What if I told you there were three simple questions you could ask yourself every time you’re setting up to record something that would practically guarantee a better recording and ironically a better mix down the road? Not three pieces of gear or even three types of techniques. Just three questions to ask yourself. These questions have helped me tremendously over the years in recording sessions and I want to share them with you now.
Via Annie Roi Flickr
1. Do I Like The Sound I’m Getting?
Now don’t tune me out just yet. These questions are all very simple, but they build off each other and help you narrow things down so you can guarantee that you are getting the right sound. And the first step to getting a great recording is to actually like the sound you hear coming through the monitors! Sounds simple, because it is. But ironically most people seem to skip this question.
Whether out of frustration because they actually DON’T like the sound they are getting, or because they think they can make it sound better later in the mix, they move past this question and just settle for a sound. Don’t settle. You need to pretend like there is no mixing phase at this point. Make the actual track sound good in the moment. How do you do this? Simple mic placement changes go a long way. Try a few positions until you are actually like the sound coming through your speakers when you listen back.
2. Does The Sound I’m Getting Fit The Song?
If you thought the first question was easy, you’d be right! I can fiddle around until I get a sound I’m happy with in the studio just about any day of the week. But what good is that sound if it doesn’t actually fit the style of the song I’m recording?
For instance, if I’m recording a singer/songwriter acoustic style song with full band arrangement, that song style should dictate my drum mic technique. I would likely avoid the clinical and hyped drum tones from a modern rock setup and instead go for a more mellow and minimal drum mic technique. A great punchy and aggressive style mic placement and tone on the drums might be perfect for one song, but absolutely out of place for another.
So I have to first like the sound I’m getting (question #1) and then ensure that the sound I’m getting fits with the song. Some people might be tempted to start with this question first, but I don’t recommend it. If the sound fits the song, but you don’t like it, there’s no point in continuing. You have to love the sounds you’re getting. That’s part of creating art. Otherwise you’re simply working on a construction project, not a masterpiece.
3. Will The Sound I’m Getting Fit With The Rest Of My Tracks?
The final and most difficult question you need to ask is this: will this great sounding and appropriately styled track fit in the mix with every thing else I need to record? If not, you’re wasting your time. Unless it is the only instrument in the entire song, your track needs to play nice with the others, and this is NOT simply work to be left for the mixing phase. It begins now!
Some examples: when recording acoustic guitar think about it’s role in the mix. Does it carry the entire song along only a bass and some drums? Then make it a nice full bodied sound. Or in your song does the acoustic serve only as a nice texture to compliment a wall of electric guitars and keys? Then record a thinner, brighter sound so it will cut through the mix and not take up too much low mid headroom.
You get the idea, you need to know what each track’s role is in the final mix. That will allow you to “EQ” with your mic placement and ensure that the sound is something you not only like and fits the style of the song, but it actually will have a place alongside the other instruments.
If All Three Check Out, Then Hit Record
This process of asking all three questions can be a fast or a slow one. That’s ok, either way. What matters is that all three questions are asked and the track you’re regarding passes in flying colors. If the answer is “no” to one or more of those questions, then make a change. Whether it’s swapping out an instrument, changing strings, tweaking amp settings, or adjusting the mic choice/placement, do what it takes to get the track to work for all three.
When you can answer each question with a relatively confident “yes,” it’s finally time to do what you came to do: hit the record button! Your mixes will thank you for it!