The internet is filled with tips on nearly every aspect of music production. Some info is spot on, some, not so much. Still, with the wealth of information on recording available out there, I'm always surprised that certain basic, easily avoidable mistakes continue to be made. On this blog, I hope to offer some practical and, for the most part, inexpensive steps you can take to vastly improve your recordings. My approach will be less gear-lust centric than most, and my hope is that readers will find that both refreshing and helpful.
So, without further ado, let me start with:
SIX SIMPLE STEPS TO MAKING A FAR BETTER RECORDING
1) Learn about and use proper gain staging. Educating yourself about proper gain staging might sound like an overwhelming task, so to put it as simply as possible:
Leave headroom at every stage of the recording process.
What does that mean in layman's terms? It means don't overload the capsule of the mic, don't overload the preamp input, and don't overload the analog-to-digital converter/audio interface. When gauging how hot your level is going into Pro Tools, or the DAW of your choice, make sure you do so without any inserts instantiated and with pre-fader metering engaged. Check your levels by singing or playing the loudest, most aggressive part of the song at the actual volume it will be performed and make sure that while you are doing so, the signal never, ever exceeds -3db on your DAW-of-choice's meters, not even momentarily. In fact, you are generally better off leaving even more headroom -- aiming for around the -12db ballpark would be ideal and pretty much insure you won't spike past -3db at any point. This is one step I can't emphasize enough: always leave headroom.
2) Be aware and mindful of the potentially negative effects of proximity effect in terms of adding overbearing low end to signals that do not benefit from it. For example, a male voice recorded at too close a proximity adds a disproportionate amount of bass that leaves the performance sounding as if it were caked in sonic mud.
How should you record vocals? If you are using a condenser mic that is fairly directional, have the singer leave some distance (10 to 12 inches from the capsule), but make sure the singer is aiming his or her mouth directly at the capsule and on axis. This is all assuming that you are not recording in an overly reflective space and/or you are using a product like the SE Reflexion Filter, which can help curb the effects of recording in a somewhat reflective space (more on that later).
Another example of proximity effect is one that I commonly encounter when mixing: acoustic guitars. It’s not uncommon for self-taught engineers just starting out to mic an acoustic guitar at close proximity, pointing a directional mic directly at the soundhole. This generally results in a very low-end heavy, woof-y sound that is not easily corrected by subtractive eq, due to the disproportionate nature of the weight being added to the low end.
If pointing the mic directly at the soundhole of an acoustic guitar is a bad idea, what is a good starting point when recording acoustic guitar? Try aiming the mic directly at the 9th to 12th fret of the fretboard from about 10 to 12 inches away to start, and move the mic accordingly from there (still pointing the capsule at the fretboard, but moving the mic slightly towards or away from the soundhole).
Even on instruments that can benefit, however slightly, from proximity effect, be careful not to go overboard. For example, if you are recording electric guitars with a typical SM57/MD421 combo at close proximity, be sure to experiment with the roll-off settings of the 421 to insure that you don't get an inordinate buildup of low-end energy on the guitar.
3) If you are using more than one mic on a source, phase coherence is absolutely crucial. On drums in particular, proper gain staging, making sure every mic is as phase coherent as possible, tracking in a room that is at least somewhat acoustically appropriate for the task at hand, and taking the time to properly tune the instrument(s) will make a much more significant difference than gear alone.
4) As mentioned earlier, when recording vocals, it's best to try to get a decent distance from any hard, reflective surfaces, and to use products like reflection filters and moving blankets to tame unwanted reflections, which will be amplified in the mixing process by compression. If you get a reflection filter, I'd recommend something like the ones made by SE Electronics over most, as a lot of them simply use material that just absorbs the higher frequencies and dulls the sound of the voice. The SE reflection filter works by a combination of both absorption and defusion/dissipation of sound.
5) Do not over-process anything you are recording. Remember: you can't unscramble an egg. Compression, EQ, reverb, etc., cannot be removed if they are committed to at the tracking stage. The best possible approach, IMHO, is to track with the goal of simply capturing the instrument as accurately as possible as you hear it in the room. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, attempt to capture the instruments you are recording as you think they should sound in the final mix. While you do want to avoid warping the sonic image of the sound being captured at the tracking stage by being careful to avoid proximity effect, etc., absent the all important element of context, there is an equal danger in attempting to "thin" out a signal too much at the recording stage or to squeeze the punch out of a snare drum by over compressing it going in.
6) In my experience being on both sides of the glass (I'm also a singer), giving vocalists the ability to monitor their own performance with compression and, depending on how their voice naturally records, EQ in their headphones (without recording said processing) can make a huuuuuuge difference in their consistency and overall performance.
The above is an often undervalued factor, but it makes sense: a singer's ability to sing on key is determined, in large part, by the ability to be very consistent in use of breath support, regardless of the pitch or volume he or she is trying to achieve. When singers can't hear themselves properly and start to strain, the air pressure they are applying to their vocal cords is greater than expected and they, very typically, go sharp. Once they go sharp, they are likely to get overly self-conscious and things start to snowball negatively after that.
Applying subtractive eq to the low-mids for singers with a "tubbier" natural tone can help as well, but for a different reason. Without the corrective eq, you might find the singer manipulating his or her own voice in a negative way as a sort of makeshift eq—an attempt to thin the gap between what the singer is hearing in the 'phones and the way the singer wants to be heard in the final mix. Taking the time to get your vocalist set up with the right compression and eq settings for monitoring his or her voice in the headphones will allow them to sing in a very natural, comfortable way, which, in turn, allows them to focus on the most important element of their performance: the emotional connection they feel to the material. The time and effort you put into insuring the singer has a great headphone mix will pay off tenfold; trust me on this one.
While PT HD systems make low latency monitoring with compression and eq very easy, even with high track counts, there are many ways to make this possible with any DAW with the help of various interfaces by Presonus, MOTU, and Focusrite that have DSP-assisted cue mixers built in. These DSP-assisted cue mixers allow you to use the DSP power built into the interface to avoid both the CPU spikes that can result from large sessions being recorded at low latency settings and the latency incurred at the lowest settings on your DAW.
There are certainly more than six steps one can take to improve the outcome of their recording sessions, but I figured I'd start off with those listed above. Hope you find the information useful and be sure and check back for more tips!
Phil Dubnick | Mix Reel | Private Voice, Guitar, Songwriting and Music Theory Lessons
is a mix engineer, producer, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, music educator and lover of mexican food.