Create Great-Sounding Recordings Now!
What is your primary goal as a professional or hobbyist recording engineer? No matter what stage of the game you’re in, chances are, making great-sounding recordings is at the top of your list.
Now that might seem fairly obvious. After all, recordings are the end result of the countless hours spent in front of the computer or mixing console. And since almost all of us would welcome the chance to have our music heard by other people, it makes perfect sense to make them sound as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
But creating great-sounding recordings doesn’t always come easy. Furthermore, the skills required don’t come overnight.
As most experienced recording engineers will tell you, it will take several years of hard work and practice before you can come up with pro-level, broadcast-ready recordings. And, it will probably take even more time to produce recordings that measure up to your favorite songs and albums.
So, what is a budding recording engineer to do? Is there hope for anyone who’s just recently taken up the craft to produce great-sounding recordings?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Despite everything we previously said about the necessity of time and experience, there are ways by which you could speed up the process, circumvent the roadblocks, circumvent the obstacles, and basically, supercharge your recordings.
Call them “magic bullets,” if you will. But the tips we share below will almost certainly make your recordings sound better than they currently are, regardless of your experience level.
We’ll go into more detail later. But for now, here’s a quick overview of some effective strategies for getting better sounding recordings:
- Tune-up your instrument
- Play in time
- Use an appropriate mic setup
- Work on your arrangement
- Throw out the rulebook
Now, keep in mind that these tips and strategies aren’t meant to replace hard work and experience. As always, we encourage you to learn as much as you can about recording techniques and fundamentals. Ultimately, a thorough grounding in established recording methods will make you a better all-around recording engineer.
Even so, these tips will definitely improve the results you are currently getting from your recording setup. With that being said, let’s get right to it!
6 tips for great-sounding recordings
1. Tune-up your instrument
Along with your recording equipment, your instruments are the tools of your trade. Just as a soldier wouldn’t go into battle with a broken-down or dirty weapon, you wouldn’t want to go into a recording session with an instrument that looks ready for the trash heap!
If you are recording guitar or bass, get some fresh strings and make sure they are tuned and intonated correctly. Here’s an excellent guide for intonating your guitar.
You should also check the electronics to ensure there aren’t any buzzes or crackles that could ruin a perfect take. And get some decent cables while you are at it. If you are handy with a soldering iron (a valuable skill for studio pros and hobbyists alike), you can even save a lot of money by making your own instrument cables.
The same goes for drums. Like guitar strings, drum skins need to be replaced when worn and they need to be tuned. If your drums sound dull and dampened when you strike them, the skins are probably long overdue for replacement.
Getting your instrument in shape is probably the last thing you want to do when inspiration strikes and you want to lay down a killer take. But doing so is essential for getting a crisp, clear, and pro-level sound.
Instead of tuning up your instrument just before you hit the record button, do yourself a favor and keep your favorite instruments in good shape at all times. This way, you’ll always be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
2. Play in time
Playing in time is one of the most neglected aspects of getting recordings to sound like professional releases. Even if you aren’t the fastest or flashiest player or don’t have the fanciest equipment, playing in time will save your recording session more often than not. It could even be argued that playing in time and in tune are the two most important aspects of musical performance.
Unfortunately, playing in time isn’t something that can be learned overnight. Unless you have excellent rhythmic sense and timing, you will probably need to get a few years of playing experience under your belt before you develop the ability to play perfectly in time.
You can speed up the process of developing good timing considerably by practicing to a metronome. Start out slow at a tempo that you can play comfortably. Resist the urge to speed up until you can play the lick, riff, or chord progression cleanly at the current tempo.
You might also consider recording your parts to a click track. We know: click tracks make for boring, clinical music devoid of humanity. It’s the bane of musicians everywhere (particularly drummers), and most would rather gouge out their eyeballs than play to a click.
But hear us out. Recording to a click track will help you avoid drifting out of tempo and ensure consistent timing throughout the track. You can therefore be sure of ending the song in roughly the same tempo as the start. This will also help you when comping parts, which involves creating a single performance from the best sections of multiple takes.
3. Use an appropriate mic setup
The importance of proper mic’ing cannot be overstated. Like many recording techniques, harnessing this particular skill is something that will take years to perfect. But you will have to utilize it at some point, so it’s better to learn how to do it now rather than later. Plus, knowing the fundamentals of proper mic’ing will benefit you throughout every stage of your recording career.
The art and science of mic’ing is a vast and complex subject that is way beyond the scope of this article. But in general, you will want to use dynamic mics for loud and explosive sound sources such as drums and guitar amps. On the other hand, a condenser mic would be better for softer and more delicate sounds such as vocals, acoustic guitars, and string instruments. Here’s a rundown of some of the best budget mics in each category.
Mic placement is another complex subject. There are many different mic patterns, configurations, and setups to learn about and consider, all of which will affect the sound you capture with your chosen recording device. Again, the subject is way too complex to cover in the space of this article, so we will refer you to this guide to micing drums for live performances and some mic placement tricks employed by professional recording engineers.
