The following is a guest post from my friend Jason Moss, a Los Angeles–based mixer and educator. Learn how to mix like a pro with the free tips, tricks, and techniques on his website, Behind The Speakers.
There’s never been a better time to be you.
It’s finally possible to make world-class recordings in your home studio. You no longer need a major-label deal, mountains of outboard gear, or an analog console to do it. Graham isn’t lying—this is the recording revolution.
But there’s a downside…
More music is being released than ever before. And listeners have it all at their fingertips.
What does this mean for you?
Good is no longer enough. To stand out, your music must be exceptional. Anything less will be doomed to obscurity.
So how do you elevate your home recordings to studio-quality status? That’s what this article is all about. Keep reading to discover the 9 biggest things holding you back from making tracks that sound like the pros. Avoid these pitfalls and the quality of your recordings will improve by leaps and bounds.
And to accelerate your progress, don’t forget to download the free bonus materials at the end of this article. These extras will help you take your tracks even further…
1. You spend too much time on one track
Early on in my recording journey, I read that top-tier engineers mixed up to two tracks a day. I thought—if they only had more time, imagine how good their mixes could be!
Determined to one-up them, I spent dozens of hours on every mix. I agonized over every choice, hemming and hawing away until I was sure everything was perfect.
It took me months to finish anything. And most of my work sounded terrible.
Years later, I realized that spending more time on a track doesn’t necessarily make it better.
At some point, you start to lose objectivity. Bad ideas start to sound good. It becomes difficult to make the right decisions.
If you keep working past this point, you’ll likely destroy what you’ve created. (Ever spent days on a mix, only to return to what you saved on day one? If so, you know what I’m talking about…)
Instead, learn to move quickly and efficiently through the recording process. Figure out when to move on and let go. This is the key to making smarter decisions, getting more done, and creating better music.
2. You invest in the wrong things
How much money have you spent on plugins?
Have these tools really made your tracks sound any better?
You likely have everything you need to make records that sound great. In fact, you can get there with just about any tools—including the stock plugins in your DAW.
It’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that tools will take you to where you want to be. It’s much harder, however, to recognize that honing your skills is the only way to get there.
If you’re going to spend money, here’s where to do it:
Education is the closest thing to a shortcut you can buy.
Learning from others will save you time, money, and frustration. You’ll progress faster than those who try to figure things out on their own.
We’re in the golden age of audio education, and there are more resources available than ever before. You no longer need to drain your savings or go into debt to attend a university or trade school. Many of us, including Graham, have created online courses that can supercharge your progress.
Money spent here is one of the best investments you can make.
Every decision you make while recording is based on what you hear.
If what you’re hearing isn’t accurate, it’s nearly impossible to make the right decisions.
This can lead to all sorts of problems, including tracks that fall apart when played outside your studio. (If you’ve ever experienced the “car check nightmare,” you know how frustrating this can be.)
Money spent on monitoring is usually a good investment. But before you buy anything, start by finding the right spot in your room for your speakers and listening position. This can often make a bigger impact than acoustic treatment and new monitors combined.
I’ve put together a video with 7 simple tips to help you pull this off. You can find it at the bottom of this article.
After you’ve found the right spot for your speakers and listening position, invest in acoustic treatment. And finally, consider upgrading your monitors. Follow this order—don’t skip steps!
3. You try to fix it in the mix
What do you get when you combine a world-class mix with a subpar recording?
A subpar record.
If your recordings, arrangements, or performances are lackluster, no amount of mixing magic will save them. While this is well-known advice, many of us ignore it in practice.
If you want to improve the sound of your tracks, start at the source. Make sure your instruments are in good shape before tracking day. Experiment with mic placement before reaching for EQ. Find the best spot in your room before you press record. Make this a habit and mixing will become little more than a formality.
4. You hoard your music
Some people see recording as a private journey—similar to writing in a diary. These people often have no desire to share their music with others.
There’s nothing wrong with this. But if your goal is to build an audience or make a living off your music, it’s not a great strategy.
Instead, learn to release what you’ve created and watch how others react to it.
This is different than sharing a track with your mom, wife, and a few friends. They’ll always love what you do. The real test? Does your music connect with those who don’t know you? Can you make a room full of people who have no idea who you are bob their heads to the beat?
Feedback like this will help you grow. But in order to get it, you have to learn to let go.
Fear (shrouded in perfectionism) will stand in your way. You may be afraid that people will abandon you if your music isn’t flawless. But the truth? Waiting will only hold you back. Making great records isn’t a goal, but a process. There is no arrival. Even if you think you’ve hit perfection, there will always be another step to take.
