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« The Blanket License Debate | Main | Was 90%. Now 10%. »
Thursday
Mar132008

9 Mistakes To Avoid When Recording Your Own Album

Before you can begin to think about marketing yourselves online you’ll first of all need to take care of the music. If, like me, you’re making that music at home then you’ll be aware of the many benefits this arrangement brings - you have the freedom to try whatever you like, you don’t have one eye on the clock and you never have to get the last bus home.

The flipside is that you are on your own and, to put this gently, there will be no-one there to keep an eye on you. You are entirely free to lead yourself down any number of blind alleys before you grab the wrong end of the stick and beat yourself up with it. Recording at home requires patience, discipline and good planning……and all at the same time…and from musicians.

What could possibly go wrong?

Since the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, here are the 9 mistakes we made in homemaking our debut record that I’m keen to avoid as we begin our second. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only person in the world who learned his good habits the hard way so if you think I’ve missed anything important please feel free to add some tips of your own. I’d also very much like to hear your tales of self-inflicted recording calamity!

OK, off we go..

1: That Odd Buzzing Noise Will Come Out In The Mix

..and one day there will be free jetpacks for us all. No matter how good you think that last take was, if your singer kicked the mikestand halfway through or the small change was rubbing against the keys in your pockets, then you need to think about starting that take again.

2: If You Are Having Drums, You Might Want To Record Them First

You may think you’ve nailed that guitar part to that click track but there are two people who won’t share your confidence. The first person is the drummer and he will till you all about this when he comes to play along to the song. The second is the person who will spend weeks going through the all the component drum audio files, making miniscule adjustments to the placement of a kick beat here and a high hat there. When I say weeks, I mean WEEKS…easily enough weeks to fill a month or two.

3: “Hey, Shall We Tune-up?”

This one sounds teeth-grindingly obvious, doesn’t it. Oh yes, so obvious in fact that you’d never believe anyone could make such a stupid, stupid error.

*cough*

Moving on, then…

4: Effects Breed Like Rabbits

It might not sound the way you hear it in your head but if you cave in now and add that tiny bit of distortion - just to make yourself feel better about everything - then imagine how great you’ll be feeling when you come to the mix and you can’t get rid of it. Record EVERYTHING dry.

5: “You Sound Like You’ve Got A Cold…”

If you didn’t have a cold when you recorded the vocals for the other 9 tracks, why do you want to do record the vocal for this one now?

6: Clean Out Yer Ears

If you’ve listened back to that rough mix more than 10 times today then it’s probably time to go out, meet your pals and get drunk. Additionally, when you all come back from the your night out your friends will probably be in the mood for some ELO or possibly some Fu Manchu. That track without vocals and that piano part littered with cack-handed mistakes will be waiting patiently for you tomorrow - it ain’t going nowhere.

7: Less Is More

These days home studios can be augmented with a dazzling array of plugins that enable you to have thousands and thousands of different sounds and instruments at your fingertips. You are limited only by your imagination, but remember that this cuts both ways.

8: Organise, Label & File

At some stage, when you’ve recorded your last vocal or overdub, you’ll want to think about mixing your album. When this point comes it is waaay too late and entirely pointless to have the bright idea of giving audio files sensible names and putting them into folders that, say, represent the names of the different songs they come from.

9: Back-Up

Death, Taxes and At-That-Crucial-Point computer malfunction. They come to us all in the end. Back-up your work daily, weekly or even monthly….but make sure you do it.

Now, go and make a great record!

 

Reader Comments (38)

So, Craig, you should really get a producer who knows these things!

March 13 | Unregistered Commenterwallofsound

I agree with all of them. I have spend time in the studio and know these things - they sound so obvious but so many people forget!
Only point 7 - less is more... ever listen to the guitar recordings of the Foo Fighters? They seem to work with more=brilliant. And it works.

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterDaan mi03.net

Of course, Dave Grohl has had nearly 20 years of recording experience and worked with some very imaginative, clever and experienced producers.

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterJonh

All good points, Craig. Regarding "Less Is More," I agree that too many options can interfere with the creative process. Additionally, from a recording quality standpoint, spending your money on fewer items of higher quality is wiser than buying more gear of lesser quality.

Great tips.

"You are limited only by your imagination, but remember that this cuts both ways."-and a great line

March 14 | Unregistered Commenterkubton

These are all good common-sense suggestions, but I could write counter-arguments to a few of them. For example, "record everything dry" assumes that you know where the instrument ends and the effects begin. Guitar distortion, wah-wah, or rotating Leslie, are "parts of the instrument", and what we play through them would often sound embarrassingly awful if we took them off. I agree, though, that effects that add another layer -- like reverb and chorusing -- should generally be left separate so they can be adjusted later.

I also don't agree that ten playbacks of a mix will kill your ears and necessitate a drinking binge. Ten isn't a lot.

March 15 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Handy

lol thanks keith, i was wondering to myself what exactly he meant by "dry" but u cleared that up, n1

March 15 | Unregistered Commenterrob r

D.I. boxes are your friends.

March 17 | Unregistered Commenterbob cock

well stated! i've been there and your list is spot-on!

March 21 | Unregistered Commenterdave

Again, about the "less is more" part. If you do decide to start pulling some complicated efeect-work i suppose one of the important things is to STAY FOCUSED on what sound you want to get and why, that is, how will it contribute to the whole piece.
Also, about the Foo-Fighters i suspect they are heavy into overdubbing like 5 guitars doing the same part - same as Vigg did with Nirvana.

