8 Tips To Make Better Recordings Now – Part 1

| Tips

turndialsWe all want to make better recordings. We pour our hearts out into writing the best songs we can and we want to share them with fans, friends, and family. But there are many factors to making a great recording, some of which just take years and years of doing. This can be frustrating for the new home recording musician as you just don’t have a lot of time to learn. How can you make better recordings right now? In this 2 part post I lay out 8 simple, yet effective recording tips and suggestions to help you capture bigger and better sounding recordings of your songs. Let’s dig in…

1.Replace Your Guitar/Bass Strings And Drum Heads

One of the simplest and most cost effective things you can do to get better guitar, bass, and drum tracks is to change out all your strings and heads before recording. Old strings sound dull and lifeless, the problem is that you are used to the sound if you haven’t changed them in a while. Do yourself a favor and replace the strings before you even press “record.” Your electric guitars will sound fuller and your acoustic will sound brighter, and most importantly you’ll be getting the best out of your instrument before it ever hits Pro Tools. This tip is especially important when recording drums. Take the time to replace each drum head AND tune the drums appropriately before every recording. Your snare will crack, your toms will resonate nicely, and your kick will destroy the bottom end. All the “big boys” do this to get great drum sounds, so should you.

The best way to get a good recording is to make sure the source you are recording sounds it’s best. Seems simple, but honestly this is the most overlooked recording step. People just want to jump right in to picking the best mics and using the coolest recording technique and then using fancy mixing plugins to make their drums and guitars sound huge! When in reality they actually aren’t getting a good drum or guitar sound in real life yet. So first things first…change your strings and drum heads before you even fire up your computer. You’ll be glad you did.

2.Use a Close Mic Technique

When recording in a home studio you don’t have the luxury of perfectly acoustically treated rooms, floating floors and all. In fact you are usually working with less than optimal conditions (i.e a loud refrigerator in the kitchen, cars and lawnmowers outside the window, a/c vents blowing, and even computer fan noise). To help combat these extra sounds we need to implement a close mic recording technique. It works just like it sounds. When recording vocals you get right up on the mic (no further than 6 inches). Same goes for acoustic guitar. When recording a guitar amp, put the mic right up on the grill or within 1 to 2 inches.

What we need to remember is that a microphone is like an ear without a brain. It hears everything equally. So in order to get the mic to “only hear” what we want it to hear (i.e. the guitar track or vocal you are currently recording) then we need that sound source to be the most dominant thing in the mic. To do this, we get pretty dang close to the mic. If you listen back to a soloed vocal track and still hear faint traffic sounds in the background, don’t worry, you most likely won’t hear any of that in the mix with all the other tracks.

3.Double Your Guitar and Vocal Parts

One of the oldest tricks in the book is to double up a part to make it sound bigger. This is most useful for guitar and vocal tracks. The idea is simple. If you record a guitar riff in Pro Tools and it sounds great, then great. But if you then record another take of that exact same guitar part on a separate track something awesome will happen. You will have two identical parts that are the slightest bit off from one another (because you can’t play the same part 100% the same each time) usually by just milliseconds. This plays a trick on the human ear making it sound bigger and fuller. What’s helpful is to take these two “identical” tracks and pan them apart left and right in the stereo spectrum and you now have a big wall of sound guitar part.

You can do similar things with your vocal parts. Simply record a second or third take to match up with your vocals, and use it creatively. Sometimes it helps to double up the lead vocal in the chorus for the “hook” of the song. Makes the vocals standout there. Sometimes it’s cool to double up just a word or phrase here and there for emphasis. Some artists (like the Foo Fighters) use this technique for every single vocal line in all of their songs, just for effect. Either way you use doubling, don’t take the technique lightly. It will instantly enhance your tracks.


4.
Record To a Click Track

I know that no one likes to use click tracks. They supposedly steal the “soul” out of your song and force you to create boring, in tempo music that has no creative ebb and flow. Well I hate to burst your bubble, but recording to a click track is one of the smartest things you can do to ensure you get quality recordings that sound professional. There a couple of reasons why:

First, since you are recording at home and probably playing most if not all of the instruments yourself (or your band can’t record all at once) you will need a reference point in your session. Click tracks help you stay in time with the whole band during intros, outros, breaks in the song, tempo changes, etc. Let’s face it, no matter how well your tracks are recorded, if your band isn’t in sync with each other than no tone in the world will help it. Second, click tracks help you bring in song enhancements like professional loops, and time delay effects that will line up perfectly with your live recordings. Even if you don’t think you will use any loops in your recording now, why not leave yourself the option? Without a click track (i.e. a set tempo) it will be impossible to bring in loops or samples without everything getting off.

And finally, recording to a click track makes you a better musician. Most music sounds best when played at a steady, predefined tempo. That is why orchestras have conductors, to keep all the players in time. The best musicians and bands play so tightly and consistently to a tempo (even if it’s in their heads) and that adds an extra layer of professional polish to their songs. By using a click track you will learn how to keep steady timing in your head and your playing/performing will get better. Trust me on this one.

Stay Tuned…

These 4 tips alone will help you get much better recordings right away. Don’t underestimate their simplicity. Remember, recording isn’t complicated, but you do have to know what you are doing. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post for some more great tips to help you save time and get to making better recordings…now!

