Top 5 Recording Tips from Warren Huart
Today, I want to talk about my top five recording tips. These are the five things that I think about every single time I go to record an acoustic guitar, drums, vocals, electric guitar, pianos, you name it. These are the things that I think about every single time.
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Now, it’s pretty interesting, because one of the things overriding things I have noticed while — you know, scanning YouTube looking for tips myself and — because I love this, to be honest. It’s fantastic that we have this resource that we can all go and find great information from wonderful people.
All I see is this massive emphasis on “fix it in the mix.” There’s this enormous “fix it in the mix” mentality. There is not enough talking about recording things really well in the first place, and you know, if you go to school — I didn’t — but if you did go to school, and many of you have, they are teaching you how to be good recording engineers, and to be honest, 90% of my life, whether I’m producing a track or co-writing or a combination or playing on it, 90% of my life is engineering. It is recording the material.
That is the biggest part of what I do. If I’m doing a six week record, like I just finished up that Ace Freely album, most of it was engineering. You know, we mixed on the back end, but we were recording drums, recording Ace’s guitars, and all of it was about getting the sound right in the first place. So when we came to mix, it was really, really super close.
If you watch a lot of my videos, some of them, I’m doing a lot of plugins to completely change the sound, and I’m trying some weird stuff, and maybe I was doing that while producing, but a lot of them as well, you’ll see hardly any plugins on the sources.
So it’s important, I think, to — for us to focus on the recording process, and it’s not about having a hundred channels to record everybody live. Most of the time, I’m just like you. I have one mic pre, one microphone, a compressor, maybe some EQ, and that’s it. That’s all that’s going on. It’s usually one, maximum two sources at any time.
So anyway, I think it’s really important that we concentrate on recording. So these top five tips are my recording tips.
Number one, and the most important thing for me is get the source right at the beginning. So what I mean by that is if I’m going to do a rock guitar overdub, whether it be — let’s say it’s something like one of those Johnny Greenwood guitar parts that I love. You know, those super fast ones.
If it’s going to be a part that’s going to cut through in the mix over dense guitars, and keys, and maybe strings, and background vocals, and all this kind of stuff, I don’t just record it really, really loud, so I can hear it. It’s not about recording things loud and then fixing in the mix afterwards. I try to think about how do I want it sonically to sit in there?
So if I need that to poke its head through, it might have to be a little bit more screaming high mid. That’s an easy thing to do. You know, we’ll EQ the amp so it’s got a bit more high mid. But what about other things? What about adding like, a delay pedal to it?
That’ll give me a little thickness, because of course, especially if it’s an analog simulated delay pedal, or an analog simulated plugin. But what about putting a little bit of pitch shifting or something like that on it, just so it kind of has its own thing. A little ear candy.
Just making it so different to everything else, because it’s not always about recording something purely, sometimes it’s about recording something that’s a little wrong, because that wrongness might draw your ear to it, and it doesn’t have to be that loud in that respect.
A lot of the times, in densely recorded material, when I do a high line guitar at the end, I might use a wah pedal and push the wah full down so it’s super, super high screamy, and yes, it will cut through because of that, and so I don’t have to feature it as loud, because it just creates its own spot.
This is true of having a snare drum perfectly tuned. Having it so it’s really aggressive, so that all you have to do is put the SM57 or whatever snare drum mic on it, and it sits in the mix. To me, it’s about get the sound source right in the first place, and you’ll have a lot less work to do.
You won’t have to sit there and think about all of the crazy things you’ve got to do to make it mix. Somebody that mixes that we’ve talked to are saying they’re getting hundreds of tracks and they don’t have a roadmap of what the artist was trying to do. They’re just recording everything flat, then trying to figure it out in the mix.
I’m seeing so much of that at the moment that I’d love to just have you focus on recording something the way that you want to hear it.
Number two, keep it simple. Keep your chain simple, so that you’re not adding a lot of noise and hum.
So basically, if I’ve got a guitar amp and it’s twelve feet away from me, put your mic in front, run a shorter cable. Don’t run a massively long cable. You’re really asking for trouble, especially in home studio environments, where you know, we have lights that aren’t properly shielded. They’re just home lights. They don’t have these massive rheostats on them, which studios have, so you know, and the same thing with guitar cables. If you’re running super long guitar cables, you’re going to pick up a lot of noise, and buzzes, and mains hum.
