Top 7 Recording Mistakes We All Make
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So today I want to talk about the seven biggest mistakes that I make when recording.
This is something we all do, and I have done it myself so many times. The number one thing for me is printing proper levels. You don’t want to print too quiet, and you don’t want to print too hot.
Now, the quiet issue comes down to when you’re using a lot of equipment on the way in. Maybe an external mic pre, maybe an external compressor. If you are printing a very quiet signal, these pieces of equipment will have inherent noise.
Now, back in ye olden days of when I started, we had tape. So that had an inherent tape his that was there the whole time, so if you printed a very low signal with the tape his, by the time you compressed, EQ’d, and turned it up, that tape hiss would come up with the signal.
Now, fortunately in digital, we don’t have that issue, so we’re not going to be dealing with such major issues from signal-to-noise ratio, as it was called, but still, the equipment we use on the way in is going to have some kind of noise. Whether it be transformer hum from the mic pre, or an external compressor that’s maybe tube and it has a couple of transformers, and it has a bit of noise, whatever it is you’re using. Maybe you’re using a cheaper mic that has a little noise.
The point is you just need to print above that level quite consistently. However, you don’t want to print square waves going in. You do not want to be slamming it so hard that every single piece of your equipment is clipping, and by the time it gets into your DAW, it’s a big fat blob of square waves. That’s obviously not what you’d want either.
Now, there are lots of people giving you different pieces of information about what the exact level is. Honestly, it’s common sense to me. You give yourself enough headroom of say 3dB from clipping. 3-6dB from clipping will give you a good inherent level.
I know in Pro Tools, the way that the display works is it has a green, yellow, to a red, it sort of progressively gets worse. If you’re dealing with that sort of green and yellow area, and you’re living around there, that’s perfect. Whatever your DAW is, it’ll probably give you a sensible place of where to print the signal.
The second thing included in that, I think, is if you do have access to external compression, this can be your friend, because you can print a signal which is not going to inherently have a lot of these issues.
So you know, use external compression if you have it. Don’t use it too aggressively, but it will help, because you may end up turning your signal down really drastically because of two clips. I wouldn’t do that.
If you’ve got a compressor, try to control those peaks, and that will give you a much more consistent signal going in. If you don’t have compression, two occasional nanoseconds of clips over a three to four minute song — I mean, if they’re really short, is not really reason enough to turn down 3 to 6dB because of two tiny clips.
I’ve had people send me sessions where they literally have printed a song, and in the middle of it, the level drops. I ask them why that happened, well I can tell, but I ask them, and they say, “Oh, it clipped one time.”
It’s like, for that one time, I’m suddenly then trying to gain up to compensate for that one tiny clip. So really, in this instance, it’s common sense. Nice, fat tones, not clipping, not square waves, but loud enough not to be that close to the hum and inherent noise of the pieces of equipment you’re using. So good signal-to-noise ratio, and no clipping.
I think the second point, and I am so guilty of this, if you’ve been watching my videos, you’ll know that I’m a musician myself. I play guitar, I play bass, I play keyboards, I play drums. In that order. Guitar, bass, keyboards, drums. So I play on a lot of my recordings. Almost everything I record, I play on. Sometimes I play all the instruments, sometimes I play one or two, and kind of combination.
I’m truly blessed, because I started as a musician, and I became an engineer, and a producer, and a song writer through that process. But one of the biggest things that I have learned from doing this for a long time is not to be too much of a perfectionist in performances.
Now, you might ask, “Well, isn’t that counter productive?” Well, it isn’t, because creativity can get sucked out of things when you over think it, and I know this from experience. If I go in and replay over and over again that guitar part, and then edit myself so tight, all of the life, all the creativity, all the spontaneity and spark of my performance has just gone.
So be really, really careful with the perfectionist kind of idea, because if you listen to The Stones, or Zeppelin, or The Beatles, I mean, part of what works about that music is the kind of interactiveness of the different performances of why Keith is kind of upstroke as Ronny is down, and it kind of creates this dance between the two.
