum replacement via Slate Trigger. I'm running a mono overhead with an SM57, then using some cheap dynamic Samson mics to pick up the individual drums and augmenting them with samples. We've been very impressed with the sound that this gives us.

So when it comes to microphones for home recording, I don't really see the point in spending a fortune. It's not going to sound studio-quality anyways. I scour gear sites and big box used sections for sleeper deals, like the CAD D82 ribbon mics that I use on guitar and bass cabinets (both of mine were purchased for under $75 and they sound fantastic).

Here are some of my recommendations for each instrument:

  • Drums
    • SM57s work fine for the entire kit. If you want more low-end in the kick, look for a larger-diaphragm mic like the Beta 52 or the aforementioned CAD mic.
    • If you really want condensers for overheads, I don't recommend going cheap. I've had good results with the Blue Baby Bottle and AKG C214. Cheaper condensers, I've found, tend to be very harsh in the highs.
  • Electric Guitars
    • Sennheiser E609
    • The ubiquitous SM57
    • Electro-Voice Co9 (surprisingly great on cabs)
    • Audix i9
    • CAD D82 (budget ribbon mic made for cabs)
  • Bass
    • Please go direct injection (DI)
    • If you reamp, a large-diaphragm kick mic or something like the CAD D82 works really well to capture low-end.
  • Vocals
    • Like I said, I usually avoid condensers and just use a dynamic. However, I have used a C214, Blue Baby Bottle, and Aston Origin before for good vocals in a decent space.

Ok, But I Want to Spend Money!

Fine, if you really want to spend money on your home recording setup, this is my list of purchases for my backyard dedicated studio space (actually treated and built for recording) that I am working on. This is based on mics that I used when I worked in actual recording studios and think are flexible for multiple uses:

  • Drums
    • Electro-voice RE20 for kick
    • SM57 for snare
    • Sennheiser MD421 (x3) for toms
    • C414 matched pair for overheads
    • SM81 for incidental condenser needs such as a hi-hat microphone
  • Guitar
    • Same as above, plus:
    • Beyerdynamic M160 ribbon
    • Aforementioned MD421s
  • Bass
    • RE20 for reamping
  • Vocals/Other
    • Aston Origin
    • AEA R84A Ribbon
    • Yamaha SubKick or Solomon
    • 12Gauge microphones, entire lineup (for cool points, these are made of shotgun shells)

So... HOW Do I Record My Band?

The single most difficult part of doing recordings at home with limited inputs and routing capabilities is getting sufficient isolation in your tracks. If you just want a decent live recording where you can control some individual EQ and volume, then plug everything in and record away. We do this for demo tracks with an R16 in my bands and they honestly are pretty good sounding for live recordings. But if you want a more polished sound, you'll need to track and overdub things separately.

Live warehouse recording of a jam with my bandmates (me on bass). It's not perfect as we'd just finished writing the song, but I've paid money for worse studio recordings. D82 on guitar cab, SM57 on drum overheads with some Slate Trigger replacement on snare and kick, and bass is direct from a SansAmp. We have since fixed the humming electrical gremlin on the guitar cabinet.

This is where going direct with guitar and bass is beneficial. If you have a way of running things directly without people complaining that it sounds "flat" or "bad," this is ideal. I keep an HX stomp and SansAmp driver around for this purpose. The Stomp gets a decent approximation of the guitarists' amp tone plus some reverb and runs straight into the board. Bass also goes direct. There is no sound coming from the guitar or bass amps during drum tracking, but we can still hear each other playing in the headphones.

The band is able to track live with the drums to get the "feel" right with the song. At this level, most bands are going to resist recording to a click, including my own ragtag band of musicians (as much as I try). This method seems to keep everyone happy. I record guitar/bass scratch tracks direct on single inputs, and then drums get six tracks on my 8-input interface.

