Making Music on Youtube

This is a process post about recording audio and video for Youtube. Specifically, what it takes to produce a high-quality recording of a song, given the current Youtube landscape. It covers all aspects in detail: writing, audio and video gear, editing, and the release process.

I’ve been recording music on Youtube for almost eight years now. I’ve got around 19K subscribers and 4.5M views. Over time, production technology has changed substantially, and what it takes to get noticed, has shifted right along with it.

For many, what started as simply hitting record on a DVcam, has become a production arms race, where some Youtubers are indistinguishable from celebrity musicians.

It’s an ever-changing landscape for an artist to stay relevant.

This post will focus somewhere in the middle of the production-quality scale. A one-man operation setup: how to record high quality audio and video for a song, as a solo operator. If you’re interested in recording, whether for Youtube or not, this video should provide a great overview of basic techniques.

At the bottom of the post, I’ve linked to all the gear mentioned in this article. My current rig in a bulleted list.

The Landscape

First, let me identify a few categories of Youtube music recordings. There is 1) the webcam style, where a single mic and camera picks up everything live, 2) the basic two-piece recording setup, where audio and video are recorded separately, and 3) the full pro, astroturfed setup in a professional studio.

While you can fall anywhere in this range, the crucial decision to make is whether the music will be recorded live, or not. Some artists record audio and sync video after, while some record clean single takes simultaneously. I’ve experimented with both and we’ll get into details later of how this plays out in the process.

Writing the Cover

Before I get into the equipment used, I want to talk a little about cover-choice and writing. Recording covers serves a very specific purpose: it allows your audience to hear a new voice on a familiar song.

It’s a great way to introduce yourself to potential new fans because everyone loves hearing their favorite songs in new ways. It also requires far less upfront input on the part of the artist, if you don’t have time to write new tunes. It’s a practical choice.

Most cover artists on Youtube scour the top 100 charts and basically tick off each song, riding the wave of popularity of these hit songs at the right time. This is a great strategy for popularity. To a fault, I typically just pick songs that I love.

It certainly affects traffic: for example, my cover of Chvches has 12K views — vs my cover of the far more popular The Scientist by Coldplay has 185K views. Song choice is important. I try not to be influenced too much by what’s trending, but when you’re building an audience, it certainly is something that’s worth considering.

Recently, I chose to cover Never Gonna Give You Up. In this case, I did one of my favorite things, which is taking a fast, popular song, and turned it into a slow ballad. I learn by ear but will often supplement my learning with Ultimate Guitar.

I relied heavily on Maj7 chords to give the cover its distinct mood. These jazz voices, mixed with the slower tempo, turn the pop hit into a different animal. A similar tactic could be applied to Sia’s hit “Chandelier”. Maj and Min7 chords are a great way to mess around with standard voicings.

Audio Signal Chain

We’ll start with the audio signal chain, and getting your instrument and voice onto the computer. I primarily record acoustic guitar, piano and vocals. For vocals the setup is always the same: single microphone with pop filters. I use a Blue Dragonfly. This is a mid-level microphone and great for vocals.

My voice is pretty boomy and I’ve noticed that the Dragonfly does a good job accentuating the high-end of my vocal. There are countless options here — I’ve experimented with a few different mics and have found the Blue to be good enough to stop trying other options.

For my guitar, I often will mic it with the same Blue! I wouldn’t recommend this as there are plenty of better ways to record acoustic guitar. Occasionally I will mic it with two shotgun mics in different positions, or even use the line-out. I’ve never been super pleased with my acoustic recordings and would consider this a weak spot of my knowledge.

I felt like I got a great sound in my “In Your Atmosphere” cover and I usually try to replicate that setup, for better or worse. My favorite guitar is a Martin 000X1AE. It’s small with a big sound. Similar to the JM special edition without the price tag.

Piano is very simple: lineout. I have a Motif ES6 which I’ve used forever. I am pleased with the on board piano sounds this thing has, but it’s not weighted! I am not really a piano player so it doesn’t matter too much.

All of these instruments eventually make their way into Mogami cables, either 1/4 inch or XLR in the case of the Dragonfly. The Mogami cables are super high end and a good way to ensure that you aren’t getting any unwanted noise on this part of the flow.

To get this analog signal into the digital world, the signal passes through an audio interface. This is an extremely important part of the process. I am not going to get into the details of what these devices do or discuss options. I have a Fireface USB and I love it. It has a low noise floor with a clean signal (which basically means no audio hiss) and the preamps are terrific. For more detail on this, search Google, peruse GearSlutz, and experiment!

