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What is the ONE thing you MOST need to know to make great recordings?

Get this right and recording will be plain sailing, all the way from idea to master. Get it wrong and you're in big trouble...

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We're talking technical here. Obviously you have to have a great feeling for music and sound too. But what's the ONE technical thing you need to know that will make the most difference to the quality of your work?

There are a number of candidates here. We receive many questions here at Audio Masterclass Towers and often people's concerns are about issues that are really rather minor.

One frequent question is whether ABC digital audio workstation is better than XYZ, as if it's going to make a great big difference.

Well everyone is entitled to their preference, but seeing as we've heard great work done on Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, Pro Tools, Sonar and others then the evidence says that any of these DAWs is capable of excellent results.

So knowing which is the best DAW is like knowing which is the best model of Ferrari. They all go fast and and look great in red.

Another common concern is preamps. Do you really need a $4000 preamp to make great recordings? Or will a $200 preamp get the job done?

I'm going to paraphrase Audio Masterclass reader Cream of Beats (yes, that's a name) here and ask you to consider whether the more expensive preamp sounds $3800 better? Or ask yourself whether the cheap preamp sounds $3800 worse!

No, there are more pressing issues.

Getting clean recordings without distortion could be a serious issue, but most people seem to have cracked that, so we'll move on.

We often get questions about mastering. Generally the problem is that someone's mix doesn't sound right so they need to know how to master it to get it to sound better.

Well if the mix doesn't sound right, then mastering can only lessen the problems a little. You can't polish a turd.

But of all the questions and examples of people's work we receive, there is one problem that comes up again and again, and if you know and appreciate this, then it will make a massive difference to the quality of your work.

And this golden nugget of knowledge?

You have to manage the frequency spectrum. Manage it well and your mixes have the potential to be outstanding. Manage it poorly and your mixes will be muddy and unimpressive.

The useful audio frequency spectrum runs from about 50 Hz to about 12 kHz. Within that space you can fit so many instruments and voices. Each instrument and voice will have a range of frequencies in which it is strong. Not just in the fundamental frequencies - the notes they are playing - but in the harmonics too.

If you have two instruments that have the same strong ranges of frequencies, they will compete for the same frequency space and neither will be heard clearly.

By extension, if several instruments have overlapping ranges of strong frequencies, they will make the mix muddy.

So if you consider, both during the recording process and while mixing, that each instrument and voice needs its own 'breathing space' in the frequency spectrum, and select sounds and EQ appropriately, the result will be a mix that fills the range of audio frequencies, but each instrument and voice stands out clearly.

One relevant point is that sometimes instruments or voices have similar functions - like harmony background vocals for instance. In this case, they can occupy similar frequency ranges because they are meant to blend together.

Of all the audio work that we receive here at RP, if this one point were attended to, then it would definitely make the most difference.

However, you may already be an expert and have an alternative opinion on the one thing that would make the most difference. If so, we would love to hear it.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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