One thing we can wholeheartedly suggest is employing a close mic’ing technique when recording at home. Why? Most home recording environments are far from ideal, to say the least. Whether laying down tracks in your bedroom, basement, or kitchen, the acoustics and soundproofing probably aren’t up to scratch. Therefore, you will have to put up with standing reflections, boomy low end, environmental noise, and the like.
All these factors can mess with your recorded audio, prevent you from mixing properly, and essentially make it more challenging to produce great-sounding recordings. So make it easy on yourself by employing close mic’ing as much as possible.
4. Work on your arrangement
Arrangement is another oft-neglected aspect of great recorded sound. Listen to any classic track or album, and what you are hearing is likely a carefully thought-out arrangement at work.
What is the arrangement exactly, and why does it have such a significant effect on the quality of the recording? This article defines musical arrangement as “the art of taking a piece of music and making it your own.” This typically involves fleshing out a melody with complementary instruments. The result is a piece of music with the different musical elements coming together to create a pleasing and cohesive whole.
Like many musical disciplines, arrangement is equal parts art and science. On the one hand, you want to combine complementary instruments that sound great together and enhance each other’s qualities.
On the other hand, you also want to avoid clashing frequencies that can make music sound muffled, jarring or abrasive. Ultimately, your goal is to create a pleasing musical piece where everything blends well, and nothing sounds out of place.
Arrangement often spells the difference between amateur-sounding songs and professional productions. All other factors being equal, a well-arranged song will always sound better than a poorly arranged one. In some cases, an effective arrangement could even make up for less-than-virtuosic playing and less-than-perfect recording.
Ultimately, arranging is an aesthetic decision that involves personal taste and preference. There is no single formula for coming up with world-class arrangements, although certain fundamentals apply to most musical scenarios. Some of the basic strategies to keep in mind are:
- Choose one or two elements to highlight. If every part is the star of the song, none of them can be. It is generally best to assign lead roles to only one or two elements apart from the lead vocal. This could be the instrument that plays the main melodic motif or ‘hook’ and a complementary instrument.
- Try to keep everything within a specific sonic space. Think in terms of high, middle, and low. For example, cymbals, hi-hats, and shakers typically occupy the high range, while bass guitars and kick drums occupy the low. Almost everything else occupies the middle, so be extra careful about clashing in this range. If necessary, use judicious EQing or rework your arrangement for optimum effect.
- Let your arrangement ‘breathe’. Try to leave room for all the elements to ‘breathe’. This involves strategic instrument selection and placement and writing out parts that complement each other without cluttering up the mix. Ultimately, your goal is to have your main instruments take the spotlight, with everything else performing complementary ‘support’ roles.
- Make everything serve the song. Finally, make sure that every element you add to the arrangement serves the song in some way. Whether it carries the main melody, provides a counterpoint, or serves as a point of interest, everything should have a role to play. If any particular element doesn’t serve a musically valid purpose, leave it out!
There are many other things to consider when arranging music. Check out this article for some helpful arranging tips for your own productions.
When a particular part isn’t coming together the way you want, consider simplifying it. Not every performance has to have a million notes or time signature changes every two bars.
Sure, there is something to be said about complex, intricate music. However, some genres–Progressive Rock and some types of Jazz come to mind–are characteristically complicated.
But in most cases, the song is better served by simple melodies and performances. It is almost always better to make a cohesive musical statement than to wow the listener with blinding displays of virtuosity and physical dexterity.
If a piece you are recording seems a bit too cluttered and sonically dense, consider simplifying it. Chances are, you could get your message across much more effectively with fewer notes.
Check out this list of the best Pop songs ever released. You might be surprised at how simple most of them are!
6. Throw out the rulebook
Finally, don’t be afraid to disregard the rules and go by your instincts. Some of the most compelling and most memorable pieces of music come from not knowing the “rules” or ignoring them entirely. Some are “happy accidents” resulting from abusing technology or using equipment in ways that the manufacturer never intended.
For example, the characteristic overdriven sound of an electric guitar is essentially the result of pushing amplifier circuits beyond their limits. The recording of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles features piano and guitar played much louder than the mixing console was designed for, giving those tracks a unique overdriven sound. If not for the creativity and vision that inspired these experimentations, Rock and Pop music might have taken an entirely different course.
The point is, don’t be afraid to break the rules if it gives you the result you want. Sure, there are some fundamentals to keep in mind, such as plugging equipment into the correct voltage and not standing in a bucket of water when recording electric guitar (!). But you’d be surprised at how far you can bend and even break the rules and still produce great-sounding recordings. As a well-worn saying in the music production industry goes: “If it sounds good, then it is good!”
There are so many other tips, tricks, and strategies that go into creating great-sounding recordings, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Even so, the five tips provided here should help you reach the next level in your recording and music production adventure.
Make sure to check back often for other posts that expand on these concepts and explore related ground. Have a rewarding and enjoyable recording session!