General Recording Tips – Part 1

A collection of random recording tips to make your songs sound better.

You must remember that in recording, the sound quality is only going to be as good as the weakest link in your recording chain.

To improve your sound quality, start at the source. If the source itself doesn’t sound good, then no amount of expensive equipment is going to do much good. Keyboards, Guitar, Drums, Vocals, whatever… it doesn’t matter what you are recording, the original source needs to be as high quality as possible to make it sound good in a recording. A really cheap and banged up acoustic guitar is going to sound cheap and banged up. This is true of any source. Use the highest quality instruments you have access to, or rent something nicer for the recording if you need to.

The next step in the recording chain is the microphone. You need the right microphone for each source. Every microphone sounds different and has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Even on the same type of source, you may need different microphones for different players or instruments. For example, one type of microphone may sound really good on one person’s voice, but may be totally inappropriate for someone else’s voice. For home recording on a budget, the trick is to try to find microphones that sound pretty good on a wide variety of sources. Every person doing recording should have at least one dynamic microphone and one large diaphragm condenser microphone as a minimum. Most times, the Shure SM57 or SM58 will work as your one dynamic microphone and is useful for a decent variety of sources. Large diaphragm condensers are a little bit tougher to pick out. For low budget home studios, some microphones to try out might be the Audio Technica AT-4033 which I find works well for a lot of male vocalists, but is sometimes too bright for some female vocals. The Rode NT-1 is a fairly popular microphone that also works pretty good on a wide variety of sources. If you have the money, Neumann microphones are almost always a good choice. The TLM 193 is a really smooth sounding microphone that still has a lot of detail and clarity. Neumann also has a cheaper “project studio” large diaphragm condenser microphone out, the TLM 103, that works pretty good as well (I’ve used it at some bigger studios). Before you invest in one of these more expensive microphones, try to find a rental company where you can rent a few different microphones for a few days and try recording a wide variety of sources in your own studio to see which is going to work best for you.

The next step in the chain is the microphone pre-amplifier. Most home studios don’t use a seperate microphone pre-amp, instead relying on the pre-amps built into whatever mixing board they are using. A lot of times the pre-amps built into boards like the Mackies will get you by, but you may find that you can really improve the sound of all your microphones and your recordings in general by investing in some nicer stand alone pre-amps. Companies like Presonus, Great River, TL Audio, and too many other to list are some to look into. Again, if you are going to buy some of the more expensive units, you may want to rent a few different ones first to try out before you shell out the big bucks.

The next step that many home recording people don’t know about is a decent compressor. Especially with vocals, I usually like to go through a compressor first on the way to the recording medium to help smooth out the dynamics so that I can increase my overall level to whatever recording medium I happen to be using. In my own studio, I use a couple different combination microphone pre-amp plus compressors units (in other words, the same piece of gear includes both a microphone pre-amp and a compressor). I use a dual channel unit from TL Audio and also a Drawmer 1960. Both of these units are well over $1000, so they might be out of reach of the typical home studio. However, many high end pros on the newsgroups have been raving about the RNC compressors. These are relatively cheap compressors (around $300 I think) that really work great. Definitely a much better investment than those Alesis compressors that will do more harm to your sound than good. If you need a simple tutorial on compressors, check out the “Compression – A Simple Explanation” how-to guide on this site as well.

Those steps should take you right up to the input of whatever device you are recording to. Always try to keep your signal path as short as possible and don’t run the signal through any unnecessary gear because you will pick up a bit of noise and distortion with each circuit that the signal has to pass through.

Now, if you’ve got all that taken care of, there are some other things to keep in mind. First off, keep a close eye on the levels going into and coming out of each piece of gear. Setting the optimum levels takes some time and practice. If your levels aren’t properly optimized, you won’t be getting the best sound possible. Too hot of a level will give you distortion, while too low of a level will introduce too much noise since you’ll have to crank up the gain somewhere else to compensate which will bring up the noise floor inherrent in any piece of equipment. Also, if you have everything set up for recording, but you aren’t quite getting the sound you are looking for, don’t immediately grab for the EQ. Try changing the position of the microphone. You can really make some dramatic changes in the sound quality by moving the microphone around to different positions. Sometimes just a couple of inches difference in position can make a really big difference in the sound. A lot of times it helps to have an assistant move the microphone around while you listen back to the source over your monitors so you can hear the changes in real time as the assistant moves things around. Another secret engineer trick when initially looking for the correct microphone position is to cover up one of your ears and then move your head around and listen to the source with just one ear (pretending that your ear is the microphone)… when you find that “sweet spot” try putting the microphone there to start with.

