Sea of Mics

How to Get Better Quality Recordings Without Buying More Gear

by Chris Gowland

We have an overused joke in our family that goes “if you aren’t particularly good at something, it just means that you need to get yourself to a store and buy some more expensive gear”. We use this most often in the context of athletics, but it applies to getting good results in a home studio tenfold. I admit, I can geek out over the unlimited gear choices manufacturers tell you are ‘must haves’ for recording, but I restrain myself. Some of the greatest songs recorded have been produced in lower tech settings than most people have in their entertainment centers. So what’s the magic ingredient? Process.

There are certain components of your recording setup that you can get a lot of mileage from (like the Shure SM57 mic I suggested buying in my last post), but the way you use them will have far more impact on producing a quality recording. So if you are about to tackle a home recording project, instead of upgrading your gear, take a little time to upgrade your process. Let me suggest some “must do’s” to make sure you’re squeezing everything you can from whatever setup you may be using.

Just say “no” to the “mic in the middle of the room” technique

Sea of Mics
The extreme case of individual instrument mic’ing – getting GREAT drum sounds is a challenge. Here’s Connor warming up for a the drum tracks on Mexico in a sea of mics.

There’s what we call “CD” quality, and “radio” quality. This technique will produce “garage” quality. The starting point for producing anything of high quality is a separate mic (and recorded ‘track’) for each instrument. This allows you to control each sound independently in terms of level in the mix, effects and especially for fixing mistakes. You can accomplish this live with the whole band, but that means LOTS of mics (see paragraph 1 re: shopping) and sound isolation via multiple rooms. The more realistic approach is to record one track at a time (using that one great mic over and over!), and the first track to record should always be a…

Click track (or metronome)

By laying down a mechanical click track, performers will be grounded to a common tempo. It will also ensure that you can easily reuse (copy and paste) sections of the song – like a chorus the guitarist nailed. If instead, you rely on a drummer’s track that is inconsistent, the subsequent players will one by one make attempts on the drummer’s life. This comes after each is painfully unraveled, wondering “is it me?” when they just can’t seem to stick to the rhythm. Hint: each player should practice to a click ahead of time to get accustomed to it. For most songs on The Cranks’ “Downside Up” we actually abandoned the click track after the drums were recorded. This retained the consistency of the click, but provided the groove and feel for other tracks to benefit from.

“two, three, four…”

The band and each player individually should practice the song one million times before recording it, play it in their sleep, warm up their voices and fingers, put new strings on their guitars, get a good night’s sleep. When you count them in, they’ll be ready to focus on emotion and energy, not the chord changes.

Lay it down dry

Avoid slopping a bunch of effects like reverbs, delay or equalization onto a track when laying it down. This locks you into choices that might not sit well in the context of subsequent tracks. Keep it dry and you can always adjust more or less when you mix later.

Quietly now

Once you begin to mix the song, stick to low listening volumes. This will help to expose deficiencies in a mix like vocals being inaudible, and help avoid ear fatigue that leads to bad choices. When you’re getting close to a final mix, go listen in your car, on your iPod and wherever you listen to music most often. If something is wrong, you’ll hear it then. Take good notes and repeat.

Keep it loose

Nothing hurts a performance more than nerves. Keep it light and the players will relax and give you their best. It’s also a good idea to hit record on a practice take or to capture some of the in-between chatter. If you listen to The Cranks’ Voice Inside and Scatterbox there a few of Haley’s vocal outtakes embedded that came from exactly that, giving each of those songs some attitude we could never have planned for or rehearsed.

Read more from Chris Gowland about Home Studio Recording in: Parent As Band Manager

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