So, you’re stoked and ready to go, just raring to hit that record button and lay down some killer tracks. Your inspiration is at a fever pitch as you excitedly get your DAW or tape machine rolling, and you hit that first chord or drum beat.
But what’s this? Instead of the awe-inspiring beginning of your first take, what you hear through your headphones is a weak, anemic-sounding chord or a dull, flabby drum hit. You soldier on and complete the take and rewind to the start with a sinking feeling.
Yep. Your worst suspicions are confirmed: the dreaded Wimp Tone. Instead of the big, bold, and bodacious sound that will take the music world by storm, what plays back from the speakers is a lame, amateurish sound that has no business being played to any listener.
If you are a home recording artist and working on your own with a meager budget, chances are that your instrument is in dire need of a tune-up. And we don’t mean just tuning the strings, which is an essential part of tuning up your instrument all the same.
What we are talking about is the prep work and maintenance that goes into ensuring that your chosen instrument is in tiptop shape and ready for battle. After all, you didn’t expect to have your tools ready for primetime without a bit of preparation, did you?
The above scenario illustrates a situation that has plagued performing and recording musicians since time immemorial. But it could just as well victimize recording engineers who are tasked with capturing sounds instead of producing them.
Just like musical instruments, recording gear needs a bit of TLC and prepping to ensure that they are ready to deliver the goods when you hit that red record button. So whether you are a hotshot lead guitar player, a kickass drummer, or a recording engineer, this article applies to you.
Here we share some essential tips on how to get your weapon of choice ready for recording, whether it is a guitar, a bass, a drum kit, a mixing console, heck, even if it’s your voice. This oft-neglected aspect of recording is just as crucial as playing in time and knowing the lyrics to the song.
Here’s a quick rundown of the tips we cover below:
- Preparing electric instruments for recording
- Preparing acoustic instruments for recording
- Preparing drums for recording
- Preparing your voice for recording
- Preparing equipment for recording
Now, you might be thinking that all this is a colossal waste of time and that you would be better off just punching that record button and letting ’er rip, right? But hear us out.
Tuning up your instrument and equipment will increase your chances of getting a better sound down on tape, digital media, or whatever your preferred recording media may be. Thorough preparation will bring your gear much closer to professional standards, which is what you want if you are at all serious about recording. Taking the time to get your instruments and equipment battle-ready could spell the difference between an amateurish demo that gets tossed in the bin and a slick and polished product that actually has a chance of taking off.
A tuned-up instrument also lets you get down to the business at hand without worrying about malfunctions and technical issues. You can then devote all your energy and focus to making your performance the best it can be. This will ultimately lead to much better recordings.
So if you’ve been wondering what that missing ingredient might be in your productions, this could be it. Take the time to read through these tips and learn the ones that apply to you by heart. We guarantee that they will improve your recordings considerably!
1. Preparing electric instruments for recording
Electric guitars and basses seem pretty indestructible, but they do need some care and maintenance to get them sounding and performing their best.
The obvious first step is to change out the strings for a fresh set. New strings sound brighter and crisper, and they stay in tune better. If your guitar or bass sounds a bit dull or muffled or won’t stay in tune, you are probably long overdue for a string change.
While you’re at it, check the intonation as well. This refers to the ability of the instrument to stay in tune throughout the entire fretboard. A poorly intonated instrument might be in tune when playing the lower frets but will be out of tune when played higher up. Check out this guide on how to intonate your guitar correctly.
Don’t forget to check your guitar’s action and neck relief. These two factors will enhance your instrument’s playability and make it easier to keep it in tune as well. If you feel confident enough to set up your own instrument, this article should be helpful.
Now would also be a good time to check your instrument’s electronics to ensure that nothing is amiss. Ground hums, hisses, and crackles can ruin an otherwise perfect take, so it would be best to fix the problem before you go for a take.
Of course, giving your guitar electronics a thorough work over might be beyond your technical capabilities. If so, consider taking your instrument to a shop for a professional tune-up. Taking the time to do so will give you one less thing to worry about on session day.
2. Preparing acoustic instruments for recording
Acoustic instruments need as much care and attention as their electric counterparts. In fact, it could even be argued that they need more TLC and preventive maintenance given their arguably more fragile construction.
Most aspects of electric instrument care and maintenance apply to acoustic instruments as well. For example, they require periodic string changes, and you will have to tune and intonate them properly before recording.
If your acoustic guitar has an adjustable bridge, you can raise or lower the action according to your preferences. Proper truss rod adjustment will also ensure that it plays in tune throughout the length of the fretboard. Here’s an informative guide on how to adjust the intonation of your acoustic guitar.
