Recording Tips

While ‘fix it in the mix’ approach is relevant in many cases, I’d say that the recording stage still makes about 75% of the record you get at the end. The sound begins at the source! Explore the following guidelines – common sense suggestions, mostly. They will help you avoid the most popular recording mistakes that younger bands seem to favor.

1. Do not record your material too hot, try to avoid going all the way up to the red section of the level meter of your DAW. For some reason about 30% of bands record their stuff way too hot, with lots of clicks, pops and cracks from clipping. There is no benefit of recording your tracks excessively loud in the 24/32-bit format, and in most cases clipped tracks are irreversibly ruined.

2. Try to maintain reasonable gain level. Recording your tracks peaking anywhere between -6 dB up to -12 dB in 24/32-bit format is absolutely OK. Do not set your input gain unreasonably low, though (like -40 dB).

3. If you record a single source with multiple mics, follow a simple 3:1 rule. If the first microphone is located at X inches from the source (say, a guitar cabinet), set the second mic at X*3 inches from the first mic.

 


 

Recording guitars

I strongly urge you to use the best quality instruments you can afford for recording your music. Try renting at least semi-pro guitars, the difference may be day and night! Using student-grade instruments intended for beginners to record your material is usually a very bad idea. No miracles here! Put new strings of a proper gauge a day before the recording, so that they stretch properly overnight. New strings are crucial if you want to get the maximum quality possible. Ideally, you should change your strings after playing for about 5-6 hours straight during the recording, but your bass guitar player may rage about it. :)

Check the action, intonation and tuning of your instruments before the recording starts. Tune your instrument anew using a tuner after recording every single take. It is a good practice to mute the strings that will not be used in a particular riff with tape or foam – you may get some extra clarity. A good way to tune your guitar is to check the actual notes of a riff that you’re about to record, rather than open string notes. There are two main methods of tuning, either by note attack, or by note sustain. If your riff contains lots of short sharp notes, tune your guitar by note attacks, using a tuner. When your part consists of long sustained chords, try tuning by sustain.

To record your rhythm guitar parts, follow double-tracking (two separate takes) or quad-tracking (four takes) methods. Quad-tracking may be very beneficial for many heavier styles and slower-tempo songs, but it requires certain proficiency to make sure your part is tight enough. If you feel that recording four takes is too demanding, settle for double-tracking instead. Copy-pasting of your guitar take is no good and should be avoided, as it is not the same thing as recording two separate takes. Two identical copies will sound in mono, without giving you the stereo effect that double-tracking is expected to provide.

I recommend you get your best guitar player to record all rhythm parts, both left and right takes, as it is easier to play tight to yourself than to someone else’s playing. It is a good idea to record all melodic parts and leads at least twice, so that they can be panned in the mix later. Most guitar players are all set if they get just one good take of their main solo part, but sometimes, with very decent players, recording two additional solo takes to support the main one can provide great results.

If this is your first record, be extra careful – many inexperienced players have problems judging their own sound and might need an outside opinion. Try getting some help from a seasoned guitar player to set your guitar amp properly and get the sound you will be able to use for your record. A good rule of thumb is to dial in little less gain that you’re used to having at your rehearsals. If you play metal, avoid cutting the mids at your amp completely, try setting them somewhere at 2 or 4 instead.

If you feel that your recording chain is less than ideal or you’re not so sure about the amp sound that you’ve dialed in, try recording your dry guitar sound (DI) in parallel through a signal splitter. You might also record your DI guitar tracks through a DI box straight to your audio interface. Many audio interfaces have dedicated Hi-Z instrument inputs for recording DI tracks, though sometimes a high-quality DI box might get you a little extra quality. Do not plug your guitar straight to a line input of your interface without a DI box. Generally, having your DI tracks on hand is a very good option, as these tracks may be used for reamping to augment your real amp tracks.

For heavier styles of music, try the following practices as a starting point:

1. Your guitar –> a Tube Screamer pedal or similar (set the gain at 9 o’clock, tone and level at 12 o’clock) –> an amp head like Peavey 5150, Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, etc. Having a Tube Screamer pedal in front of your amp makes your guitar sound less mushy, its low end tighter.

