8 Tips to Improve Your Recording & Mixing Skills
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Okay, so today, what I want to talk about is the things that we can do for free. Not the buying expensive equipment, the actual free things that we can do to make our home recordings, our mixes, everything better, and these are things that I have worked on over the years, and I think are really, super important.
Number one, train your ears. I am sure there’s like, half a dozen songs, albums, whatever that you love, and you have listened to hundreds, if not thousands of times. For me, personally, I can pretty much sing every vocal inflection of Hey, Jude. I know so many Queen songs. These are just bands I grew up loving. I know Kind of Blue by Miles Davis back to front, I know Hejira, at least I think that’s how you pronounce it. Sorry to all the Spanish speaking people out there, but the Joni Mitchell album, I know that song Coyote intimately.
There’s so many things that are like my childhood things that I love so much, and I’ve listened to so many times on headphones, on these speakers, on other people’s studios. I just know this music so intimately, and so well, that if I play Coyote by Joni Mitchell through a PA and a huge venue, or through these speakers, or on my earbuds, or on my Ultrasone headphones, or on my extreme isolation headphones…
All the things I use every day, I know how they sound. So train your ears. Find, let’s say, six pieces of music. Six songs that you absolutely love, and you know so well, and carry them around with you on a flash drive or a CD. Whatever it is. Probably a flash drive, to be honest, in this day and age, and wherever you go, I want whatever environment you’re on. Just pop that flash drive in or that CD and listen.
That way, when you’re in a new studio, or you’re — you’ve just rebuilt your home studio, and you’ve put some acoustic treatment up, or you bought some new speakers, or some new headphones, you will know how they sound.
So train your ears. Number two, have a friend perform. Now, if you’re trying to get a decent acoustic guitar sound, yeah, we can do it on our own. You’ve seen me do it. Throw up an acoustic guitar, put a microphone on, a pair of headphones, of course.
But that’s secondary, probably to the experience of recording somebody else. So if you can, and you have a friend who plays bass, plays acoustic guitar, plays piano, plays drums, whatever it is, have them perform for you vocals.
You know, you’re going to learn so much faster when you can take yourself out of the performance equation, which means, offer your services for free. You have a friend who wants to record an acoustic vocal song? Bring them over for free for a couple of hours and record a couple of songs with them.
It’s going to be the fastest possible way that you’re going to learn how to record well. They could have a cheap, crappy acoustic, they could have a $10,000 acoustic. You could have a $59 microphone or a $1,000 microphone. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to learn so much by having them sit over there, and you plug a microphone and put it on the acoustic, or put it on the vocal or a combination of both. You’re going to learn so much in that respect than just doing it on your own.
So where you can, have a friend perform. This is why, you know, doing stuff for free is actually very, very useful, and will build your skillset really, really quickly. Obviously, don’t give away yourself for free for six weeks on an album, unless it’s with an artist that’s going to help your career, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to use friends, local artists and stuff, to get your chops better, because unfortunately, as much as it’s great for me to record electric guitar in isolation on my own, I learned all my skills from recording other people, so by the time I come to record myself, it’s easier.
So have a friend or a local artist perform so you can get your chops better.
So number three is a big one for me. Get more ears on your mix. Doing things in isolation is great. You know, you record things so that you’re happy with them, and that’s very, very important, but you will learn so much more when you play them to your friends, to your colleagues, you know, to other producers, other engineers, other mixers, mastering guys, you know, song writers, whatever it is, you will learn so much from their criticism, and their criticism, you have to have a thick skin.
You have to develop a thick skin, because some people can be brutally honest. They can also be brutal. They can criticize for the sake of criticism, but that’s okay, because that’s part of what we have to develop to become successful, and to get better at our craft, because you can go to a label with the best recording of the best song in the world, but if that A&R guy is only into one genre of music, which happens a lot, he might not get what you’re doing. So develop a thick skin, because the great thing about living in a world of nine billion people or ten billion people, whatever it is at the moment, is that you only need one percent of the population to love what you do to be very successful.
The Beatles have sold three hundred million albums. That’s fantastic, but there’s ten billion people in the world, or whatever it is. There’s so many people.
So they have sold to a fraction of the people that have lived over the last fifty years, and they are still the most successful band of all time. So develop a thick skin, because you might send your song to ten different people, and one person may absolutely love it, and the other nine people might come back with thinly veiled criticisms that may distract you. May discourage you.
