When I started getting into home audio production a few years ago, I had already been a musician for a good ten years, my primary instrument being guitar.
Up until that point, the extent of my recording experience laid somewhere in between tinkering on a now-archaic analog four-track machine and capturing ideas on my phone’s voice memo app.
Needless to say, the learning curve for digital production was daunting, but I was eager to expand my skill set past being purely an instrumentalist and start producing my own music.
I immersed myself in countless online tutorials trying to get a grasp on home recording. Questions like “What DAW should I use?” “What interface fits my price range?” and “How the hell do I use all these plugins?” were constantly on my mind.
But after several months focusing on gear, recording and mixing techniques, I was competent enough to start producing demos with my band and on my own. Off to the races!
I figured I was all set, but I started to notice a problem. Although I followed the best practices of audio production, I wasn’t happy with what I was hearing. Although I was able to create quality sounding recordings, the quality of my playing was lacking.
My music sounded uninspired and bland. My playing seemed rushed, choppy, inconsistent and all over the place.
I’d often lose the spark of developing a new song because my takes just weren’t cutting it.
The results screamed amateur and I assumed the problem laid in editing and mixing. I’d end up spending hours fiddling around with WAV files trying to fix timing issues. I’d try to mask mistakes with plugins and clunky automations. I was basically trying to cover up an ugly face with whorish amounts of makeup.
Ultimately, the problem boiled down to not getting decent takes.
I started to realize that although I had years of experience playing guitar, bass, and occasionally drums and keyboards, I hadn’t developed the skill of recording them. I didn’t even know it was a skill!
This inability to capture quality musical performances became the gap between being a great instrumentalist and being a great producer. Since I desired to be both, I knew that if I wanted to elevate my recorded music to something that resembled professional quality, I needed to figure out how to record better takes.
Little by little, song after song, I was able to recognize and isolate the factors that often get in the way of laying down a great musical take.
Some of these factors are based on the recording environment. Others are a rooted in preparation. Some are mental.
It’s subtle stuff for sure, but once I was able to effectively prepare for my recording sessions and better manage my recording situations and mindsets, I saw the quality of my playing shoot through the roof.
I FINALLY sounded like a real musician on my demos. I was able to get out of my own way and spend less time struggling with difficult riffs and solos.
Now, my recording sessions run much smoother and my performances sound tighter, more inspired and more professional. Plus, the editing and mixing process has become MUCH easier and streamlined because I have great takes to work with.
My bandmates and I are now at a point where we can produce and release high-quality demos and our easy-going recording process helps push our musical ambitions and create music we’re all proud of (you can listen here if you’re curious).
This is all part of the joy and challenge of home recording and I want to share what I learned with you.
You don’t have to spend months coming to the same conclusions I did. If you’re a self-taught instrumentalist/producer and have ever struggled to properly capture your musical essence and personality onto your recordings, you’ll definitely get a lot out of this article.
I want you to apply the following tips and strategies so you can start hearing an inherent magical quality to the music you record. The kind of quality that makes feel proud of your abilities and eager to produce more music.
A quick note: these tips are presented in the context of guitar playing since I’m primarily a guitar player and instructor. But even if you’re not a guitarist, please read on because these principles and suggestions can apply to many instruments, such as drums, piano, bass, keyboards and vocals.
Before we dive into the tactical stuff, I want to give you an example that might help you think about the recording process differently.
Think of the Recording Process Like Public Speaking
If you’re reading this at your home studio, try this:
Start a new recording session and set up a microphone. I’d like you to record your voice. Go ahead and set everything up so you have a good audio signal, volume levels, and microphone placement.
Now think of something that you know a lot about — maybe your favorite band, a scene from Pulp Fiction, your opinion on the new Star Wars movie…whatever…just pick a topic.
Imagine you’re persuading your friend to check out what you’re recommending. Think about what you want to say and rehearse it a few times.
Now record yourself talking for a minute or so…
…I’ll just type amongst myself while you do that…
Okay, so now that you have your little piece of audio recorded, I want you to listen back.
