25 Pro Rules You Should Checklist For Studio Recording

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 5 January 2018 |

Recording and mixing a musical composition is often underestimated as a task, with the emphasis placed on the musicians rather than the recording process. But anyone who heard the unassuming radio session version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes, before hearing the spectacular Trevor Horn production which chalked up a chartbustin’ nine weeks as a UK No.1 in 1984, knows the phenomenal difference a recording process can make. In this post, I’m going to document 25 recording maxims, tricks and cheats I firmly believe are vital for a professional-sounding production, but which everyone can use, regardless of budget...

1. Plan. Set aside some time and use it JUST TO THINK before you start. If you don’t make plans, and push yourself mentally to do something different, you’ll end up doing exactly what you did last time. If you’re working alone you may even get bored or disillusioned part way through and abandon the recording. So decide how you’re going to make this session special. What will you try that you haven’t tried before? Put the radio on to help you think, and pay attention to structure as well as sounds, balance and tricks. Nile Rodgers mentioned in his BBC4 series on the music business, that he often moved the hook to the start of the song rather than placing it after a verse, because… well, people have low attention spans. Rodgers exploited a psychological inevitability. Not only did he know he was putting his most powerful hooks where the decision-makers would hear them, he also knew that his rivals were not. Massive advantage, and look what it did for him. That’s what planning and thought can achieve.

2. Don’t waste time re-doing work you’ve already done. Particularly if you’re recording the same setup as before, use a mix template rather than starting from scratch. If you’ve previously created a mix you really like, call up that track in your DAW, make sure each channel is labelled with its instrument name, then delete all of the audio and save the empty ‘desk’ as a new file. When you start fresh recordings, you’ll now have proven ballpark settings (EQ, compression, levels, etc) for each sound. How much you have to adjust will depend on how much you alter the setup, but starting with production ‘presets’ is likely to save a lot of time and help you maintain consistency of quality.

3. TTH. That’s Tempo, Tuning and Headroom. These are three issues that can cause major complications and slowdowns late on in the process, or just result in a compromised product. At the outset, make sure the tempo is perfect for everyone involved. Make sure the key is right for the singer(s), and that everything is in tune with any instruments that are difficult (or impossible) to re-tune. At the mixing stage, optimise the most prominent lead (vocal or solo) levels first, and then set everything else relative to them. If you start by setting your ‘backline’ volumes immediately below the limit of clipping, then you won’t have the headroom to ‘feature’ an instrument or a vocal part without pushing its level too high and distorting it. Particularly if you have a lot of parts to rebalance at a revised volume, and have already automated some fades and changes, that could lose you a lot of time.

4. Record as quickly as you can and don’t get bogged down with unimportant details. The quicker you can get to the end of the recording process, the more time you’ll have to polish the work, and the more motivated you’ll be to finish the task if you’re working alone. In particular, don’t worry about how the whole thing will mix whilst you’re recording the tracks. If you’ve planned, and sorted the tuning and tempo, just get everything recorded while the going is good, and think about polishing it up at the end. Indeed, don't EXPECT the track to sound amazing during recording. As long as there's nothing wrong, it will be fine. Don’t mic when you can use direct injection, because it’s a massive waste of time. Any electric instrument that doesn’t have distortion or a recognised speaker-dependency is probably going to be fine with a DI feed. There’s a piece on direct injection for guitars here.

5. If at all possible, don’t finalise a mix without taking a lengthy break and doing other things before returning. Some fundamental problems just don’t reveal themselves until you’ve gone away and come back.

6. Get a reference! Near the end of mixing, check the overall EQ against that of a ‘yardstick’ professional track you’ve always admired. Intensive mixing can distort your perception of the norms, and may trick you into believing something that’s too trebly, or too bassy, is okay. Comparing your mix with a pro recording quickly reveals how wide of the norms you’ve strayed, and you can easily adjust your overall EQ in line with the pro track, without destroying the individual instrument relationships.

7. Be extremely careful boosting very low sub bass frequencies or ultra-high trebles. You can only get an accurate picture of what’s happening with these extreme frequency boosts if you have a) an excellent monitoring system, and b) perfect hearing. Most of us don’t have perfect hearing. It may be that 90% of your audience won’t hear the effects of the boost at all, whilst the other 10% are severely irritated because you’ve overdone it. Over-boosting extreme frequencies can also cause nasty distortion in cheap speakers. If you can’t clearly hear what difference a high or low frequency adjustment is making, leave it alone! Another tell-tale sign that you’re over-boosting extreme frequencies is that an instrument sounds quiet in the mix, but is very high on the level meter. The level meter is picking up the lows or highs your ears/equipment can’t detect.