As challenging as it can be to set up acoustic instruments mechanically, they are a relative breeze where electronics are concerned. Many acoustic instruments are mic’d rather than plugged in, so there aren’t usually any electronics to speak of.
Of course, if your instrument is a semi-acoustic‒which means that it does have an onboard pickup and electronics‒the same rules for electric instruments apply. In addition, you will want to pay attention to feedback characteristics, which can be problematic when monitoring loudly while you record. Check out these ideas on how to prevent acoustic guitar feedback.
3. Preparing drums for recording
Unless you are a drummer, you probably aren’t aware that drums need tuning too. In particular, you will want to make sure that the top drum head‒that is, the one you strike‒needs to be tuned to the rest of the kit or the song.
Furthermore, the top and bottom drum heads should be in tune with each other to ensure sympathetic vibrations and harmonious sonority. This essentially means that drum heads have to be tuned to bring out their best sonic qualities.
The good news is that drum tuning isn’t quite as tricky as tuning string instruments. Percussive instruments aren’t as tuning-dependent as melodic instruments (although some drummers would argue that point.) if you want to know more about tuning your drums, check out this informative article.
Before we forget, another aspect of drum preparation could ensure perfect takes: getting rid of rattles, squeaks, rumbles, and creaks.
Drum kits are held together by a pretty complex set of hardware, with several points of connection between them. Any of these could produce unwanted noises while playing, which could be picked up by the mics.
Of course, you could eliminate these issues by using an electronic drum kit or programmed drum beats, either from your computer or a hardware drum machine. But if you insist on having live drums in your recording (and for our money, there really is no substitute), you will have to address the extraneous noise issue somehow.
Here’s an excellent set of tips for troubleshooting your drum kit and getting rid of unwanted noise.
4. Preparing your voice for recording
So far, we’ve covered most of the physical instruments that you’d typically play when recording in a home studio. But one other instrument is just as important‒some would say even more important‒as the rest: the voice.
The human voice is an amazing, wondrous instrument, capable of more drama, expression, and emotion than any other. But it is also very fragile. So just as you would take care of a prized instrument so that it always sounds its best, so too would you have to take care of your voice to preserve its strength and quality.
Some of the strategies required for keeping your voice in shape are pretty obvious: avoid smoking, minimize drinking, and don’t scream yourself hoarse. It is also a good idea to get plenty of sleep the night before the recording session and avoid dairy products that could thicken your mucous and affect your ability to sing properly.
More importantly, it would be best if you employed the proper singing technique, which involves producing the sound from your diaphragm rather than from your throat. Doing so gives you a clearer and more powerful tone and lets you sing for much longer periods without your voice giving out.
Now, learning to sing from the diaphragm will require some practice, as it doesn’t come naturally to most people. But most experts agree that it is the way to go if you want to sing consistently and powerfully and preserve your voice for the long- and short-term. Here’s an excellent article on how to sing correctly from your diaphragm.
5. Preparing equipment for recording
Finally, we come to the recording equipment. This encompasses everything you need to capture the sound of the instruments mentioned above, including your amps, cables, mics, signal processors, and your computer. If you are recording to tape or a hardware digital recorder, you’d have to give those a good once over too.
The good news is that a lot of modern digital and solid-state equipment don’t need a lot in the way of maintenance‒either they work, or they don’t. So a quick power-on and signal check should be all you need to ensure that everything is hunky-dory.
Tube equipment is another matter. Tube guitar amps and preamps need to be warmed up to work optimally. Tube amps, in particular, should be turned on a good 20 to 30 minutes before they sound their best. Otherwise, you’re simply not getting the full benefit of that juicy, saturated tone that makes tube circuits so desirable. Here’s a more in-depth explanation of the how’s and why’s of warming up tube amps.
Don’t neglect your cables and power connectors either. Check everything at a nice, loud level to pick up any hisses, crackles, buzzes, or electrical interface that could make its way into the recording. If anything isn’t performing as expected, unplug it and patch in a replacement. The last thing you want to be dealing with come recording day is an errant cable or a mysterious buzz that just won’t go away.
There you have it! That’s our guide on how to prep your instruments and equipment to ensure a creative and trouble-free recording session. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and try not to leave anything for the last minute.
The recording session should be a time of unbridled creativity, musical expression, and experimentation, NOT troubleshooting equipment or changing strings. Everyone involved will be under enough pressure as it is, so make it easy on everyone and do the prep work before you sit down to start recording.
Until next time, have a fruitful and productive recording session!