Then we go back and overdub guitar and bass. We've now got a great drum track to play along to. I still take direct signals for each and just route the amp sim pedals to the headphones, but this is because I have extensive re-amping capabilities. I then re-amp through the cabinets last, tweaking mic placement, pedals, and sometimes even changing amps. If you can't reamp, overdub and hope for the best!

Vocals come last and are usually recorded in a makeshift booth that I've built out of PVC piping and moving blankets. Or in my more rowdy, heavy bands, I just hold an SM57.

Mixing Your Home Recordings

The art of mixing could honestly be a whole series of articles (and probably will be eventually). I'm not going to go into the nuances of compression, EQ, and whatnot here. Instead, I'm going to give more general advice on expectations and workflow.

The first thing you'll have to keep in mind is that these are generally not going to be the best-sounding recordings direct from the microphones. In an untreated and acoustically inferior space, you're going to have to deal with interference, phase issues, and other problems. These all require a good deal more work than mixing with a raw recording done in a treated studio space. So expect to spend a lot more time in the EQing process. That's not to say that they won't sound good in the end. It's just going to take more elbow grease.

The second consideration you should make is on the production side of things. Unless you are an extremely skilled mixing engineer, your home recordings are going to sound like... well... home recordings. Instead of fighting against this and striving for pro-level perfection in vain, embrace it.

One of my "secret sauces" is to actually outboard some of my mixes through a cassette recorder. The first DIY home recording project I did was recorded on cassettes in multiple layers (some before ProTools, the entire mix was also run through afterward). This gave those mixes a really lo-fi vibe which worked well with how they were recorded: in a bedroom with cheap gear in one afternoon. A great plugin you can use to lo-fi your recordings without investing in a real tape deck is called SketchCassette.

Pick a production style for your band that was done in less-than-ideal conditions, and try to imitate it. This strategy works surprisingly well and gives you an audial goal to shoot for with your mix.

Finally, get your stuff mastered elsewhere, if you want to have any sort of success selling it. Anyone who says they can master their stuff at home to the same level as a mastering studio is straight-up lying. I also avoid any mix engineer who says they can master. I get asked if I can master all the time and I emphatically say "no." Mastering is an art that requires specialized knowledge and gear. Plugins and some normal studio monitors are never going to "master" something. It's just mixing better/louder.

Should I Treat My Space?

No. In my opinion, if you have to ask, you have no business mucking about with acoustic treatment. Unless you have a pretty solid grasp on acoustics and how to treat specific problems in a space (and reading a couple of internet articles will not get you to this point), you might actually end up making things worse. Plus, it's still a bedroom in a home, it's never going to sound like a studio. It's just throwing good money after bad.

On this note, if you haven't bought monitors yet, I honestly don't recommend them. If you're not willing to shell out another $600+ for good isolated monitor stands and some thick Rockwool traps behind them, cheap consumer monitors on a desk in a bedroom are going to do more harm than good to your mixes. Instead, invest in a good pair of open-back headphones such as the Sennheiser HD series or the Shure SRHs. I have both a high-end set of headphones and a pretty hefty investment in my monitors. I still run my monitors very quietly and only use them to check a few things, not for intricate mixing details. I don't trust them for mixing very much.

I have absolutely zero acoustic treatment in my house. Spend that money on your interface and mics instead. You'll thank me later.

My humble home studio before I did some re-arranging. Move those monitors out more!

DIY Home Recording: Parting Words

Learning to do DIY recordings at a higher level was a whole different ballgame for me after years of recording school and assisting in real recording studios. I had to adjust everything I knew because I'd only learned how to mix in an ideal environment. I still don't consider my skills to be where I'd like them, but with every new recording/mixing project I take on, I feel like I improve in leaps and bounds.

Remember that apart from all the gear, plugins, and other technical minutiae, there is no substitute for having a good set of ears. Learning to listen and mix well is far more important than what you mix with.

Questions? Comments? Leave 'em down below!

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