8. Only use reverb when you NEED reverb. If an instrument or vocal sounds okay dry, record it dry. And if it mixes well dry, keep it dry. Don’t be persuaded by convention that you must use any given type of processing. And remember, reverb will distance any sound to which you add it. If you want it more in-ya-face, you need it more dry. Think twice before adding reverb to your vocals, and think at least ten times before adding it to your bass. If anything sounds a bit ‘unprofessional’ without reverb, try compression or heavy limiting as a first step solution, as it’s often poor dynamic control that causes the ‘amateur’ feel, and compression squeezes out that dynamic volatility.

9. If you intend to use modulation effects (like chorus), record the tracks dry and add the effects at the mixing stage if possible. It’s incredibly hard to gauge the right level of modulation processing until you have the whole song assembled, and particularly if your mix is quite busy, you may find you need a lot less effect than you anticipated. Often none at all.

10. Try stripping down. Record and mix your track, then come back in 24 hours and TAKE OUT everything it doesn’t absolutely need. The idea is to identify the most important elements (particularly vocals and significant riffs), and highlight them by removing the distractions. This technique can be extremely effective. If you’re not convinced once you’ve stripped out the clutter, A/B demo the results to a non-musician friend. I bet they'll say the stripped version sounds better.

11. Support vocals with harmonies. This will make a producer look like a genius if no one else has thought to do it. If the singer is not greatly experienced with harmonies, keep it really simple, and use a musical instrument to work out the vocal harmonies and illustrate them if necessary. Some singers take naturally to doing harmonies, whilst others will get distracted and need you to drop the lead vocal out of the track whilst they sing them. You may also need to do some chopping up and time-shifting to line up the harmony and lead parts so they’re tight with each other. Out of sync sibilance sounds dreadful. But vocal harmonies, mixed at reduced volume, bolster the power of the lead, minimise weaknesses in the lead, and provided they’re in tune, will almost invariably give the track a professional aura. Long, harmonised vocal “oooh”s and “aahhh”s – human chords, essentially – can also be used as a much more organic alternative to synth pads.

12. Pay acute attention to instruments playing on their own, as this is a hotspot for that ‘amateur’ sound in recordings. You may have no choice but to employ reverb when a lone instrument sounds a bit ‘toytown’, and pro producers will use other tricks like double-tracking (real or simulated), compression and/or EQ-tailoring to avoid the ‘bedroom vibe’. Pushing a subtle, smooth, slow-rotor Hammond backing underneath lone instruments for support was a common trick used before the digital age, but this sort of thing should be a last resort. It’s better to make the one instrument sound fantastic than try to soak it in some sort of sonic bubble bath.

13. Trust reputable instrument manufacturers on EQ. If you’re significantly adding or subtracting frequencies to/from renowned, high quality gear, and you’re not doing it to create a special effect, you’re probably making the sound worse rather than better. Particularly with electronic instruments like drum machines and synths, it’s almost certain that reputable manufacturers have thrown a lifetime of experience and ££££££s worth of testing into the output frequency balance, and designed the sounds to integrate into a mix. If gear like this doesn’t sound right unless you add significant treble, bass or whatever, there’s probably something wrong with the rest of your mix or your monitoring setup. Or your ears are shot.

14. Budget for the fact that some listeners will have poor sound systems (often with little if any bass response) and, in particular, may be using headphones. Listen through headphones at regular intervals, as they’ll quickly highlight any over-panning in the stereo spread – which would sound unprofessional to a headphone user. Pro mixers will also be able to switch to cheap speakers to check that the mix holds up on poorer equipment. If you can’t do this – and maybe even if you can – take down the bass and high treble on your monitoring system to see what remains. On systems with great bass response you can be tricked into believing you’ve created a worldbeating mix, but if that amazing bass pattern disappears altogether on a bass-light system, and there isn’t anything else to compensate, a huge section of your audience is going to be left WTF?-ing.

15. Listen from outside the room. Hearing the track from this perspective, without the sparkle of its highs and stereo image can quickly alert you to flaws in the mix. Vocals, for example, can sound great with a breathy edge and stereo separation, but leave the room, and without that zing and positioning, they get lost. Increase their volume so they sound loud enough outside the room, and then reduce any aggressive frequencies so they don’t overpower from close range.

16. When duplicating parts for repetition, watch out for cheat giveways. Typical examples would include distinctive finger noise squeaks in guitar or bass routines, and subtle air-gasps in vocal lines. These are things we don’t find odd in a one-off pass, but when looped and repeated, they serve as identifiers, telling the listener you’ve cheated. They can prove irritating too. Make a point of isolating the individual sound and listening for such imperfections before looping or repeating it, because it’s very easy, when you’re trying to concentrate on the rest of the mix, to miss them until it’s too late.

