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50 Quick Tips for Capturing Great Recordings

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All great producers and engineers know that the key to a great mix is a great recording. On that note, here are 50 quick-tips on getting the best results in the studio:

1. Make the Artist/Performer Comfortable

As inconsequential as it may seem, the actual environment in which you’re recording a musician can have a huge impact on their ability to perform comfortably. Think of it this way: which is more inspiring and likely to spark a legendary performance? A messy, dirty bedroom which smells like sweaty socks or a beautifully lit, clean, spacious studio with some cool music artwork on the walls?

2. Eliminate as Much Unwanted Noise as Possible

Unwanted noise is difficult to remove after the fact, so you’re much better off trying to eliminate it before you start on any serious recording. Use balanced cabling where possible, turn off the AC, put all phones in flight mode and turn off any LED lights which are causing hum or interference.

3. Eliminate the Room From the Equation

A good general rule of thumb for recording most instruments: record as dry as possible and add ambiance/room later on depending on what the song calls for. If you capture a lot of the room in your signal to begin with it’s almost impossible to remove after the fact. I’d highly recommend investing in some acoustic panels and general acoustic treatment for your room early on in your audio career and prioritizing this stuff over buying fancy analog equipment. If you compress a roomy vocal recording with a fancy $2000 hardware compressor, it’s just gonna bring up the sound of your crappy room.

4. Try Using Drum Patterns Instead of Click Tracks

Some musicians can have a hard time trying to follow along to a “robotic” click track. In these cases, I often find programming in a basic midi drum pattern for them to “groove along to” instead can mean the difference between a sloppy performance and a great performance.

5. Bake It in at the Source

Sometimes you’ll get a guitarist rocking up to your studio with a huge pedalboard full of weird and wonderful devices which create “their sound.” Although your first inclination as an engineer might be to tell them to turn everything off and record as “clean” as possible so that “better” FX can be added in post, that’s probably not gonna result in a particularly fun recording experience for them or allow them to give an inspired performance. Don’t insist on trying to hijack people’s “sound” with “your sound.” Instead, help them facilitate an objective “best version” of their sound, and capture it to tape in the simplest way possible.

6. Don’t Have a “Fix It in the Mix” Mentality

During recording, usually out of sheer laziness, we often kid ourselves into thinking we’ll be able to simply “fix something in the mix” when in reality it would be much easier to just get it right at the source. Think of it this way: all of those “fixes” are gonna add up, meaning that when it comes time for the mix you’re probably gonna spend more time fixing than mixing and potentially rob the song of your creative, musical, inspired “initial gut mixing decisions.”

7. Invest in Fresh Strings & Skins

A new pack of guitar/bass strings or a fresh set of drum skins is equivalent to a whole lot of high-end brightening EQ and “attack enhancing” compression during the mix. Save yourself the time & effort and just spend a few extra bucks before recording.

8. Pick the Right Pick for the Job

Did you know that something as simple as changing the type of guitar pick being used when playing a guitar or bass part can be the key to achieving the guitar sound you’re after? Try experimenting with a few different pick thicknesses & materials and you’ll instantly notice how the bass, treble and attack characteristics can differ from pick to pick.

9. Moving the Mic Slightly Can Save You a Whole Lotta Eq…

Recording legend Al Schmitt (Toto, Steely Dan, Frank Sinatra) is famous for not using any EQ or compression in mixes that he’s recorded himself. How does he achieve this amazing feat? By moving the microphones around until they’re actually capturing the sounds he wants to hear in the final record! It’s sad really, we’re often so reliant on EQ and “fixing” things nowadays that we’ve forgotten the true meaning of the “recording engineer” title.

10. The First Few Takes Are Often the Best

Did you know that some of the most iconic recorded vocal performances of all time from the likes of David Bowie, Frank Sinatra and Elvis were recorded in A SINGLE TAKE?!? Modern studio technology and editing is cool and all, but it’s no replacement for a great singer who’s hyped on adrenaline and excited to sing some great lyrics that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Remember that at the end of the day it’s emotion that has the biggest impact on a listener, so don’t be afraid to choose an emotional (albeit slightly flawed) take over a technically “perfect” one if it truly resonates with the artistic vision.

11. Record EVERYTHING

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made the mistake of saying “let’s do a quick warm-up take”, or “let’s give this section a try” and not actually hitting the record button only to realize that I’ve missed out on capturing the best takes of the entire session a few seconds after hitting play. Don’t be like me, record all of the “warm ups” and “first tries.”