Below are some other general recording tips, in no particular order, that I assembled from my posts to message boards:

  • Something you may or may not be aware of, is a little technique for keeping the vocals up front sounding, but while still having a nice smooth reverb sound. First, make sure the reverb is set up in a send/return fashion rather than as an insert. Then you can control the level of the reverb and the level of the dry vocals separately. Then, use a little delay before the reverb. Most reverbs now days have a pre-delay feature built into them. Experiment with a short delay of around 50ms to 150ms, depending on the song, as a pre-delay for the reverb. This will delay the onset of reverb just enough to make the vocal seem clearer. In fact, many times I use just a nice delay now instead of reverb at all… or I use a nice delay that I can tap to the tempo and then feed that delay into a nice reverb… still gives you that spaciousness and warmth but still allows the vocal to be more up front and present sounding because the reverb isn’t hitting right away and muddying up the sound. A lot of times reverb does the exact opposite of what you want it to do… many people expect that it will make something sound bigger when they add reverb, when in reality it often makes things sound further away and smaller.
  • The one thing that everyone needs to keep in mind is that good, catchy music transcends the production and engineering aspects. Your average listener will not be listening to your stuff in the way that a professional engineer or producer would. They’ll either like the song or they won’t… they won’t say things like, “that song would rock if only the kick drum was a bit louder!”  However, good songs will be remembered more easily by the mass public if there is nothing distracting them from the music as far as engineering and production goes (they might not know the technical terms, but if something is engineered poorly, they won’t enjoy the song as much). Also, a really good sounding track will just sound better to someone, even if they don’t know the technical reasons why.  So, as artists, it is still our responsibility to present our art in the best and most appropriate fashion that we can… in other words, we need it to sound as good as we can possibly make it sound. While listeners may not always notice the difference, if you are shopping your songs to bigger labels, they will most definitely be listening for the quality of production as well as to the quality of your music.
  • The weak point of many home recording tracks is the drums.  To fix kick drums that sound boxy or flabby, try to cut out as much of that flabby, boxy sound at around 400hz as much as possible… then, if you need some attack to make it punch through on smaller speakers with no sub bass response, try giving it a little boost somewhere between 3K-6K (you’ll have to adjust the frequencies for whatever works best for that particular sound, I’m just giving you the broad range where to start looking). If it needs some more low end thump, try boosting in the 50-100hz range.  Snares can be tough as well.  I usually find myself boosting the upper mids, somewhere between 2Khz and 6Khz when I’m looking for a little extra snap out of my snare drums.  Many people start piling on the compression on drums in an attempt to make them sound punchier, but if done incorrectly, or overdone, compression can actually make your drums sound dull and lifeless.  The trick is in setting the compressor properly.  You need a fast attack and release, but if the attack is too fast, then the initial transients of the drums get compressed as well.  You need to make the attack time just long enough to let the initial percussion transients pass through.  Here’s a little trick I sometimes use. If you are mixing in the digital domain via computer or a digital console (I mix on a digital Yamaha O2R console) and you have a kick or snare that just doesn’t have enough bite to it no matter what you do with the EQ, try boosting the levels just for that track until it starts to clip. Depending on your digital system, a little bit of clipping can give a really nice sharp attack to otherwise dull percussion sounds…. but, just a little! Too much and you’ll get that nasty digital distortion. You’ll have to then re-balance out the rest of your mix if you’ve cranked those levels up into clipping, but it can be a handy trick.
  • Something else that works well on electronic music with a heavy beat is multi-band compression. Instead of running your mix through a single band compressor to try to pump up the mix, try a multi-band compressor instead. A multi-band compressor splits the mix up into several frequency bands (you can usually adjust the crossover points) and compresses each band individually. This helps to eliminate the pumping effect that you often get with a single band compressor when trying to compress a mix with a lot of low end content (because on a single band compressor, every time the kick or other low range sound happens, the compressor tries to duck the entire signal and thus you hear the highs and mids being pulled down as well as the low end, and then back up in between low notes, creating a pumping type of sound). The TC Electronics Finalizer series is a popular hardware based multi-band compressor, and they are coming out with a new one called the “triple C”.  In the software world, Waves has the C4 multi-band compressor plug-in which is based on their very popular Renaissance Compressor.
  • Space in a mix can be thought of in 3 dimensions. You have the left to right space of the stereo image. You have the front to back space that is usually created with reverb and delays (time based effects) to move sounds towards the front (very dry) or towards the back (very wet). The third dimension I like to think of as bottom to top, and that’s the frequency spectrum… bass to treble.  The key to a good mix is figuring out the proper space to put everything in so that sounds aren’t competing for the same space in the mix. This will help to give your mixes more clarity and definition.  The hardest part to get a handle on is the EQ space, which takes a lot of practice and is something that you will continually improve on no matter how long you mix songs. The low end of the frequency spectrum is the hardest to get right. You kind of have to decide which instruments/sounds are going to occupy the low end, and then filter out the low end from everything else. Typically your kick drum or your bass (and sometimes both working together) are going to occupy that very low end…. so you can filter out that really low end (usually everything from around 150 hz down) on just about everything else. Then you kind of work your way up the frequency spectrum and try to figure out what the key frequency ranges are of each instrument, and to figure out which sounds are the key sounds at any given point in the mix. Then, make space for those by carving out some of those frequencies in other sounds, or using some of the other two dimensions to get other sounds out of the way of the key sounds.
