Every music maker shares two common goals—they want to be the best at what they do and connect with the public. While you can’t predict the reaction to your work, you can refine your skills to expert status by working hard and making mistakes you can learn from. The truth is, success is built on a pile of mistakes but not just your own—you can learn from the mistakes of others. This attitude toward your career can supercharge your movement toward your goal.
The list below is taken from my years of experience as a musician, songwriter, recording engineer, content creator, teacher, and audio journalist. It’s only part of the experience you would receive attending the Blackbird Academy program. You may be familiar with some of the tips, but even if there are just a few that hit home you’ve done yourself a favor by moving closer to your goal of becoming an expert.
1. Bad File Management
Let’s start with the local copies; it doesn’t have to be expensive. You will buy many hard drives over the span of your career. The reason they are so expensive is not the drive, but the housing and wall wart power supply. A better approach is to buy a hard drive docking station. (Search “hard drive docking station” on the web to find docks and prices.) These come in many models starting at around $20. The more features you add, the more expensive they are. But the simplest is a USB 3.0 SATA dock. (SATA is an industry standard for hard drives, so if you have a dock, you can buy a bare drive like the one manufacturers install directly into computers.) They come in 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch sizes and most docks can accommodate either one. Why is this the best approach? Because you aren’t buying the power supply and enclosure every time you purchase a drive, the cost per terabyte is more affordable—about $30!
The offsite copies are even cheaper. There are many cloud storage services from Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others, but the most affordable is Backblaze where you can store unlimited files online for under $50 a year. Backblaze works in the background storing your files as you work, any time your computer is online. It’s all about keeping your work safe, and these two methods make it easy and affordable.
2. Recording a Bad Sounding Source
No amount of EQ, compression, or “fixing it later” is better than starting your recording with a great source. Guitars should be set up by professionals so they are perfectly in tune, up and down the neck. New strings go a long way to help the sound as well. Does your guitar amp buzz and are the tubes microphonic? Have a pro bias your tubes and check them for other flaws. Drums should be tuned with heads that are not beat up and stretched beyond their life span. Also, be sure there are no squeaky pedals or rattling hardware. The bottom line for any instrument, acoustic or electronic, is that it needs to sound excellent. This makes the recording process much easier as you’re not fighting the source.
3. Avoiding Leakage
Setting up your band in the same room and recording them with many microphones is a great way to create a “live” sound in your mix. This means that instruments, vocals, amps, and acoustic instruments all end up in every microphone, which is called leakage. In many cases, leakage should be avoided, like click track leakage from headphones into the performer’s microphones. But for a live recording, leakage can be your friend, if you follow a few simple rules.
For starters, isolate louder instruments when possible. A “gobo” or go-between is a barrier often used in studios to achieve isolation. You can make your own gobos out of a mattress placed around a drum kit or loud guitar amp. Another trick is to not use a bass amp in the same room as the band. Instead, use a direct box (DI) to record the bass. This keeps invasive low frequencies out of all the mics, which can otherwise be hard to manage. Another tip is to place some instruments closer to others, which better aligns the leakage in timing and phase with the other instruments. Instruments and mics that are farther apart can create a very open and roomy sound that can be undesirable in the final mix.
4. Choosing the Wrong Microphone for the Job
Microphones come in three types: dynamic moving coil, dynamic ribbon, and condenser. Each has its own distinctive personality. Moving coil mics will take a lot of sound pressure level (SPL) so you can freely place them near drums, guitar amps, and other loud sources. They are also the most affordable. For example, the Shure SM57 is an industry mainstay for recording snare drum and it’s just $99.
A ribbon mic is more fragile because their ribbon elements are thinner than a human hair. Generally, they have a rolled off top end meaning they’re not going to capture higher frequencies as well as a moving coil or condenser microphone. Some models can be as high as $2,500 or more, but there are also units priced under $500. Ribbon mics have their own personality and are coveted by many pro engineers for recording guitar amps, as room mics, and for recording hand percussion.
A condenser mic can be a tube or solid state and are more complex than dynamic mics. They can be pricey, with some vintage models costing more than $10,000. However, there are great affordable models from Aston, Audio Technica, Røde, Lauten, and others. Condenser microphones are often used for vocals, as overhead mics on a drum kit, for recording acoustic guitar and piano, and other applications where a fuller capture of the frequency range of an instrument is needed.
