Go For The Big Wins In Recording (Or It's Not About The Gear)

2014 May 16, 2014

There are so many elements to making a great recording. But most of them are a big waste of your time.

Seriously, you could spend hours swapping out microphones, preamps, EQ settings, and even tweaking things like the sample rate in your DAW and maybe see some slight improvement (more like slight “change” if we’re being honest).

Or you could spend a few minutes making some simple tweaks that have huge impact to your sound. I call this concept: going for the big wins.


Via Marc Wathieu Flickr

Big Win #1 – Mic Placement Changes Everything

I don’t care which microphone you’re using or what room you’re recording in, the single biggest factor in determining how your final recordings will sound is how and where you place the mic. Nothing else you will do can have that much impact.
This is hugely encouraging because it’s not based on what gear you use or how smart you are. Instead it’s child’s play: literally you play around like a kid would. Put a mic in front of your instrument. Record a few seconds. Listen back. Ask yourself this one question: does it sound good?

If not, then move the mic (or change the angle) and repeat the process. Then ask yourself this question: does it sound better now? If so, congrats! You’re figuring out the subtle art of mic placement. If not, congrats! The same process is happening.

Whether the recording sounds better or worse is irrelevant. What matters is that you are hearing a difference and are learning in the process. With each move and tweak of the mic you are making HUGE changes on your final sound and you’ll get better as you go.

Nothing else you do in a recording session matters as much. Nothing.

Big Win # 2 – Turning Down The Preamp

Want to get the best out of your recordings? Then do yourself a favor and turn down the gain on your preamp or audio interface. Seriously, chances are high that you are recording way too hot.

I probably sound like a broken record to many of you, but one of the best things you could possibly do for the quality of your recordings is to record at much more conservative levels than you are used to.

The way digital audio works is simple: our convertors these days do a marvelous job of taking your analog mic signal and turning it into pristine digital information. Everything sounds good and uniform until you hit 0dBfs (the top of your meter) and in one instant that clear musical audio turns to digital nastiness.

Why even play that dangerously close to the edge? Turn down the preamp and record at a conservative volume that doesn’t peak anywhere close to -6dB. You have no major noise floor to fight (like they did in the analog world) and your tracks will sound just as good.

On top of that, many plugins in your DAW sound better when the audio passing through them isn’t so hot. So do your mixes a favor in the recording phase and track at a conservative volume. It’s a win-win.

Big Win # 3 – Work On Your Arrangement

I wish more home studio owners would get this concept. It’s so powerful and so fun. But unfortunately many people seem to skip right over it.

Your actual arrangement of a song makes a HUGE impact on the sound of your final tracks. That’s right. Which instruments you record, and where in the song you record them, and how they interact with each other does so much more for the final mix than any gear swap or fancy plugin.

So many newer engineers record way too many tracks (making your final mix sound washed out and muddy), or far to few tracks (giving you a boring and lifeless recording). What you really want is an intentional arrangement, one where every second counts and every track has a purpose.

You actually discover this concept when you do more mixing. People give you tracks for mixing, it’s hard to get them to sound good together, so you slowly start muting things and all of a sudden: the mix comes to life! The problem was a lazy arrangement, and the solution was intentionality.

A little goes a long way here. You don’t need to be a top level composer or producer, just think through your song and make sure every part that you record has a purpose and adds to the song without taking something away.

Go Farther With Big Wins

On your next recording session, pick one of these “big wins” and focus on it almost exclusively. Heck, if you can focus on all three that’s awesome. Either way you’ll see better results, and get closer to the tracks you hear in your head, than by incessant gear swapping.

So question: which of these “big wins” resonated with you the most? Where do you think you need to put your energy in your next tracking session? Sound off!

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