Imagine if they had sat there for hours trying to figure out how to play exactly like each other. So it’s really important not to be too much of a perfectionist, and one of the other big things about being too much of a perfectionist is that not only will it get rid of the soul and the inherent kind of attitude of what you do, it will also stifle your creativity. You will spend three hours trying to get a part absolutely perfect, and you’ll lose all focus, and spirit, and the sense of fun.
The great thing about letting go and not being too much of a perfectionist is you can move through, and put down three guitar ideas, and the bass line, and the keyboards, and replay this, and try the drum loop, and you can do all these creative things, and you get to work more as a whole. If you watch a lot of my videos, you’ll know I’m really into the idea of trying to be able to stand back and see the song as a whole.
Number three is don’t do the fix it later approach. The thing about the perfectionism thing is that you want to move fast and be creative, and capture the ideas, but you need to be able to stand back and understand where you need to make sure you’ve got really good performances.
You want to move fast, you want to capture the spirit and the creativity, but being sloppy is great within reason, but you also need to know when your time is best utilized, because if I’m overdubbing an additional guitar player, it is easier to get two or three takes, or fix the bridge, or fix the chorus, or fix the outro when he’s in the zone than it is to just print three full takes and edit it later.
The problem when you’re doing that is you are losing all perspective. It’s better to think about this in an old school rock and roll manner. You record a guitar part, and then you go, “You know, I loved everything you did, but I didn’t like the bridge,” and then punch in the bridge while the guitar player is still in that zone. You know, go to the end of the first chorus where he made a mistake and fix it then, rather than picking up the end of the second chorus and flying it across.
Try to avoid the fix it later in all ways, shape, and form. I always like — if I’m going to spend twenty minutes doing a guitar overdub with the guitar player, I like to have a finished take there and then. It’s a much better use of your time and creativity to finish with a full take of guitar that’s already self comped.
Because otherwise, if you do five or six or seven takes, and then you comp it later, sure, you’ll be able to comp it super tight, and soulless, and lose all the creativity, but everything that we just talked about in point one will just be lost completely.
So be really, really careful not to just leave everything until later, and to be honest, if you do then leave it until later and you’ve done fifteen different guitar parts, and keyboard, and bass, and drums, it is overwhelming. You’ll have a day when you’re just trying to edit the thing and make sense of it. So think about it in an old school way like you would on tape. Try to capture the best performances as opposed to fixing it later.
Number four. Failure to commit. Now, if you’ve watched the Chris Lord-Alge video that I did, you’ll notice one of the big things that he talked about was non-committal. How he’s getting lots of sessions to mix by producers and engineers that seem to have a lack of focus. They just have lots and lots of guitar overdubs, and keyboards, and all of this kind of stuff, and very generically recorded drums, and they don’t have a really genuine focused idea of what the production is.
If you look — we just saw the Grammy nominations this morning. If we look at a few of the producers that were nominated for producer of the year, there’s a friend of mine, Dave Cobb who was nominated for that album he did with Chris Stapleton.
Now, if you listen to that album, it sounds like an artist in a room, performing live with real people. I know it was recorded very quickly and very easily, but it has this inherent, focused idea of what the sounds are, and I know that if you were given his tracks to mix, you’d have to spend a long time removing that to not have that feeling.
He committed and recorded an album by an amazing artist in a room, and he just placed mics in the place that he wanted to be to have a great sound. That is the lesson from any great recordings. If we go back to the Beatles albums, or The Stones albums, or all the Led Zeppelin albums, the thing about all the Motown albums, the thing about albums that were recorded in the ’60s and the ’70s in particular, which are held up in great, high esteem as being the greatest recordings ever, the reason why people think of those as the greatest recordings ever is because they committed to things.
They put mics in front of things. They spent ages getting tones, like guitar sounds. They used the pedals that they wanted, and then the mixer, who is never an external mixer, it was always th engineer, and the engineer pulled up the faders, panned things around, applied a little bit more EQ and compression where he wanted, and then the album was finished.
