Book Review: Guerilla Home Recording – How to Get Great Sound From Any Studio

Introduction

I’ve been involved off and on with attempting to make music at home for close to 30 years now. I’ve also spent time (and a lot of money) in professional studios. I can get by with most things but I’m looking for something to improve the quality of my results. I asked for suggestions on a couple of forums, and one of the common answers was Karl Coryat’s book “Guerilla Home Recording: How To Get Great Sound From Any Studio (No Matter How Cheap Or Weird Your Gear Is)”.

There was something particularly appealing to me about this book’s premise. I’ve got a load of gear. Some odd and some not. But most of my gear would be the stuff a professional studio or an aspiring engineer/producer would turn up their nose at.

I still felt that I hadn’t got anywhere near exploiting the capabilities of what I had. I needed something that was going to help me learn how to use what I’ve got, rather than telling me why I needed to spend four figure sums on a new microphone or suite of professional mastering plugins.

The topics covered

  • Chapter 1: Introduces the book and the principes behind the whole “Guerilla Home Recording” thing.
  • Chapter 2: Some sound basics: dynamic range, frequency spectrum and EQ, signal:noise ratios.
  • Chapter 3: The signal chain: A run through the whole signal chain from top to bottom, including gain staging, microphone choices, DI, mixer inserts, pre and post sends, busses.
  • Chapter 4: Controlling dynamics: Expanders, compressors, noise gates, de-essing, plosives.
  • Chapter 5: The principles of separation and how to make sure each of your tracks gets the “space” it deserves.
  • Chapter 6: Effects: Background info and a host of tips about how to effectively enhance your recordings.
  • Chapter 7: How to record almost anything.
  • Chapter 8: Humanising drums and MIDI: How to make sure your carefully crafted loops and MIDI parts don’t sound like a machine.
  • Chapter 9: Miscellaneous techniques: From punch in/out, automation, digital editing, pitch correction, reamping.
  • Chapter 10: Mixing and mastering.
  • Appendix A: Analog recording.
  • Appendix B: The “Immersion Music Method”. A way of kick-starting creativity and hammering out a large number of songs in a short period of time, without getting hung-up on trying to perfect the small details.
  • Appendix C: Re-production. A suggestion that, to improve your abilities as a home producer, you undertake an exercise to completely replicate one of your favourite tracks.
  • Appendix D: Using your studio as part of a multimedia project.

What I liked

Right from the start there is a bit of a kick in the teeth for somebody like me – someone with years of experience and a smattering of exposure to pro studios. Quite simply I was told to “get over myself”. I’ve seen and heard what proper studios are like and I’m the classic wannabe. I’m trying to apply professional techniques to a cheap home studio and guess what? It sounds like a cheap home studio. To make a professional sounding recording with less than ideal tools needs a different approach. I’m going to have to forget some stuff.

Once I got over this initial scepticism, I began to get the point. There is a Machiavellian “The ends justifies the means” logic going on here. Concentrate on what the end result sounds like. If you used a technique that a pro would frown at to get the result that you like, it doesn’t matter.

Then suddenly I’m into the meat of the book and delving into areas with which I was familiar but not competent. The two of these which I now see had the biggest detrimental impact on my recording quality, was a lack of understanding about the importance of gain staging at every step in the signal chain, and of the techniques to maximise dynamic range whilst still keeping a low signal to noise ratio. I’ve still got a lot to learn and, more importantly master, but this is area where I’ll be focusing my attention for my next couple of projects. This is also one area where, despite the book’s title, I think I may be needing to acquire an additional piece of gear. I’d not really thought about how a carefully used outboard expander/compressor could improve the quality of a recorded track.

While I’m still trying to get to grips with the nuggets in chapters 3 and 4, I’m suddenly plunged into chapters 5, 6 and 7, where the tips just come thick and fast to the point where it is almost overwhelming. I’ll just give you one example;

I come from a background of using effects in a guitar signal chain and had got into the mindset of using effects in a DAW in the same way; plug it in, tweak the settings, job done. I’ve long found that while a chorus can sound great on a bass part, it has a tendency to make the bottom end mushy and indistinct. Karl’s suggestion was to replicate/route the bass onto another track, use a high-pass filter to cut out the bottom end, apply 100% wet chorus to this and then blend it back in with the original bass track. My mind was officially and totally blown! Wait, I can use this approach to create a separate reverb or echo part and pan it exactly where I want. I could do the same thing with phase and flange. What would a uni-vibe sound like just applied to the low-mids of a vocal? I’ve no idea but I’m damn sure I’m going to give it a go to see.

What I didn’t like

To be frank, very little. The author’s preference is to use a fair amount of outboard gear and a real mixing desk, and this colours the book. My personal preference is to get everything into the DAW and then keep it wholly digital until the final mix and master. I’m not excluded but it stopped me feeling like the book was aimed exactly at me.

I didn’t find the sections on recording and humanising drum and MIDI parts to be particularly useful or tell me anything I didn’t already know, and the section on the “Immersion Music Method” in Appendix B didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book, but it was an interesting concept and exercise nonetheless.

Conclusion

When I first bought the book I had visions of reading through and then passing it on to a couple of friends. Having finished the book, that is not going to happen. This is a book that I’m going to keep by my side for a few years to come. I’m afraid my friends are going to have to get their own copy. There are a couple of sections I’m going to want to have on hand as a reference (particularly the stuff about gain staging, dynamic range, and the mix-down check-list). There are other parts (especially chapters 6 and 7) where the suggestions come so thick and fast, I’m going to be going back for inspiration and help for a long time to come.

If you’ve got some recording gear and are more interested in trying to make the best use of what you’ve got, instead of looking for a new “silver bullet” piece of gear then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And let me put this in context; the book cost about the same as two guitar mags. It is going to provide me with months (perhaps years) worth of inspiration, and it isn’t stuffed with adverts. Now that’s what I call value for money.

If you want a sneak preview of the book, the author Karl Coryat, has published the section on Compression at ProSoundWeb.

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