When I was getting into home recording I wanted my music to sound huge. Truth was, my recordings sounded small and flat.
I wanted punchy guitars, a wide stereo image, and an overall powerful mix coming through the speakers – like what I heard on all my favorite songs.
I figured the way to get there was to layer as many awesome tracks as I could, in hopes that the cumulative effect of all those sounds would result in the hard hitting, speaker pumping sound I was after.
Turns out I was off – way off.
In fact, today I want to show you that the real way to get huge sounding recordings and mixes is by reducing the number of tracks you record. And to make my point, I’m going to let some rock bands from the 90s demonstrate this phenomenon.
Photo by Nigel Crane/Redferns
You Only Have So Much Room (So Use It Wisely)
It’s natural to think that more is better. But when it comes to a stereo recording (MP3, Wav, or other format) the opposite is true.
We have to remember we’re working with a fixed amount of sonic “real estate”. There’s only so much space to fit sounds into – specifically the left and the right speaker (width), the frequency spectrum (height), and ambience (depth).
Our goal when recording and mixing music is to create as much impact as we can within the confines of that space.
If you keep shoving track after track into that space, it makes it harder to hear what is already there. Much like putting far too much furniture in a living room where it’s both a visible mess and a safety hazard.
No one would want to relax in there.
If however you had a living room with minimal furniture, but just the right pieces, you would have a functional and inviting space.
When it comes to recording our songs we need to think hard about what elements are truly needed in the song and ONLY record those. The result? Bigger sounding tracks!
It might seem counterintuitive, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.
All They Need Is Two Guitars, Bass, Drums, and Vocals
Now I want to play you some examples from some of my favorite 90s (and early 2000s) bands who display this concept perfectly. But before I do, just a quick word of preface.
This concept applies to ANY genre, not just rock.
Today I’m going to be using rock arrangements as the examples, but the principle is true for you no matter what kind of music you make. The fewer the tracks, the better the chance your music will sound bigger and more powerful.
OK – on to the examples.
One thing all three have in common is this: they have a simple formula for that big rock sound.
That formula involves drums, bass, and vocals up the middle and then a simple pair of guitars on the left and the right. At its core, this is all their recordings and mixes are.
Granted, more parts come in and out to keep things interesting, but the foundation for what makes these songs sound as big as they do is a simple two guitar, bass, drums, vocals arrangement. It couldn’t be more elegant.
Let’s begin with Green Day and their massive hit American Idiot mixed by one of my favorite rock mixers, Chris Lord-Alge.
From the brief intro guitar up the middle it goes right into the doubled wide guitars – and it sounds huge!
Nothing more, nothing less. Just simple guitars out on the sides with drums, bass, and vocals up the middle.
If you pay close attention you’ll hear some great automation decisions as Chris mixed the drums up at certain moments (kick drum early on and toms when the band cuts out). Nice touch!
Next we go way back to 1999 with the (can I say one hit wonder?) by Lit called My Own Worst Enemy.
Same great use of the stereo space and minimal tracks here.
The main difference compared to the Green Day song is that there’s a hook lead guitar part that is more dominant throughout the song. They treat this part like a lead vocal and pan it up the middle when there’s no singing.
In the chorus they layer another distorted guitar up the middle and then a tasteful lead part on the right side. But that’s it.
The song hits hard and sounds huge, because it’s simple.
On to our third and final example for the day – one of those songs that was stuck in my head for an entire year of high school, Inside Out by Eve 6.
Again here we have a simple collection of tracks.
Drums, bass, vocals all up the middle. Then the main two guitars on the left and the right.
These core tracks are periodically augmented with more guitars and vocals to move the song along and create interest (a huge part of the sweetening process) but that’s about it.
Your Homework Before The Next Project
Here’s the deal. Whether or not you like these bands or whether or not you work on guitar based rock music, one thing is likely true: you want big sounding “radio ready” songs coming out of your home studio.
And there is a method to getting your songs to that level.
Truthfully it starts WAY back in the songwriting phase. You need to be writing better songs if you want better sounding recordings.
But assuming you have a good song, the next most important thing to consider is what we’ve been talking about today – the arrangement. And as I’ve showed you, less is more when it comes to a powerful arrangement.
So – I have some homework for you to complete before your next recording project.
Map Out Your Next Song
First – I want you to create your own song map like the one shown below.
Your recording or mix is like a box – you must choose wisely what fits inside and where it will be placed.
You can do this in less than 60 seconds on a piece of scrap paper if you like.
Draw a box and label “left”, “center”, and “right” accordingly. Then inside the box simply fill out what are the main tracks/instruments needed for the song and where will they be placed.
This gives you a quick visual reminder of not only what will be recorded in the song, but that there is a limit to how much space you have to work with.
This physical reminder of sonic limits is critical.
It forces you to decide what elements of your song are most important and what is simply a nice idea.
All three songs I showed you today would have a song map like the example above. Vocals, bass, and drums are up the middle flanked by two guitars on the left and right. That’s it.
You might not have guitars. Or you might have a piano on one side and an acoustic guitar on the right.
Either way, you have a limited amount of space to present your song so make the best use of it by mapping it out first.
Follow The Steps To A “Radio Ready” Song
After mapping out your next song you will be in a much better position to record an awesome sounding track. This arranging phase is a critical step to great sounding songs.
But it is only one step of many.
In fact there are six key steps to building a song that sounds the way you want it to sound. Songs that sound so good they could be on the radio.
The last part of your homework today is to download the guide and read it. It will change how you approach music making in your home studio forever.
That’s it for today my friend.
I hope you’re beginning to see that in so many ways, less is truly more in the world of music making. Once you let that lock in, working in your home studio is a more freeing experience!