If you watch the Barry Rudolph video I just did, he talked about when he would — when he did records with Lynyrd Skynyrd and stuff like that, they weren’t — there wasn’t an external mixer, it was just the engineer. It was just a balancing act at the end, and then they printed the record.
So what does that tell us? That tells us that the engineers and the producers and the musicians committed to ideas, and those are still considered to be the great records, because they’re committed. So let’s learn from that process.
I know it’s terrifying to plug in your instrument and put your pedals on and print it that way. It is terrifying. If you want, you can print a DI with your amp tone, but honestly, if you commit to that guitar sound, that edge kind of guitar sound maybe that you’re doing with those delays and everything, it will inspire other ideas.
That is commitment, That is production commitment. Don’t be afraid to do it, and don’t be afraid for it to be wrong and then go back and redo it, because that process will help you learn so much quicker than if you just print hundreds of DIs, and then try to figure it out in the mix. You’ll learn more, and you’ll learn quicker, and you’ll learn better if you make commitments to tones.
Number five is a big one for me. Never finishing. It is very easy for any of us, no matter what great equipment we have, no matter what great artists we’re working with, whether we’re doing it on our own and doing our solo stuff, or our local band, or our own band, it’s very difficult to finish, because we put all of these mental blocks in our way.
We go, “Oh my god, I could make a better guitar sound if only I had this plugin, which I can’t afford at the moment. If only I had this really expensive mic, I would’ve gotten a better vocal tone. If only I had this compressor, this EQ, this mic pre, if only I’d mixed it in a console, if only…” whatever. All of these things we’ve made excuses for, all of us. I still do it to this day, and I have to remember and remind myself that is just an obstacle that I’m mentally putting up in my way to stop me from finishing.
So suspend those ideas and just move forward. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve gone back and listened to demos of songs that I wrote years ago that I never finished, and I listened to the demo of the song, and I’m like, “Wow, this is a really good song! Why didn’t I finish it?” And I can’t remember what the reason was. I can’t. I might — it may have been like, I didn’t like the acoustic guitar sound, so it put me off the song.
Foolish. And I have been — I have experienced it so badly myself. So try to remove the obstacles in your mind that stop you from finishing, because ultimately, the idea, the creativity, everything is so much more important than any single piece of gear. Any single guitar sound, any single tambourine, drum sound, whatever it is that stops us from finishing. It’s bigger than that. The idea, the whole, the song is a much more important thing than any one tiny element of it, so don’t let those little elements get in the way.
Number six, proper mix placement. Now, the thing about mic placement is there’s a sweet spot for different instruments, and hopefully, if you’ve been watching the videos, you’ll notice there’s different things. There’s what we like to say, horses for courses.
What’s the best mic, what’s the best mic placement? Now, for a lot of us, we may just have two mics. Some of us only have one. You may have one dynamic microphone when you’re starting off. A less than $100 microphone. You may have one USB condenser mic.
Then the sweet spot for different instruments is in different places. As you know, or hopefully you’ve been learning, when a microphone gets close, it has a thing called a proximity effect. So if you get a microphone too close to some instruments, that boominess is too much. For some vocalists, it’s awful. If you get really close here, it can get really boomy.
On an acoustic guitar in particular, the boominess of the mic, plus being too close to a sound hold can be dreadful. However, electric guitars, when blasting at full blast like it when a microphone is there, because there’s hardly any bottom end coming out that can be captured, unless you pull the mic a long way back, because low frequencies travel in huge cycles.
I can’t remember exactly what it is, but like, 60 to 70Hz is like 15, 16 foot cycles. So you won’t even hear those low frequencies unless it’s a long way back. So understanding mic placement is really, really important. Don’t just put everything super close on the way up because you’re so worried about background noise.
You know, try to find, if you’re doing an acoustic guitar, try to find a place in your room that doesn’t pick up the A/C as much. Doesn’t pick up the inherent noise from the lights or whatever. Obviously, find the perfect place, but then be very careful to put the mic in the right place. You’ve got a lot of proximity effect, so if you get very close to the sound hole, and you get too close to the instrument, you might get too boomy. Vocals are a big one.
