By: Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato
You’ve finally finished writing your song, you've tweaked and tweaked, changing phrases, a word here and there until it was just right. You can't wait to start recording and get this baby out into the world. If you want to make the recording and mixing as painless as possible, a little pre-production will go a long way. Here are some things to consider before you hit record.
What is your goal?
You should have a really good idea of how the finished product should sound.
Is your intention for the song to compete with the current pop hits? Are you recording electronic music or orchestral? Are you going to be the next big country sensation? Whatever the answer is, this will guide your choices from instrumentation to tone and coloration.
Think about the arrangement. Will there be space for the song to breathe or are you going after a wall of sound? What is the emotion and energy you are trying to express with this song?
If you don't have any idea what you want the track to ultimately sound like, do some homework and start listening to popular songs from the same genre. Use them as a reference. Listen critically and dissect what you hear so you can transfer it to your mix. Once you've got a good mix, add your own flavor to it.
Take your time to get the sound right.
As you're dialing in the guitar tone, sifting through synth patches, and sorting out drums, spend some time thinking about how all of the individual instruments are going to work together. If you've got a guitar tone heavy in the mid-range right where your lead singer's voice sits, and you stack an organ on top of that, mixing is going to be a challenge. You’ll be struggling to create clarity between all of the elements in the mix.
The best musicians I have worked with have spent time carefully choosing and crafting their sounds to make sure they aren't stepping on each other. If the snare drum and vocal are competing for the same space, it's a pretty good bet that the vocal is going to win and the snare will be somewhat lost in the mix (sorry drummers).
One of my all-time favorite drummers that I had the privilege of mixing was the late Pat Torpey from the band Mr. Big. Along with being an incredible drummer, Pat was a master at crafting his sound. Mr. Big is 4 piece rock band consisting of guitar and bass virtuosos Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan, along with lead vocalist Eric Martin, and Pat.
Billy's bass sound is unique, more mid-range than deep bass. He and Paul are both well-known shredders, playing thousands of notes throughout a song. With all of that going on and Eric's rich vocal tone, the drums could easily have been relegated to the back of the mix and Pat knew that. He was smart enough to build his drum kit to fit right in between everything instead of competing with it. His carefully choosing and tuning everything from his kick drum to his cymbals gave him his own space, ensuring he would be heard and not just the drummer in the back.
As you are dialing in your sound, think about everything else going on in the song.
Don't forget about the cymbals, when they are chosen without consideration of the environment (studio or live) and the overall sound of the track, they can easily become a wash of noise drowning out things like acoustic instruments, vocals, etc. The timbre should not be overlooked.
If you are using virtual instruments or samples, be sure to audition the sounds and choose those appropriate for the genre you are working in.
When you spend some time making sure everything sits in its own frequency space before you record, your life will be much easier when it comes time to mix.
Should you use fresh guitar strings and drum heads?
Consider the sound you are going for. If it requires a break-in period then re-string and/or change drum heads a few days before recording so they have a chance to loosen up while you practice. If you want a duller, softer sound you may choose not to use fresh strings or heads.
While on the subject of instruments, everything should be working properly and in good shape. Use good quality cables that are noise-free, fresh batteries in pickups and guitar pedals, etc. Check for and eliminate problems like buzzing from electrical grounding issues or noisy and/or intermittent cables, objects rattling in the room.
Money can be tight and the thought of spending it on good quality cables, fresh drum heads, or having someone professionally set up your acoustic guitar to get rid of the fret buzz may seem like an unnecessary expense. However, it will be more expensive later when you end up paying for the studio engineer’s time to try and ‘fix it in the mix’.
The importance of tuning.
It goes without saying that everything needs to be properly tuned from stringed instruments to drum heads. If using an acoustic piano, have it tuned just prior to recording and check to make sure the other instruments are in tune with it.
It's garbage in garbage out. It's much easier to end up with great sounds when you start with great sounds at the source. If you record a poorly tuned drum kit now, you'll end up spending a lot of time trying to EQ it to sound good later.
Choose the right microphone.
If you are recording live instruments you'll want to pair the instrument and microphone correctly. Granted you might not have the budget for a full kit of Neumanns but you can still achieve great results when you use the right tool for the job. Pay attention to the microphone's frequency response to be sure it can give you what you want. This may require listening to a variety to see which sounds best. If you choose a microphone that has a natural roll-off in the low frequencies to capture the low end of a kick drum or bass guitar cabinet, you'll end up disappointed. Specifications for all of the major microphone manufacturer’s products can be found online. A quick Google search for the microphone’s spec sheet will show you the frequency response curve.
Don't be afraid to experiment with microphone positioning. Sometimes just minor changes in the placement of a microphone can create big changes in the sound being captured. Take some time to find the sweet spot.
Finally, set proper input signal level to your DAW.
Distortion is one of the surest signs of an amateur recording. If you want great sound you need a strong signal level that is safely below clipping.
Hitting the red on your input meter or pre-amp is clipping. It introduces distortion and sounds terrible. When the signal level is too weak, you'll end up over-compensating at other places in the signal path. Ultimately this results in lower quality audio.
Make sure your pre-amp gain is optimally set, not too high and not too low.
A little time spent in preparation will save you on the back end.
Whether you’re recording and mixing in your home studio or paying for the services of a professional engineer, these tips will save you time and money.
Show up prepared with everything ready to go. Technical problems with equipment and spending precious time deliberating on decisions that could have been made before the session can really interrupt the creative process, knocking you out of flow.
If you’re paying for studio time, it adds up very quickly. Why pay for the studio engineer to solve problems with your gear or sounds that could have been worked out beforehand?
Spend the time to craft your sounds and get the details right before you begin recording. Starting with a clear picture of what you want to end up with and making sure everything aligns with it will get you off to a good start.