A great recording is often due to technical skill and quality of equipment, but it is always due to great performances and effective use of what you have at your disposal. Some of the following tips are simple little technical tricks you can try in your own recordings and mixes, while others are about capturing a great performance. There are no rules, so try these tips or don’t – either way they will hopefully get you thinking.
1. Don’t spend too much time pulling sounds.
You read that right. In my experience some people spend way too much time pulling sounds while the artist is waiting to record. This can kill the atmosphere of creative performance that they’re trying to capture. I will always have the mix in mind when pulling sounds, to the extent that I’m thinking about the particular sound’s place in the mix, but my aim is always to pull a sound as quickly as possible and worry about little things later. That way the creative flow of the recording process is never disrupted by technicalities. So pull a sound that you like as quickly as you can so you can vibe on playing, not mucking around forever looking for the perfect sound. Obviously there are some times you need to take time looking for a particular tone or sculpted sound, but aim to hit record as soon as you can, while you’re still excited and everyone’s ready to play.
2. Get the lighting right.
You wouldn’t want to play in a bar with flouro lights and no vibe. Your recording space is the same. Set the mood the way you like it – use lamps, fairy lights or tea light candles. Or a few LED lights from your local DJ store. Make it feel creative and beautiful. Match the mood of the physical space to the mood of the song. This is extremely important and is often overlooked.
3. Roll off the verb on your vocals.
Unless you want to sound like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey from 1991, take out some of the high frequencies from your vocal reverbs. Almost exclusively I will roll off anything above 3 or 4khz on my vocal reverbs. This will give the vocal space without sounding too cheesy. In general, if you want a big reverb sound, choose a reverb time greater than 4 seconds. Go crazy! Try 7 seconds, 10 seconds if you want really long tails. Often they sound over the top when soloed, but in the track can be perfect. Give it a go!
4. To get your vocal levels perfect, draw the volume changes.
Compressors only do 3/4 of the job of levelling a vocal. Sometimes certain words, phrases, or even syllables get lost in the mix, or occasionally pop out more than they should. If you like the vocal tone, don’t necessarily reach for lower compression thresholds and higher ratios. Use the automation to accurately draw each problem part of the vocal up or down as required. Check your handywork when you’ve finished by turning the computer monitor off and listening to your vocal rides. Can you hear every word the way you want? Use your ears and then your mouse.
5. Listen to reference tracks differently.
Most people use reference tracks incorrectly in my opinion. They listen to reference tracks to tell them how loud to make the kick drum or bass. They listen to see how much sub information you can use, or how loud to make the guitars or synths. They copy aspects of the reference mixes. I use reference tracks for almost the opposite reason – some of my favourite recordings have super loud guitars and quiet vocals. Others have super loud vocals and quiet guitars. Some have enough subs to shake the room while others feel thin in comparison. I use reference tracks to remind me that anything goes. That some instruments can be HEAPS louder than I would dream to mix them. Ever heard a song where the synth, or tambourine, or vocal is so loud you can’t believe it yet it feels great? Use reference tracks to remind you that you can be bold. If everything is perfectly in balance sometimes it’s just super safe and boring. Surprise people!
6. Buy a ribbon mic.
There are 3 mics you need – a condenser, a dynamic and a ribbon. They don’t have to be expensive. A Rode NT1a or equivalent is a great inexpensive option for your condenser (available at www.turramusic.com.au for $269 at time of writing). A shure SM57 is a versatile and great sounding option for your dynamic (available at www.turramusic.com.au $157 at time of writing). And go on eBay and buy a vintage ribbon mic for a few hundred dollars. The condenser is perfect for when you want a part to have full frequency range with crisp top end and full bass response. The dynamic is perfect for percussion, guitars (electric and acoustic), vocals and pretty much anything. It will have less super high end and less super lows. A ribbon mic has less top end again, and is perfect for creamy electric guitar sounds, smooth percussion and brass.
Another way of looking at it is if you want to sound real old school then use heaps of the ribbon mic, if you want to sound slightly more modern but still old school use heaps of dynamics, and to get a super clean and crisp sound then use more condensers.
7. Roll off the bottom end on pretty much everything except bass and kick drum.
A lot of mixes are cluttered by too much in the bottom end. As a general rule, if it isn’t a kick drum or bass guitar or synth bass you want to get rid of any rumbling sounds below 100-250 hz. Don’t drive yourself crazy on this – just have a quick listen to each part in solo to make sure there’s no nasty muddy lower frequencies. Also try rolling the lead vocal eq off below 150-400hz – sometimes it’s just the trick to thin out an otherwise too thick vocal. Or use a notch filter to find the muddiness in the lead vocal in the lower mids. The message is pay quick attention to each instrument and see if it’s taking up unnecessary head room in the low/low-mid end.
8. Distort the snare.
Copy your snare track so that you now have two identical snare tracks. Apply a distortion plug-in to the second track and blend it with the original snare to add colour and size to your snare. I often roll off the top end of the distorted snare so that it’s not too harsh and just provides a great depth and grit to your snare. To find the perfect level, turn it down completely and then slowly bring it in to the mix until it starts to do its job. It may need a different reverb on it though so have a listen with that in mind. And don’t be afraid to use HEAPS of distortion!