That’s okay. Within that criticism, you might pick up some points. So develop a thick skin, put your music out there, and don’t be afraid to have other people listen to music and give you criticism, because that is how you’re going to learn the best. So get as many ears as you can on your music.
Number four. Listen on multiple systems. Training your ears is only going to work if you listen on multiple systems. So take your music, your final mixes, or while you’re mixing and go into the car, listen on earbuds, listen on your laptop speakers. Believe it or not, listen on your laptop speakers, because mixes that translate on your laptop speakers, in your car, on your ear buds, everything like that will really give you an idea of what makes a great mix.
For instance, working with a couple of mixers recently — external mixers — I’ve noticed, especially in pop music, there’s been a real tightening of the high end. Now, what does that mean? Well, when you listen to like, hard rock for instance, it’s super toppy. There’s that really aggressive, kind of like, guitars with like, 7kHz, up to 7kHz just brutally aggressive. There’s that ticky-ness on the kick. All that kind of real, super super tight kick sound. There’s that splashy cymbal. It’s really exciting.
When you listen on a pair of laptop speakers, it’s pretty much all that comes across. That’s fantastic, but it doesn’t work for pop music, because a lot of people in pop music are listening on earbuds, and laptop speakers, and iPhone speakers, and Android speakers, and that top end just becomes a world of, “ssssh,” and the vocal gets lost in there.
So if you’re doing like, a pop track, or an EDM track, something that isn’t a genre of music that has that hype top end, listen on those devices, because you’ll find that your vocal could get lost in the middle of all of that high end. So I try to listen on multiple systems.
Now obviously, as I’ve been doing this, I have learned to tame some of that top end, and sculpt my mixes a little bit more as I’ve been going, so I don’t listen on as many systems as I used to, but as I was developing, I listened on many, many systems, and I will tell you, having mixed with CLA, with Chris, he references his NS10s, sometimes his Barefoots, sometimes his Augspurgers in the room, but he spends a lot of time listening on his boombox, and it’s not a high quality, expensive boom box. It’s a boom box from like, the ’80s.
I see the value in it, because he’ll go over to that boom box and listen, and if it sounds good and balanced on there, then it pretty much translates to other systems. So once again, to go with your train your ears, listen on multiple systems.
Number five, another big one for me. Avoid dogma. One of the things that held me back for many, many years and one of the things that drives me to do this is this belief that unless I have a $10,000 microphone, unless I have the most expensive equipment in the world, I can’t make great music.
It was really difficult for me in a time coming up before the internet, to be honest, in the ’80s and through the mid-90’s, I didn’t have the ability to go online and realize there were guys like me making music with a $500 microphone and an SM57, and they — you know, $1,000 mic pre, or even simpler, an M-Box, because a lot of the recording I do, I go to places with a laptop like we did the other night. We went to record a live show, and we plugged in the laptop using a Dante port, and the only thing I needed to bring was a laptop.
That’s the real world now. We did some vocal recordings, we did gang vocals on an album about six months ago, and we did it at a yoga studio with an M-Box and a laptop, and you can make records that way. As we all know, a PC with a decent sound card, a laptop with Garage Band singing into the internal speaker, I’ve used background vocals on a major selling album that were recorded in a hotel, and also in an airport, that was sung into a laptop.
The dogma that I see a lot is the belief that we need really, really expensive equipment. As I was just talking about, you know, I’ve used a lot of recordings that were done in many different environments, on very inexpensive equipment that have come up to be successful.
Now, I’ve done tracks that I’ve used on records, that I did in a hotel room while making another record. I’d come home at night and build tracks with just my laptop, and a little AKAI USB keyboard. So I know we can do this. I know you can do it. If I can do it, then you can do it.
The dogma comes in when people start telling you you need to use expensive equipment. Yeah, expensive equipment is nice, and it can improve stuff, and there are certain things that I believe you need just to get slightly better and improve, and you need to focus on getting minimal amounts of gear, but the right kind of gear.
That’s where guys like me and other guys are trying to help you, by focusing in on the right kind of equipment, but don’t get brought into this whole dogma of, unless you use the right thing with the right frequency response, and the right this, that, and the other, that you will have to have that equipment to do well. Because when I was a kid growing up and pre-internet, I didn’t know that there was guys like me making recordings with M-Boxes, or with Focusrite 2i2s, because we do that all day because of necessity. You turn up to a studio or somebody’s home, and you record something with something inexpensive, and that becomes the record, and that sounds great.