Unless you do a lot of public speaking for your job or you’re a standup comedian, I imagine that you probably hear a lot of undesirable qualities in your speech.
You might be muttering “um” too often or interjecting “like” and “you know” every few words. You might stammer a bit or talk too fast. Your sentences might be interrupted with gasps for air. Maybe you make a weird noise with your mouth that you’ve never noticed.
Although you were familiar with your subject and knew what you wanted to say, the recording picked up a handful of subtle quirks and “mistakes” from your take. You probably didn’t realize you made them.
This is totally normal and the same thing can happen when you record an instrument like guitar. You may think you’re sounding great, but when you listen back, you hear a ton of pesky issues like rushed timing, unwanted squeaks, flubbed notes, out-of-tune bends, etc.
Recording puts your musical abilities under a microscope and it can expose your weaknesses a great deal. This might result in a sobering deflation of your self-confidence (believe me, this happened to me all the time), but alas, it’s the nature of the beast.
Now say you were going present this speech as a presentation at work or school, what would you do?
You’d prepare more.
You’d probably write out your speech on notecards, rehearse it in front of a mirror and memorize every line. You’d make decisions about your hand gestures and body language depending on the message you want to convey. You’d realize that your voice needs to project more if 200 people are coming to your speech as opposed to 20.
In this case, knowing the context and preparing accordingly are factors that are needed to effectively convey your ideas to an audience — to speak persuasively in public.
You want your music to do the same thing, right? You want it to speak and resonate with your listeners on a deep level. You don’t want to simply get the point across; you want your music to hit the listener hard.
This requires some preparation from a musical standpoint. You wan to be able to bring forth the best qualities about your music depending on the song, and avoid the undesirable and unnecessary byproducts of average playing.
To do this, you just need to consider a few things:
- Understand the Recording Context
- Practice Smarter
- Develop a Strong Recording Mindset
You’d be surprised how much a little bit of self-awareness and preparation can affect the quality of your takes.
Here’s what you can do to make sure you’re ready to kill it during our next recording session.
1. Understand the Recording Context
Not every home recording session is going to be the same. Knowing what you want to accomplish and what you should anticipate beforehand will help steer you clear of some of the problems that arise in various recording situations.
Here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself before you record:
- Am I Recording direct (DI) or mic’d?
Recording your guitar directly into your interface can be a little more forgiving in terms of your recording environment, particularly, because you don’t need to control it as much as a mic’d session.
A little more care and attention needs to go into mic’d sessions, especially if you’re recording in your house or garage and not a professional studio.
If it’s a hot day, you might have to turn off your AC in your bedroom so the microphone doesn’t pick up its hum. If you have roommates or kids, you need to warn them not bang on the walls while you record for a few hours.
These disturbances can affect the quality of your session, so anticipating and controlling these factors beforehand can help you avoid problems while recording.
- Is My Guitar Set Up Properly?
Wrestling with your guitar can lead to fatigue during a long recording session. If your action is too high, for example, your fingers are more likely get shredded and tired. You want your guitar to be as easy to play as possible.
If your guitar’s intonation is slightly out of place, you’ll get out-of-tune takes and either have to pitch correct later or scrap them.
Take your guitar into a local music store and pay a few bucks to get it set up and properly. It’s worth the modest investment. That way, you’ll be have ready-to-go, oiled-up machine that’s easy to play and fully in tune with itself.
Speaking of tuning — try to remind yourself to tune at the start of as many takes as possible, not just at the beginning of your session. Guitars tend to go out of tune for a variety of reasons, especially if you’re playing something that involves a lot of string bending.
I’ve had to throw away a lot of duds because I didn’t realize that my guitar fell out of tune halfway through my session.
Check your tuning every few takes and you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.
- Am I Recording Solo or With Other People?
When you record by yourself, you need to wear your musician hat and producer hat.
If I’m feeling particularly in-the-zone, I can manage both roles pretty well; however, I find that having to split-my attention back and forth between recording instruments and operating equipment diminishes the quality of each job.
