As a producer, what should you really worry about in your work?
So many bloggers and commentators encourage fear, uncertainty and doubt about audio. But what should really be taking up your attention and time in the studio?
People worry about all kinds of things in audio. I know that because they send me questions, often on topics that diverge widely from the true path to success.
One general theme is that a home recording studio owner worries that there is something 'wrong' with his sound, but he doesn't quite know what it is. Chances are he's searched on the web and found a lot of potential issues...
- Using the wrong microphone
- Using the wrong preamplifier
- Using the wrong converter or audio interface
- Not having a 'high end' EQ or compressor
- Not leaving enough 'headroom for mastering'
I could go on, but these examples are enough. All are near-nonsense. The only one that comes close to being sense is the fourth, about the EQ and compressor. In reality, the EQ and compression plug-ins that come as standard with pro DAWs are all perfectly capable of a professional standard of work, but other EQs and compressors (not necessarily more 'high end' or expensive) offer alternative sound textures that one might like to work with.
Anyone who is concerned that there is something mysteriously wrong with their work just has to ask themself one question...
"Can I hear it?"
So if you have the opportunity to compare two preamps, then if you can't hear much of a difference, then there isn't much of a difference, and it isn't worth bothering about.
If you can't hear the difference, other than level, of leaving little or no headroom for mastering (presuming no clipping) and leaving the 'recommended' 6 or more decibels, then it isn't going to make any difference to the commercial success of your work. No difference at all.
The real problem areas
When someone sends me an example of their work and asks whether it would be improved by using 'better' preamps, my normal response is to seek out the real problem areas. Here are some examples of factors that are of PRIME importance in recording...
Poor instrumental performance
By 'poor' I intend no disrespect. My own playing is poor in a number of areas. But if I want pro playing on my recording, I hire a pro player. The alternative would be for me to identify the problems in my own playing and practice more.
Remember that when you make a recording, you are competing with the best people in the world, and that includes the best musicians and session players. Perhaps you can't play as fast, but each individual note that you do play has to sound just as good.
A band playing acoustic and electric instruments can sound great. MIDI and software instruments playing electronic music can sound great. MIDI and software instruments trying to sound like a band... that's a tough challenge.
I hear many recordings where the creator has tried to make MIDI or software instruments sound like a real band. The problem is, in professional work if a real band is needed, then a real band is hired. It makes the competition very tough.
This is a difficult problem to work around, but two key areas are quantization and perspective. Acoustic instruments can be quantized using software such as Melodyne, but you wouldn't normally quantize a professional musician, so think carefully about how you quantize your keyboard playing. Often it is better to adjust note timings manually, even if it takes a longer time.
MIDI and software instruments tend to have as standard a bland, up-front perspective. So if you mix using faders and pans only, you'll end up with every instrument the same apparent distance from the listener. It is better to try to imagine the instruments as being real acoustic and electric instruments, playing together in a real room. Then apply EQ and realistic reverb (of a room, not a cathedral) to make the sounds of your MIDI and software instruments as you imagine they should be.
Poor recording technique
Oddly enough, I don't hear this problem too often in instrumental recording. I often do think that a particular instrument could have been recorded better, but not to the extent that it would affect the commercial potential of the finished recording. The most common instruments that I find could have been better recorded are drums and acoustic guitar.
Vocals however can be an issue. Popping and breath blasts are absolute killers and must be avoided. Another problem however is the harshness caused by overdriven tube mics (switch in the pad to fix that), or the clagginess that a tube-mic/tube-preamp combination can cause. Yes, the sound can be warm, but sibilants and 'k' sounds, in particular, can become objectionable.
The absolute key to good mixing is experience. It would be quite easy to summarize a few rules that would get a newcomer started in the right direction. But after that it is all about listening to great mixes and trying to achieve a similar blend of sound in your own work.
I'm trying to keep this as short as I can so here's a simple tip that will improve 50% of your mixes...
Mix your track. Spend a whole day if you like and get the best mix you can. Sleep until tomorrow.
Starting from a completely clean sheet, and without listening to yesterday's work, mix your track again. Sleep again.
On Day 3, compare both mixes. One will be better than the other. 50% of the time, it will be the second day's mix. The one that you wouldn't otherwise have made. You might, if you are lucky, or attentive to what you are doing, achieve an improvement rate of 60 or 70%. Try it.
Rule No. 1 of mastering is "Don't make it sound worse".
I can't write a complete guide to mastering in a few sentences, so by all means throw whatever techniques you have at your track - EQ, compression, multiband compression, soft clipping, the works.
But at each stage, ask yourself whether it sounds better. Really better. Remember that there is a very fine line between warmth and distortion. Listen to what the market for commercially-released tracks finds acceptable at the moment - that's where the line is.
Oh, and my earlier point about leaving headroom for mastering. If you're mastering for competitive loudness, for CD or a service like SoundCloud, then your competitors commonly master all the way to 0 dBFS. This of course raises potential intersample peaks issues on playback but if people who are successful are doing that, then you have to make a judgment call on whether you should be doing it too.
If however you live in close to what will be the third decade of the 21st century and you're mastering for streaming services like Spotify, then your loudness level should be -16 LUFS with a true peak level of -1 dBTP. I'm simplifying that but it really is a whole other explanation for another day.
If you are mixing with the intention of getting the pro mastering treatment, do whatever your chosen mastering engineer says. Often they quote quite a wide headroom just to make absolutely sure that the mix they receive isn't clipped.
Getting good results in the studio is all about what you hear. Developing a good ear for sound (no-one is born with it) is essential, and is done by closely listening to and analyzing artistically and commercially successful recordings, then learning how to apply what you hear to your own work.
Yes, there are certain technical matters that have to be adhered to. But at the end of the day, it's all about the sound you hear from your loudspeakers. One can never quote Joe Meek too often - "If it sounds right, then it is right!"