Most everyone’s first home recording starts with a few bumps. That’s okay, it’s just part of the process. Everyone needs practice to nail down a good track, and though you can’t learn every lesson online, you can learn some! Our senior producer Chris Shreenan-Dyck also added in a few personal stories relative to the points below.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid when recording your first tracks at home:
1) Forgetting the Guide Track
If you don’t have a guide track when you start recording, you’re already making it harder on yourself than necessary. It is important to have a track you’ve recorded that everyone can follow along with to keep the mistakes to a minimum and so they play with the right feeling in different parts of the song.
Chris – “Recording without a guide track with everyone playing at once is the best way to get a live-off-the-floor vibe if that’s what you’re after. Each take is its own performance and with great players you can capture moments that will never be recreated quite like that ever again. That said, guide tracks are essential for building a track.”
2) Forgetting the Click Track
Most genres of music use a click track which makes recording much easier by making everyone stay in tempo. Sometimes musicians have a tendency to speed up or slow down as the song goes on, but a good metronome will prevent this from happening.
Chris – “Sometimes tracking a whole band at once without a click track can be the way to go. They will speed up and slow down at the right spots naturally giving the song a natural feel. With less experienced players or while multi-tracking, a click track is the way to go, besides making editing a lot easier.”
3) Too Much Gain
In the old days of tape machines, you could get away with excessive gain going to the recorder because tape gently compresses the signal with minimal distortion. You would lose some dynamic range on signals that were recorded too hot, but you would still have a usable undistorted track.
Recording to your computer digitally is a whole different story. Digital has a hard limit on how much gain it can handle. If you hit it too hard, you run the risk of getting digital distortion you won’t be able to get rid of. When 16 bit recorders came out such as ADAT machines, it was good to hit them with as much volume as they could handle before distorting to optimize your usable dynamic range. Nowadays with 24 bit recording, you can leave yourself lots of headroom without the risk of losing resolution and make sure you don’t “clip” the signal by pushing it too hard.
Chris – “Sometimes it’s great to slam tape and use tape compression to your advantage.”
4) Putting Mics Right by the Instruments
It looks right, but sometimes it isn’t. Microphones that are too close to the sound source may suffer from too much proximity effect causing the recording to sound boomy or muddy. Some mics are happy being right next to the instrument you are recording like an SM57 on an amp, but others sound better with some distance to capture the whole picture. Look up the recommended distances for each of your microphones, but make sure you experiment with it as well.
Chris – “A famous producer who happened to be drumming on a session I was recording as an engineer suggested I had the hi-hat mic too close. There is no “right” way of doing things in the studio artistically, but we ended up with a cool 70’s hi-hat sound he ended up liking. Always trust your ears.”
5) Many Mics, One Instrument
Sound travels at about 340 m/s in air, which is very fast, but slower than sound engineers would like when using multiple microphones on a single sound source. If your microphones are placed different distances away from the instrument, the sound will arrive at the mics at different times. Slight variations will cause phasing problems or even a delay between the two microphones. Use proper multiple mic and stereo micing practices to solve this problem.
Chris – “On a drum kit, out of phase room mics can work wonders for the stereo spread. Experiment with flipping phase on some of the mics to see if you like the sound.”
6) Making More Work for Yourself
In this age of unlimited tracks, it is tempting to record as many as possible and then sort them out later. The more takes you do, the more work you will have in the editing stage. Try to stick to just the best takes.
Chris – “Learn to listen to your gut. Don’t talk yourself into a take you think was less than stellar. If you only like a small part of it you want to use later, mark it right away while you are recording so you don’t waste time weeding through a bunch of tracks later.”
7) Bringing Friends
It’s a lot of fun to perform for friends, but bringing friends into the studio while you’re recording can be a distraction sometimes. Try to stick to the task at hand with the people involved, and then maybe have a get together while listening down to the finished tracks at the end of the day.
Chris – “Friends are music listeners so ask their opinions. Sometimes the ones least knowledgeable about the recording process are some of the best judges of a good mix. They hear it purely instinctively.”