Putting Your Money Where It Matters Most (And your Time, Effort and Energy)
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
What To Focus On When You Are Looking To Head Into The Studio To Create Some Hits
What's the most important thing when it comes to making a great recording that you’ll be proud of for years to come? How do you get it to sound like the pros? Is there a silver bullet? A vintage microphone, a new guitar pedal, paying thousands for mastering?
All of these things can make a difference. But are they what you should be focussing on or obsessing over? Let’s discuss.
As I’ve eluded to, many people believe there’s a silver bullet to bring their recordings up to the standard polished productions they hear from the world’s top artists. One of the most common scenarios I see is artists that have recorded and mixed themselves at home and then send their songs off for mastering, paying $200+ per song, believing that this will somehow suddenly fix all of the issues their recordings are riddled with and make them sound just like Beyoncé. Of course mastering is important, but as you will see below, I do not believe your focus should be on mastering if you haven’t got the first 5 preceding steps in place already.
Without further prattling, here is my personal hierarchy of importance when it comes to creating a great production that will be listened to over and over by all of your fans and thousands of new fans.
The Recording Process
Now let's elaborate a little on this hierarchy of importance when it comes to making a hit song that people everywhere will be adding to their playlists and putting on repeat. But first, let's be clear that I'm not saying any of the steps aren't important. You just shouldn't be focussing on the steps out of order. That is when you will waste valuable time and money, and more than likely be left feeling disheartened.
1. The Song - You Have To Actually Write A Great Song!
This is and will always be the most important part in releasing something that people will actually want to listen to again and again. No amount of vintage microphones are going to make up for a boring, uninspiring song that makes 3 minutes feel like an eternity.
The best part about this being the Number 1 key for success is that it doesn't cost you a dime! Just your time and creative energy.
The downside is I can't teach you how to do this and everyone has their own unique style and sound (even if it's buried deep down) and goes about writing songs differently. Your goal is to dig down to the depths and discover your unique sound and write songs that exude the quintessential you. Then you will write songs that connect with people. (Maybe not all people, but at least some people)
In conclusion: focus on the song itself above all else. I suggest that an incredible song recorded on an iPhone during band practice will have more chance of getting played on the radio and actually touching people than an insipid piece of poo recorded at Abbey Road Studios and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
2. The Performance - Know Your Parts and Nail Them
Now that you've got the most important element in a great recording in the bag, let's talk about the second most important element. The Performance of your soon-to-be hit song. This is now what you should be focussing on. Don't worry about how much the microphone that's being used to record you cost, just focus on putting all of your energy (physical and emotional) into what you're about to perform.
It goes without saying, but I'm just going to say it anyway - you have to know your songs inside out. Don't come into the studio un-rehearsed. It is not a great use of your money to use valuable and often costly studio time learning your songs so that you can hopefully get a take down that is "good enough". No. You have to nail it.
However, there is a caveat to this statement. You have to convince the listener that you believe in what your song is all about. Recording a technically "perfect" vocal take that is time and with every note in tune but lacks any hint of emotion will leave the listener feeling.... well nothing. And they will most likely never voluntarily listen to that song again.
You have to mean it. Really mean it. If it is a sad song, then make the listener feel your anguish through your performance. The majority of the emotion will come through vocals more often than not.
I always say to people it is much better to record a whole vocal take start to finish that might have a few bits of dodgy pitching (which can be tuned*) but is bursting with emotion, depth and meaning than to punch in verse after verse, phrase after phrase and even word after word, striving to get every single note in tune and "perfect". This will lack all sense of what the song is about and will not sound natural or engaging in any way.
The same goes for all the instruments in the band. You all have to play your parts with emotion and conviction. Nobody wants to hear what it sounds like when a robot plays the guitar, perfectly in time with each strum exactly as the one preceding it.