2. Try micing your guitar cabinet with two dynamic microphones (look up the Fredman micing technique), such as Shure SM57, Audix i5, etc. Place one mic dead center at about ½ inch from the grill, facing the speaker dustcap, and then place the second mic next to the first one at 45 degrees. The first mic will be the main one, while the angled mic will capture more body and thickness. Mix their signals to your taste or leave it to your mixing engineer. You can also move the pair of mics closer to the speaker edge, making the sound darker.

Many commercial rock releases nowadays may be actually quite complex and contain the following guitar tracks:

1. Main power chord guitar tracks

2. Additional rhythm tracks, played in different positions or on another guitar

3. Supporting octave takes

4. Some accenting staccato parts

5. Sometimes, clean guitar or acoustic guitar tracks, mixed in very low for extra attack.

 

Recording bass guitars

For dropped tunings, try tuning your bass guitar by 12th fret harmonics. Ideally, you should change your strings after 5-6 hours of playing (3-4 songs) during the recording. For heavier and extreme styles of music you can record just DI tracks of your bass guitar. For lighter styles, micing your bass amp cabinet can provide great results, though it requires certain level of expertise. Recording DI tracks is a safe bet in all cases. Avoid using any saturating pedals or preamps in the middle when recording DI bass tracks (unless you know exactly what you’re doing). Plug your bass guitar straight into a DI box or an instrument input of your interface.

 


 

Recording vocals

In many cases, the best option to get your vocals recorded is to rent your local studio with sufficient acoustic treatment. You might be able to record vocals for your entire album for the price of a semi-decent microphone! It is very important to stand at a proper distance from the microphone during the recording, which is usually around 1 foot (30 cm). Some vocalists are able to sing efficiently at a smaller distance, when more intimate sound is required. Make sure there is a pop filter in front of the microphone, as it is absolutely necessary for most vocalists. If you absolutely have to record vocals at your home, try to minimize harmful reflections using blankets or DIY panels, there are plenty guides for that online. Louder vocals (opera and pop types, etc.) will require larger rooms to record properly.

Obviously, you should record vocals with the best microphones that you have at hand. Try using condenser mics, if your room is treated well enough. You can expect great results recording growling or screaming vocals with dynamic mics, too. If you have a few mics lying around, see which one will be the best for your vocalist. For instance, thin and sibilant vocals may be efficiently paired with darker and fuller sounding microphones.

Place the vocalist at the proper distance from the microphone, then record a few test takes. After that you can make fine adjustments to get the best possible results. If you want to add more lows to the vocal, making it fuller, move your mic up just a bit. To brighten it up, move your mic down, so that it is positioned slightly below vocalist’s teeth.

Professional vocal productions almost always contain multiple vocal tracks. Try to record at least one additional vocal take for accents and choruses. It is always a great idea to have some properly recorded back vocals, harmony tracks, choirs, etc.

Great song = great music + great arrangement + great musicians + great recording room. There is not much here that can be half-assed.

 


 

Recording drums

These tips will help you get 100% out of your acoustic drums and your drummer. Be prepared to face some fierce resistance from your drummer, as they tend to be very opinionated!

Before the studio:

1. Get your drummer to practice to a click (metronome) for a sufficient amount of time. You can create a tempo track in any modern DAW very easily, having as many tempo changes as you need.

2. Make sure you have a drummer who is able to keep the tempo (more or less). Many bad drummers have rushing or dragging feet/hands.

In the studio:

1. Use drum kits with clear and genre-relevant sound with minimal amount of strong unpleasant resonances. The drum room is very important to your overall drum sound, and many recording studios are famous for their particular room sound. Room size, shape, materials used – everything matters here.

2. If you play rock or metal, try getting smaller and darker cymbals. They tend to sound better in a dense mix.Brighter cymbals are great for jazz or progressive rock.

3. Get new drumheads (skins). Many great records were made with dozens of drumhead changes. Ideally, change them after you record a song (if you can afford that). Realistically, just get new ones before recording an EP or an album. Tune your drums before the recording (or better get a professional drum tech tune them for you).

4. Experiment with drum throne height. If your drummer is a low sitter, try setting the throne a bit higher in the studio, so that your drummer would sit higher than usual. Drummers tend to fight it, but it has its benefits – their legs will last longer in the studio. Try setting toms more horizontally than usual, so that your drummer hits them downward, it will add additional weight and energy to the hits. Some drummers insist on putting their tom drums all the way down next to the kick drum or sitting extremely low, which may eventually sabotage your record.