So try to keep it simple. Use shorter cable runs. Don’t add lots and lots of gear in between that you aren’t using. You know, it’s nice to have the mic pre with three different types of compressor for you to audition, and EQs and stuff, sure. When you’re on your own and you’re experimenting, do that. But when you don’t need that piece of gear, take it out of the chain.
So if it’s literally just SM57, mic pre, compression, DAW, do that. If there’s no compressor, take it out of the chain, because it will add some noise to the signal. There’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re using analog equipment, they have an inherent noise floor, and if you’re boosting signal continuously, and you’re recording an acoustic guitar, you might have this beautiful delicate part. As soon as you compress it and push it up in the mix, you’ll find all inherent noise floor will come up with it.
So keep it simple. Use the minimal amount of equipment you really need. If you need a lot of things in the way, great, but if you only need a mic and a mic pre, keep it simple and use short cable runs.
Thirdly, this is a big one for me. Stereo or mono. Do you need to record everything in stereo?
You know, it’s — when I first started, I had so much fun getting into a studio and running room mics on absolutely everything. And I know I talked about this before, but I think it’s an important thing to remind myself, because when I’m plugging in a guitar, and I’m in a bigger room than my little room here, there’s always — I want to add ambience to it.
Now, that’s great, but do I need the ambience? Is that the overall effect of the song that I want?
Of course if you’re doing something where you want to have an — how can I say it — like, an older sound and you want the sound of the room and you’re in a great room, then do that, but be aware that once you’ve recorded 22 things with room ambience on it, it will literally just sound like a big wash of room ambience, and it’s going to be very hard to get it defined.
The thing about the classic recordings that did that — the Phil Spector stuff, in particular, you know, that was everybody in a room at the same time, so the ambience was being picked up together. It wasn’t 22 stereo mics worth of ambience that are all going to fight each other. It was the ambience of everybody in the room.
If you listen to the Beach Boys, and I highly suggest you watch the movie Love and Mercy, I think iTunes was doing it over the Christmas break for 99 cents. Watch Love and Mercy, it’s fantastic.
They show you going in to recording studios like United and Gold Star, and even Sunset Sound. You see them in these studios, and you see that everybody was in one room. There was the Hal Blaine, the drummer, Carol Kaye, the bass player, there was a guitar player. It was fantastic, but you get the idea.
The bleed from all of the instruments created that ambience. You can try to fake it like that, but if you want to create that stereo ambient idea, but you’re recording everybody individually, or more likely, like myself, you’re probably sitting in your bedroom recording everything on your own.
Create a sub. You know, of like, a plate simulation or a room simulation, and take a little tiny bit from each instrument, and just feed it in lightly just to create artificial ambience. That will honestly give you a better result than trying to record ambient mics on every single instrument independently.
As much as that feels like a great way of working, I can just tell you, of all the thousands and thousands of songs I’ve done, that is very, very difficult. We did that on the Aerosmith record. We recorded ambience on everything, and when we came to mix, we used it on selective one or two things. Most of the time, it wasn’t there, and we just sort of faked it in other ways.
The times it did work is when there was ambience of everybody playing in the room, and luckily, 90% of the record was everybody in the room.
So just be aware of that. Stereo or mono. Most of the time, I stay in mono. If I’m in stereo, it’s stereo piano, it’s maybe two guitar amps, because I’ve got a delay effect going. It’s very, very limited how many times I use stereo micing.
Fourthly, this is a big one, because I’ve come across this so many times when I’ve made this mistake. Give yourself enough headroom recording. Now, this is a two-point kind of thing for me, because if you do have a nice hardware compressor, if you do, use it. Utilize it. Learn how to use it, because it will really be your friend, and it will help you commit to sound, and you’ll honestly make your life mixinga lot easier.
I don’t mean squash it completely to pieces so it’s just a big square blob that I see in a lot of videos. Where it’s just a big blob of square-ness. You don’t want that, but you want to have control over dynamic range just enough so that it’s not completely jumping in and out of your mix.
If you don’t have a nice hardware compressor, you can obviously buss through your DAW, or you can of course, print it without any compression at all. Now, if you’re in that situation, make sure you leave enough headroom, because drums in particular are massively dynamic, so a drummer might be sitting there going, [imitates drums], then he’s suddenly, [imitates loud drums].