12. Keep the Bleed to a Minimum

Although the musician you’re recording may want their headphones CRANKED to “get in the zone” during tracking, the result will probably be a lot of unwanted click-bleed in your recordings which is a huge pain to try and get rid of after the fact. Tell them nicely why they should probably turn things down a notch and save yourself the trouble later on.

13. Get the Headphone Balance Right

Having a good headphone mix to sing along to is crucial for a vocalist to give the best performance. If their voice is too loud in their cans, they’ll potentially end up singing too softly to compensate. If the melodic instruments aren’t loud enough, they might have trouble pitching the right notes. Long story short, spend a few minutes making sure everything is balanced at the right level BEFORE you begin recording and guarantee the best results from the get-go.

14. Commit to Sounds Where Possible

One of the biggest differences between “the olden days” of analog and modern day digital recording is that we now have the tools and processing power to change things at any point during the production process. Although this was indeed a huge (and mostly welcome) leap forward it brought along with it the dangerous mentality of “nothing ever being final.” The problem? If nothing is ever final then how are you supposed to build a cohesive soundscape where all of the instruments/sounds work together and compliment each other? Simply put: decisions dictate decisions. Choosing a certain drum sound will warrant a certain bass sound. Choosing that bass sound will warrant a certain guitar sound. And so on, and so forth.

15. Make Sure Everyone Knows Their Parts From Back-to-Front

There’s nothing more infuriating in the studio than having to stop in the middle of a recording session and wait for the guitarist to practice their parts for an hour. It’s also not much fun when you have to automate a high-shelf on/off for every other word of a vocal performance because the singer kept going off-axis to read the lyrics off of the iPad they were holding up.

16. The Right Tool for the Job

It’s safe to say that not all instruments are created equal and some are better suited to certain purposes than others. Rather than jumping through hoops to try and get your passive, single-coil Stratocaster to sound heavy, or your active, humbucker-loaded Schecter to sound crystal-clean, just choose the right instrument for the job to begin with.

17. Try a Different Microphone…

Sometimes no matter how good the microphone, it’s just not the right tool for the job. The Sony C800G is a beautiful, legendary $15,000 piece of gear but it’s super bright and really won’t pair well with an already-bright voice.

18. Don’t Record Too Hot

The second the preamps on your interface peak and hit red during recording, that means digital clipping is being introduced into your signal and valuable transient information is being lost with no way of being recovered. Set your input gain to always allow a fair bit of headroom for peaks and loud sections and guarantee no loss of dynamic transient data or unwanted distortion in your recordings.

19. But Don’t Record Too Cold Either…

On the other hand, if you play things “too safe” and end up tracking way too quietly, you’re not leaving enough room between your recording equipment’s noise floor and your performance. When you turn up the performance after-the-fact you’ll end up bringing a whole lot of noise along with it.

20. Use a Pop Filter

Unless you want to end up with a vocal recording that’s exploding and distorting every time there’s a breathy “P” or “B” sound, make sure to use a pop filter. Maintain 3-4 inches between the filter and mic and another 3-4 inches between the singer and filter.

21. Keep Things Simple

When it comes to recording and music production, a lot of the time less is more. When I think about it, a lot of my favorite guitar tones from the 70s and 80s were the ever-so-simple result of the guitarist just rocking up to the studio, plugging straight into a loud amp and 4×12 cab and just rocking out. At the end of the day (although FX units, pedals, and all sorts of bells and whistles can be used to create new & unique sounds) a lot of the time if a riff or melody doesn’t sound good when played back on an acoustic guitar in its simplest form, then it’s probably not that good to begin with.

22. Don’t Fret Over the %1, Focus on the Big Picture!

When spending long durations working on a single musical project, we often get so caught up in tiny details and differences that we can no longer see the forest for the trees. Some of the biggest hits by The Beatles which sold tens of millions of copies were riddled with mistakes but they often chose to just “Let It Be” (excuse my bad pun), because the overall performance had a good vibe and simply put, “did the job.”

23. Experiment on Your Own Time

Experimentation in the studio is key to becoming a great engineer. This is best done on your own time, not when you’ve got customers who are paying you by-the-hour with their hard-earned money to get the job done.