5. If possible, record your drums in a decent room. Use a couple of room mics to capture the sound of your room, too. Try to point them at the corners behind the kit rather than at the kit itself, it may produce better results. Drum room sound is crucial for most modern guitar music genres (less so for very fast and technical styles).

6. Make sure that your overhead mics capture more sound from your crashes and other cymbals than from the hi-hat. You will have your hi-hat bleeding into most drum mics anyway. For a wider drum sound, try using a Spaced Pair mic setup rather than the XY setup.

7. Motivate your recording engineer to do everything possible to minimize the hi-hat bleed going into the snare mic. Usually it means moving hi-hat and snare microphones apart, both vertically and horizontally, and changing their respective angles. Installing a foam baffle between the two mics can work wonders too.

8. Ask your drummer to hit his drums harder, but his cymbals softer. If that fails (often it does!), try some cheating. Send a bit more of the overhead and hi-hat mics to your drummer’s headphones without telling him about it.

9. See if making a drum part less complicated helps your drummer to play more tightly and deliver more punch.

10. If drum editing is required, have it done before recording all other bandmates. Many musicians prefer to record their parts to the drums playing, so that they can capture the vibe and the feel of the song. If your drums are off, other instruments will suffer, too.

11. If possible, record drum trigger signals for kick, snare and toms, too. If you happen to have some extra studio time left, record separate strong hits for all drum instruments. All of it might prove to be extremely useful during the mixing stage.

 


 

Recording DI guitar tracks for reamping

If all you have at hand is a small practice amp or an inexpensive multi-effect guitar processor, ditch them and try recording DI guitar tracks instead. Send these DI tracks to be reamped during the mixing stage. Having DI tracks recorded just in case is ALWAYS a great idea, regardless of your recording conditions.

Prior to recording

1. Put new strings of a proper gauge a day before the recording, so that they stretch properly overnight. Check the action, intonation and tuning of your instrument. Tune your instrument anew using a tuner after recording every single take. A good way to tune it is to check the actual notes of a riff that you’re about to record, rather than open string notes.

2. Use a high quality studio grade instrument cable that is not too long (about 5 feet) to plug your instrument to a DI box or a Hi-Z instrument input of your audio interface. Ideally, instrument inputs should have about 1 MOhm resistance and >100 dB dynamic range (DR), otherwise use a DI box. If your instrument inputs are rated way below 1 MOhm/100 dB, and you do not use a DI box, you may end up with a duller and anemic sound. You can’t ‘fix it in the mix’ later.

3. Popular high-quality DI boxes may cost around $250, but they are worth every penny and might last forever. You can’t go wrong with Radial and Countryman models, personally, I’ve had great and stable results with them. Avoid buying very cheap and noname boxes!

4. There are active and passive models to choose from. Active DI boxes have more functions, require a power source and are typically used for passive pickups, while passive boxes are great for active pickups and hardware synthesizers.

5. Connect your DI box output and your audio interface input using a proper cable, usually XLR type.

6. Usually, it is a VERY bad idea to use any kind of DIY preamps/quasi-tube pedals/guitar processors in the middle. Many inexperienced musicians want to sweeten the signal going into their audio interface, and end up with a damaged, squashed sound. The idea in recording DI tracks is to get them as clean as possible, to be reamped later. I also have a special distaste for budget guitar multi-effect processors. While they are OK for band practice and such, they are definitely inferior to modern recording equipment and software. Many of them seem to make your sound anemic even if you record through them, with all processing turned off. If you absolutely have to use them, do it sparingly, for example, just to add a bit of your favorite effect to your lead tracks.

Recording

1. Set up your recording process so that you have your clean guitar signal being recorded while monitoring your playing simultaneously through any freeware amp simulator. Set the smallest possible latency in your DAW, too.

2. Check which position of a Ground Lift switch on your DI box is less noisy.

3. DI tracks should be recorded reasonably hot. Do some heavy chugging and adjust your input gain so that you avoid clipping on the loudest parts and your level peaks are around -6 dB or so.

4. When you have all your guitar tracks recorded, check if they are tight enough by panning all of them hard left or right, and listen carefully. All mistakes will become very apparent.

5. After you finish recording and combining your guitar tracks, discard any panning or added gain that you might have in your DAW, then export the tracks separately in mono and send them for reamping and mixing.