We all have different objectives that we want to achieve when embarking on a recording project. Most want to capture a performance as accurately as possible or to give life to a song or musical piece. Others want to realize their artistic vision, while others want to give full reign to their creativity.
Then there are those that want their recordings to achieve a particular sonic imprint or conform to a standard. For many recording aficionados that have grown beyond the rudimentary level, the goal may be to produce an “expensive-sounding” recording.
Expensive-sounding recordings defined
What does “expensive-sounding” even mean? What characteristics make a particular recording sound expensive?
The definition varies from person to person, and what a casual listener might deem “expensive-sounding” may seem pretty standard to an experienced recording engineer. Even listeners with the same level of experience and expertise may have different ideas on what constitutes an expensive-sounding recording.
What most of us can agree on however, is that an expensive-sounding recording sounds like it was produced in a professional recording facility. It sounds slick and well-balanced, with every element objectively coming together to create a cohesive whole. Sonic anomalies are minimal or non-existent, and nothing sticks out in an unpleasant way.
What an expensive-sounding recording isn’t
One thing that an expensive-sounding recording isn’t–or what it isn’t necessarily–is perfect. A recording in which every element is perfect is not only difficult to achieve; it also isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing.
Factors such as robotic timing, perfectly articulated notes, and flawless performances may seem desirable in theory. In reality, however, these often result in music that is bland and unremarkable, with a distinct absence of character. In your quest for an expensive-sounding recording, therefore, you don’t necessarily want to capture a perfectly flawless performance.
This is not to say that your recording should be riddled with mistakes and sonic anomalies. An amateurish performance and poor recording techniques do not contribute toward an expensive-sounding recording either. Keep the humanism and subtle imperfections that make a recording sound authentic by all means. But do try to conform to a certain level of quality.
The science behind achieving an expensive sound
With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the theory behind achieving an expensive sound. There are many tricks and techniques for doing so, most of which involve controlling or manipulating the following:
- How the instruments interact with each other
- How the individual elements contribute toward the overall production
- How the listener perceives the recording
- How the recording translates to different media and listening environments
Let’s tackle each aspect in more detail.
Controlling how instruments interact with each other
Controlling how instruments interact with each other often boils down to arrangement. In an ideal situation, you will want all the instruments to complement and flatter each other, forming a cohesive whole. This often requires arranging the music so that instruments in the same frequencies don’t play together and cancel each other out.
Arranging is as much science as it is art. It will take years of experience to develop the knack of knowing when and how instruments complement each other, but it is a learnable skill. Given enough time, almost anyone can develop the ability to arrange elements to create an impressive-sounding ensemble performance.
Ensuring that each element contributes toward the overall production
One oft-neglected aspect of recording and production is ensuring that each and every element contributes to the overall result. Every single detail that you add to the recording–whether it is a horn part or a vocal sample–should have a purpose and contribute to the recording in a tangible way.
Don’t just throw something in for the sake of doing so. Elements added on as an afterthought will sound jarring and out of place, and possibly dilute the impact of your recording. In contrast, well-thought-out elements have a way of drawing the listener in and helping the progression along. Ultimately, this will result in a more logical and interesting recording.
Affecting how the listener perceives your recording
This is perhaps the most crucial step in crafting an expensive-sounding recording. There are dozens of techniques that you can use to create an impressive soundstage and a more captivating aural experience for your listeners. You can use equalization to make certain elements brighter or more forward than others, or employ compression to make other sounds smoother or punchier.
EQing is, in fact, one of the most effective tools you can use to craft million-dollar sounding recordings. It can add sheen to a bland and otherwise unremarkable recording, and liven up even a dull sounding production.
Optimizing translation to different media and listening environments
Always strive to craft recordings that sound good on as many different systems and listening environments as possible. A sure sign of a professional recording is that it sounds good no matter where it is being played. Ideally, you will want your recording to sound great on a small set of speakers, a massive home entertainment system, and anything and everything in between.
This is a lot easier said than done, of course. It can be difficult to ensure that your mix will sound equally great on studio monitors as it will on a smartphone. But it is possible to strike a balance that will ensure that your music sounds reasonably good on as many different devices as possible. Mixing in a neutral sounding room using flat monitor speakers and careful comparison checking will help you craft recordings that translate well across a broad range of systems and listening environments.
Practical tips on creating expensive-sounding recordings on a budget
So far, we’ve covered the theory and principles behind how expensive-sounding recordings sound the way they do. But what can you actually do to achieve this goal given the constraints of the typical home studio?
Oftentimes, achieving an expensive-sounding recording is hindered by the inherent limitations of a home studio environment. But there is a lot you can do to elevate your productions beyond that typical ‘bedroom’ recording sound. Here are some suggestions on how you can work with what you have and still come up with tunes that sound as if you recorded them in a commercial recording facility.
- Tune your instrument. It’s amazing how much more professional your productions will sound if your instruments are in tune and intonated. Even if you don’t have the best instruments, taking the time to tune them will go a long way in enabling you to craft a more impressive-sounding recording.
- Get a mic that suits your needs. Whether you are recording vocals or a guitar, having a proper mic will result in better recordings. Learn the difference between a dynamic mic and a condenser mic and use them to your advantage. If possible, try out a few mics at a music supply store to see which one flatters your voice the best.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask advice from music store employees either. Most have considerable experience with recording equipment and will only be too happy to talk shop.
- Get the best monitors you can afford in your budget. Your monitors are meant to provide you with an accurate and dependable representation of your music. You will want a pair that provides a neutral output with as little coloration as possible. This will enable you to mix and arrange your music so that it sounds reasonably good over as many different devices and listening environments as possible.
- Learn your tools. Even modest home studios have an unbelievable wealth of tools and equipment available, many of which didn’t exist only a few years ago. Your digital audio workstation (DAW) is a good example, providing a bewildering array of tools by which you could craft impressive-sounding recordings. Providing everything from signal processors and effects to editing features, a DAW is essential for creating expensive-sounding recordings.
- Get outside help. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can–and should–do it all yourself. There’s no shame in getting someone else to do the mixing or having someone come in and lay down some instrumental parts.
Whether you hire a professional or ask a favor from a friend, enlisting outside help could improve your results tremendously. Furthermore, it could also free you up to focus on the big picture and getting the recording to sound as good as it could be.
- Practice and rehearse. Finally, try to make sure that everyone has their respective parts down cold. If you have any control at all over the production, encourage everyone involved to rehearse their parts and do a few practice takes. Taking the time to do so could work wonders in elevating your recording to the next level.
The money shot
Creating expensive-sounding recordings often depends on the careful coordination of many different factors. There will be a fair bit of trial and error involved, and many mistakes along the way. As you become more and more familiar with the process, you will eventually develop the knack of making recordings that sound like a million bucks.