Why The Raw Material Is So Important
Making a great-sounding recording or mix is a lot like making great food, it all starts with good ingredients.
If your vocal sounds muffled and boomy already in the recording stage, or your kick sounds thin in the production stage, EQs and compressors will many times be of little help in the mixing stage.
So here are 8 things to keep in mind when recording and producing your tracks, to give you the best possible ingredients to work with.
Whether you are making beats, electronica, indie, or you are using sample-triggers for live recordings, the samples you choose are crucial for a good result.
A good sample does not necessarily mean a sample with great dynamic range or a very clean sound quality. A good sample is a sample that fits with the rest of your production and serves the overall song.
It’s a great idea to find samples that sound good enough for your song as they are, without any processing. If you need to use 10 EQs to carve out an okay snare, it might be more beneficial to find a snare sample that fits in as it is.
While processing samples is often a good idea, having a good starting point makes it easier and more efficient to work with.
Make sure you are happy with the sound of your instrument or synth as it is, before going into a microphone or processed mixer track.
Does your guitar sound bright or round enough? Are the filters in your synth adjusted appropriately, and have you chosen adequate waveforms? Would an el-guitar fit better for a certain riff than an acoustic guitar?
These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself to make sure you get the sound and feel you already want at the source of the sound.
If you are recording live sounds, the room you are in makes a huge impact on how the sound behaves and how it’s perceived.
If you go into your bathroom and clap, then go out in the living room and clap, you will hear how different the claps sound. If you also move around your living room while clapping, you will hear how different places in the room makes the clap sound different.
This happens because the soundwaves from your clap get reflected differently around the room and on different surfaces.
Some things to ask yourself when you’re setting up for a recording is:
- How does this room affect the sound?
- How does the sound source’s placement in the room affect the sound?
- Is the room optimal for what I am recording? If not, what kind of room and placement would be optimal?
In general, a big room gives a more open, distant sound, and a small room gives a more closed and intimate sound.
The materials and furniture in the room also affects how the audio behaves. Hard, flat surfaces reflect the audio more, while softer and more curved materials absorb the audio more.
Making sure you are capturing the frequencies you want in a way that you want, comes down to choosing the right mic.
Fiddling with an eq to get the proper amount of highs in your vocal recording can sometimes be difficult if you didn’t properly capture the right amount of highs in the recording phase.
Looking up your mic’s frequency response can help you determine whether it’s a good fit for your recording purpose and how you can use it as optimally as possible.
Depending on what you have to choose from, you should also consider whether a dynamic mic or a condenser mic will serve your recording best.
Generally, a dynamic microphone is pretty insensitive, meaning the sound source has to be more or less directly in front of the microphone membrane, at a rather close range, for it to capture the sound properly. It can remind of how the human ear works.
A condenser microphone is generally way more sensitive and fast-responding, meaning it captures more detail, like background noises and mouth-sounds from a vocal performance.
Where and how you place your microphone affects how the sound from the sound source and the room is captured.
Play around with the placement of your sound source and microphone when prepping your recording, to find a spot where the frequencies of both the room and sound source gets captured in a way that suits your song.
Check what directional options you have for your microphone and try it at different distances and angles until you find a sweet spot.
Having the microphone close to the sound source, pointing directly at it, will capture most of the “dry” sound. A good starting point is around 30cm from the source.
But be aware of the proximity effect when you are placing a microphone very close to a sound source. The proximity effect causes a boost in the low frequencies the closer you get to the sound source. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage, but it’s good to be aware of.
Moving the microphone further away and pointing it away from the sound source will result in more of the room, also known as the reflected sound, being captured.
Pre-amps and recording gear
Pre-amps, amps, compressors, sound cards, cables, and so on all affect the audio signal and how it sounds.
Learning all the knobs on your gear and how they affect your audio is beneficial mainly in two ways.
It lets you shape the sound more intentionally, and it lets you better decide what recording gear is most suitable for different purposes.
Instead of blindly turning random knobs and trying random gear to hopefully find something that sounds good, try understanding the knobs.
If you understand how they work, you will soon discover that you have many more possibilities with a few things you really know than a bunch of things you don’t even understand. Just with a single gain knob, you can achieve a lot of different sound timbres.
Different levels affect your audio, so making sure you are recording or programming at an appropriate level is very important.
A good starting point is around -18dbFS, which will give the cleanest and pure sound. At this level, the audio is not very silent, which can introduce unwanted noise in a live recording or a generally weak/inaudible sound, and it’s not very loud, which can introduce unwanted harmonic distortion.
This is not to say you should never set a very high or very low level, and they certainly have their place. But being aware of what effect they have on the signal is important.
Check if your audio source is providing the desired frequency response for your purpose.
Use a spectrum analyzer on an individual track or on the master bus, and analyze the audio going in.
If your snare sounds thin and sharp, it might be better to find a snare sample with less high end or more bottom end.
Use your ears and watch the audio analyzer while trying out different samples or microphone placements to figure out what could fit best with the rest of the elements and provide an appropriate frequency response.
About Gerhard Tinius
Gerhard Tinius is a groovy Norwegian producer, mixer, and audio engineer. Read his daily blog about music-making and creativity at gerhardtinius.com/blog.