How to Record a Song at Home: a Beginners Guide

How to record a song in your home studio?
How to record a song at home?

1. Introduction

Starting your journey in home recording can be both exciting and overwhelming. This guide is here to ease you into the basics of recording a song right where you are most comfortable – at home. I am focusing exclusively on the recording process, leaving the mixing and mastering stages for another day. So, if you’ve ever wondered how to begin recording your own music, this guide is your starting point. I’ll cover the essential equipment you’ll need and offer step-by-step instructions to set up your home studio.

2. Equipment you’ll need

When setting up your home recording studio, the first essential item you’ll need is a reliable computer – either a desktop or a laptop. This acts as the central hub for all your recording activities. It’s important to have a computer that can handle the demands of recording software without lagging or crashing. While most modern computers should suffice, it’s worth ensuring that yours has adequate processing power and memory to run a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) smoothly. If you’re in the minority without a computer, investing in one with decent specifications will be a key step in your home recording setup.

A Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, is the backbone of your home recording setup. It’s the software platform where all your recording, editing, and sometimes even mixing happens. Choosing the right DAW is crucial as it impacts your workflow and the capabilities at your disposal. There are many DAWs available, each with unique features and workflows. Some are more suited for beginners, while others offer advanced features for seasoned musicians. Your choice should align with your recording needs and budget. Popular options include Ableton Live, FL Studio, Pro Tools, and GarageBand for Mac users. As a beginner, you might prefer a DAW that’s user-friendly and budget-friendly while still offering all the essential recording features. When recording a song I use Cockos Reaper as my go-to DAW.

A USB audio interface is like an external sound card for your recording setup. It facilitates the connection of various audio sources like microphones and instruments to your computer. When choosing an audio interface, consider the number of inputs you’ll need based on what you plan to record. For most beginners, an interface with two inputs is sufficient. For example, I have both the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd generation) and the Behringer U-Phoria UMC204HD. These interfaces are known for their clear sound quality and are user-friendly, making them great for starters in home recording.

There are two main types: dynamic and condenser. Dynamic microphones are robust, handle high volume levels well, and are great for recording loud sources like drums and electric guitars. Condenser microphones, on the other hand, are more sensitive and ideal for capturing the nuances of vocals and acoustic instruments. However, if your recording space isn’t soundproof and has a lot of background noise, a dynamic microphone can be a better option for vocals. Dynamic mics are less sensitive to room noise and can provide a cleaner recording in less-than-ideal acoustic environments. When selecting a microphone, consider what you’ll primarily record. For a home studio, having one of each type can cover a wide range of recording needs.

For recording drums, a combination of dynamic and condenser microphones is often used. Dynamic mics are great for handling the high pressure levels from drums, while condensers can capture the cymbals and overall kit ambiance. In a home studio, careful positioning can achieve a good drum sound without needing a large number of microphones. However, since recording a drum kit requires a higher skill level at recording, I would recommend paying a music studio just to record the drums for you, or paying someone online to record drums for you.

One other option (the one I often use) is to use a virtual instrument to create a drum track for your song. Some popular options are Superior Drummer from Toontrack, Addictive Drums from XLN Audio, Mjölnir Drums from Solemn Tones and Steven Slate Drums, just to name a few. If you don’t have the money to buy a virtual drum instrument you can try finding someone online to create drums for you in exchange for a dollar of two. Websites like can be a good place to start the search.

Studio headphones are essential for recording, especially for tracking vocals and acoustic instruments. They allow you to closely monitor your recordings without any sound bleeding into the microphone, which can happen with speakers.

For example, when recording vocals and acoustic instruments with a microphone, the musician or singer must record with headphones on in order to hear the song they are recording to, but without also recording the audio of the song being played.

Look for closed-back headphones for isolation and minimal sound leakage. These are crucial for accurate monitoring during recording sessions.

Good headphones provide a clear representation of sound, helping you make informed decisions about your recording. They are especially useful in a home studio environment, where ideal acoustic conditions may not always be available.

Studio monitors are actually audio speakers specialized for music production. They are crucial for accurately hearing what you’ve recorded. They are essential for assessing the quality of your recordings and understanding the spatial relationships between different parts. Good studio monitors reveal the true sound of your recording, uncolored by enhancements typical in consumer speakers. They become even more important if you plan to mix and master your music, allowing for precise adjustments. In a home studio, selecting monitors that fit your room size and acoustics is important for effective sound reproduction.

In addition to the main gear, several other items are required in a home studio setup. These include instrument cables for connecting guitars or keyboards to your interface, and extension cords for flexible equipment placement. Pop filters are essential for reducing plosive sounds in vocal recordings. Mic stands and shock mounts improve mic stability and sound quality. Also, if you have some extra cash on the side, consider acoustic treatment elements like foam panels to improve room acoustics.

3. Press “RECORD”!

Once you have all the neccessary equipment at your disposal, you can start setting up your home studio.

