Pro Audio Files

15 Essential Tips for New Audio Engineers

You might be reading this because you want to record and engineer your own music. You may or may not have already been mislead by marketing campaigns geared towards home recordists.

Well, that term in itself is outdated. Almost half of the records I make these days are on mobile recording units. It’s hardly a hobbyist way to make a record these days.

Usually a few weeks into your maiden voyage, you’ll realize it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Turns out buying gear recommended by the staff at Guitar Center alone will not yield the sounds you desire. At this point you will spiral a little.

It’s not as simple as you’ve been led to believe. Engineering a recording is a complicated craft. Just like playing an instrument, it means you’ll have to study and practice.

The learning process can be tricky. Many learn from the Internet. The web is an incredibly valuable resource. But, it doesn’t lay out information in a consecutive manner. Meaning you’re likely to learn phase 28 before you learn phase 2.

I thought that perhaps I can help by laying out some fundamentals for learning. No in any particular order:

1. Don’t worry about mastering

Mastering is a separate art. If you’re new to recording, you need to focus your energy on the many steps before mastering. Yes, you’re going to be tempted with all the fancy mastering plugins for your DAW, but stay strong. Mastering is the last phase.

2. Make sure your gear sounds great in your room

If the drums sound like dung in the room and you place microphones on them, what would logic tell you? You’re going to record poo. This applies to every instrument. You can’t almost get it there … You have to get it there.

3. You don’t need a full microphone closet

Microphone choices are great. But too many will cloud your decision making process at first. It takes time to learn a microphone. Start with as few as possible and put them on as many sources as you can. Dig deep into each microphone’s identity.

4. Read manuals and take notes

Yeah, we’re all rebels who hate reading manuals. We can just figure it out, right? Yes and no. It takes a lot longer to discover everything that one read of a manual can teach you. I always take notes in a dedicated gear journal so I can find the important stuff later.

5. Take your time getting sounds

You’re going to feel rushed on many occasions. You might have a great idea and want to lay it down. That’s what iRecorder is for on your iPhone. Record the idea so you have a document of it. Now, proceed to figure out what the best way to capture the sound. Sometimes, this is longer than the actual playing.

6. Have sessions where the only goal is to learn

There are sessions that are serious and sessions that are for growth. Make sure you get in as many for growth sessions as possible. Ones where errors are acceptable for experimentation or learning.

7. Don’t overprocess at first

Avoid the impulse to put as many plugins on your channel as humanly possible. I rarely have more than 2, it should sound good with none. The plugins you do add are either for embellishment or destructive creativity. Know the difference.

8. Don’t think it will work out in the mix

Some things you can’t fix. You just try to hide the scars with heavy makeup. If it isn’t right, do it again.

9. Phase, phase, phase

Phase is going to baffle you for some time. Get in touch with your inner phase zen. It’s one of the biggest sore thumbs of an inexperienced engineer. Learning how to keep things in phase can make your recordings sound like a million bucks.

10. Learn each plugin like an instrument

Plugins are tools just like microphones and instruments. Limit your collection of plugins. Learn to use a selected few. Know them inside and out. Learn their limitations and the ways you can exploit them.

11. Don’t worry about mixing

Recording isn’t mixing. Like mastering, mixing is its own art. If you’re starting out recording your own music, you need to learn what is going to be easy to mix, not necessarily how to mix it. If you put all the faders up and it sounds good (but unbalanced) you’ve done good. If not, back to the chopping block.

12. Avoid marketing 

That one thing you swear is really going to make a difference in your record — it probably won’t. Time spent developing skills will.

13. Move microphones

You may have to do this multiple times for each source. Every time you record, it’s part of the process. Don’t make assumptions that there is a G spot (the myth that all men have been told). Don’t be lazy. Move the mics around.

14. Mono is your friend at first 

Two mics are harder to deal with than one. Start by recording mono sources. Try to pace your learning. You’re not gong to be Ken Scott over night.

15. Learn what’s relevant to your style

There is a lot of static about recording. Try to read articles from engineers/producers/musicians related to the type of music you want to record.

If you’re into jazz, reading articles based on recording metal drums isn’t so relevant. Even if it’s good advice. Seek good advice from those who share similar tastes. Branch out later.

So…

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll discover a steady rate of progress. Although you won’t acquire everything you need overnight, you’re less likely to get stuck or sidetracked.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com
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  • Pretty cool. I have & love that LoFi Junky…no other pedal like it. How’d you setup the reamp pedal though…could you explain a bit more about the signal chain? Particularly, the in & outs used, I’m curious how to setup the interface to reamp. Much appreciated. Thanks.

    • Hey @patientminds:disqus, I think you meant to leave this comment on Mark’s latest post.

    • haha…totally. My bad.

  • Ken Bateman

    Very well put and soild foundational laws or ideals for aproaching recording with artistry in mind. I applaud your effort to convey essential skills that many people would prefer to skip around about the way most people treat equipment mannuals. Thanks Mark, you have a solid writing talent to go along with your audio artistry. Ken Bateman