  • For anyone attempting to do their own mastering, don’t let your ears fool you! To our ears, any change that makes something louder or brighter is going to sound “better” even though it might not always be better. Especially when your ears start to get tired after doing a lot of work with audio all day. It’s best to try to mix or master on a fresh set of ears, and then still come back to it after a day or to with fresh ears again and see if you still like the way it sounds. Plus, don’t forget to listen to it on as many systems as possible.
  • If you know that you are going to get something mastered by a nice mastering facility, it’s best to keep the overall mix compression to a minimum to give the mastering engineer some room to work with. If it’s overly compressed, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to undo that compression. However, it’s very easy to add compression in mastering… and you can be sure that a high end mastering facility is going to have much better compressors than you or I do!  Mastering for vinyl is a bit different as well.  Low end is very critical. Too much low-end, or weird stereo stuff happening in the low frequencies can cause the needle to bounce out of the groove.  For anything that you know is going to go in vinyl, make sure you keep the deep lows and subs limited, and very centered in the stereo image.  Make sure the mastering engineer knows that you are going to be pressing vinyl!  The mastering engineer (if he/she is good) should be able to polish it up a bit and do whatever needs to be done to squeeze it onto vinyl. I’d be very careful about who is making the vinyl as well, and make sure you listen to some test pressings… from what I’ve heard from many other pro engineers, the quality can vary by very large amounts when you’re dealing with vinyl.
  • Test your mixes out on as many systems as you can before committing to a mix. Listen in your car, on headphones, on a boom box, over the phone, and anything else you have handy. The goal is to try to make it sound as good as possible on EVERY system, not just what you are using as monitors in your studio. There is a reason why all the major studio have several different sets of monitors in their studio! Also, another trick is to crank it up a bit, and then leave the room. What does the mix sound like from another room? Can you still hear everything? Is it still balanced? Try to get the balance to work on as many systems as possible so that you can hear all the parts the way you want them.
  • There is a reason that the good mastering engineers get paid so well… but, the trick is to find the really good ones. Just because they have the gear and the great rooms doesn’t necessarily mean they are any good. Although I’m not a professional mastering engineer, I’ve done a lot of mastering for people who can’t afford to go to the high end mastering studios, and I think I’ve done better jobs than some of the stuff I’ve heard from my clients that went to the WRONG mastering engineer. If you have good ears, the right tools, and you know your monitoring system extremely well, then you can do a pretty good job on your own. That said, I will still go to another mastering engineer to master my own personal project when I get it done, simply because I’m too close to my own music. Sometimes if you are too close to your own material, you miss things that might be obvious to someone else. Also, it’s sometimes good to get a fresh perspective from an unbiased third party.
  • Some general tips to people making tracks with synths that have a stereo output. Just because it has a stereo output, doesn’t mean you have to record everything as a stereo track exactly the way it comes out of the synth…. in fact, doing it this way will really make your music sound pretty mono since most of those sounds coming out of the synth are all centered in the stereo image. Unless the sound has a really cool stereo effect built-in that I want to use, or uses multi-samples spread nicely across the stereo spectrum, I usually record the synth sounds on mono tracks and then pan them different places in the stereo mix. For example, a generic string patch in most synths is really not that “stereo” sounding. To make real stereo strings, try using two different string sounds, panning one sound all the way left and another sound all the way right. They don’t even have to both be the same type of sound. Try to balance things out in the stereo field. If you have two parts that are always playing at the same time (maybe a guitar part and a piano part, for example) pan one of them left and one of them right… this will give your more of a true stereo sound than simply leaving things as they come out of your keyboards.  With a lot of the Hip-Hop and RnB artists I work with, I work hard to get a wide stereo sound through lots of panning of individual instruments.  Even on the drum kits I spread things out quite a bit, like putting the hi-hats to the left and shaker to the right, stuff like that. For one of the rap groups, our sound also consisted of doubling up the hype tracks (two different takes… cutting and pasting the same take does NOT achieve this effect) and panning one all the way left and the other all the way right to give it a stereo feel. Just try to balance things out… take instruments that have a similar frequency range and are playing similar parts and put one left and one right to give them some seperation so that they aren’t competing for the same space in the mix.
  • What type of soundcard are you using on your computer? A lot of the time you can improve your quality dramatically by upgrading to a “pro” or “semi-pro” soundcard. The SoundBlaster type cards that come bundled with most computers are VERY CHEAP, and the analog circuits and the A/D converters really don’t have a very good sound at all to them. There are tons of companies out there making much better sound cards for computer based recording, in all different budget ranges, and in all different configurations.  Check out some of the manufacturers such as Event, RME Systems, Creamware, MOTU, MIDIMan, Mytek, and a lot more that I can’t think of off the top of my head. Stay away from the game card manufacturers like SoundBlaster, Turtle Beach, etc… they really aren’t designed with the best audio recording interfaces in mind.
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