Some of the best acoustic guitars I’ve ever recorded were done with an SM57, which, Guitar Center occasionally does for $79. So don’t be caught up with that, and to be honest, there’s probably even more inexpensive dynamic microphones that you can use for that.
So the dogma of thinking that you need expensive equipment, or that you need to do this the proper way is really misguided. When I speak to Jack Douglas, and he talks about, you know, making recordings, he was doing stuff on these great records which is completely and utterly considered wrong. When Jeff Emerick did stuff with The Beatles, it was considered wrong.
These guys that are telling you you’re doing it wrong wouldn’t make a Beatles record, they wouldn’t do these wrong things, they wouldn’t — so just don’t be held back by the dogma. Don’t think that, you know, because X, Y, and Z tell you you’re doing something wrong that you’re really doing something wrong, because if it sounds amazing, and you even ignore my advice but it sounds great, then do it.
All that matters is does it sound good? Does it sound great? That is the most important thing.
Number six, and I do this all day, so this is a good one. Practice your performance before you start to record. So, yesterday I was recording an artist, and I’m playing guitar and bass, and programming, and all that kind of stuff on the track, and I had already done some guitar tracks, and I had put down a bass line, which actually had an interesting melody on it, and I realized that I wanted to double up that melody with kind of a Jonny Greenwood, or more Reeves Grabrele, if you know Reeves Grabrele, he played with Bowie, in Tin Machine, he also played on the Earthling album, which is actually a stunningly good album for electronic EDM kind of meets guitar stuff, and it’s a long time ago, so it’s like, 20 years old, but he was doing that kind of what Jonny Greenwood made famous, but he was doing it before that.
That kind of crazy [imitates guitar] kind of really super fast guitar part, and I wanted to mirror the bass line. Now, I could’ve started and spent half an hour practicing and figuring it out while recording, but I didn’t. I picked up the guitar, and I spent five minutes where the pressure wasn’t on me. There wasn’t any red light fever, because learning while you’re recording a part actually seems to take longer for me than when I should be spending five minutes getting a great tone, I’m still learning the part.
The engineer, if you’re using another engineer can get frustrated, because he’s trying to get a sound, and you’re still trying to learn the part, and you tell him to stop adjusting, because you’re still learning it, so just spending give minutes mirroring the bass line part I wanted to do, I get five minutes for the engineer to get a tone, and God bless America, it was so much easier.
So spend time working on the part before you get anywhere near throwing up a mic, and you’d be surprised. It can make things move so much smoother.
This is a good one. I like this one. When you’re not working in the studio, you can still be working. So listening to other people’s mixes critically. What I mean by that is if I am driving, and something comes on the radio that’s contemporary and sounds fantastic, listen to it with a critical ear. If it blows you away and you’re like, “Wow, what is that?” Put on your critical ear. Put on your mixer’s ear, and what is that guy doing? There’s tons of stuff that comes on the radio, and to be honest, not only is it listening for a critical ear to be good, but also listening with a critical ear of it being bad.
There’s some very famous stuff that is very successful that comes on the radio, and if I don’t like the mix, but I like the song, that really helps me. There’s a very successful band over the last eight years, seven or eight years, and the guy that engineers and mixes it is quite successful, but I don’t like his mixes, but I love the songs. I listen to the mixes, and I’m like, “What don’t I like about it? The drums sound too narrow, it sounds so heavily EQ’d, and it doesn’t jump out of the speakers,” but the song is absolutely incredible, and it stands above the mixing.
So I learn two things from that. I learn I want to do better mixes, I want the songs to jump out of the radio more, of course. It reinforces some ideas that I have, but secondly, and probably more importantly, it taught me that the song is king. That even though this guy’s mixes aren’t that great, the song is so good, and hits home, and the vocal performance is so amazing, and the lyric is so good and speaks to so many people, that it is bigger than the mix.
So that’s a good thing to learn. Now the other stuff happens when a song isn’t that great, but a mix is amazing, and something comes on, and it’s successful because of the production techniques, and the song is so dumb and simple, we hear this all the time with pop songs, and we’re like, “Oh my god, how is this a hit? The hook is so dumb!”
