Songwriter’s Toolbox by Justin Morris

Songwriting is heart work. From the Psalms of David to the latest corporate worship album, it’s always the raw honesty in the truth of these recorded moments that keep us coming back. If you are an artist of any kind, you know these moments of honesty are rare, beautiful, and fleeting. But making art is a lot of work. As if ushering these connections between God, ourselves, and listeners isn’t enough, we are expected to be able to consistently reproduce these moments. Thankfully, we can record ourselves. Most writers serious about their craft will want some way to record and produce some simple demo tracks. While modern computing has streamlined the recording process, most songwriters I know are more interested in getting their ideas down in a simple way that doesn’t interrupt the creative process than being a recordist or sound engineer. No matter where you stand on the spectrum though, I think we can all agree that the last thing we want to worry about during the creation process is gear. Recording equipment, setting up an interface, messing with a DAW; the technical elements of home recording, while usually not too difficult these days, are an annoyance that can break the creative and spiritual flow that is so necessary for meaningful music to be born. With that in mind, my goal here is to give songwriters of all levels some equipment and software suggestions that both make sense in the context of a songwriter looking to make good sounding recordings at home that favor realistic quality over luxury (i.e. you won’t find any $5000 microphone suggestions here) and offer a streamlined workflow from idea to song with as little creative interruption as possible.

Before we can begin talking about mics and interfaces, we first need something to record into. Most computers from the past several years are more than capable of recording and editing audio with a Digital Audio Workstation with few issues. If you use a Mac, I highly recommend Apple’s Garageband (free!) or its fully-featured big brother Logic Pro X ($199.99). Logic is great because it is a one-stop production shop with dozens of plug-in EQs, compressors, and virtual instruments. You could make a developed, professional sounding track using nothing but Logic (it has absolutely been done before). Another free cross-platform DAW is Audacity, although you miss out on the excellent stock plug-ins and music-tailored workflow.

Now we are ready to talk hardware. Every singer loves to sing into a big, expensive mic—and for good reason. Microphones are the first step in the audio chain, and probably the most quality dependent piece of studio equipment you can buy. This means that there’s not much you can do to a mic that sounds bad for your voice. Thankfully, bad-sounding mics are hard to come by these days, especially if you’re willing to invest at least a hundred dollars on a tried-and-true design. Past this point it really comes down to taste, as all of our voices are different and respond to mics in complex and hard-to-predict ways, so its always good to try out as many mics as you can. The most expensive one might not be (and probably won’t be!) your favorite. Great sounding music has been recorded with the $99 Shure SM58, which is also the standard live vocal mic, so it’s nice to have around for a backup at the very least. Shure also makes the studio-standard SM7B ($399), renowned for its versatility on sources of all kinds. Like the SM58, the SM7B is a dynamic microphone. Without getting too technical, this means that these mics are not very sensitive to background noise, are often less detailed than their condenser counterparts, and take a little “push” to get sounding great. This tradeoff is many times worth it if you’re recording in an untreated room (acoustic treatment is a subject unto itself and I don’t have room to cover it here, but you should Google it!) as lots of ugly reflections and resonances get rejected, leaving a more “pure” source sound.

That being said, condenser mics are the “studio sound” standard. I would recommend spending a little more on one, as cheap Chinese-made condensers can have an unpleasant “nasal” or honky sound that doesn’t flatter many voices. Of course, if your goal is to get a workable sound into your DAW as efficiently as possible, a dynamic mic is probably your best bet. Otherwise, prepare to meet a more detailed and honest translation of your source with something like the Avantone CV-12 ($499) or the Neumann TLM-102 ($699). Again, try to test mics like these out on your voice if you can before you buy them. Some people really enjoy the tube flavor of the Avantone, or the so-called Neumann warmth. Others prefer cheaper options; some don’t seem to care or notice a difference. There is no right answer here, and choosing a mic for your voice and intentions is a seriously personal decision. 

Next, we will need a way to hook our mic into our computer. This is accomplished through an audio interface. I’m going to assume that most readers are familiar with the basics of an interface. They are used all the time on the worship team, sending tracks and click, getting sound out of MainStage, and plenty of other uses. When recording at home, however, your interface has two specific important jobs: bring up the gain of your microphone (the signal from a mic is very quiet on its own) and translate that signal into the digital realm. This last step is known as analog/digital conversion. The A/D conversion of almost all modern interfaces is excellent and not something that’s likely to make a big impact in a small home studio environment. Preamps are by-and-large the same story; all but the lowest end interfaces will amplify your condenser (and most dynamic) microphones just fine. The cheapest reliable interface I’ve tested out is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($169.99), with two inputs for maximum versatility or growth down the line. Two inputs allows you to record guitar and vocals simultaneously, or plug in stereo sources like synthesizers. Aside from more inputs and outputs, which aren’t necessary without equipment to fill them up with, more expensive interfaces will give you extras like the 4K analog circuits in the SSL2 ($229.99) or the (really good) built in plug-ins that run natively on the UAD Apollo Twin Duo ($899).

The final piece of the recording puzzle is finding a way to listen to the sounds you’re recording. This is typically done with studio monitor speakers that plug into the outputs of your interface. The goal of these speakers is to sound as neutral as possible so you can get an accurate sonic image of what you’ve recorded. You’ll find that home studio monitors are branded and priced according to the size of their drivers. I would recommend something around 5”, as this size seems to be the sweet spot for reproducing bass frequencies while maintaining a reasonable size and staying away from the “tubby” sound of bigger speakers in small, untreated rooms. The JBL 305P MkII ($298/pair) are a mid-tier favorite of mine that offer a good balance of size, sound, and price. However, if you don’t have a permanent recording area or are working in a very small space, studio monitors might not be possible. In this case, you can resort to monitoring on headphones, which you will need anyway to hear yourself and your track or click while recording. A good set of closed-back headphones can be used to track and do some basic mixing. Headphones come in two main varieties: open and closed back. Open is good for mixing, as it keeps certain frequencies from “building up” in the cups and lets sound come through in a natural and relatively flat way. The downside is that they have a tendency to bleed audio, which will most likely be picked up by your mic if you try to record with them. Closed-back headphones are more versatile because they provide a good degree of isolation, even if they can sound a bit more, well, closed, when listening critically. Like studio monitors, you want your headphones to produce an accurate and unhyped version of your recording. Some of my favorites for this purpose are the Audio Technica ATH-M40X ($99) and the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro ($159). 

These are all the basics you’ll need to get a song from paper to speakers. There are many more steps to a complete demo; instrumentation and arranging to name a few, but once you are set up with a simple workable recording situation it becomes much easier to explore these finer points. In fact, you’ll probably notice yourself writing with these elements in mind if you begin laying your song ideas out in a DAW from the onset. If you are a songwriter who hasn’t explored home recording seriously, I encourage you to experiment with a simple setup and see how it influences your creative moments. You may find something beautiful. 

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