17. Want a more retro feel? Do it the easy way. Record digitally, and then transfer your final mix to an audio cassette, before importing it back from the tape to your computer. If you use a standard, normal bias ferric tape, it will round off your trebles, warm the mids, and provided you’ve got your recording levels right, create a nice analogue ‘sponginess’. Cheaper (normal bias) tapes are typically better at creating a retro feel than more expensive (high bias) tapes, but stick with the best brands, as they’re likely to sound nicer and be less prone to glitches. Remember that this technique can also introduce background noise, and will probably be inappropriate for dynamically volatile tracks that have quiet sections.

18. Stay away from alcohol and any other state-altering substances. Things may sound great at the time, but even a modest drink will make you more tolerant, when you need to be more critical.

19. Record acoustic instruments using headphone monitoring, with an EQ setting the player finds inspiring. However, accept that you’ll almost inevitably then need to adjust the EQ to integrate the instrument into the mix. It’s common, once an acoustic instrument is recorded, to have to moderate the bass frequencies to some extent, and maybe scoop out some mids. The same often applies to electric guitars, recorded through miked up amps – particularly clean, rhythm guitars. Vocals are liable to need EQ revisions after recording too. These are issues you can circumvent somewhat by using a mix template (see Point 2) with compensations built in.

20. Placing mics closer will minimise the sound of the room. If you’re in an acoustically-spectacular room, you may want to put some distance between the mics and the acoustic sounds (or use the old standard trick of mixing one close mic with one distant so you can adjust and perfect the ambient balance). But for most of us, room acoustics will be somewhere between bearable and awful, meaning it’s better to mic close. You can add a room sound artifically, using a good reverb effect if you need that feel, but if you’re going to simulate the room, definitely mic close! I know pro studios recommend distance between singer and mic to reduce breath pop, but they normally have very dead rooms. It’s much harder to get away with this at home. Use a foam pop shield on the mic (not pushed right the way down) and a disc filter just in front, but if you’re not in a specialised, acoustically dead room, don’t have the singer too far from the mic. You'll probably want to add some top and a little bass to compensate for the muffling effect of the shielding.

21. If you’re on a budget, get one great mic and use it for everything, rather than getting a set of average quality mics for various applications. Much of the application targeting in mics is marketing, rather than necessity, and with equalisation as powerful and convenient as it now is, you’re better off buying just one premium quality product, then tailoring the sound characteristics yourself. Don’t forget that on some of the twentieth century’s most important recordings, even the acoustic drum kits were recorded using only one or two all-purpose mics.

22. Add significant compression to the vocal mic at the recording stage, and make sure the vibe in the singer’s headphones is exciting, with strong bass. When the singer monitors through headphones, the compression should make them a lot less inhibited with their volume, and with a strong musical backing, you should get a good performance.

23. Save and combine your takes! The best producers assemble a brilliant vocal performance from multiple takes. But in order to do this, they need to preserve each take as they go along. Rather than ‘dropping in’ (recording a main take and then getting the singer to replace any suspect elements), I prefer to collect a number of full takes, and combine the best bits of them. The unbroken performances make for a better flow, and take pressure off the singer to perfect any given phrase. You could keep each take on a separate track initially, muting out the ones you’re not using. Then, once you’ve identified the best bits, cut them out and combine them on a single track. The vocals will be what most listeners focus on, so don’t skimp on attention to the task of identifying the best bits from each take. If assembling that perfect performance takes the longest portion of the session, so be it.

24. If you’re producing for someone else, be determined, and prepared to persuade. If you have a vision you know is going to work, don’t allow people who are inexperienced, or are just focused on their own contributions, to disrupt the big picture. Obviously, if someone is paying you, you have to listen to them, but recording is about the listener – not how much a specific member of the group wants to be louder than another. As a producer, you represent the listening public. Feed back as the listener. Be diplomatic, but tell the musicians how it sounds, and make sure they know that you ARE the audience.

25. Retouch – on the sly if you have to. If you want it done right, sometimes you just have to do it yourself. There may be no other option when the musicians have finished and gone, and certain elements are not working. The tales of famous producers replacing various musicians’ contributions either with their own synths/samplers or with the work of session players are many, and legendary. Far too many for the sneaky ‘retouching’ process to be dismissed as rare or unnecessary. If word is to be believed, some bands didn’t appear on their own records at all in the end. I’ve heavily retouched recordings in the past, and in my experience, bands will say “NO!” if you ask them first, but will happily keep schtum if you just go ahead and then play them a sensational finished mix. Remember that if you retouch one band member’s contribution, and it’s better than the original performance, then even if the band member in question is against it, the rest of the band will almost inevitably be on your side. As long as they’re actually on the recording, all most groups care about is having a brilliant end product that will get their fans begging for more. Deliver that, and you’re pretty safe whatever your methods.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.