24. Be Well Prepared and Ready to Go

When a musician arrives at your studio inspired, excited and ready-to-record the worst thing you can possibly do is spend forever patching in mic cables and setting up headphone mixes to the point that they’re bored and tired by the time you’re actually ready to press play. It’s your job to get everything set up and ready beforehand so that when everyone arrives all they have to do is sit and start playing.

25. Benefit From the Proximity Effect

In layman’s terms, the “proximity effect” is the disproportionate increase in low-end that occurs as a directional microphone gets closer to the sound source. Although in some cases this can be an undesirable effect (when recording someone with a low, bass-heavy voice for instance), with instruments that are lacking a bit of “oomph” you might want to consider placing the microphone closer in order to help beef-up and accentuate what little low-end they have.

26. Invest in Some Good “Workhorse” Microphones

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In large recording studios, you often have access to a huge mic locker with hundreds of options to choose from, and there’s often a “best” microphone for every recording application imaginable. In a more “real world” amateur studio scenario, it’s more feasible to try and get a hold of a few all-round “workhorse” microphones that’ll work well on pretty much any source you throw them at. A few classic examples of great workhorse microphones I can recommend include the Neumann U87, AKG C414, Shure SM57 and Shure SM58.

27. Point the Microphone at the Thing You’re Trying to Capture (Duh…)

“The capsule of the microphone is like an eyeball. It needs to actually be looking at the thing it’s trying to record” – Chris Lord Alge. Example: if you want your snare recording to have more stick attack, point the microphone where the stick hits the skin. If you want to capture more pick attack on an acoustic guitar, angle the microphone somewhat towards the player’s hand.

28. Match the Microphone to the Source

Generally speaking, you want to try and match the microphone you’re using to the source you’re trying to record. For example, if you’re trying to record a bright and brittle source such as a saxophone or string instrument you might want to try using a darker ribbon mic. If you’re trying to record a singer with a darker tone of voice you might want to try a bright condenser microphone.

29. Reference During Recording

When recording artists and bands, they’ll often come to you with references like “I want the drums to sound like Metallica” or “I want the guitars to sound like Green Day.” While you may think you know exactly what they mean and how to go about achieving those results, it’s often a good idea to actually sit down with the artist and listen to some of the songs they’ve mentioned to pinpoint exactly what it is they like about said tones. Have a conversation about how you can best go about recreating or building a new variation of them. Making sure you’re on the same page from the get go will go a long way towards preventing future misunderstandings and do-overs, and can help you reach the end goal a lot sooner.

30. Not Enough Punch/Attack/Definition? PLAY HARDER!

It’s funny when you get a drummer in the studio who wants to sound like John Bonham, but then proceeds to gently tap the drums when it comes to recording. The simple truth is that unless you’re hitting the drum shells like the god of thunder to begin with, no amount of mixing wizardry is going to get them sounding BIG, HARD, and HEAVY after the fact (not unless you just sample-replace the entire performance that is).

31. Choose the Right Strings for the Job

When restringing an acoustic guitar for recording, don’t just go and buy “some guitar strings.” Buy the strings that are going to best fit the guitar and musical context. For example: with a classic Martin D-28 acoustic guitar, I’m a huge fan of using Martin 80/20 Bronze strings, which produce a “piano-like” low-end and clear high-end pick attack. On the other hand, I really dislike the sound of Phosphor Bronze strings on that particular guitar, as I think they result in a less defined low-end and brittle, “fizzy” high-end.

32. Record to Match the Lyrics & Message of the Song

Generally speaking, you want the performances you’re capturing to fit the vibe and message of the track. If you’re trying to record a balls-to-the-wall hard rock track, you don’t want to end up with a mumbly, soft vocal performance just leisurely “cruising along” on top of the instrumental. Do whatever it takes to get that singer pumped up and ready to go. Tell them that you don’t really believe that they mean the things they’re saying. Try and get them to move, emote, enunciate and ACTUALLY PERFORM for the microphone. It’ll translate in your recordings, and that’s what’ll ultimately get potential fans invested and hooked.

33. When Batteries Are Running Low, Call It a Day…

Personally, I find that if a recording session goes on for any longer than 4-5 hours, I tend to lose all of my critical listening ability and perspective. Make sure to take frequent breaks in the studio to give your ears a break, and make sure you’re not just carrying on recording to “get things done” when people are well past their “best-before” date.

