Updated: Aug 9, 2018
Everybody who records wants to sound "good" right? So how do you get there? Ten thousand dollar vintage German microphones? Wouldn't hurt, no doubt, but I thought I'd speak to some simple, easy, and affordable ways to get your best foot forward when you go to record your new song.
There's three crucial elements we should consider to improve the sound of a recording.
The mic, the positioning/level setting, and the room. Other things like the convertor, plug-ins, instrument choices, and monitors matter as well, but these first three will make the biggest difference in your sound as it's being recorded and are the easiest to improve for a relatively small amount of cash.
Let's start with the mic. The lens on the camera. Nothing could be more important and make a bigger difference than this. Get the nicest mic you can afford. Start with a large diaphragm condenser mic. You'll use it the most of any mics you have. From $100 to $500 there are hundreds of good LDC mics out there that will do a fine job of capturing your masterpiece. Take good care of it---don't blow on it, you'll force damaging dust and moisture onto the sensitive capsule. Don't drop it. Duh.
Years ago this category of mic was out of reach for most home studios. In the 1990's Audio Technica and Rode started making LDC mics under $1000. Revolutionary! Suddenly big studio sound was available to mere mortals like you and me. When the capsule technology came to China, the race was on and suddenly there was an explosion of LDC mics on the market as low as the unheard of price of $100. The AT2020 is a good example of a $100 dollar mic that actually sounds good.
Here's my good-better-best list of really great affordable LDC mics:
AT 2020 $100 and has a big full sound.
Sennheiser Mk 4 for $300 made in Germany. Detailed, lively, very well made.
ADK Zeus $500 multi-pattern tube mic with many possible sound settings. Yummy.
Next we need to optimize the level settings and position of the mic. Next to the mic itself, this is the most important thing. Back in the days of tape, we were taught to hit the tape as hard as possible. This technique helped to cover up the inherent noise. With modern digital recording this is a bad idea. Nor should we set levels wimpy however---shoot for 75 to 85 percent on your meter so you have good solid signal, but never going over into distortion.
Giving yourself some breathing room (often called "headroom") will keep your recordings from sounding gritty and pale once you get to the mixing stage, especially if there are many elements to your song. Complexity needs room to breathe.
Point the mic at the sound---yes, but you also need to experiment a little. Small changes in mic position can make huge differences in the sound, especially on guitar cabs, drums, and acoustic guitars. Put on your best headphones, move the mic around and see what sounds best.
Try different locations in the room. This simple move can change everything.
Which brings us to the last and not least element to our equation--the room. Microphones will always always pick up the sound of the room. This concept surprises people often, since we don't think about the room even having a sound. Our brains are real good at tuning this information out. Not necessary for survival. But mics have no brain and will dutifully report whatever sound waves bump into their innocent capsules. How those waves bounce around has a profound effect on the quality.
Go to your room and clap your hands loudly. Is there an echo? You're gonna want to find DIY articles on room treatment---there's loads of those out there---and get some absorption up to knock down those offending bouncy sounds lest they muddy up the works.
If the room has a natural open even tempered sound, your mic will sound ten times better, and consequently so will you! I recommend the London Kit by Primacoustic for a fast easy way to tame the sound in the room. Mind you this is NOT sound PROOFING---that's a whole other beast and can be very expensive. Treatment makes the sound in the room even and pleasing. Proofing means your Marshall stack and lead footed drummer don't get the cops over with their ticket books out.
So to re-cap: The Mic, Settings, The Room. Pay attention to those three things and you'll sound GOOD!