The ability to record yourself is fast becoming a requirement for musicians. Most singer-songwriters have at least a basic recording set up.
Understanding how to use all the tech can be overwhelming and it’s easy to get stuck.
Use this checklist to make sure you’re not overlooking any important stuff on your next recording.
DAW Setup Checklist
Set sample rate to 48khz
We use 48khz because it is the standard for film/TV. While CD and many streaming sites use 44.1khz, it is better to downsample than to upsample. Record at 48khz. Sample rate is the number of samples (or snapshots) of audio recorded every second. Think of sample rate like frames per second in video.
Set bit depth to 24bit
24bit is the standard for film/TV. Bit depth for CDs and (most) streaming is 16bit, but it is better to downsample than to upsample. Record at 24bit. Think of bit depth like the resolution of a picture or quality of film.
Enter the tempo and time signature
Most DAWs have a place to enter the tempo and time signature. Take the time to ensure you’re recording at the right tempo for the song. Entering the right time signature will ensure the metronome is emphasizing the downbeat. If your song has bars or sections that are in other time signatures, it is possible to map these sections out as well.
Create a click track
Most DAWs have a built-in metronome or click track that will be set based on the tempo and time signature you entered. Learning to record with a click and be really comfortable playing in time is a key skill in recording (and music in general!).
Enable direct monitoring on your interface
Hardware monitoring, typically called “direct monitoring” allows you to hear yourself directly from your interface without any latency (delay). Look up how to enable direct monitoring on your interface. For some interfaces such as the Scarlett 2i2, direct monitoring is enabled by a button on the front, other interfaces such as from Apollo and RME use software mixers to control direct monitoring.
Turn off software monitoring in your DAW
For most home studio setups, turn off software monitoring. Software monitoring means the audio signal is going into the computer, into the DAW, and then out the DAW, out the interface, and finally into the headphones.Going into the computer adds latency. It can sound like a doubling effect which is distracting when recording.
Set your recording level between -18 and -12db
When you record-enable your track, you will see level coming in from your voice or instrument. The track fader typically shows volume measurement in decibels (db). At the top (loudest) is 0db and at the bottom is -150db (quietest). Recording -18 to -12db is the optimal recording level. This level may seem quiet and the waveform might seem smaller than what you’re used to. However, this will give you the highest quality recording. If you sing/play a little louder occasionally that’s okay, but in general try to keep it in this range as much as possible.
Leave two bars of silence before first note and after last note
Leaving two bars ensures no audio gets cut-off on your first note and gives you time to get ready to perform. Leaving a consistent amount of space also means your subsequent takes will all line up.
Record a few takes, but don’t overdo it
Before you start recording, make sure you really know the song. Recording while practicing is no fun and can be discouraging. Learn the song and feel really comfortable playing with a metronome before recording. Doing so allows you to focus on expression and performance (the stuff that really matters)
Edit and “comp” between takes
Creating a “comp” (composite) track, is putting together two or more takes in one. Learning how to comp in your DAW is a slightly more advanced skill, but one worth learning.
Name your files clearly
At minimum label tracks PARTNAME_SONGNAME. To learn the best way to name your tracks, click here.
Render from zero to the end of the file
Render from zero means to export your track from the very beginning of the timeline. For example, even if your recording starts on bar 2, you would still export from the beginning of bar 1. This way, your file can be placed into the production timeline without having to line anything up manually.
Export individual files
For collaborating, don’t export a mix. Export each file individually. This is sometimes labeled “stems” in DAWs.
Export tracks mono tracks (typically)
If you record your voice or an instrumental track with one mic, export that audio as mono. If your track has left and right information, such as a synth or part with reverb added, export stereo.
Export dry tracks
Typically if you are working with a producer or engineer, they will want “dry” tracks. That means files with no processing (EQ, compression, reverb, delay etc).
Export tracks as 24 bit 48khz WAV files
This is the format you recorded in and the format you should export in as well.
Upload to file sharing service
Make a zip file and upload to Google Drive or Dropbox. For my productions, I use Filepass, a specialized audio revision app. Just don’t attach your files to emails.
How to make this easy for next time
If possible, create a dedicated studio space where your computer, interface, instruments, and microphones are always set up and ready to go.
Much of the above checklist can be saved into a template. In most DAWs, you can save templates of your routing and most used tracks. For example, a basic songwriting template might include a vocal track, acoustic guitar track, and click track. When working on a new tune, simply load up this template, enter the tempo and time signature and you’re ready to record.
Do it often
Recording and audio engineering takes practice. The goal is to get the tech stuff out of the way so that the creativity can flow. Tech stuff takes time, but it offers incredible value and possibility. Keep this checklist handy.