  • Step 1: Install a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of your choice on your computer.
  • Step 2: Connect your USB audio interface to the computer and install the latest dedicated driver for your Operating system (Windows, Mac OS, Linux, etc.). Connect your speakers and/or headphones to your audio interface so you can hear everything being played and recorded in your DAW.
  • Step 3: Open your DAW and go to settings for your audio device (e.g. Cubase: Device Setup/VST Audio System; Reaper: Preferences/Audio/Device; Pro Tools: Setup/Playback Engine, etc.) and select the driver for your USB audio interface (e.g. for a Focusrite audio interface the driver is called „Focusrite USB ASIO“ or something similar). This gives the instruction to your DAW to use your external USB audio interface for audio input/output.
  • Step 4: Once you have opened your audio device settings and selected the right audio driver for your audio interface, you need to reduce the input latency as much as you can. To simplify things, consider input latency as a delay between the moment you play a note on your instrument and the moment that note is heard or recorded in your DAW. To reduce the latency, you have to reduce the buffer size for your audio device. The lower the buffer size is the higher the strain is on your computer processor. If you reduce the buffer size and you hear distortions or digital „clicks“ when you are playing an instrument, that means there is too much strain on your processor and you need to increase the buffer size a bit. The goal is to set is as lower as possible without getting any distortions in the sound. You will have to play with it a little before you find the right balance.
  • Step 5: Connect the instrument you want to record to the USB audio interface using a TRS instrument cable (e.g. your electric guitar) or XLR cable (e.g. microphone for vocals).

    CAUTION: lower the output volume on your audio interface all the way down before you plug in the instrument cable into your audio interface. Othervise, it will produce a loud sound that can damage your speakers or headphones, and even damage your hearing if it’s too loud.

    Once you have connected your instrument to your audio interface, turn up the volume knob of the input you are connected to and start playing a part of the song you will record. You will not hear any sound being played at this stage but most USB audio interfaces have a visual indicator (LED light) above or underneath an audio input that flashes green when receiving audio signal and that flashes red when that signal is too strong (too loud) and is being distorted (also called „clipping“). Play the loudest part on your instrument that you play in the song. If you see a flashing red light on your input when playing your instrument, you need to turn down the input volume a bit. Repeat this process until you don’t see any red light flashing on your audio interface when playing the instrument.

Now that your home studio is all set-up and ready, you can start preparing your DAW for the recording phase.

  • Step 1: Set the tempo of your DAW project to the right tempo (BPM) of your song (each DAW is different so you will have to play around a little until you find where that can be changed in your DAW. Read the user manual for the DAW or use the „help“ section of the DAW to help yoursef find it.).
  • Step 2: Create a new, empty track in your DAW for the instrument you want to record. Usually you can right click on the empty space of track list window and select „Add new track“ or something similar. Once again, since these things a bit different from DAW to DAW, you will have to play around with your until you get it right. It is a good idea to read the user manual.
  • Step 3: By default, new tracks are usually set to receive audio from the left(mono) input, so if you have two inputs on your USB audio interface, connect your instrument to the left input or you will not hear sound when you play your instrument. If you have a stereo instrument (e.g. electric keyboards) that needs to be connected both to the left and the right input on your audio interface, you will need to select a stereo input for your new track or create two different tracks, one for the left input and one for the right input.
  • Step 4: Next thing you need to do is to enable the listening or monitoring option for that track in your DAW. Each track has a dedicated icon for the monitoring. That means you have to enable that feature to hear the sound coming in.
  • Step 5: Once you have done all the steps and are ready to record something, you first have to tell the DAW which tracks are being used to record audio. That means you have to „arm“ the track or tracks for recording (usually a red „R“ letter button or something similar on the track itself). Once the track or tracks are armed and ready to receive audio input, you can press „record“ in your DAW and anything you play will be recorded until you press „stop“ or „record“ again.

What comes in also comes out. What that means is that the input quality of your recorded instruments and vocals determines the output quality of your song or composition. To use a metaphore, you can’t bake a good pie with shitty ingredients. Yeah, but what does that actually mean? It means you have to record your vocals, your instruments, and/or any other sounds you have in your song, as best as you possibly can. The musical parts you and/or other musicians are recording have to be well rehearsed, recorded in time (in line with the tempo of the song – that is why you have to use a metronome or a „click“ as it is popularly called) and in tune (all instruments have to be tuned before recording).

Some musicians record the rhythm parts first, and some record the accompaniment parts first. There are no right or wrong decisions here. The only criteria should be recording the song or the composition as best as you can. The first instrument recorded should be the one that helps the next musician to record their parts without mistakes. That means it should help them adhere to the tempo of the song, remember the parts of the song, and help them determine when their part begins. That usually means the first instrument should play throughout the whole song. Of course, if your song doesn’t have an instrument like that, you can record your song one part at a time (e.g. intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). That way whoever is recording knows which part to play and when to start.

Although previously mentioned in the „Step 5“ of the subheading 3.1. of this article, clipping (or a distorted audio signal due to input being to loud) is a potential problem that should not be overlooked. If at any time during recording you notice your input signal „going into red“ on your audio interface, you should stop, adjust the input volume on the interface and then record that take once again. Clipping can cause a lot of headache later on if ignored. It would be painful to spend hours and hours to record a song just to play it back at the end and hear strange audio artifacts and/or distortion in the sound where there shouldn’t be any. It is best to prevent that from happening in the first place. The input signal should be strong enough to be heard but not so strong as to produce clipping.

Once you have recorded all the melodies and harmonies for your song, you need to balance the volume of each track so nothing is too loud or too quiet. After you are satisfied with the initial volume balance, you can leave it as it is or you can send your song to a professional mixing engineer to mix your song.

To export your song, go to your DAW’s file menu and look for the ‘Export’ or ‘Render’ option. Here, you can choose the file format (like WAV or MP3) and other settings. This process converts your multi-track session into a single audio file suitable for distribution or sharing. Remember, the export quality depends on the initial recording quality, so it’s important to get the best takes during recording.


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