It also goes without saying that a great performance MUST incorporate tuned instruments. And no drummers, this does not just mean guitarists. There is no point in owning a $5000 drum kit if you don't know how to tune it. It won't sound good and you won't seem like a better drummer. Everyone - tune your instruments! After every take and before the next take if necessary.
*Before you shake your head in disgust at the thought of pitch correcting vocals, remember that 99.99% of all vocals your here on the radio now will have been tuned. Often to the extreme. This has become a completely normal and almost mandatory part of the production process. When you hear the phrase "tuning vocals", or "autotune" though, do not think of the crazy T Pain or Cher effect. Mostly this is now done with Melodyne, which when used well is extremely transparent and exhibits very few artefacts.
3. The Instruments Used To Record With
I've mentioned gear a little already, but this is where it starts to get important. Remember this article is all about getting the absolute best for your music, and only once the previous step in the hierarchy of importance has been ticked off should the next step be focussed on. Ok so you can't perform without instruments, but don't get down and perform like a toddler having a tantrum if you aren't using a gold top Les Paul.
When I started out on my career as an audio engineer I didn't have amazing gear. But I still had the ability to make great sounding records with the gear I had. However, unfortunately as I was so new to the game and not charging much, the majority of the artists I worked with were also quite new to the game. They were young and didn't have much money and as a result sometimes didn't have very good instruments. Despite this, they still expected their final productions to sound just as good, if not better than the bands on the radio who are signed to major labels and paying 10s of thousands of dollars for their records to be produced. These artists, as you can probably imagine, would only be using the best instruments money can buy that suit their music.
Can you see where I'm going with this? Unfortunately your $100 cheap Chinese knockoff of a Les Paul that you bought at cash converters going through your $80 gumtree digital guitar amp that simulates the best 20 guitar amps ever made (...!!!) is never going to sound like one of John Mayer's Stratocasters going through an expensive tube amp. For starters, it's not a Strat and not even pretending to be. As obvious as it may seem, surprisingly a lot of people don't realise that even a real Les Paul is not going to sound like John Mayer's Strat because.... well it's a Les Paul. Just like that apple you're eating is never going to taste like an orange.
Before I waffle on any more, the point is if you want the great songs you've written (and nailed the performance of) to sound great, you need good quality instruments. The engineer will never be able to make your Squire guitar sound like a fully-fledged American made Fender, or your Cash Converters Casio keyboard sound like a 9 foot Steinway concert grand.
I realise that not everyone can afford really great instruments. However, most professional studios will have a selection of instruments that you can use whilst recording there, for this very reason - that instruments really matter! I too have built up a collection of the essential instruments (guitars, bass, amps, snare drum, piano) over the years to ensure that everyone can get the best from their recording. It's always good to do some research into studios first to check out what instruments they have on hand if you think you may need something other than what you own. If they don't have what you need but you're set on recording there, then ask your friends if you can borrow their guitar for the recording. I'm sure when you look at your musician friendship groups, someone will own one of the instruments you'd like for recording.
4. The Recording Process
Now, this is where you can start to worry about vintage microphones and expensive outboard gear. But first, let's have another very quick recap of the hierarchy thus far.
1: You need a great song above all else.
2: You need to nail the performance of the song.
3: You need really good instruments to make the performance shine.
I'd like to touch on the last point again briefly before moving on. An $80 guitar recorded with a vintage Neumann U47 ($15k) running into a vintage Neve 1073 preamp ($5-10k) will never sound as good as a great guitar recorded with a $200 microphone going directly into the preamp of a cheap interface.
So now that you have your instruments sorted let's talk about the recording process.
If you are recording yourself at home with limited gear, this can still turn out great (especially given that you've got the first 3 steps in place). Having gear is one thing though, and being able to get the absolute best out of it is another. Microphone placement is one example of getting the absolute most out of your gear. Before you rush into recording your acoustic guitar for the first time, spend a few hours experimenting with microphone placement. Ideally do this at a separate time to when you actually want to record a song - otherwise you'll drain your motivation by doing this relatively mundane and repetitive task. But coming into a recording already knowing where to place your microphone to make your guitar shine will fill you with confidence and help you nail the performance.
