Achieving Decent Recordings

The changing definition of a professional recording

Every decade seems to have its own definition of a “good” mix. The 80s was famous for its overuse of reverb. The 90s, especially 90s rock, had its own sound too. I’m guessing the 2000s will be known for its over-compressed music. From rap to metal, no one has escaped this loudness war. I don’t think the 2010 decade will have a defined sound since home studios are becoming standard. The more audio engineers, the more diverse mixes there will be.

What I define to be a good recording

Everyone defines a “good mix” differently. I favor a particular style of mixing, however. My favorite mixes tend to have scooped guitars–in the mid frequencies–and louder drums. I like the drums to be really snappy and punch through the mix while not being overly compressed. I found that drums can be quite loud in a mix and not take away from other instruments. Ambience that complements the instruments is very important. I, along with most people, like songs that have varying volumes throughout it for it makes the song less artificial. I think it goes without saying, but overly loud and compressed songs sound lifeless. I want to be able to hear all their instruments and nuances. Songs with competitive volume, dynamics in tact, is not hard to create but some bands and engineers take it to the extreme and ruin awesome music in the process.

The greatest factors that contribute to an awesome recording

Flawless Performances — Since musicians tend to play, ya’ know, like humans, I find it easiest to work with MIDI whenever possible. I love working with MIDI because you can ensure that the timing is 100% perfect and every instrument is harmonious. The most important thing I learned when creating my electronic album is that the timing of the instruments and how they snap together can affect the entire feeling of the song. It’s worth it to spend the extra time recording perfect performances and quantizing them if necessary so they are aligned with the backbone of the song–usually the kick and snare drum. When recording, the performer needs to have some sort of click track to follow.

Drums — If your recorded or synthesized drums sound really good, the quality of your final mix will be exponentially higher. If you have ever worked with Superior Drummer, Steven Slate, or BFD Drums, you will know how much an awesomely mixed drum kit will fit so much better into a mix. Acoustic drums are super expensive to record and many times you will have to double them with “fake” (sampled) drums anyway to ensure they punched through a dense mix. For 90% of the home studios out there, I highly recommend they stick to electronic drum programs. I currently record drums using a USB electronic drum kit and use drum samplers like those mentioned above. This ensures that I capture the performance while maintaining the high fidelity that these drum programs can offer.

Good Mastering — A good mastering program can completely change the feel and tonality of the song. I always thought mastering was the final process that only added the final touches and subtle changes, but a good master can make a recording sound infinitely better. Ozone is an awesome mastering program. Most DAWs have all the tools that Ozone offers already built-in, but Ozone packages them into a really simple and elegant user interface. Ozone walks you through the mastering process, so I consider it a must buy for novice audio engineers. iZotope also makes a mixing app very similar to Ozone that can also help you get a grasp of mixing individual tracks.

Ambience — Once you have all your super high-quality tracks ready to go, you may notice that your tracks don’t compliment each other. They might sound distant or out of place. I found that adding some background synthesizers or adding more reverb and delay to the mix can help the the mix glue itself together. The ambience only needs to be barely audible. I usually add a touch of reverb and delay to every track in my mix via bus channels. The combination of a short thick reverb, a wimpy delay and when necessary, some synth pads can make a mix sound complete.

EQ — Equalizing can get complex, but there are some basic tips that I always follow when mixing. I’ve found that cutting off a big chunk of the lower frequencies (bass) really helps tame the tracks and keeps the entire mix from being muddy. I let one or two bass tracks do their job while the rest of the instruments get a low-cut filter. However, I leave a healthy amount of low end on guitars since amplifiers add a lot of character and tone in the bass frequencies. Distorted guitars, lead synths, and some vocals can sound hissy or airy, so I frequently cut off the highest frequencies to make the distortion sound less harsh.

Automation — Automation allows you to change volumes, effects, and affect volumes dynamically throughout the song. Automation can change how the listener perceives your song. For example, you can slowly decrease the volume of your verse so when the chorus comes in the chorus will sound louder when you return the song to its median volume. Another example: during the slow part of the guitar solo you can add a touch more reverb and delay to make it sound larger-than-life, but when the speed picks back up you can reduce these to ensure the solo doesn’t get muddy. Automation can get complicated really quickly and can take a lot of time but usually that extra time is well worth it.

Experimentation — Last but not least, experimentation is very important. It might sound a little cliché, but I found some of my best mixing techniques by breaking “the rules.” Be skeptical of those that tell you that recording needs to be done in a predefined way. Be skeptical of “experts”. Don’t be afraid to go nuts.