The 8 "Laws" Of Music Making In The Home Studio

2017 Oct 06, 2017

Today is The Recording Revolution’s 8th birthday!

Exactly 8 years ago on this day I published my first ever post on how to build your home studio for only $500. That article has helped hundreds of thousands of people save money and get more music made than ever before.

And as encouraging as it was back then to be able to put together a home studio for only $500, things have only gotten better in the last 8 years. You can now get started in your home studio for as little as $350!

We truly are living through a recording revolution!

And today I wanted to celebrate the joy that it has been to create some of the world’s best material on recording and mixing over the past 8 years by boiling everything I believe about making music in the home studio into 8 simple “laws”.

Follow these “laws” and your music will truly sound it’s best (while keeping money in your pocket).

Break these “laws” and you might find yourself spinning your wheels year after year while others are out there churning out great sounding records. If you’re like me, you’d prefer the former outcome  Let’s dive in!

Law #1 – Write Better Songs

The simple truth about great recordings is this: you must start with a great song!

Ironically one of the big downsides of this recording revolution is that many artists can simply record every song that comes into their heads, without any thought to whether the song is worth recording in the first place.

If you want a great sounding recording, the best place to start is with a great song. In fact, songwriting is the first of six steps to delivering a radio-ready song.

And be honest with yourself. If you just started writing music this year, your songs likely aren’t that great. Songwriting takes work, so treat it like your job and write as much as you can!

Law #2 – Don’t Waste Money On Gear You Don’t Need

If you have lots of extra money to burn, you can skip past this law. But for the rest of us, pay attention.

You do not need to spend lots of money these days to get a high quality professional sounding studio.

The budget equipment available today (like in my recommended $350 studio) sounds better than stuff 10x its price just 15 years ago.

People don’t believe this until they hear what’s possible on affordable equipment. In fact, some of my music years back on a budget rig helped save one of my students $9,000.

Only buy what you need. Then learn how to make that gear sound amazing. You’ll be happy for two reasons: you’ll have better sounding recordings and a fatter wallet!

Law #3 – Record At Conservative Levels

One reason why so many home studio recordings sound amateur is simply some bad advice that’s held over from the old analog days.

Digital recording is very different than analog recording.

The converters in our audio interfaces, while amazing these days, still cannot handle overloaded signals. When you “clip” your converters, your recordings can’t come back from that.

The key is to record at conservative levels.

You do this by watching the meters in your software while you adjust the gain knob on your preamp or interface. Shoot for 50-75% of the way up the meter.

This will keep you from clipping your converters AND put your signal at the optimal digital sweet spot when it comes time to mix!

Law #4 – Commit To A Sound On Recording Day

One byproduct of the home recording revolution is laziness.

Specifically I mean the inability for new engineers to commit to a sound. They tend to record tracks as clean and basic as possible, deferring the final sonic decisions to the mixing phase.

This is completely backwards to how you want to work.

The recording phase is where sounds should be created and decided upon. The mixing phase is simply where you can balance those great sounding tracks together and present them in the best way possible.

Choose to be a smart engineer and record as if the mixing phase just doesn’t exist.

In fact here are 3 ways to get a killer mix in the recording phase!

Once your recordings sound better than your old mixes, you’ll know you’re on the right track!

Law #5 – Don’t Record More Than 24 Tracks

Laziness in the home studio also manifests itself in how many tracks we tend to record.

Than answer? Way too many!

It’s funny, though, I used to think that that more tracks I recorded, the bigger and more layered my sounds would become. Turns out I had it backwards.

Bigger mixes come from having fewer tracks, not more. Just ask Green Day!

So what is the magic number of tracks then?

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, a good rule of thumb according to producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan) is to shoot for 24 tracks. No more.

History alone tells us that 24 tracks is all you need to make killer sounding record, simply for the fact that mixing consoles only had 24 tracks (or fewer!) for decades – and “somehow” ground breaking records were made.

Also, our present reality shows us that the more tracks we have available, the less intentional we become with each track. We don’t think through whether that track is truly adding to the song or just filling space.

Again, this could be due to poor songwriting, or insecurity about our ability to mix (been there!). But it’s no reason to throw as many tracks at a song as you can hoping they will magically make it better.

Newsflash: it won’t.

Law #6 – Mix In Mono

I love little hacks that guarantee results. Mixing in mono is one of the best I’ve come across!

Simply put, mixing in mono means flipping your entire mix to mono while making your EQ and compression decisions in the mixing the phase. Then flipping it back to stereo again to finish things off.

The rationale is brilliant. Panning gives you a false sense of separation. It covers up the fact that you might have frequency masking in your tracks (where one sound covers up another).

When you fold your mix to mono and every track sounds like it’s on top of the other, it’s harder to hear things clearly.

And that’s a good thing! That reveals that you don’t have your EQ and compression settings correct.

Even Derek Ali (Kendrick Lamar) mixes in mono 80% of the time each mix.

A great mix should sound clear, full, and amazing in mono. Then and only then should you flip back to stere to put the finishing touches on it (panning, reverbs, delays, etc).

Give it try – once you hear the results, you might never go back.

Law #7 – Use As Few Plugins As Possible

As newer mix engineers we tend to be both inexperienced and insecure.

This leads invariably to the overuse of plugins and effects in our mixes.

It’s almost like we know our initial recordings don’t sound as good as they should (see above) so we’re trying make something out of nothing (or turn crap into gold as some of my students say).

Ironically the key to churning out a great sounding mix (assuming you’ve written a great song and recorded it well, again see above) is to use as few plugins as possible. Why is that?

First, this “restriction” forces you to be intentional and make better decisions. You must have a good reason for each plugin, which is a simple hack for making you think, rather than aimlessly inserting effects.

Secondly, the more plugins you add, the more signal degradation you get. Conversely, the fewer plugins you use, the more natural and musical your audio will sound.

As with how many tracks you record, it’s a classic example of “less is more.”

Law #8 – Reference Pro Mixes

There is one recording and mixing technique that works every time, is available to all and costs absolutely nothing to implement – and yet so few do.

It’s the simple act of bringing in a professional recording or mix of a song you like and referencing it while you work on your own music.

Simply put – to mix or master your music in isolation is both arrogant and foolish.

It’s foolish because we have bad sonic memories. While we might think we know what a great kick drum or lead vocal delay sounds like, we actually forget most of the details that matter.

Plus when we work in a bedroom or basement studio, our speakers and room play tricks on our ears and don’t always give us the truth.

Thus, bringing in a professional track to compare our mix to instantly gives a frame of reference and a goal to shoot for. If we know what a “good” song sounds like on our gear in our room, we have something to shoot for with our own song.

Without this reference, we are literally driving blind. Not a good idea 

So What About You?

Whew! That was a lot to take in.

I’m not sure where you are in your recording and mixing journey. Perhaps you are a wiley old vet at this thing, or maybe this is your first time really setting out to record some of your own music. Either way, you might not be following all of these 8 laws.

I know I sure wasn’t for the first decade of music making in my life.

But as I’ve learned over the years, I’ve poured everything I know back into this website – into helping YOU get the most out of your home studio. And I’m humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be one of your teachers and mentors from afar.

And as always, I want to help you grow!

So I’m curious – which of these 8 laws are you “breaking”? And why?

Leave a comment below! And thanks for making the first 8 years of The Recording Revolution so amazing!

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