Many of us get into music recording through first being performing musicians with a desire to record our own material. This is perfectly understandable, and if you are really keen on the idea, the technical issues involved present no great obstacle. However, I still hear a lot of far-from-optimal home-recorded material, which sounds less professional than perhaps it could. There are two recurring problems: either the sounds aren't right at source, or the performance isn't up to scratch, and neither issue can be solved by throwing money at better equipment (though you'd be surprised how many people try). Even the most basic of modern recording equipment is capable of producing excellent results if used properly, and unless you've made unwise purchases, chances are that it's not your gear that's letting you down. In many cases, it's not even room acoustics that are compromising home recordings these days. Most keen amateurs know the significance of a well-hung duvet for sound-absorption purposes, and the amount of affordable acoustic treatment solutions in music retailers has increased to the extent that entire rooms full of foam are just a mouse-click away.
The heart of the matter is that well-performed music depends, amongst other things, on accurate tuning and timing of both instruments and voices, and that's often a weakness with home-grown recordings. Part of the problem is that some people seem to want to make music without ever going out and gigging. Yet it is only by playing with others that musicians develop the skill to perform effectively, with feel. Hitting a quantise button to solve timing issues does not serve as an alternative to this feel, so it's far better to play the part correctly in the first place. The same is true of tuning and vocal pitching; getting it right always sounds better than fixing it later, no matter how clever the equipment. Playing along to click tracks can also be a hindrance, as a track's tempo needs to be allowed to breathe slightly. Some songs should speed up slightly in the chorus, and those pauses at the end of the bridge should occasionally be a hint longer than theory suggests.
Even those who can play well often fall foul of using entirely inappropriate sounds when recording. Sounds that work well in a live environment may not be suitable in the studio, so if you're not absolutely sure you have the right sound, it pays to record a clean DI at the same time, so you can re-amp or pass it through an amp-modelling plug-in later. Experimentation with miking can make or break a sound, and no matter how good today's software emulations are, nothing beats the real thing. There's also the familiar trap of adding too much to a recording simply because you can. Remember that the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves, but the ability to judge this comes down to arrangement skills, which are something else that have to be honed.
What I'm getting at is that, while we should endeavour to make recordings that are technically excellent, and choose the best recording equipment, we should never forget that music and performance are the key to making a great-sounding record.
Paul White Editor In Chief