And it’s not just one transient, because there’s nothing wrong with the occasional transient clipping. I’m never going to think that just because a transient clips three times in a song that you have to reduce the signal by 3dB. That’s not a big deal at all, but if a guy does a huge snare fill, and it’s literally distortion, distortion, distortion, distortion, that’s not good.
So make sure you leave enough headroom. When I’m working with bands, I would always sound check them, get levels, and then I would have them all play and just be aware that once they’re playing, they dig in deeper. They’re all jamming together and I’m sitting there, clicking back the gain on every channel.
So make sure you give yourself enough headroom.
Lastly, number five is a big one for me. It’s kind of similar to number one, it’s a big deal for me, and I think it’s what make the great, great records that we grew up listening to loving — they all share this one thing. They committed to a sound. Commit to a sound.
I’ve been told this so many times, and if you go online, you download these multitracks of famous songs, not that I’m subscribing that, but I’m saying they are available if you want to find them.
You’ll notice if you pull them up in your DAW and put them all flat, they sound like the record. They are made by wonderful engineers and producers who were committing to the sound.
Now, why? You commit to the sound so that you can create a new sound again, and again, and again.
I was in United Recording the other day, which I was really blessed to go, and I was demoing a new microphone. I’m not going to sell you on the mic, you’ll hear about the mic later, it’s a great mic. What’s great about this mic is that it has a stereo capsule. It has a capsule that sees off the front and the back, and so you can record two separate signals, and then blend them.
So what I can do is I can go, “Oh, you know, I can change the polar pattern by manipulating the back to the front.” These are all wonderful things that you can do, but to demonstrate all of the different wonderful things you could do, I put the mic over the drum kit.
So here I had a drummer. I was blessed with a wonderful drummer, and I took the mic, and I pulled it back about three feet from the kit, up above the kit, and pointed it down. So it had a nice view of the kit.
When I say pointed it down, one capsule is pointing this way, another is pointing this way, at the drum kit. Not front on and back. We did do that as well, but we did it so it was like this.
So it gave me a wonderful stereo image of the kit. When I say wonderful, it was amazing how accurate it was. It’s like, the ride cymbal played, the hi-hat played, because it was one mic and it was one stereo capsule, there was no phasing. I mean, it’s probably the best polarity I’ve ever heard in my life, so I record Blair playing a groove.
I have him come into the studio and I play it back to him. Bear in mind, this is a wonderful drummer who’s played on incredible records in a wonderful studio, and he comes in, and he’s like, “That’s the best drum sound I’ve heard in years,” and I’m like, “Well, I’m not a magician. It’s just one microphone with great polarity pointed at a drum kit, and a great drummer playing very balanced.”
We both looked at each other and went, “Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make a record like this?” And I was like, “This is kind of how all of these great records were made.” They got this incredible drum sound in the simplest possible way, because they only had four tracks, or eight, or sixteen, or in the glory days, 24 tracks, but still a very limited amount of tracks. Then they added to it.
We took this one mic, and then we went and put it on a stand up bass, and we did a bass track. Then we did guitars, and all of this kind of stuff, and the thing was, it had an inherent sound, and by having this beautiful, open drum sound, it made us think about how the next thing we recorded was going to be.
That’s what I mean by commit to a sound. It doesn’t have to be one mic on a drum kit. It can be fifteen, it can be four, it can be three, you know. The point is, if you commit to a sound that you love, and you get something great, that will dictate how you move on.
So when you come to the bass, you might be like, “Well, I don’t want the bass — the bottom end to fight with this beautiful open kick drum,” so suddenly you’re shaping the bass in a different way. You’re not fixing it in the mix, you’re recording it the way you want to hear it, so when you do mix, it’s more about volume adjustments, and small amounts of compression and EQ, and little multi-effects here. It’s kind of a less is more.
It will help you so much, because your polarity will be so much more accurate. You won’t have multiple things going on. It’s just a great way of working. The wonderful albums we grew up listening to, the incredible pieces of music that people have made were all made that way. They committed to the sound.
So thank you ever so much for watching. Please, you know, I’m not an expert. I’m just giving you my experience of — you know, this is stuff I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been recording. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve made a couple of records, I’ve mixed some albums, and I’ve been doing these videos, and it’s wonderful to have my world sort of mixed together like this, because I’m learning from everybody here, and you’re giving us comments. I love this wonderful sense of community we’re creating, it’s really amazing, and it helps me — when I help you, I help myself, and I learn from you.
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