34. Make the Most of What You’re Given

An important lesson that I learned fairly early on in my recording career is that you can’t record everything to sound like a million bucks. If a punk band comes into the studio sounding rough and gritty, don’t try and make them sound clean or “professional” with a bunch of fancy recording techniques. Instead, focus on accentuating the raw qualities of the performance to the point that “it’s so bad, it’s good!” Just listen through the Misfits’ discography and you’ll find many examples of these kinds of recordings.

35. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Sometimes when recording musicians in the studio, you’ll come across a weird roadblock that just doesn’t make sense. For example, a singer just can’t keep in time with a certain section of the song for whatever unexplainable reason. In such situations, rather than getting frustrated and saying things like “It’s so simple… just get it right!” come up with a creative solution that will allow the musician to overcome the problem. Even seemingly crazy things like miming and mouthing the part in front of the singer while they record can help with cues. Just do whatever it takes to get the job done!

36. Randomization Can Lead to Inspiration

When stuck in a creative rut and trying to figure out what to do next, a great solution is to scroll through some random sounds or presets to see if anything interesting catches your attention and leads to a new idea. Remember, some of the most iconic sounds of all time were actually just the result of people stumbling across a cool sound and “going with it!”

37. Don’t Lose the Spark, Have Go-to Sounds Ready to Go

When inspiration strikes, you don’t want to have to spend hours setting up microphones and plugging in cables to get it down on tape. This being the case, it’s a great idea to have a list of go-to (albeit maybe not “perfect”) guitar, bass, drum and keys sounds at the ready which you can access quickly to capture a good representation of your idea which can then be improved-upon later on.

38. MIDI: Capture the Performance, Worry About the Sound Later

Although I’m a huge fan of committing to final sounds at the source, in some cases you just need the flexibility to experiment after the fact. Being a drummer/engineer myself, I’m a huge fan of using electronic drum-kits for recording for this exact purpose as they allow me to focus purely on giving the best drum performance without worrying too much about the engineering side of things simultaneously. I can then spend as much time as I need after the fact auditioning different drum tones and building the exact drum sound I’m hearing in my head.

39. Invest in Some Decent Tracking Headphones

Recording vocals can be a fairly time-consuming and focus-oriented ordeal for both singer and engineer. This being the case it’s crucial that both parties are as comfortable as possible for the duration of the process with some nice, soft, high-fidelity cans to listen to throughout. It’s basic math: if what the singer is hearing in their headphones during tracking isn’t inspiring to listen to, they won’t give a very inspired performance. If as an engineer your headphones are fatiguing to listen to during tracking, you’re simply not gonna enjoy the process half as much, and probably want it to be over ASAP.

40. The Knobs on Your Guitar Are There for a Reason!

A lot of the time when recording electric guitar and bass, people will just plug in their instrument and GO (often due to a lack of knowledge of how the electronics work). The truth is, you can often totally transform your tone into something much more suitable with a simple flick of the pickup selector or tweak of the tone knob. Generally speaking, bridge pickups tend to work well for rhythm playing (especially in rock and metal, where you’re looking for a bright and aggressive tone), while neck pickups work well for lead playing (due to the more mid-heavy and “vocal” quality of the tone). That’s great for guitar solos and licks. As for the tone knob, often rolling it down slightly can make for a much less brittle and pleasing tone when working in softer genres of music such as jazz and r&b.

41. Try Pushing Your Preamps HARDER

Unlike the clean, linear, digital preamps built-into your audio interface, with analog microphone preamps such as the Neve 1073 or Chandler TG-2, you’re missing out on some beautiful saturation characteristics when keeping the gain too low. When using these kinds of “color boxes”, it’s often a good idea to experiment with increasing the gain and lowering the output to find a point where the sound really starts to open up and shine.

42. Avoid the Wrath of Your Neighbors, Invest in an Amp Modeler or Load Box!

Recording LOUD guitar amps in a home studio for hours-on-end often isn’t very feasible due to the simple fact that your neighbors are likely to call the cops on you. Luckily, nowadays there are several awesome “silent guitar-recording options” which allow for dead-silent guitar recording at any time of day with added flexibility to improve your tone. Personally, ever since buying a Kemper Profiling Amplifier back in 2014, I’ve sold off all of my physical amplification equipment and never looked back. Alongside being able to record quietly through top-quality guitar rigs, the sheer amount of customization options available just makes it an absolute no-brainer all-in-one guitar recording solution for the modern recording studio.

