This is a question that is commonly in the minds of recording enthusiasts. Clearly, anyone who is interested in recording wants their work to sound professional. But so often, the quality falls wide of the mark.
Here are the most likely answers to this question, in order...
Firstly and foremost, the quality of musicianship is not professional. Not even the best recording engineer in the world can make a silk purse from a sow's ear, as the saying goes (or polish a turd, according to the other version of that saying).
If you are recording other musicians, get rid of them and get better musicians in your studio. If you are paying them, pay someone more who is genuinely worth more. As a guide, hiring a good session singer could easily cost you $200 to $300 for a three hour session. Until you have tried working with such vastly experienced people, you won't realize what good value for money they are.
If you are recording yourself, you will have to work on your musicianship in parallel with your recording skills. It's worth taking a look at programs such as 'The X Factor' and 'American Idol' to see how so many people overrate their own abilities. Don't ever be satisfied with the standard of your musicianship but always seek to improve.
Not recording clear, clean and crisp sounds. If anything you record - vocal, instrumental or sample, doesn't pass the 'Three-C' test, then fix it so that it does.
So often do I hear comments from people who are dissatisfied with the quality of their basic tracks and they think they need to use plug-ins to clean them up.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Get it? If your recording is not clear, clean and crisp without treatment, then no plug-in is going to make it so.
Insufficient skill in mixing (or progressing too quickly to the mastering stage). The only remedy is to record, mix, then assess your work by comparison with recordings you admire. Do more recordings, more mixes, more assessments. There are few tricks that will make much difference. Almost everything is down to experience.
Please, don't try mastering until you are expert at mixing. It will only end in frustration. Mastering has three functions - adapting the recording to the requirements of the delivery medium, vinyl for instance; making the various tracks of an album sound compatible with each other; increasing subjective loudness. Oh, and the other function - trying to rescue a bad mix! Learn to mix first.
Insufficient studio facilities. There isn't much equipment around these days that has less than professional sound quality. But unless you have plenty of money to spend, it is likely that your studio will be impoverished in facilities compared to a professional's studio. For instance, the pro might be using an expensive Pro Tools HD system You might be using the cheap-as-chips Mbox 2. Your recordings have the same audio quality within a gnat's whisker, but the plug-ins, for instance, will not have the same extensive sound palette. There will be the latency issue to work around too. An expert engineer would have to work harder to get the same results with your less expensive system. But they would get professional results, perhaps only within a smaller universe of sonic possibilities.
Lack of focus. This is notoriously underrated as a barrier to success. But consider the working routine of the professional. There is rent to pay for the studio premises, finance repayments for the equipment, no other income to pay the domestic bills, other professionals around expecting things to get done efficiently and to a high standard.
Now compare this to the home recordist who has all the time in the world... which is, unfortunately, often mostly wasted. One way to achieve focus is to work with other people who are better at what they do than you are at recording. You'll have to raise your game pretty quick or they won't want to work with you. Another is to set a schedule, one new song written, demoed and recorded every week, for instance.
There you are... five good reasons why your recordings are not up to scratch yet. It's not that you have the wrong microphone preamplifier, not that you 'just don't have it'. Fix these problems one by one and I guarantee that your results will be within an inch of professionalism. And with continued hard work and practice, you will get there. It is within reach!
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