How to Record Instruments That Practically Mix Themselves
As a home studio owner, I’m continually trying to find “that sound”—the lively yet polished character of my favorite records straight from the hands of the best mix engineers in the world.
Through years of learning and practicing professional audio recording, one thing is certain: the better you can capture a quality sound at the source, the better your song will sound at the end of the mix.
You want to record tracks that practically mix themselves
But the more I dive into high-end audio gear, a sickening truth starts to grip me as I stare the thousands of dollars worth of compressors, preamps, and microphones that are starting to clutter my home studio space. That truth is: upgrading studio equipment doesn’t give a proportionate increase in sonic quality. Not even close!
There is widespread adoption of the idea that better gear equates to better recordings, but when I upgraded my Audio Technica AT 3035 to an AKG 414, there was perhaps a 25% difference in sonic quality, but price tag of the microphone was 500% higher.
Years later, when I upgraded the AKG 414 to my now primary vocal mic, the Neumann U87ai, there was only a 5% increase in sonic quality and clarity, even though the U87ai is 3x the price! (Sometimes the 414 beats out the U87 on some voices.)
So why is it that we still spend so much money on upgrading audio gear with such minimal return? Some would argue that “it’s the last 5% that makes it go from a good recording to an excellent recording”—and that may or may not be true. I’m not going to argue the validity of that statement, but in this article, I’m will go over my favorite techniques that make a massive difference in the quality of our recordings so that the tracks we record practically mix themselves.
Off-Axis Microphone Coloration
Arguably the single thing that makes the most significant sonic difference in your recordings is Off-Axis Microphone Placement.
The concept is simple: point the mic right at the thing, and it becomes brighter. Turn the mic slightly away, and it becomes darker.
The most obvious example of tone-shaping through Off-Axis Microphone Coloration is when recording electric guitar amplifiers. There are two general tone centers of the guitar speaker that need to be balanced when placing the microphone, the bight, piercing center dome, and the warmer outer cone.
The spot that you end up placing that microphone between the center dome and the cone is going to make more of a tonal difference than any microphone comparison at any price point!
Off-axis coloration to EQ your instruments at the source extends to recording vocals and acoustic guitars. Are you finding that the singer is too sibilant and unnaturally plosive? Raise the microphone 2 inches and aim downward off-axis towards the chest of the vocalist. You’ll find this technique solving your problems faster than you can swipe your credit card for that “dream microphone.” Is your acoustic guitar too percussive and lacking sustain? Move the microphone away from the soundhole towards the 12th fret, raise 2 inches, and angle downward. Doesn’t that sound better? I thought so!
Read more on microphone placement in this article: Record High-Quality Tracks in Your Room
Drywall is Not Your Friend
Once you’ve mastered Off-Axis Coloration, the next enemy to defeat in a home studio are the very walls themselves.
Drywall construction in home studios have two main issues:
- Drywall doesn’t have a particularly warm, or pleasing tone
- Walls and ceilings are usually constructed creating parallel surfaces—causing flutter reflections
But what can we do? You most likely don’t have the extra $80,000 to remodel the room and angle all the walls so that there are no two parallel surfaces. Adding wooden diffusers is also expensive and most likely out of the question for most home studio owners.
The answer? Treat first-reflection points with low-cost acoustic foam.
First-reflection points are straightforward. They are the surfaces that create the loudest echo in the room. If you are sitting at your studio desk listening to your monitors, your first-reflection points are most likely the walls to the left and right of your ears. If you are feeling fancy, you can also acoustically treat the ceiling above your head as it is also a first-reflection point.
Treat those places with affordable studio foam, and you are going to notice that drywall flutter disappears, and your room becomes warmer and tighter.
Set up your vocal microphone in front of an acoustically treated wall. The foam behind the microphone deadens any drywall reflections from bouncing back into the microphone. More on acoustic treatment can be found in this article: 4 Acoustic Treatment Tricks That Make Your Room Sound Great Right Away
Turn off the Refrigerator
This last tip is an embarrassing story of growth and discovery. One day, while recording a sensitive and exposed acoustic guitar part, I noticed during playback that in some takes the noise in my room was much louder than before.
I initially blamed my computer fan and hard drives, but after shifting things on my desk, changing microphone placement, and pulling out all my hair, I realized something else was causing the metallic, droning sound that I was hearing.
Long story short, the hard surfaces of my kitchen were, in essence, creating a megaphone that shot the motoring sound of the refrigerator across my small apartment right into my studio space. Needless to say, I now reach into my refrigerator and set it “OFF” while recording sensitive passages—it saves me from pulling in a Gate or Noise Reduction plugin during the mixing stage.
About the author:
So who is this guy that somehow knows a lot about audio recording and happens to have the loudest refrigerator in the galaxy? My name is Ryan Waczek, and I am the founder of the music-training website, the Indie Music Academy. We help artists learn how to make a living and grow a fan base through our expansive library of training and career resources that help them earn a music income and grow a hungry audience.
If you are a home studio owner who writes and releases your original music and needs help marketing to a broader audience, I’d love to offer you a gift: my Spotify Marketing Gameplan. It’s the same 5-Step method that I use to get my artists playlisted on Spotify, again and again, resulting in hundreds of thousands of streams. It’s free to download and utilize right away!
Audio Production, Home Studio, Keeping Track, Recording Tips