My firm belief is that during the recording process you should be aiming to capture sounds and tones that are as close as possible to what you want the final product to sound like. Saying "we can just fix it in the mix" is one of the worst sayings ever invented. It's just an excuse for not recording something properly to start with and you will most certainly never be as happy after you've "fixed it in the mix" compared to what you would've been if you just recorded it properly to start with.
We've all heard the saying "you can't polish a turd". Well I heard one mix engineer I know say that "I can try my best to polish a turd, but I can't do anything with diarrhoea". If you don't put the adequate effort required into your recordings, no amount of mixing will be able to get your songs to where you want them to be.
Hiring an engineer who knows where best to place great microphones and how to then best pair with great preamps is the best way to get tones that will put a smile on your dial and provide the foundations for a great production.
Now that we've recorded everything beautifully, it's time to get stuck into mixing! As mentioned right at the start of this article, I often see local bands trying to save money on mixing by doing it themselves or getting their mate who kind of knows some things related to mixing to do it. But then go on to spend $200-300 to get one song mastered at somewhere like Sterling Sound in New York.
Unfortunately mastering won't be able to suddenly make your drum sounds huge and punchy if they have not been mixed like that. Yes mastering will (at least should) make everything sound a little clearer and more open, but I would suggest that it is much better to take those few hundred dollars you spent on mastering and pay someone locally that knows what they're doing to mix it for you. If you did this and then just whacked on a high-pass filter and limiter yourself for "mastering" it would almost definitely yield better results.
When looking for a mixing engineer, I would encourage you to not just base your decision on cost. First and foremost, go and listen to previous mixes that engineers have done so you can hear their work before even starting to make any decisions.
Of course we're all restricted to some extent by money and what is affordable. But I would say it is better for everyone in the band to put an extra $10 aside a week for a few weeks and then pay for mixing that you know you'll be thrilled with and will stand the test of time, than just to give your musical babies to someone who is cheap and might do an ok job. Inevitably in the second scenario a few months down the track you'll realise that your mixes don't really stand up to the others on the radio.
I would encourage you to try and find a mix engineer who gives you a fixed price for mixing. I often hear of people going somewhere because the engineer has said they will mix their whole album in 2 days for $XXX. But then once they go in for revision after revision to work on the initial (not great) mixes it ends up costing more than the other quote they received, which was a fixed cost. In addition to spending more, the result will often not be as good as the quote that seemed more expensive to start with.
It is not unheard of for major labels to pay $10,000 per song for mixing. Hopefully this helps put in perspective the $250-500 quote you received by someone who you know will do a great job.
If we return our thoughts to this hierarchy of importance though, the point is that a song that has been recorded exceptionally by top musicians with great instruments should be straight forward to mix and the elements should fall into place without too much hassle or heartache. As opposed to the option where the recording is dodgy and you've decided to "fix it in the mix". This will only result in heart ache and multiple head aches in attempts to try and salvage these recordings.
Mastering - the icing on the cake. The final polishing of your great mix. This is how you should treat mastering. Don't look at it for drastic tonal and dynamic changes that will save your sloppy song.
Some of the best mixes I've done have come back from mastering (at places like Sterling Sound that have cost $300 per song for mastering) sounding almost identical tonally and dynamically to the mixes I've sent. With the exception of being a little louder. This isn't because the mastering engineers have done a bad or quick job (although it probably was quick), it is because they've done all the song needed. Which was not much. A great mix should not change appreciably through the mastering process. It should just be the icing on the cake.
Similarly to mixing, it's always best to listen to past works of the mastering engineers that you're considering working with.
I hope that this article has helped shed some light on where you should best be spending your time and money to get the most out of your recordings and studio experience. If you stick to this hierarchy I'm sure you will be happy and proud of your recordings for years to come!
Happy Music Making!