9. Turn your mix up loud and see which instruments hurt your ears.
I love listening to mixes loud. I have to physically stop myself from listening loud all the time. But you have to protect your ears from fatigue. So I generally do a whole heap of boring stuff like edits and automation and such with the volume down quite low. Once it starts sounding exciting down low, that’s when I turn that baby up! Every now and then I’ll listen really loud for 2 reasons. Firstly because I love it as do most musos, and I do it to keep myself and everyone else excited about the mix. Secondly, I hear certain sounds that when really loud rip my head off and hurt my ears. That tells me that those particular sounds (often they’re “esses” from vocals) need either EQ, compression, volume adjustments, re-arranging, or a combination of these things.
10. Don’t play your unfinished mixes to all your friends.
Ok it’s up to you, but some friends will tell you it’s great when it’s not (which you don’t want), and some others will tell you how to improve it when it’s already great (which you want even less). So just be careful of getting too many opinions.
11. Don’t always think about building the track to be more exciting at the end.
Sometimes people leave out a killer harmony, guitar line or percussion loop out of the first and even second chorus so that it’s better and bigger by the last chorus. If it sounds absolutely amazing and it excites you, put it in all the damn choruses! Don’t think about whether people will be bored of the part by the third chorus – if you’ve left out some amazing stuff until then they’re more likely to be bored by then anyway! Make it great and arresting and impossible to stop listening to as quickly as you can.
12. Use a different mic for lead and backing vocals.
If you use a large diaphragm condenser on the lead vocal, use a dynamic on the backing vocals. Or vice versa. It really helps to create different spaces and differentiation between the lead and backing vocals. Another cool trick is to record the backing vocals back a few feet from the mic. This keeps the lead vocal in front of the mix and the bvs nicely behind. Or try the other way around for an interesting effect.
13. Have a couple of drinks.
If you’re used to having a few drinks when you play or jam, then do the same when you’re recording. Don’t get wasted, but just enough to relax you and help you have fun. You want to be in the best possible head space to be creative, and if that means a drink or three then that’s fine with me.
14. Stop thinking so much.
Don’t think about whether the song is sounding good – feel whether it’s sounding good. Don’t think when you sing. You need to be using your voice or instrument as a vessel to communicate the music that’s inside of you, and over thinking or judging yourself while you perform is the enemy of free communication. Do whatever it takes to feel comfortable, prepared and ready to communicate your music with the world.
15. Use room mics.
Often tambourine, handclaps, upright piano, shakers and percussion in particular sound fantastic when the mic is a good 1-2 metres away from the source. A good room mic will soften the transients and make them sound more old school and easier to blend in the mix. A ribbon mic is often fantastic for this purpose.
16. If in doubt cut it out.
Sometimes you work on a section of the song, or a riff or melody line, for hours and can’t seem to get the sound to sit right. If that happens, try cutting it out. It can be an instrument, or a pre-chorus, or a solo, or half a chorus. If it’s not working, try cutting it and see what happens. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it can’t be chopped out if that improves the song.
17. Engage the services of a producer.
Of course I’m going to say this because Im a producer myself, but it doesn’t have to be a professional record producer. It can be one of your musician buddies or even a friend with amazing taste and passion for music. The important thing is that they love your music and are passionate about you and your music. They should also have an understanding of why music works, and how to inspire you. Their job is to be a more impartial ear, and to provide feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. Think creatively – your next producer could be Pharrell. Or your best friend’s girlfriend.
18. Trust your gut.
It’s your music. At the end of the day you should follow your gut instincts as an artist. Unless you’re a psycopath without the ability to empathise (and there are definitely a few musicians like that!), you should always listen to your gut. Trust your producer and engineer and band mates. Trust your boyfriend or girlfriend. But above all trust your gut.
19. Mono your beats/bring in your overheads.
While mixing the debut album for hiphop artist L-FRESH the LION. I started doing something I hadn’t done before. I started making the drums mono. Instantly everything started sounding more bangin and more hiphop. Since then I’ve tried it on rock songs too, and when it works, it works a treat. Check out the classic Dr Dre album 2001 and notice that almost everything is in the centre of the mix. So if you want to make your beats, drums or band sound harder, rawer or trashier, don’t widen your overheads or percussion. Bring all the rhythmic elements into the centre of the mix and feel the difference.
20. Don’t commit to a mix until you’ve listened to it in the car.
Sometimes you can work on a mix for 10 hours and think it’s perfect, only to burn a CD and put it on in the car on the way home…and discover the kick drum is way too subby, the vocals are inaudible in the bridge, you can’t hear the strings at all and there’s not enough reverb on the snare. Listen in the car, on your phone, in headphones, on your laptop. Enjoy listening to it! But learn from the differences in the listening experience from the different speakers.
21. If you’re not excited it’s probably not exciting.
If the recording or mix isn’t exciting you, there’s 2 potential problems – either you are so clouded by insecurity that you have no capacity for rational appraisal of your own music, or the music just isn’t exciting. Don’t stop until it’s exciting to you. Keep experimenting! Try changing the arrangement, or starting again, or adding harmonies or autotune or distorted guitar or synth or tambourine or a drop or a new song altogether. Just make your music exciting to you.
Michael can be contacted by emailing email@example.com