Resources for the Recording Musician
December 16, 2005

Getting Started TIPs and Techniques


Recently became involved with a private recording studio, furnished with a Mackie D8B mixer & Multi-track recorder, etc...etc...etc.  Am new at this, but have been reading everything I can get my hands on in order to understand signal flow, compression, gates, effects, etc...

Can you recommend any good tips or quick reference guides for getting started?  For instance, typical compression / gate settings by instrument / vocals?

Any help, is better than none at all.


Unfortunately, this isn't something you are just going to be able to read a little bit about and immediately become good at.

Becoming a good recording engineer, and especially a mixing engineer, is like learning an instrument... it takes a LOT of practice, and many years to master, and some good professional instruction can help out a LOT.  Plus, there is a certain degree of natural ability to it that some people have, and others don't.

As far as stuff to read... yes, certainly read everything you can find, subscribe to the trade magazines (Mix, Electronic Musician, Tape Op, Sound On Sound, etc.), read everything you can find on the internet, buy some books... and then practice and experiment every chance you get.

Without writing an entire book, I can't just start listing "typical" compression and gate settings and stuff like that.  The main reason is that there is no such thing as "typical".  EVERY recording is different and requires different settings.  That's why you don't find many presets on things like compressors... there may be some presets to get things started, but you ALWAYS have to adjust things like threshold and attack and release (unless it's a compressor with a program dependent automatic release) to make it work for that particular sound in that particular song.

Same thing with gates... you have to set the threshold and sidechain properly for a gate to work right... and those are EXTREMELY dependent on the way the track was recorded to get right, so it will never be the same setting.

Personally, I almost never use gates.  If you have to use them, then either you didn't take the time to get the recording right the first time, or the player or the instrument is very poor and probably should have been replaced to begin with.

The best advice I can give if you are diving right in, is to NOT use ANY compression or gates or EQ or ANY other processing while you are tracking IF you don't know what you are doing!!

If you mess up a compressor when you are recording, that can NOT be undone later in mixing.  But, you can always add compression while you are mixing and keep playing with it until you get it right.  AND, even if you know what you are doing, there is almost NEVER any instance where you should record with a Gate!!  If you set it wrong and the gate fails to open, you just missed some notes in your recording that can't be recreated without making the person play it again (which will piss them off if it was a "perfect" take).

Now with most recordings being digital, and with 24 bits, there is no need to record with compression and EQ and other processing on the way in because we no longer have to compensate for the limited dynamic range of tape and the changes in tone that tape causes.  So, you can just focus on capturing a totally clean signal and worry about things like compression and EQ and other processing when you are mixing when you can experiment forever and not have to worry about screwing up the audio and not being able to get a clean track back.

Now, having said that, there are a lot of very nice hardware based analog compressors and EQ that have a great sound to them that you just can't get with any plug-ins, and so many experienced engineers will record with some compression and EQ in order to impart that particular sonic signature onto the track that they are recording.  BUT, these guys (myself included) know what they are doing and know how it will work in a final mix, and we are sure not to overdo it, knowing that we can still add even more compression and EQ during mixing.

Good luck with it!

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