In my last two articles, I have discussed ways to reduce your stress when recording guitar, and ways to save money when recording an album. Taking a look through the comments sections on those articles, it struck me that one of the major barriers to people making effective home recordings is that they are not confident in their ability to get pro-quality results at home. So for this article, I’m going to share four techniques and ideas that most, if not all, top producers and mix engineers use when recording and mixing that you can use at home at no or minimal cost, to help you get a better sound.
1 Turn the volume down
If you go into any expensive recording or mixing studio, you’ll see a pair of enormous studio monitors, probably bolted to the walls, ready to inflict an ear-smashing wall of audio doom on everyone within commuting distance of the studio. Here’s a production secret for you: those things are just for show. They’re there for when a client comes in and wants to hear his music at ear-splitting volume and serve no other purpose. I’ve heard that some studio owners actually charge the cost of those speakers to the marketing budget! You’d be amazed at the small, crappy speakers that the engineer will actually use while working, and the low volume levels he’ll use.
Why? Well, as any guitarist knows, the louder something is, the better it sounds. That’s great for listening for pleasure, but when you’re trying to judge the quality of a recording, excessive volume can mask problems that would be much easier to find and fix at lower volumes. This is because your ears start to filter out frequencies and distort the audio at high volume levels in order to protect themselves from damage. So turn your monitors down (your neighbours will thank you for it as well). If you can hear everything clearly at low volume, you know you have a good mix.
2 Use the wrong speakers
Yes, you read that right. I mentioned above that pro engineers very often mix using crappy speakers, and it’s for similar reasons to before – mixing on expensive, high-fidelity speakers is like riding a bike with stabiliser wheels: it’s easy, but in the real world you’ll fall flat on your face.
There’s a small, ugly brown speaker called an Auratone 5C that’s long gone out of production. It’s a nasty, tinny mono thing with the frequency response of a dead slug. Yet most of the big albums of the 1970s and 1980s were mixed in a large part on Auratones, and vintage Auratones fetch huge prices when they come up for sale. It’s so sought-after precisely because it’s so terrible. If your mix sounds good on an Auratone, it sounds amazing on anything else!
A lot of aspiring producers make the mistake of hooking their computer or mixing desk up to a pair of expensive, fancy hi-fi speakers. The problem is that hi-fi speakers are specially engineered to make everything sound great, including bad mixes. That’s why they cost a lot of money and weigh so much. But how many of your listeners are actually going to be listening to your song on an expensive hi-fi system in ideal listening conditions? Probably not many. Most will be listening to it on iPods, in their cars, on their radios and on their computers, all of which feature inferior speakers, so you will need something to simulate that listening experience. Get a pair of proper studio monitors with a flat frequency response (the Mackie MR5 is a good buy), but also get something cheap and rubbish to get an honest idea of what most of your listeners will hear. If it sounds good on a cheap piece of crap, you’ve done a good job.
3 Plan ahead
I must admit that I’m bad at this, but I always end up regretting not doing it. We are all human beings, and we all have a limited supply of mental energy, patience and concentration. To get the best from a mix, those limited resources should be concentrated on getting the mix right, not working out where everything is and which of your 50 mix tracks is the one that you need to work on.
Almost all DAWs let you colour-code the tracks and clips, and all of them let you rename tracks. Some, such as Reaper, even let you add a little symbol of a guitar or whatever to a track so you can see at a glance what it is. Do all these things, you won’t regret it. I now always colour my drums red, my guitars yellow, vocals blue etc, using the same colour coding in every mix I do. That way, when I load up a project I don’t have to think about it. I only have so much brain to go around, and brain used remembering where everything is is brain that could be used to do something actually useful.
Even if you think you’ve got a handle of what’s going on in your mix right now, you might have to come back to it months later, or hand it over to someone else to do a remix, and if you have to spend the first 20 minutes of a mixing session working out what everything is you’ll be bored, stressed and bad-tempered before you even start, and that’s the wrong headspace to be in when approaching a mix. Do your groundwork at the beginning and you’ll save yourself five or six times as much time and frustration later on.
4 Rest your ears
Every producer, no matter how experienced, will reach the point at which they throw their hands up into the air and yell “Aargh, it all sounds the f*****g same!” Experience and discipline will increase the amount of mixing or recording time between these incidents, but they happen to everyone eventually. This is when it’s time to take a break.
A lot of people feel guilty about taking a break as it seems contrary to a professional work ethic. I can assure you, however, that all the top recording, mixing and mastering engineers take breaks when their ears or brains get tired. They’ve learned that anything you do past that point is wasted. Once your ears get tired, any changes you make will make things sound worse, not better. This goes for recording as well. Once you get tired and frustrated, you’re less and less likely to get good takes. Take a break – it will actually save time and you’ll be able to do something else useful in the meantime. Do your laundry, get some exercise, make some phone calls, but clear your head of music and sound. I take breaks of at least 30 minutes, but I’ve heard that some mastering engineers never take a break of less than 3 hours before getting back behind the desk. It’s not just about recovering your ears and being able to hear more objectively, it’s about lowering your stress levels and your temperament when working, which will make you happier and more productive.
Even if you can’t feel your ears getting tired, they might be anyway, especially after a long recording or mixing session. That’s why I NEVER send the first mix of a project to a client, no matter how great I think it sounds. I always listen to it again the next day, because I know that I’ll hear some boneheaded mistake that I missed the night before. With mastering, I repeat this process every day until I decide not to make any changes two days in a row. Then I know I’m happy with it and that the client will be too.
About the Author:
James Scott is a producer, audio engineer and writer based in London, UK. He works with up and coming artists to help them get noticed in the industry. His free newsletter includes exclusive recording and production tips that he doesn’t share anywhere else.