Don't Fall Into That Pit!!
First published in L’Amour Report of February 2003
Back in the day, almost all recordings intended for commercial release were made in professional studios, by professional engineers with years of training and experience. There were various reasons for this. For one thing, professional quality recording equipment was very expensive, bulky, and needed regular maintenance by technicians. For quite a while, the entire recording process, including mixing, was done during the original performance. This meant that all of the decisions about the recording process had to be made before the first note was played. These factors placed the ability to make good recordings beyond the reach, not to mention the skill, of most musicians.
Even after multitrack recording came around, there were still a lot of things that had to be “set in stone” during each recording pass. Quite often submixes had to be done to “open up” more tracks for recording, which meant that a lot of the work of mixing had to be done without being able to hear all of the parts together. Of course, as more tracks became available, going from 2 to 3, 4, 8, 16, 24 tracks and beyond, we moved toward the point where mixing could finally ALL be done after the performers went home. In fact, many of the advancements in recording technology gave us more of one thing: the ability to put off decisions.
Another change that came around was that equipment capable of making good recordings was getting less expensive, so that more people could afford to buy it. Professional quality equipment is now within the reach of a great many musicians, which creates new opportunities... and some new problems. A lot more recordings are now being made by people with little or no real training or experience. Wait a minute.... that describes a lot of us who have home studios, doesn't it?
Some of us have learned the hard way that the better and more powerful tools a man has, the more trouble he can get himself into. If you ride a bicycle into a tree, there is a good chance that you will live to regret it. Driving a truck into a tree is much more likely to be fatal. Similarly, if you have more and fancier recording equipment there are more ways that you can ruin your music. No, I am not going to tell you to throw away all those wonderful toys that you sweated so hard to get. What I will try to do is give you some hints about how to avoid some of the more common “pitfalls” of do-it-yourself recording.
Most of us want to end up with finished recordings that can compete with what the major labels do. In many cases, this means that at some point we will take our work to the professionals. Most home studios are used to get as much of the simpler and more time-consuming work done as possible, to keep more of the budget available for the later parts that we want to hire someone for. The trick here is to make sure that, when we take our work to the serious engineers, we haven't made their jobs too difficult, or worse, impossible.
Some years ago a client came to one of the top engineers in the business with some mixes. The engineer was not especially impressed with the sound of the mixes, so he suggested that the client bring in the original tracks for him to mix. When the tracks arrived and he put them up, what he heard was so awful that he was amazed that anyone could get mixes as good as the earlier mixes were. The point here is that even the best professionals can only do so much to save “bad” work.
Rule One: Don't assume that everything can be “fixed in the mix”.
The time to be the most careful is at the beginning. Don't expect a good mix from badly recorded tracks. Don't expect to record good tracks with really bad or messed-up equipment. The tools you use don't have to be the most expensive in the world, but they do need to work well. Even the best equipment will not get the best sound out of mistuned or otherwise messed-up instruments. Even the best instruments can't sound their best in the hands of unskilled players. Everything doesn't have to be perfect, but if something definitely sounds bad to you, don't just let it slide by.
Rule Two: Learn to listen.
The most important tool you have, no matter what kind of music you do, no matter what kind of equipment or instruments you use, is a pair of ears. If you cannot tell the difference between good and bad sounds, you have almost no chance of making a good recording. Any problem you cannot hear is a problem you cannot solve.
Even if you feel confident about your ears, don't be too proud or afraid to borrow someone else's. I learned that one the hard way. I once spent most of the night in the studio singing harmony vocals, and did not have good listening ears on the other side of the glass. When I listened to the rough mix the next day, I felt like throwing up on my shoes. After that I tried to have someone else with good ears along whenever I did vocals.
Rule Three: Don't do too much at once.
The more things you do at the same time, the greater the chance that you will mess up at least one of them. If you have lots of neat toys, it is easy to be tempted to use them all at once when you are first tracking. Most effects, once applied, are difficult, if not impossible, to undo. If you wet something down with lots of reverb and record it that way, you really can't “dry it out” later. Compression is very difficult to undo, and hard limiting is pretty much impossible to reverse. You should take the same cautious attitude about EQ. Do not record a sound with any effect that you are not SURE that you want in the final mix.
Before anyone gets upset with me, I must tell you that I am well aware that quite a few of the top professionals make extensive use of EQ, compression, and other effects on what they are recording. I do not think that they are all idiots. My cautions are more in the spirit of “These are professionals; do not try this at home”. More than once the question “How did you learn to record/mix/produce like that?” has been answered with “By screwing up other people's records!” Those of us who have a lot less experience, and are anxious NOT to screw up our OWN records, are wise to be careful, maybe even a bit timid.
Another aspect of not doing too much is to be careful with the processes that we DO apply when tracking. For example, if a part sounds too “boomy”, you might want to take out just a little bottom end at first rather than trying to fix it all at once. You can always do more of it at mix time. This idea also applies to compression. Perhaps you are sure that you will want the vocal compressed in the mix. Again, instead of doing it all “at the start”, you might want to apply just a little bit while tracking, leaving the rest for the mix. In fact, using more than one stage of compression, each stage with different settings, is not all that unusual in the production process, but this is not usually all done at tracking time.
Sometimes there will be an effect that you think you will use in the final mix, and you want to have the singer or player “perform to it”. This is most often true of echo or reverb. In a case like this, it is often wise to put the effect only in the monitor mix (recording the performance “dry”), thus letting the performer react to it while leaving your options open for mix time. A slightly more exotic example of this is having a guitar player play through his amplifier, but actually recording the direct, unamplified sound of the guitar. You can later experiment with the amp sound all you like after the musician has gone home, simply by playing the direct guitar track back through the amp (there are, in fact, special adapter boxes, such as Reamp, that are made for this use). There are all sorts of sound “tricks” that can be done this way without taking the chance of messing up the sound of that one perfect take.
Rule Four: Some things are better left for the next guy.
This is especially true if you expect to have your finished mixes (made by you or in a professional studio) professionally mastered. Mastering houses specialize in putting the last “finishing touches” on a recording. This can include the very popular bit of “making loud things louder”. You may think that the louder the mix is that you bring to the mastering house, the louder they can make it; This idea is completely WRONG!!
First of all, you can only turn the level up so far. If the level is set too high, you can get overloaded peaks in the recording, and this is damage that you cannot undo. There are sometimes fixes that can be attempted, but the result is never the same as if it hadn't been messed up in the first place.
A lot of people think that they should compress and limit their finished mix to make it louder. You may want to do some of this with a demo that you know is NOT going to a proper mastering lab. For your “final product”, though, it does not make sense to apply processing yourself that the mastering studio can do better. Generally, the less “squashed” a mix is when the mastering engineer gets it, the better he can do his job.
Any one of these ideas I have discussed could make a whole article by itself, and in some cases this has been done. With any luck, though, one or more of these ideas will help you avoid mistakes that could cost you a lot of time or money (likely both) later.