43. “Can I Get Some Reverb or Something on My Vocals???”

Although a lot of engineers tend to like recording vocals flat and dry in order to hear every nuance of the performance, hearing their vocals in this claustrophobic manner isn’t particularly inspiring for the vocalist behind the mic. Always have a conversation with the person you’re recording to determine whether something as simple as adding a little bit of reverb to their voice might help them get in the mood and deliver a better performance.

44. Communicate Using Plain English

Don’t assume that everyone knows all of the technical lingo you’re throwing around in the studio. When trying to explain something to a musician, make sure they actually understand what you’re saying. You’ll often find that although they say they do, they don’t really and are just embarrassed to ask questions out of the fear of being ridiculed.

45. Choose the Right Key for the Song Before You Start Recording

Imagine this scenario: you’ve spent days scheduling individual recording sessions for each member of the band to come in and record guitars, bass, and keys. You’ve experimented with sounds, amp settings, microphone choice and placement. You’ve also spent hours comping, editing and cleaning up the performances to perfection only for the singer to turn up to the studio and say “can we take this down a few semitones? It’s too high for me.” Trust me, it happens and when it does it makes you want to quit music altogether. Do yourself a huge favor and determine the perfect key for the song and musicians BEFORE you even record a single note.

46. Focus on Passion Over Perfection

Did you know that Black Sabbath’s groundbreaking debut album “Black Sabbath” was recorded, mixed and mastered from start to finish in a matter of 2-3 days? We’re talking about the album which gave birth to a whole GENRE of music (heavy metal), and it was simply the result of 4 working class guys from Birmingham, England getting in the studio and “jamming it out”?!? Stop overthinking music. Make something that makes you feel something. Do it well, of course, but not to the point of “absolute perfection” where there’s no feeling left at all. “Make it so you like it, cause if you like it, they’ll like it.” – Chris Lord Alge

47. Maintain a Positive Vibe & Attitude

Your overall vibe and attitude towards the people you’re recording in the studio can have a much more profound effect on the resulting music than you think. I’ve witnessed people’s ability to perform SOAR after the right positive compliment, and others totally lose confidence after the wrong negative one. No matter how poorly somebody is performing, always try to steer clear of using negative words like “bad”, “wrong”, and “suck.” Instead, try saying something along the line of “cool, how about we try doing it like this?” Even more important, know when to say nothing at all and just give them some time to warm up and get going.

48. The Voice Is an Instrument, Make Sure It’s Prepared for Recording

In the same way that you’d clean, restring, and tune up an acoustic guitar before a recording session it’s also important to make sure that the singer’s vocal cords are fresh, warmed up and ready to go before stepping in front of the mic. Make sure they don’t consume any harsh or sticky/gassy drinks like coffee or coke prior to recording, which can coat their throat. Offering them a warm, refreshing, throat-cleansing mint-tea to open up their lungs, and getting them to perform some basic warm-up exercises for 10-15 minutes before entering the booth will go a long way towards achieving peak performance.

49. Don’t Be Afraid to “Produce”, but Don’t Forget That It’s THEIR SONG!

As a music producer, it’s within your rights to voice your opinions and pitch ideas to the artist/band, but don’t forget that it’s THEIR MUSIC, so they aren’t obligated to do things “your way.” At the end of the day, always remember that the name of the game when looking to build a successful studio business with a constant stream of new and repeat customers is customer satisfaction.

50. CONCLUSION: Music Is Art, Don’t Take It TOO Seriously…

There’s a huge difference between taking music seriously and taking music TOO seriously. At the end of the day, musicians are just merchants of emotion and great storytelling, and the true job of an engineer is to simply capture, convey and enhance (when necessary) without detracting or getting in the way. Don’t get so bogged down in the technical aspects of music production that you forget to listen like a listener and make something which actually makes you feel something.

What are some of your favorite tips for assuring great recordings? Let me know in the comments below!

Thomas Brett

Thomas Brett

Thomas Brett is a producer, engineer and professional writer currently working for PDND Music, a successful record label & recording studio based in Istanbul, Turkey. Thomas has worked with well known Turkish pop artists such as Soner Sarıkabadayı, Beyza Durmaz and Alper Erözer. Learn more and get in touch at thomasbrettmixing.com

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