Once the Fireface is getting a signal I cue it up as my input source in Logic Pro. I’ve used Logic my whole life and it is perfect for my needs. I rarely have more than 3-4 tracks and don’t really need to ever do anything too complex. Logic is what they call a DAW (digital audio workstation). It is basically where the audio gets recorded and edited.

Other options would include ProTools, Garageband and Audible. I’ll come back around to plugins and effects processing later.

Video Signal Chain

For Youtube, the visuals are half the battle! This is where the cover-artist arms race has really heated up. For me, I use a single camera to record the performance. I like to have a few angles to work with, and will typically record the performance 3-4 times from different locations.

For lenses, I typically will use either a 35mm 1.4 prime or a 24-70mm zoom. It depends where I’m recording but if I have full control over the space, I try to use primes to get a really nice sharp look.

Most of my videos were recorded with a 5D. Anything after April 2014 was recorded with a C100 with auto focus (makes solo recording a lot easier!) The 5DMKII, worked great, just without some of the really helpful pro features like waveform monitoring, Canon-Log, and a slightly better codec.

These days, I record the video after the audio. Sometimes I will do both at once, but more likely I will lipsync in the video. Doing both at the same time is a lot of work for nothing — the audience doesn’t know the difference, and it can take forever to get a solid performance all in one take.

The most important thing is that your camera has the ability to record a scratch audio track: basically a low-quality recording that will be used to sync with the previously recorded pro audio.

Regarding lip-syncing, I used to draw a line in the sand here and always record live, one take, on-camera. This can take a lot of time and eventually, in an effort to keep up but primarily save time, I started recording the audio and video separate. Overall I think this is a fair compromise, but I do miss the rawness of the early recordings.

Editing Audio

Editing starts with processing the audio. I don’t have too many tracks to worry about; regardless getting a solid vocal and instrument sound is tough. I usually begin by processing the vocal. To do so, I will solo it in Logic and loop a exemplary portion. More detail show in the video above but here is a partial list of the plugins I use:

  • Waves SSL Comp and EQ
  • Altiverb
  • T-Racks
  • Standard Logic EQ
  • Waves Limiter

For instruments, I’ve never really been happy with the sounds I’ve gotten out of my recordings. I generally will experiment with a new setup for each song. I don’t sound treat my recording space and I think a lot of my dissatisfaction has to do with the muddy ambient environment I’m recording in, especially on acoustic guitars.

For electric work, I’ve gotten the best sound by micing my Twin Reverb. Unfortunately I’m lazy and usually end up just going direct-in to Logic and tweaking with the Amplifier plugin until I’m happy. As a guitar player, this is blasphemy! But again, for me it’s all about speed—lugging the amp into position and getting the tone adds too much time.

If you compare my recordings to others, you may find them to be more heavily processed. This isn’t intentional; the heavy-handedness is a result of my spotty knowledge of how best to combine the effects. See video at top for details.

Editing Video

On the video side, I will bring in all the different angles I shot into Adobe Premiere. Usually I have 3-4, and probably have 2x takes in each location. Multicam is the feature that really makes this easy. It brings in all of the shots I’m working with and allows me to switch between angles on the fly, essentially editing the piece live like a sports director might do on TV.

Once I’m happy with the cut, I’ll color correct my images since I shoot in LOG mode on my C100. I mostly use Premier’s Fast Color Corrector to deepen the shadows and brighten the image.

I use the waveform to ensure I’m not clipping and am getting the most vibrant image. I’ll usually up the saturation a little too. In the past, I might mess around with Red Giant effects like Mojo, FilmConvert, or Magic Bullet, but these days I prefer an un-altered look.

The final step is syncing the final audio with the video cut. This is easy to do by lining up the waveforms (there are other ways, but this is fast with one track). I walk through Premiere in more detail, in the video at the top of this post.

Release

Once I have the video edited, I upload it to my Youtube where it gets sent to my subscribers. From there, I’m finished! Honestly I don’t have much of a release strategy for my music. I could see advertising or promotion helping, but unfortunately I don’t have time — I rely on word of mouth when it comes to Youtube.

My primary outlet is Youtube but in recent weeks, Spotify has become an incredible driver of traffic. I’m on a couple official Spotify playlists and it’s been amazing to see the reach and exposure this gives me.

I’m intrigued by Periscope as well; I’m finding that I almost get more engagement there than I do on Youtube.

For Spotify, I work with Tunecore to get my recordings onto the service. It’s worked really well for me so far. I also work with a local music lawyer here in San Francisco to ensure that I am legally able to have a cover up online.

That’s pretty much it! It’s a complex process but really boils down to simple recording techniques. If you have any questions, let me know. 

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Gear List

This is a list of all the gear I mentioned in this article. It’s my current setup, as of April 2015. None of this is required — you can easily get similar quality with a different setup, this is just my current rig.