Well, the hook is so dumb, that’s a good point, but sometimes the production is fantastic.
So without getting into the producers names, we know that there are pop producers out there that we can learn, even if we’re doing rock and roll from them. We can learn from these guys, because a chorus comes up, and it’s like, smash, it hits you on the head, sucks you in. Maybe there’s some reverse cymbal, maybe there’s a drop. Maybe there’s a bass drop before it.
You know, all the techniques the pop guys do that we can learn and we can incorporate into our music, so listen with a critical ear. When you have an emotional response to something on the radio, whether it be a great song — what’s great about it? What do you love? Learn from that experience.
When you don’t like something, why don’t you like it? Use that as a way to learn, so when you’re not mixing, you’re not in the studio, you can still be learning. Listen with a critical ear.
Eight, last, and no means least, and I know I’ve talked about this before, but it is another free tip, is use reference tracks. Honestly, I know there’s some debate about this when I put up that video talking about it, but whenever I work with top mixers, almost all of them all the time, no matter how big their name is, have reference tracks.
Now, sometimes, this is a reference track of something they’ve recorded, or mixed, or both, that they’re very proud of, and they put it up, and they make sure that at least equaling it, if not beating it.
Secondly, and I don’t care how famous the mixer is, I’ve seen this with every mixer, secondly, with the biggest mixers, they will reference other people’s tracks.
I’ll tell you a tip that I have seen three big mixers use. Hey, Soul Sister. Hey, Soul Sister has been used by three different mixers, and I know, Mark Endert is a good friend of mine, and he’s an amazing mixer, and he took that song to the next level. It’s so simple. It’s so straight forward, but it jumps out of the radio.
I’m not trying to sell that song to everybody here, but the thing about it is the vocal sounds fantastic, it gets the point across — it might not be your genre. In fact, two of the mixers I’m talking about were mixing heavy rock music, and still referenced that song, because there’s something about the frequency balances, how it jumps out of the speakers that anybody’s ear, even if you’re listening to other reference heavy metal, or heavy rock, or hard core, punk, whatever it is, it’s still good to go to something like that and say, “Oh, what is good about that, and do I incorporate that into it?”
I was working with a mixer a couple of years ago, and he told me this story, and it was a — it was part of a joke, but it also was a very, very good point, that he was mixing for a very famous producer, and he was mixing a very famous punk band, and the producer came in and said, “Oh, it’s sounding really, really good, but what I’d like is I’d like the edge on the vocal like this.”
And he played him a Joole track. Yep. I’m not kidding. Joole. And he played him the song, and he said, “You see how her vocal has this kind of edge that just makes it feel like it’s stepping out of the music? This Pop Punk band you’re mixing, I want that same edge on the vocal. I want it to feel like it’s just popping out like that out of all of those heavy guitars.”
So use reference tracks. Even if they’re outside of the genre. I think it’s good, number one, if you’re mixing Pop Punk, for instance, or EDM, to have other great Pop Punk and EDM tracks available. Of course it is. But also, find greatness. When there’s greatness, and it works, even if it’s outside of your genre, have it in there.
So if you’ve got the five reference tracks that you’ve got, and you’ve got some other great Orange County Pop Punk stuff in there, and you’re mixing Pop Punk, don’t be afraid to have Hey, Soul Sister in there, because that vocal sounds fantastic, and it sits out in front of the mix, and if there’s something that inspires you to take out of it, then do it. I’m telling you, I’ve seen three great mixers use that track, because it’s really well mixed.
Fantastic. So those are all free things that I try to do myself as often as possible, and I love doing these videos, because frankly, it reminds myself of all of these things.
So please, as ever, subscribe, go to producelikeapro.com and sign up for the email list, and you’ll get some information on a whole bunch of free stuff, we’re continually doing competitions, and of course, we’re launching a new website, so you’ll see that, and you’ll get information on future videos.
Please leave some comments and questions below. I think this is a huge topic, and I want to know what you’ve done, and what — the things that you do to get better at your craft that don’t involve spending a bunch of money. You know, it’s not about the gear always, it’s about training your ears and getting better.
So what do you do to get better? No matter what your genre is, whether you’re doing Hip Hop, Rap, EDM, Metal, you know, Pop, Country, Folk, you know, whatever your genre is, what do you do to get better at your craft?
Thank you ever so much for watching, and have a marvelous time recording!