For more on choosing and placing mics: Mic Placement and Choices
5. Using Too Much EQ and Compression
Settling for an average sound when recording and expecting to fix it later with EQ and compression can ensure a bad result. Take time to place microphones properly keeping the pattern in mind. A cardioid and figure-8 mic exhibits the proximity effect: the closer the mic is to the source, the more low frequency you get. So, if your recording sounds tubby, move the mic back from the source to attenuate lower frequencies. On the other hand, if your source is thin, move the mic closer to flesh out the bottom end. Pointing the mic at the source is another simple fix for bringing up the direct sound of the instrument.
A poorly placed mic can pick up leakage from other instruments and make the source sound vague and distant. Having a singer too close to a vocal mic, even with a pop filter can push too many plosives (Ps, and Ts) into the capsule. Positioning the microphone higher than the singer’s mouth and pointing it down from above will keep breath energy out of the capsule and capture more of the singer’s “mask” where many desirable frequencies reside. A good rule of thumb when recording a louder instrument like a piano or placing a room mic for a drum kit is to move your head around the instrument while the player is playing—then place the mic(s). Using your ears and choosing the proper mics is the ultimate guide to getting a great result when recording.
6. Running Your Session from a Single Hard Drive
This is a simple one—NEVER store your session files on the same hard drive as your recording software. It places too much workload on a single drive and can cause your system to crash. Instead, when you open a new session, save it to an external hard drive. USB 3.0 speeds are plenty fast for audio recording. Always buy drives that run at least 5,000 RPM.
7. Settling for a Poorly Balanced Mix
I listen to student mixes all the time, and the one common mistake is that the elements aren’t properly balanced. Once you get a mix together and you think it sounds good, a good rule is to listen at very low volume. Whatever is the loudest in the mix at mouse whisper level is often the thing that’s too loud. This can cause masking, where one instrument or frequency covers up another. For example, is your kick drum covering up your bass track? Are the guitars to wide (full frequency) and covering up your vocal? Can you clearly hear the tom and cymbal hits, and do they take over the track? All these elements are things to keep in mind when going for the perfect balance. I often run a reference track in my session, or from another trusted source that I can quickly jump between as a gut check. This way, I can be assured my mix is more like my target mix—something I know and love mixed by a great engineer.
8. Not Using Playlists
Many Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) offer unlimited playlists. This means you can record many takes and then decide later which is best for your song. This gives you room to experiment. For example, playlists can help dial in the right tempo. When recording a band, play around with the tempo. Does the song sound rushed? Slow it down a few ticks. Is the track boring? Speed it up a bit.
Also, if you’re artist’s skills aren’t exactly where you’d like on any day, use playlists to run multiple takes of a vocal or solo, then create a “comp.” A comp is a composite track taken from many sources. It’s like takes on a movie set. A director might have multiple takes they can edit between to put the perfect scene together. Playlists are a great way to capture numerous performances then edit them together later. This is a common practice at the highest levels of audio production.
9. Not Mastering Your Mix
Making your final mix competitive in the marketplace means it needs to be mastered. If you can afford it, hire a mastering engineer. These pros deal with putting the final touch on a mix every day and know the best gear and techniques to achieve the perfect result. Or, do some research and learn to master on your own. Tutorial sites like groove3.com and puremix.net are great resources for learning high-end audio techniques. There, you can learn techniques and gear you need to become your own mastering engineer and take your productions to the next level.
10. Making Buying Decisions by Price Rather than Quality
When someone asks me, “What’s the best (name of gear here) for under $200?” I often tell him/her that quality is always cheaper. It may cost a little extra to get the thing you want and need, but you won’t have to buy it twice. Let’s say you buy the $100 set of used monitors you found online because they’re inexpensive. Speakers and other gear wear out over time, so you’re fighting the age factor right off the bat. Next, they may not have sounded great to start with. That means the person selling them is losing money on the resale, then rebuying what they should have bought originally.
How do you know you’re buying the best? Research! Ask a trusted professional what they recommend. Read product reviews from great magazines like Making Music, Mix, Sound On Sound, or Electronic Musician. Listen to the gear at a pro audio dealer in your town like GC Pro, Vintage King, or Westlake Audio. Don’t buy on impulse and don’t buy on price alone. Gear doesn’t have to be expensive if it’s the right thing. (Remember the Shure SM-57 we talked about earlier?) You do need to do the legwork to be sure you won’t have to sell at a loss and buy the right thing later.
Good luck in your music making and your career! For more high-end tips on recording, mic placement, audio processing with plug-ins, and more, visit groove3.com and search for The Blackbird Academy’s Foundation Series.