Why is it so hard to get tracks that kill? Mixes that scream with emotional impact--music that holds up to the work of the masters of our craft?
Experienced pro or newbie neophyte, we all share a desire to improve the sound, relevance, and "vibe" of our recordings. But sometimes the way to do this isn't just by doing the right thing, but avoiding doing the wrong thing--and that in turn will indeed make things easier.
Everyone's favorite whipping boy, bad gear is often the first place many of us look to and point the finger at when something about our recordings doesn't knock us out. And let's face it: First-class gear sounds great, and that can't help but make things sound better--but only if you know what you're doing with it. I've been amazed by the quality of some recordings I've heard that were done on primitive or inexpensive gear, however, that says more about the engineer than the gear. Still, it's important to scrutinize your system from time to time and probe for weak links. Did you upgrade your mixer, but not your monitor speakers? Do you have a great microphone, but are using it with an old, noisy mic preamp? Nothing works in isolation, so consider where the best improvements can be made to enhance your system's sound quality as a whole, and don't obsess on any single area (like having the best mic cabinet in the world if you don't have preamps that are equal to the task).
The Curse of the Adaptive Ear
Even in a well-designed control room with great monitors, our ears adapt to EQ changes very quickly--that's how you can enjoy hearing your favorite song on a cheap TV speaker or a high quality system. Our ears perceive the extremes of the audible frequency spectrum differently at different playback levels, with the flattest response being at about 85dB SPL. Our ears also tire after long hours, especially at unsafe monitoring levels. That EQ tweak that sounded great last night after 10 hours of playback at 105dB might not sound so hot the next morning. Having high-quality reference material that you can A/B with your mix can help you get back to reality when EQ changes start to throw off your perspective over time, and so can watching your levels and knowing when to quit when your ears have had enough for the day.
Nasty Control Room Acoustics
Thankfully, more people are starting to understand the importance of room acoustics (both for mixing and tracking), so we won't belabor the point. But some people just throw up their hands and say "My room was never designed to do acoustics, so it's hopeless." No it isn't! Just a few strategically-placed bass traps or diffusors can make a huge difference, as can monitoring at lower levels if you use near-field monitors; that way, the room acoustics will have less effect on what you hear, and the accuracy of your monitoring will improve. While you can learn to adapt for the quirks in your monitoring environment to some degree, having as honest of a system as you can makes sense, so improving your room acoustics is definitely something to consider if you have not already done so.
There's a certain charm in just randomly placing mikes and turning knobs until you find something that pleases you, and you may be lucky and come up with a masterpiece that way, but your odds are better if you have a basic understanding of how your gear was designed and how it works, and learn how to use it to best effect - including making it do things it wasn't originally designed to do. That means spending time learning the technical aspects and common techniques of modern recording and mixing, reading gear and software manuals, and also studying the work of the masters and of your contemporaries, then experimenting and listening on your own. Like a musician's influences, the idea isn't to be a "me too" of your heroes, but to learn what you can from them and then combine those various influences and apply them in your own way to your own musical voice, with your own distinctive style.
Arrogance isn't the answer, and a little self-examination and assessment of your weaknesses is definitely a good thing now and then, but a little confidence is also important. Second-guessing everything you do and doubting your own hard-earned experience and skills can kill you; if you think every mix you touch is going to suck, they will. Start trusting your gut. If something is sounding great to you, don’t worry so much about whatever the current cool trends are, go with it. Once you can make things sound good to you, and they make everyone else in the room nod, sing along, play air guitar, tap their feet or all of the above, you might be on to something. Those are the moments we live for, and they can be more addictive than any drug. You're not going to have many of them if you constantly doubt yourself. The best engineers and producers that I know are not boastful egotists, but instead carry themselves with an air of quiet self-confidence, and most of them are happy to pass their knowledge and experience on to anyone who shares a sincere interest - which are qualities I find more than worthy of emulation.
Sound Sources Matter
Crummy kit + shot heads + cracked cymbals = drum tracks that suck. Figuring out the inverse equation shouldn't be too difficult. It's a lot easier to get a beautiful sounding acoustic guitar recording if you start with a amazing sounding instrument. Unless you're tracking David Lindley (who can make the cheapest guitars sound great), you'll get better results from better instruments. If the artists you work with regularly do not bring them in, then consider renting or purchasing some high-quality instruments for your studio. Your recordings will improve dramatically when you are recording great instruments instead of bargain basement models.
No Substitute for Performances
I consider myself to be a pretty good editor with tape or DAW; I've been doing it for over three decades, and I've gotten a fair amount of kudos from clients over the years. But I still need "something to work with", and the best edit is a performance that doesn't need one. If you have to edit, it's a lot easier to do if you have tracks with generally solid performances with few errors and great feel. Piecing something together from sub-standard performances is not my idea of a good time, and the musicality of your work is going to be much better if the musicality of the people you’re working with is already happening. When I work with brilliant musicians, my work sounds better - and so will yours. If things are not quite “there” with the artists you are working with, take some time to do some pre-production rehearsals before you get into the studio so that you can help get things as tight as possible before you start waxing tracks. Rehearse more, edit less.
Number one, with a Bullet
Probably the number one issue is material. A so-so recording of a great song still leaves you with a great song. A great recording of a so-so song leaves you with a so-so song. Of course, we're not in the business of making so-so recordings, and everything matters, so take a moment to evaluate the weaker areas of your whole rig - and that includes your personal skills and musicianship - and plan out a strategy for improving each of them. Your recordings and productions will only get better as a result.
This article was originally published on Harmony Central. Reprinted with permission.