Make Cheap Recording Equipment Sound Expensive

The microphone is the most essential piece of equipment in recording your low-budget masterpiece.

So you want to make the next chart-busting record in the comfort of your office, using nothing but your computer and the microphone you bought for $12 at the yard sale down the street? Is this possible? Without a doubt, so long as you have a modicum of talent and are willing to become familiar with the technical finesse required for making a sound recording.


Set Up the Room

1. Set up your computer as far away as possible from electric lighting—especially fluorescent lighting—and other electronic devices to minimize noise. Static noises, such as those emitted from lighting and electronic devices, will add up as you create layers of sound to your recording. If you are working with cheap audio equipment, it’s going to sound even cheaper if you record in a noisy room with bare walls. Doing so will cause you to record more unpleasant echo, noise and feedback than actual music.

2. Place the microphone even further away from the computer. This, again, is to minimize noise; even the slightest hum can interfere with your budget recording. If possible, put the microphone on a microphone stand to prevent handling noises from getting into your recording. Investing in a high-quality XLR microphone cable will also help to reduce noise.

3. Hang blankets on the walls of your recording space. These will act as baffles to prevent the sound waves from bouncing around your room. You want to make a recording that is as “dry” as possible, meaning there is no reverb coming from your recording space. Reverb is created when sound is bounced against another source. This can make for a big, juicy sound, but it can also make for a noisy, ear-fatiguing sound, if the reverb is not used properly. You can always add artificial reverb that comes with your recording software.

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4. Hang foam egg crates, which are used as mattress padding, on the walls as well. Hopefully your room is rectangle in shape; sound will bounce around in a square room with a lot more ferocity than in a rectangular room, where sound still travels, but dies out and fades a lot quicker.

5. Keep your dog from barking, your cat from meowing, and you might want to send your noisy family to Magic Mountain for the day. The goal is to eliminate as much outside sound as possible—though you will have little to no control over airplanes flying overhead. Turn off air conditioners and fans, too.

6. Record vocals with a stocking placed over the microphone to help eliminate “sibilance,” a common problem with inexpensive microphones. Sing just slightly over the microphone, not directly into it. Your mouth should be 4 to 6 inches away, if you are using a condenser microphone. If you are singing into a dynamic microphone, you can sing 2 to 4 inches away from the diaphragm. Don’t get too close, however. You don’t want to add boom.

Make It Sound Good

7. Use the equalizer controls that come with your software to either reduce or add bass (plus or minus 1 to 6 dB in the 20 to 150 kHz range), once you’ve made your recording. Using cheap recording equipment will most likely mean you need cut off the top end (minus 1 to 6 dB in the 15,000 to 20,000 kHz range) of your recording to minimize hiss and harshness (especially from cheap-sounding guitars).

8. Cut 1 to 6 dB in the 450 to 800 kHz range (the middle frequencies), using a wide q factor, if you have recorded multiple instruments. This will help take out some of the mud in the mix and give you a cleaner recording. If you’re only recording a guitar and vocal, you should be okay with just a little EQing on the top and bottom of the sound spectrum.

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9. Add a low threshold of compression, with a ratio of 3:1, to the overall mix, if you didn’t use compression in your initial recording. Compression will help smooth out the dynamic range. Compression is a complex recording tool, however. If you use too much, you will sap the life out of your recording.

10. Add just a touch of reverb to the overall mix. Hopefully, you made a clean and dry recording. Reverb will add spaciousness and depth to your recording. Try a hall-type reverb, which should be a preset in your digital audio software. Don’t add too much, or your recording will sound like it was done in a cave.

11. Consider investing in having your finished recording professionally mixed and mastered. A professional should have the know-bring your budget recording up to a level where it can be played on any type of medium—CD player, car stereo, computer—and attain a sound of a recording made in a real studio.

12. Sing and play with what is coming from your heart, and you will easily attract an audience. The bottom line is that your cheap recording will sound good based on the feelings you put into your music. Recording equipment will sound cheap if it is cheap, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that still sounds good. The trick is to keep it real.