Because of this, I’ll reserve 100% solo recording for capturing rough ideas. If I want to produce something higher quality, I’ll try to work with at least one other person.
It’s much easier to have someone else with you to man the ship while you concentrate on recording your parts, even if the other person does nothing other than start and stop the record button.
The energy created by having more than one person in the room can also help move the session along. Your partner might even be able to play a producer role and coax out a better performance by offering suggestions.
Just like you’ll get much better at guitar by playing live with and in front of people, you’ll get better at recording by working with others.
- Do I want a “live” sounding recording or Should everything sound tight and precise?
This depends on the style of music you’re recording and the approaches can be quite different.
For instance, if your musical style tends to be gritty and loose, like garage rock or punk, you might want to record longer takes to help you get a more “live” feel. Even though you’re probably recording multi-track, you want to simulate a group of musicians playing live in a room together. Having longer, uninterrupted takes and some (slight) “mistakes” can help you achieve that. Sometimes less-than-perfect playing can add to the character of a song (Led Zeppelin is a great example of this).
Conversely, if your style is a little more intricate like progressive metal, you’ll want to get tight and precise with your takes. In this case, recording measure-by-measure, phrase-by-phrase will help get your takes tight.
Generally, this recording approach demands more of you from a performance point of view because you want to aim for perfection and zoom in on the level of detail of each musical phrase.
This can be achieved with…
2. Practice Smarter
Practice seems like a no-brainer, and we all spend time working on our chops to some degree. But effective practice – the kind of practice that significantly elevates your instrumental skills – can be difficult to achieve.
Smarter practice involves focusing your energy in the right areas so you can get the most out of your practice time. This way, you can make sure you’re fully prepared to record your music to the best of your ability during your next session.
Here are a few things to think about so you can use your time wisely and practice effectively:
- Recognize Difficult Parts and Plan your Practice Accordingly
Each song you record is going to have different demands depending on its context. In order to successfully prepare for a recording session you should ideally know which parts you need to work on and how much time you have to practice.
Say you plan on recording a song a week from now and, for the most part, it’s not too difficult.
But after you play the song a few times, you realize that you consistently stumble on the bridge riff — your timing is a little rushed and the riff sounds sloppy overall.
No worries — just plan to practice this bridge riff over the next few days. Maybe schedule 20 minutes each day to work on this part.
If you’re tackling a more musically demanding song, you might want to schedule your recording session a week or two ahead so you have enough time to flesh out your parts and get them tight and clean.
Identifying and making time for difficult parts will automatically help you get the most out of your practice time because you’re practicing for a specific reason — to record your part to the best of your ability.
- Practice Passages Until You Can Play Them 10 Time Perfectly in a Row
Now that you’ve identified the parts that you need to clean up, you want to have a strategy in place to help you master them.
A good barometer to tell you if you’ve mastered a part is to be able to play it 10 times perfectly in a row.
If you can, you’re golden. If you can’t, try to spend a little more time perfecting it.
This means practicing your part slow and to a metronome. It means solidifying elements like fingering and picking. You want to make sure that your bent notes are consistently bent up to pitch and that your musical dynamics are well thought out and solidified.
Remember, if you can’t play a part slow, you can’t play it fast.
Let’s go back to that bridge riff example.
Maybe you realize that you have a lot of trouble playing it at the tempo you want to record at and that’s why it’s sounding sloppy.
Try practicing the riff at half speed and don’t move on until you can play it perfectly ten times in a row. Then increase the metronome a good 5 or 10 beats per minute and try again, using the goal of 10 perfect takes as your signal to move forward. Keep repeating until you can play that bridge riff up to tempo.
By spending a little extra time digging into the more difficult parts, you’ll find that you not only are extra prepared for the recording session, but your confidence will increase knowing that you have the most difficult parts under your belt.
That’s a nice feeling to have when the red light is on.
- Simulate The Recording Environment
It’s easy to get thrown off during a recording session when you have to adapt things like different gear, amps and tones.
To make sure you’re comfortable during your session and can play everything as well as you did during practice, you should try to practice in an environment that’s similar to your recording situation.