Get in the rhythm of write, record, release, repeat. Build relationships with your listeners. Ask them what they like. Pay attention to what they stream or download most. Do more of what they love, and less of what they don’t.
5. You don’t listen to enough music
The answers are already out there. Why try to reinvent the wheel?
The best way to develop your recording chops is to study great records. If you can internalize what a great record should sound like, you’ll have a goal to aim at while recording. This will make the process much easier.
This advice applies when recording, too. In fact, this is the most important time to be listening, because your decisions will be directly impacted by what you’re listening to. Referencing other music while mixing, for example, can help you stay on track and remain objective. This often-overlooked technique is one of the easiest ways to improve your recordings. (PS—you can find a list of my favorite reference tracks at the bottom of this article.)
6. You do it alone
You no longer need a team to make a record. In fact, you can do it all without even seeing another human being. For many music-makers, this is empowering. But there’s a massive downside…
If you’re locked in your bedroom all day, you’re missing out. You have more to gain from working with others than from toiling away in your studio cave alone.
If you want to elevate your skills, find others who can help you get there. These could be mentors, a like-minded community (like Dueling Mixes), or great collaborators.
I missed this early on, and still regret it. But you don’t have to repeat my mistake.
7. You don’t serve the song
I’m not a big fan of rules when it comes to recording. There is, however, one BIG exception:
Every decision you make during the recording process should serve the song.
Follow this rule, and you’ll always be led in the right direction. In fact, this is all that recording is about.
How do you pull this off on a practical level? Here are a few examples…
What kind of reverb should you use on the vocal?
What emotion does the song represent? How can you support or enhance it with reverb?
For example, a long hall may evoke a deep, empty space. This can pair well with a song about loneliness. On the other hand, a short, bright reverb might be great for an upbeat, cheerful song.
Should you add a fade to the end of the track, or cut it abruptly?
If the song evokes something that “goes on and on,” like an everlasting love, a fade can help drive this message home. But if the song is about a breakup, a hard stop might be a better choice.
Do you really need another guitar part in the verse?
Not if it distracts from the vocal. If listeners can’t hear the vocal clearly, they’ll miss the message of the song. Add too many tracks, and you’ll obscure what matters most.
8. You don’t challenge yourself
Most guitar gurus record nothing but rock records. Most pianists write nothing but piano ballads.
What a missed opportunity!
You have the most to gain from doing what doesn’t come naturally. This is the best way to expand your skills and capabilities.
Focus on what makes you uncomfortable. If you’ve never recorded a band before, try it. If you normally produce guitar-rock, try composing a hip-hop track with sampled instruments.
The point isn’t to make amazing music. In fact, you probably won’t. What matters is what you’ll learn along the way.
9. You need more time
Grammy-winning mixer Bob Power recently told me that his work has improved tremendously over the past decade.
He’s been mixing for nearly 40 years.
The frustrating truth is that recording, like any skill, takes time to master. If you expect to be a pro after a few months (or even years), you’ll likely end up disappointed.
This doesn’t mean the goal isn’t worth pursuing. But if you really want to compete with the pros, don’t expect to get there fast.
So how do you stay motivated? Look back on how far you’ve come. Listen to your old recordings whenever you get discouraged. Recognize that you’re making progress, even when it seems like you’re standing still.
Getting to where you want to be
Regardless of where you’re at in your recording journey, I believe you can get to where you want to be.
I know that at times, the prospects can feel daunting. Listening to your favorite records can be maddening. And if you still wonder—how do they do that?!—you’re certainly not alone. (I’ve been there too!)
But the truth is—with practice, patience, and persistence, you can achieve your musical goals. If you continue to take steps forward every day, you’ll soon look back proudly over all the progress you’ve made. The gap between your recordings and those of the pros will continue to close.
And soon, that gap will no longer exist.
Take your recordings further with these free bonus materials
If you’re ready to dive deeper, these free bonus materials will help you take your tracks to the next level. Here’s what you’ll get:
7 Simple Steps To Optimize Your Home Studio (Video)
Learn how to find the right spot in your room for your speakers and listening position. This simple process can significantly improve the accuracy of your studio, so you can easily craft tracks that sound great on any speakers.
22 Tips To Enhance Your Mix, Without Spending A Dime (PDF)
A number of helpful tips for improving your mixes (including plenty of stuff I didn’t cover here).
12 Reference Tracks I Use In Every Mix (PDF)
These references are my secret weapons. They’ll help you stay on track while working and get to the finish line faster.
Before you go—what advice would you give to someone who is just starting their recording journey? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.