How to record music when you can’t make much noise

How to record music when you can’t make much noise

I know; you’ve got young kids at home that need to be in bed early. Or, you’re partner gets up early for work and has to have quiet. And you live in an apartment with neighbors all around you. You might have a hundred other reasons why you can’t record music in your not-so-sound-insulated “home studio.” I’ve been there, and I know how you feel. I know that you’re not just making up excuses to avoid getting started on a recording project. There are real obstacles to getting those recordings made.

So, what are you going to do? Maybe you can’t, or don’t want to, rent another space where you can make some noise. I was faced with this same situation several years ago, but I really wanted to get some sort of project done. If you find yourself there, it’s time to get creative, and maybe time to stretch into a new genre.

Essentially, if you can’t make any noise, then you can pretty much rule out recording anything that needs a microphone. So no acoustic guitar, no harmonica, no piano, and certainly no drums. It means no to a lot of things, including (unfortunately) vocals. Once you rule all of that out, you’re not left with much, are you? Actually, you can still do more than you might think you can.

Computer music setup
You can make all the noise you want inside your computer

Instead of a heavy metal smasher with heartfelt vocals and screaming lyrics, how about an in-your-face heavy metal instrumental? Yeah, heavy metal demands loud, crunchy, distorted guitars, and you can’t exactly play through your ’66 Marshal stack, now can you? No, but you can play through an amp emulator that can sound a hell of a lot like that ’66 Marshall head. (I use the POD from Line 6. If you want to know more about it and read reviews, follow my Amazon affiliate link: Line6 Pod 2.0.)

The POD amplifier emulator by Line 6 gives you big guitar sounds without a live amp.

Ok; so you’ll play through an emulator. It’s still going to make a lot of noise, right? Right, but you can control it. Instead of playing it through a stack of speakers, you can send it directly into your computer through your audio interface, and then you can monitor it through a set of quality headphones. For all of my critical listening, I use a set of Sony headphones which have been discontinued, but are the equivalent of Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone (that’s another Amazon affiliate link). Inside the cans, you’re playing at full volume to a huge arena (actually, please don’t play at full volume–you’re going to need those ears when you’re older, so be smart about the volume you listen to anything at), but outside of the phones, all anyone hears is the unamplified electric guitar you’re pounding on. And you can probably get far enough away from any sleeping roommates to get away with that level of noise.

OK, fine, we’ve solved the guitar portion of the equation. But that’s not all there is to it, right? You have a bunch of other instruments to lay down before you have a recording you’ll want to share with the world. It all works pretty much the same way as the guitar. Certainly you can record bass guitar with the same method as your lead and rhythm guitars. And anything with keys can be recorded either by sending audio directly out of an electronic keyboard into your computer (passing through an amp emulator or not), or by recording MIDI and assigning synth or sampler sounds to the MIDI you record. When you open up that possibility, now you can add piano, synth sounds, orchestral instruments, and just about any other sound you can imagine.

And don’t dismiss MIDI as unnatural-sounding “computer music.” When done right, music recorded and played back through MIDI can sound beautifully organic and natural. Players who really know what they’re doing with it can fool even the most discerning ears into believing they’re listening to a real string section, for example. And software synthesizer (soft synths) are getting better and better all the time.

Finally, while you might not be able to record those live drums, there are several options for creating great, natural-feeling drum tracks. From MIDI, to loops, to drum machines, there are ways to create the drum tracks you want without the cops pounding on your door at 12:37 am.

I imagine you get the point by now. If you can’t make a lot of noise in your space, then do it all inside the electronics of your computer and headphones. And yes, you can mix and master your recordings in headphones too, so you can take your projects from beginning to end without waking the kids. You might have to put aside the project you might otherwise do if noise was not a factor, and get creative about what other kind of music you might be able to record instead. How about an album full of surf instrumentals? Yep. Why not try your hand at a symphony? Sure. Or maybe some sort of experimental ambient electronica. Yes–go for it!

This instrumental called “Scitz” was recorded entirely “in the cans” when everyone else was asleep.

Look at the limitations you might be facing as a chance to change the way you think about the music you create. Put those projects that truly require making noise on the back burner for a while–you’re going to have to do that either way you look at it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something, and who knows? You might just discover a completely different side to yourself as a musician. And that will give you another potentially interesting facet when you finally do get to that project you really want to do.

I’d love to hear any music you’ve made “quietly.” Feel free to point me to anything you’ve created in the comments below.

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