As we all know, these days going to a studio with a proper control room and recording engineer has become more and more unusual. Recording at home is super-practical. Using modern inexpensive kit, so long if you make you room sound good and you have good recording skills, the potential quality is just the same. To many people, it's also psychologically nicer to be in comfortable surroundings when recording - in a place that is available anytime (well, at least when the kids are at school).
The bad side of all that is, however, that you are often recording alone.
Sure, it's always possible to ask a friend to help - but while recording is an exciting and fun activity if you are interested, it can be deadly boring if you aren't... and let's face it, it's unlikely a random friend will be very skilled at recording. So, if you want to make a demo or put down an idea to tape (pardon, hard disk), more often than not you're gonna be on your own.
And that means being the recording engineer, the control room technician and the artist (not to mention the producer, the arranger, the session man) all by yourself.
It's a lot of work.
Unfortunately. all this work ends up forcing you to have less focus on the artistic side and often be more stressed... both of which don't help the performance one bit.
And as we know, in recorded music performance is king. The music must be good, the performance must be good and the recording space must be good, all the rest (yes, also that $2000 Neumann mic) is far less relevant.
There are two tools, however, that will make your life much, much easier and make a huge difference in the quality of your recordings. And the best part is that they cost not much money at all!
A headphone extension cable. Say 6 meters (20 feet) will do.
A wireless numeric keypad for your computer (with fresh battery)
These humble objects will revolutionize your recordings. Here's why.
The headphone extension cable
A headphone extension cable will allow you to do a bunch of things that otherwise you can't:
monitor the tracking (e.g. listening to a base track plus the direct monitoring of the interface) staying far from the computer. This means reduced electromagnetic interference (EMI) from the computer and particularly the screen(s), which causes humming and background noise in say electric guitar pickups; no noise in the microphones from the computer fans, and so on.
move freely in the room to find the best position for your microphone. You know that a room has a sound ,and in each room the sound may vary (a lot!) depending on where you are. Having a long extension allows you to move around and find just the right spot.
monitor the recorded sound with headphones while you are testing various spots in the room. Say you're gonna track an acoustic guitar. The position of the microphone in the room is paramount to get just the right sound, but in order to find that position you need to hear the sound as picked up by the microphone. Without an extension cable, the only way to do it is to position the mic, record a couple bars, go back to the computer, put up the headphones, listen.. and repeat. Apart quickly loosing the will to live, you won't be able to really get the same feel of "difference" that you get by being able to move around while listening. You will likely stick with the first decent spot you find (or even just the first). The cable (and good tracking, isolating headphones) will allow you to test and compare lots of positions quickly, improving your recordings to no end.
While it's important that the extension cable is decent (jack connections must be stable, it must be lightweight and easy to carry around), in reality most are and you don't really need a gazillion dollars cable to do the job.
Just head to a music supplier, or possibly a hi-fi shop (in which case resist the salesmen claims that the cable costing 10K is much much better than the one costing 10... because it isn't) and get a reasonable but economical one. It'll work wonders.
The wireless numeric keypad
A wireless numeric keypad will work as you personal control room engineer - allowing you to put down multiple takes, and to hear the last take again, without moving away from the mic or taking off the headphones. Never again have to stop the flow to and push "R" again before sitting down again! And let's face it, so often it's so annoying to have to stand up all the time that the temptation to just record nearby the computer so that you can reach the keyboard without moving is very high.. which once again means no best room spot and additional noise (computer fans, electro-magnetic interference from the monitors into your guitar pickups and the likes).
Using a the wireless keypad as a remote transport control, you will be able to:
start/stop playback and recording without moving from the mic. Most DAWs worth their name have shortcuts for "play" and "record" and other controls, and usually can be set up to rewind automatically to the initial point after recording and playback. All you have to do is to configure the keypad, or the DAW, so that you can "push" these buttons remotely. It pays off to make little labels on the keys - you don't need anything fancy, just a piece of paper attached with some scotch tape will do (but of course you can go the full monthy and print custom labels if you like). A keyboard (as opposite to, say, a phone or a pad with touchscreen) gives you an easy mechanical feel and confirmation that you have indeed pushed the button.
keeping the same position when recording acoustic instruments with a mic, which is important for keeping the same tone for comping. Short of putting markers on the floor (as in a movie set), it's difficult to come back exactly in the same position after coming back from the computer. Remote control solves that problem entirely.
experience less stress. When recording vocals, it's already annoying to have to move from your mic position, to reach the computer every time you want to record a take. With a guitar or a bass strapped on, it is even more so! You end up either walking with the instrument, or having to take it off and on your shoulders - all stressful stuff not exactly conductive to a great performance. If you're recording guitars, it can pay off to put a chair or a small table near your chosen recording spot just to have a place where to put down the pad.
use no additional cables. Of course you could the same functionality with a wired keyboard with a long cable but (besides the fact that the average keyboard cable is pretty short), a full keyboard is pretty heavy and cumbersome, and there's lots of keys to look at. A wireless keypad is cheaper, much lighter and it can be handled with one hand.
And the beauty of it is that wireless keypads can be had very cheaply!
Just make sure you don't go out of batteries exactly when you're gonna record that Freddy Mercury vocal.
Since we are at it, another couple of really simple but incredibly effective trick when you record by yourself
One is to actually separate the preparation work from the performance. Preparation work being setting up the DAW, explore the room for a good mic position, rig up the gear etc) .
Possibly, take a 5 minute breaks between the two, to try to get into "artist" mode once everything is set up.
The other is to always have a long count-in before the start of the guide track. At least 8 bars, more if the song has a fast tempo. The reason is simple: as I wrote above, when you record on your own, you're constantly changing hats, which is not at all good for focus and inspiration. Even having done the preparation work beforehand, it's still you that have to look down, take your mind from the music and push the recording key (on the wireless pad).
By having a long count-in, you give yourself a moment to re-focus and mentally take once again the "performer" attitude after having pushed (wirelessly) the "Record" button. It really makes a difference!
And if you want a fast start, you can always set the DAW to begin just one bar before the beginning of the music - and even set up the controller to move the "now" cursor a bar left of right as you wish.
These simple tricks cost very little and will really make a difference on what you manage to achieve when recording solo.
And if you have further tips, don't esitate to share them in the comments!