If you’re doing a verse and you want a really warm, fat vocal tone, sometimes, it’s good to get close to the microphone, but for most vocals, you’ll blow the microphone out if you’re too close to it, and it’ll be too boomy. So proper mic placement is really, really important.
Number seven, last but no means least, too many mics. The reason why I want to bring this one up is because I did this so much at first. There’s nothing harder for me sometimes than trying to go back through some of my old, old recordings, and trying to mix them.
I used to run a pair of stereo room mics on everything. Everything. It would be — I would do the acoustic guitar, and I would mic the room for the ambience, which is great if I’m trying to do, you know, a vocal acoustic song and I want to have the guy in the room, sure.
But I would do that on everything. I would double mic everything. Honestly, you’ll know if you talk to a lot of the top guitar guys. Some of them use two mics. Some of them might use a ribbon mic in figure of eight going across the speaker, and then they’ll put a 57. So they might use a figure of eight Royer, and then a 57 going across it, then blend the two together.
Lots of guys do that, but not as many as you think. Most rock guys I know stick a SM57 on it. I worked with Dave Sardi on quite a few records, and when he was doing Jet and records like that, he would use a condenser mic pulled back maybe a foot.
So one mic. He likes to do guitars with condensers. There’s no real rules, but the reality is like, it would have to be a very specific soul that I was doing, when now, I would want to always mic up the rooms. I do it occasionally. I do it — there’s a song called You Found Me I did by The Fray, and I had Dave’s guitar in an overdub room, in a slight overdub room in Sausalito, and I miked it, and he had a Holy Grail reverb pedal on it, and I opened the door to the live room, and I pulled up all of the room mics for the drums, and it’s this huge — you know, when it goes into that, “Lost and insecure, you found me.”
He does this sort of, [imitates guitar] Jonny Greenwood, fast guitar part, and that was great to have all of that ambience. We had the Holy Grail reverb pedal, we had the room ambience, and it’s in the mix if you listen to the track. It’s in the mix.
However, it’s the only thing in the mix of the whole song that uses those ambient mics, and to be honest, on the whole record, the only other instruments on the record that had any room ambience aside from that was the drums. But if you listen to the album, it’s a pretty natural sounding record, because 90% of it was off the floor. It was the band playing live on the floor, and the ambience on the drums, but then all of the instruments were baffled or in other rooms, but the performances were all the guys playing together.
So that’s really kind of typical for me. Don’t — it’s nice to throw up room mics. I love it. I love it, but be very careful, because when you come to mix, if you’ve got room mics on every single instrument, it just becomes this competing, ambient nightmare of instruments.
You know, it’s difficult, because you want to have the ambience, but it’s so much easier if you’re trying to get some width on guitars to use a tiny bit of plugin reverb, as much as it’s a plugin and not real, it’s still beautiful to be able to take a left hand guitar and then put tiny bit of verb on the right hand side for some width.
That’s a lot more controllable and a lot more usable than literally every instrument having stereo room mics on everything, or double miked everything with tons of phase issues, and then you’re mixing and you’re trying to get all of the guitars in phase, and the polarity is out everywhere.
So just be mindful of that. If you’re going to use multiple mics, use it for a very specific reason, because otherwise, like I’m telling you, I’m going back to some of my early recordings, and I’m pulling up everything with multiple room mics and multiple mics, and my head is exploding trying to get all of my things in phase, and making everything sound like it’s not just washed out with ambience.
So hopefully, that all made sense. Please, as ever leave some questions and comments below. Please go to the website and sign up for the email list. We’ve got some incredibly exciting stuff coming up, so please sign up and there will be more and more fun things to do, courtesy of you know, The Academy that we’re launching very shortly.
So please leave some questions, leave some experiences that you’ve had. I’d love to really expand on this discussion. This is a big deal, I think that we’ve all made these mistakes and continue to, and I continue to on a daily basis, and it’s nice to be reminded, myself of this stuff. So thank you ever so much for watching, and have a marvelous time recording and mixing.