When I was in college, all of my audio professors and books taught me to record as clean as possible, no effects. Just microphone to preamp to converter. Leave the EQ, compression, and other effects for the mixing phase.
The rationale was that you can’t undo effects on the way in so don’t play with fire. Just record things clean and then you can commit to the type of sound you want later. It’s a great idea in theory, until I realized that it was one of the biggest philosophies holding me back from making better music.
Via the Italian voice Flickr
Why Wait To Make It Better?
What I’ve come to accept is that by recording “clean” all these years I’ve basically been telling myself that I’ll make it sound better, later. In fact, one band I was producing an album for used to joke on me in the tracking sessions saying “Graham will make it sound better…later!”
Fortunately they trusted me and the mixes turned out great. But how messed up is that?! I was recording in such a way that the tracks sounded OK, but I assumed I could make them better in the mix.
If You Have Effects, Use Them
If in my mind I know that I want to compress that snare drum a bit to get that nice round fat tone, why wait to do that with a plugin later if I have a means to compress it on the “way in” to my DAW? Many audio interfaces these days are coming loaded with onboard DSP for compress, EQ, and even reverb. So why not use them now so that the snare drum sounds the way you want from the beginning?!
Likewise if you have insert jacks in your interface then you can easily patch in a compressor or EQ and do the same thing. If, for example, the drum overheads sound great but there is a little bit of muddiness caused by the room you’re recording in, go ahead and patch in an EQ to cut out a bit of low mids to clean them up.
You’d likely do it with a plugin down the road anyway, so why not do it now?
Fear Of Commitment
At the end of the day the rationale for recording without effects is fear of commitment. It delays the decision making process to the mixing phase (and sometimes even to the mastering phase!) It’s crazy to me. What we end up with is a bunch of clean recorded tracks that have no character and need a lot of work. This flips our mixing to recording ratio around way too much and sucks the fun out of mixing.
Now if something sounds great with just a microphone and a preamp, beautiful. No need for effects just for the sake of using them. But if you aren’t happy with the sound, and mic placement alone isn’t the solution, don’t wait to fix it in the mix, grab an EQ or compressor and make it happen!