When you’re new to the recording studio environment, some common issues just present themselves time and time again. The recording process is an artform that requires both technical skills, talent and experience. You’ll keep making mistakes, but hey, that’s part of the game, isn’t it?
Learn to avoid them and transform your tracking sessions today.
Let’s get this right: when faced with a poor recording, even the most scrupulous editing and processing can’t fix it. Wouldn’t it be better to get a proper recording in the first place? So you can spare yourself from those long, unnecessary “rescue” sessions.
A well–recorded band production usually doesn’t take more than a day or so to be mixed to a commercial level, but when you’re a newbie, some of your project–studio multitracks might need three times that amount of work to sound decent.
Let’s have a look at the ten most common tracking errors that keep you from nailing that recording session.
1. Ignoring the Source
In the case you’re operating a home studio, you’ll find yourself surrounded by furniture and various different objects. You might have not thought about it, but they have acoustic potential and you don’t want to waste it.
Say you want to prevent the drums from bleeding into the guitar mics: get creative, why don’t separate them by using a sofa or a mattress?
Always remember that the instrument, the musicians, and the room you’re recording in are more important than the technology utilised to capture the performance. When the musicianship and the acoustic of the room are on point, then the technology involved in the recording process is incidental.
It’s worth taking those couple of minutes to tweak an instrument’s settings or rearrange objects and furniture to change the acoustic of a room.
2. No Guide Tracks
This a common mistake which is made before even starting the session, before hitting that record button.
So, you’ve created a new session in the DAW, placed and connected all the mics, and are now diving into the actual recording process. When you’re a novice is easy to forget about preparing guide tracks beforehand. Without the right preparation, your time behind the mixing desk won’t be as enjoyable as it can be.
What’s the purpose of a guide track? It’s to help both musicians and engineers understand which direction the session is going to. Spend some time early on putting together solid guide tracks and the whole session will be smooth sailing.
As a rule of thumb, in a guide track you want to include a demo of the song with guitar/piano and vocals, song’s structure, click track matching the demo’s tempo and drum loops to follow along with the click (helpful but not essential).
Laying the groundwork in advance will be massively beneficial for both the artists and the engineer. Things like knowing exactly where you are in the song and feel confident about the tempo you’re playing to, will make musicians deliver a much more relaxed, focused and musical performance.
3. Recording too Many Takes
This might sound controversial at first, but in order to unlock creativity, perhaps you want to consider setting some limitations when in the studio. The digital revolution has come with its pro and cons. Most of us will be dealing with modern recording equipment and powerful DAWs which can easily trick you in recording countless takes for each part. That will set a lazy vibe in the studio and lead to pointless, tedious work when editing/mixing.
You want to play through each track a few times to warm up, working with the engineer to adjust your monitor mix and mic placement/gain settings. When everyone feels ready, hit the record button and give it a few shots. It’s that simple. A little bit of pressure and adrenaline can work wonders with musicians, often bringing out the best of them. The mixing process will become quicker too as you will only have a few takes to choose from.
4. Not Doubling Parts
Now, doubles and takes are two very different things. A double is setting up a new track and getting the performer to re-record an exact same part playing along with the pre-recorded performance. When the two parts are being played simultaneously what you will get is a stronger, bigger sound. As someone who’s new to recording techniques you might not think to do it just because you don’t realize how beneficial this could be in a mix.
Exploiting this technique can benefit the recording. Doubling guitars for example, can easily get you a massive, thick wall of sound without having to resort to any crazy plugins, effects or mixing trick.
Same rules apply when tracking vocals too. You can thicken up parts of the performance by simply un-muting the double, blending the two as you prefer. And guess what? You won’t even need a plugin to do this.
5. Microphones too Close to the Source
Another very common mistake is to place the mics way too close to the source we’re recording. It might be because of the pictures we see in the magazines or because of the lack of exposure to a proper recording technique, but this issue seems to be common amongst home studio owners and musicians in their early days. The problem is accentuated when recording vocals and acoustic instruments (e.g acoustic guitar, violins, horns).
When putting a mic right in front of a sound source, what happens is a phenomenon called the proximity effect: an increase in low frequency response as you move the mic closer to the source. The closer you get, the bigger the bass boost. This can create problems, but at the same time it opens up ways to shape the sound.
Most mics used nowadays feature a cardioid polar pattern, primarily picking up sound in front of them. The proximity effect can help you sound like Barry White (which is awesome), however, it can also compromise speech intelligibility and make the low-end sound muddy. I guarantee trying to mix “fattened” vocals and guitars will get in the way of bass and kick drum, simple as.
So bare that in mind next time you record vocals (lower range male voices in particular) and acoustic instruments. Acoustic guitars are likely to sound “boomy” when the mic is positioned too close to the soundhole. On the other hand you can exploit the phenomenon when recording kick drum, bass guitar, or upright bass, creating a big fat bottom end.
Try and place the mic away 6 inches to a foot from where you would usually place it and listen to what it sounds like. This automatically gets you more involved with the acoustic of the room itself.
6. Recording at the Highest Possible Sample Rate
On paper it might make perfect sense, but you need to consider what recording at higher sample rates entails.
More hard disk space: think of 20 tracks at 48kHz or 20 tracks at 192 kHz. Disk space wise, there is a massive difference. Assuming that nowadays many people record with laptops, choosing the highest sample rate might not be the best choice, as it will take up a lot more memory and processing power. Also to consider is the amount of data will pass through your computer and onto the hard drives: some of them might give you some problems as they’re reading and writing that much data at once. What if you’re working remotely? The longer the session, the more time you will need to upload it.
7. Recording in the Red
In the analog days, sound engineers would slightly overload their pre-amps to get a warmer, nicer sound. That’s because of the inherent natural “compression” or saturation that would occur.
Unfortunately, there is nothing warm or nice about digital clipping. Digitally recording in the red just won’t work, it will sound terrible and there’s no way it can’t be fixed.
With the technology available today, you can easily record at lower levels in 24 bit, leaving plenty of headroom to work with, without worrying about putting your recording into the “red” zone.
When recording to a modern DAW or recording software, what you get is a clean signal path with virtually no noise floor, meaning you don’t need to push the signal at all. Computers are simply not built to handle loud signal levels. So instead of pushing the meters closer to the red, be conservative and go 50% up the meter and get more volume and signal out of your tracks with compression.
8. Recording with Cheap Cables
You just started out and money can be an issue and a barrier at the beginning. Recording gear is expensive and you still want to have food on your table everyday. So, when you get the chance to buy new equipment, just don’t buy the cheapest you can find. Specially when it comes to cables. They might not matter as much as the microphone or type of pre-amp, but they DO have a say in the overall sound. Aim for at least the middle priced ones, they will last you longer and will help you capturing all those signals the proper way.
9. Recording Wet
A good habit to get into is to record dry, with no effects on the signal. You just never know, you might change idea after recording a track and decide a certain effect doesn’t fit the arrangement anymore, so it’s always safer to not record wet. If the musicians request the wet signal, you can always add some to the their headphone mix.
10. Using a Click Track for the First Time
If you’re unfamiliar with playing to a click and you’ve never rehearsed with it, just don’t do it. It will kill the vibe in the studio and you could end up wasting a lot of time - while the clock is ticking away your money!
Work on the source, consider the context, ask the musician, work the room, check tuning before each take, make comparisons, fix it before the mix and most importantly use your ears!
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