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23 Responses to “8 Tips To Make Better Recordings Now – Part 1”

  1. Sambodhi Prem

    Yes, playing to a click is good advice. I’ve found that there’s plenty of room around the click to insert soul and feeling – pulling and pushing the click.
    That tension and release, going away from the pulse and moving towards it, is something the ear enjoys, because it’s the implied pulse that we all feel, the unspoken wave that lies beneath the surface of good music.

    It is the same with harmony, the ears enjoys the tension and release that’s created when we venture away from the root chord (tonic) and when we return to it.

    Sometimes you can record the first instrument with a click, but record successive instruments without, this can give the rhythm more breathing space.

    SP

    Reply
  2. Graham

    Great point SP, playing to click does leave a lot of room for musicality (I’d argue that it only encourages it!). Thanks for the comment!

    Reply
  3. TimGlayn

    I’ve used a Doubler with similar results. Also, Channel Tools is a really great plug-in to access more accurate stereo field placement. -Tim

    Reply
  4. Carolyn

    We’ve noticed over the past few years that more and more of our clients are recording at their home studios for themselves. Some with better results than others.

    What you provide are some common sense suggestions that in some ways are so obvious that they can get overlooked – I’m thinking especially of #1 – replace old strings – we just had someone ask us if we thought that was a good idea. Recording isn’t our area so I’m going to make mention of your article in the next issue of our online newsletter that goes out.

    Reply
  5. Aidan

    I wouldn’t think of recording anything without tempo…but i tend to use a 4/4 kick drum for my tempo rather than built in metronomes which i personally find a bit tiresome on the ears after a while. So I just loop a 4/4 kick and have that running. Thanks for all the help Graham

    Reply
  6. Jimmy

    Depending on what type of sound you are after on your bass parts, replacing the strings might be or not be a good choice. Personally for some songs I prefer that old thump of the strings instead of the zing you get with newer strings.
    As for #2 I just love records where you can pick up noise from the background that was not “part” of the song like the drummer’s chair creaking, someone making a quiet cough or things like that. For most parts close miking is the way to go, but sometimes some room noise is not bad at all…

    Reply
  7. Songwriter

    I think the click track thing is kind of a two-sided story. It can keep the music more together, and make the song tighter all over. And during practice, it´s a great way to work on your timing.

    But it can also put some limits on the music, and take some of the feeling out of it. I´m not saying that it necessarily needs to do that, and a lot of people might actually make better sounding songs with a click track than without.

    But I think an important part of making music is trying to find a balance between what sounds as professional as possible, with what sounds as interesting as possible. And keeping everything in perfect time with a meteronome isn´t necessarily a good way to make your music more interesting.

    I think there can be different answers for different people, not to say different songs, when it comes to the question of whether to use a meteronome or not. And I think that while some can find it liberating to be able to go crazy while playing, because they know that the meteronome will keep them within the boundaries anyway, others can get a little trapped and mechanized by playing music to a clock (which a meteronome essentially is). Also, it doesn´t have to be either or, but something tells me that a whole album recorded using a click track is going to start sounding boring after a few listens. Another option, of course, is to create your own imperfect click track using some kind of percussion for example.

    For me, part of the charm with music is that it´s a free-flowing and unexplainable thing that somehow hits you in an emotional way. Even though nice songs can be made using a click track, in the same way that a painter can paint a nice picture sticking to the grid on a piece of graph paper, I believe that for a lot of home recordists out there a meteronome it´s not the answer to creating better, livelier and more interesting music.

    Reply
  8. Frank A.

    I think doubling is a great idea. I read that Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys sometimes quadrupled vocal tracks to take full advantage of those thick, lush harmmonies his records are filled with!
    Question–my Cubase system has the option of ‘duplicating’ tracks–thus getting a gigital doubling. But since it is an exact duplicate, I’m guessing it misses the full effect of ‘real doubling”> Do you agree? And if so what happens if you EQ and reverb heach digital version differently–would that sound more like “natural doubling”? Thanks…

    Reply
    • Graham

      Duplicating a track won’t give you the same effect. You need the slight pitch and time variance that makes a true double.

      Reply
  9. Kjell

    Bernard Edwards (from the famous Chic song: Good Times and many others) never changed his bass strings.
    That gave his strings that funky, mellow, dull sound with a fast release, almost no sustain like the strings of an upright bass.
    When he got asked what kind of strings he uses he answered: “What strings do these basses come with?’
    :)

    Reply
  10. Ashvin Jodhun

    Hi Graham, I’m Ashvin from Mauritius. I basically use Studio one Artist for my home recording stuff and recently met your website. You are indeed a great inspiration for many people in the domain. Yes, i have followed the rule and firmly believe that everything lies in balance!!! However, i still have some difficulties for recording indian instruments like the tabla (Zakhir Hussain’s instrument) i don’t really get the bass round and clear even if i have a punchy musician playing. They say sm57 and sm58 are the best which i use. However, i have lots of questions on mixing techniques and would like your support. Thanks

    Reply

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  1.  8 Tips To Make Better Recordings Now – Part 2 « The Recording Revolution
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