For example, you want to practice on the same instrument and amplifier you intend to record with. You want to dial in tones that you’ll likely use in the session (e.g., practice with distortion if your song uses distortion).
If you know you’re going to record with headphones, practice with headphones so you can get used to hearing your playing close to your ears as opposed to further away through your amp.
Although you can’t anticipate everything that’ll you’ll use during your session, you want to replicate your practice environment as much as you can so you can record comfortably, minimize the need to adapt to new things and can concentrate on the music.
And now we’ve arrived at the final step — the process of recording. You’re all set up, you know your parts, and now its just time to record.
Here are a few tricks to help you have an easier, more productive recording session.
3. Develop a Positive Recording Mindset
Your state of mind can make or break the success of your recording sessions. How you’re feeling can directly influence the quality of your playing, and properly managing your emotions can help you stay focused and achieve better performances.
Although you’ll certainly encounter frustrating sessions from time to time, a few pointers and mindsets can help you minimize/combat frustrations.
- Warm up
I’m still guilty of recording before I’m properly warmed up. This becomes frustrating because I realize I’m having trouble executing the parts I practiced so much. Then I realize I didn’t warm up and I remember how I got shin splints in high school because I didn’t like to warm up before track practice. Stupid me.
It can be tempting to dive in, but even if you take a minute to stretch out your hands, shoulders and arms and move your fingers across the fretboard, you’ll notice a difference.
- Loosen up and have fun
I’ve found that the more enjoyable your session is, the better you’ll sound.
You know how people say that when you smile on the phone, even though the other person can’t see you, they can feel your warmth and positive energy? It’s kind of the same thing.
I’m not saying we all need to bring a tree inside your home studio to hug after every take, but you should at least be comfortable and in a good mood.
You’re making music. It’s supposed to be fun. If beer’s allowed in your session (and the song isn’t too complicated), take a few sips while you lay down your guitar part and sink into the moment.
Turn off the harsh florescent lights and use some lamps to calm the atmosphere. Wear comfortable clothing and make sure you’ve eaten (nobody realizes they’re hangry until they eat).
This might seem obvious, but I’ve found that an easy-going environment usually yields better music.
- Become present
I can usually attribute recording mistakes to a break in concentration.
If you’ve ever done yoga or meditation, you may have heard the concept of being “present” — meaning your entire mind is focused on what’s in front of you and nothing else. The human mind likes to wander without you controlling it so staying present is highly difficult.
For example, have you read something and realized halfway down the page that you weren’t actually reading and taking in information, your eyes were just scanning the page while your mind unintentionally wandered elsewhere? The same thing can happen while you’re recording.
Give each take your undivided attention. I’ll admit this can be hard, but with repetition you can improve your concentration.
Even something as simple as a repetitive chord progression will sound better if you’re fully committed to it when your recording, versus passively recording it while you think about your grocery list.
This is obviously a lot of information here and it’s impossible to take it all in at once.
There’s no substitute for real experience recording, so you need to record a lot to truly get better at recording your instruments.
But hopefully this article has shown you a few things to consider moving forward that can help you think about some considerations you can take to get better prepared for your sessions.
Bookmark this page and use it as a reference whenever you find a problem with your takes or need a boost of motivation to practice.
If you like this article, I have some free stuff for you to complement this lesson.
All you have to do is click here to join my email list, and I’ll send you a few freebies.
- A customizable Smart Practice checklist that you can use to make sure you’re prepare for your next session
- A chance to win a free hour-long Skype coaching session where I’ll critique your music and offer advice on how you can improve as a guitar player
Plus, you’ll get updated on upcoming lessons and exclusive content that I don’t release anywhere else.
Here’s the link again and I hope to talk to you soon!
About Zach Pino
My name is Zach and I run ZachPinoGuitar.com, an instructional guitar website geared toward helping self-taught guitarists learn the songs they love, get the most out of their practice time, and see big improvements in their guitar skills. I offer one-on-one Skype lessons and encourage you to check out my site and download my free e-guide How to Learn Songs as Quickly As Possible.