March 24 | Unregistered Commenteromniron

not only is this very sound advice - it's also a spot on collection of the lessons you will ABSOLUTELY learn the hard way making your own album, especially for the first time. #2 is so crucial in my mind that is should be handed out in pamphlets to everyone walking out of Sam Ash music stores. And personally, the method my band employed along these lines really saved our record. We were predominantly a live band, playing several shows a week, so to get the foundation drum tracks for the album, we played a live set in the studio, where we could hear everything in the headphones but all the vocals and guitar/bass amps were isolated from the mic'ed up drum kit. That way, we got a clean recording of the kit, and if we didn't like how we played the song collectively, we just went back and played it again. No big deal. After that, we just scrapped all the other instrument and vocal tracks in favor of overdubbing after the fact, but the result was natural, energetic and consistent drum tracks. And our drummer loved it since he only had to spend one long day 'in the studio', and then his work was done : )

March 26 | Unregistered Commenterethan

Another tip is to record at lower volumes if you're unsure how loud everything will be when mastered. You always raise the volume up as much as you need, but recording "hot" vocals or instruments will certainly be harder to compensate for (unless you're going for that sort of sound).

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterMalpraktiss

Been there, done that...all true. Employ a notebook - you can't remember it all.

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterDave

yep great advice, particularly important to record dry and even not add effects til very end. I use program Acid and then use Goldwave where I then add effects which works great. Yes back up your files and save even the smallest of tweaks, get air and take time out and come back some time later...that small walk will give you fresh ideas. The best thing abut home recording is you can go do whatever needs to be done and chill. Listen also in little earphones as well as your good stereo speakers as it may be bassier in one and tinnier in the other. You need to balance that. Doubling vocal lines instead of copying that track will be more advantageous and give the vox a good sturdier beefing up

April 4 | Unregistered Commenterelectrobuddha

I think there's a bit more than can be added to #7 (Less Is More). A very wise music instructor once told me composition is not necessarily about what CAN be played as much as it is occasionally about what is NOT played.

September 29 | Unregistered CommenterRick Sparks

very true

October 9 | Unregistered CommenterMusic

the best advice i can offer is to go to a studio that you have heard great things about and record one song. pay very close attention to your surroundings and the techniques/software the the producer is using......that will severely improve your chances of reproduction at the homestead!

October 25 | Unregistered Commenterbrady

As an electronic producer who has friends who play guitar - If you are using a guest guitarist make sure they can play in time. Some of the most technical guitarists who can shred up the most amazing riffs have no idea what a time signature is.

And if you are the guest guitarist or vocalist or any other form of musician - don't be offended if you get asked to record the take again. As mentioned above it could be something small like loose change in your pocket or it could be something big. Even the mosh accomplished *ahem* pop artists do many takes for a song, and are often littered with effects. If you want that professional vocal you have to work for it. And don't be afraid of the sound of your voice - singing accapella will always sound wierd!

November 3 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

I dunno about the first one. If you've got, for example, an annoying air conditioning unit creating background noise for the entirety of a really great take, then using a gate to curb off that low decibel hum should definitely do the trick. Also, if someone accidentally kicks the mic stand one time during a take, what's stopping you from editing it out? I personally feel like the perfect take doesn't come around that often and if you can save it then I'd say do so.

November 6 | Unregistered Commentercc

Holy God you just explained almost every problem I have ever had...


btw, would you be willing to give me a few tips? I don't have very much at the moment and I am kinda lost without any direction.

Equip: Mac OS X 10.3.9 (all standard apps -safari) + Renoise 1.9.1 [ever heard of it?]

Instruments:
Jackson SG (24 fret)
Mapex V-Series 5 Piece with assorted cymbals + Pearl Double Bass Pedal

Effects & Amps:
Crate "Taxi" TX15
POD X3 Live


Any help from anywhere would be awesome. Thanks!

November 6 | Unregistered CommenterSpooky

number 4 is very false

November 10 | Unregistered Commentermozyzy

I would say that number 4 is true to a degree. You obviously can add distortion to your guitar if you play rock or metal etc, and that is what you want; a great guitar, a great amp, a great distortion pedal and skillz (good mic dont hurt either). That will make an excellent take. But as far as vocals go, or acoustic instruments... safer to add effects after you get a great take with good natural tone. Then tweaking with it becomes more of a joy than a hassle. REMEMBER: YOU CAN NEVER TURN SHIT INTO GOLD, and that rings very true in a recording scenario. Your much better off getting it right than settling with it.

@spooky

I'd gladly help if I could but my original post says it all, really: I continue to make and learn from mistakes.

Perhaps other readers could offer advice to spooky here?

December 9 | Registered CommenterCraig Hamilton

Im a recording engineer, and while reading these I can agree with some of them, one I just can't swallow.
#4 effects breed like rabbits.
My best advice is to record your guitar or whichever instrument you want "exactly" the way it's supposed to sound, meaning with all of your effects and distortion.
At the same time, record a dry signal using a DI box.
It's a better idea to record the instrument the way you want it to sound and at the same time record a take through DI in order to have other options.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterCfo

When we recorded our debut I spent time recording the album from my house to where I could release it (If I wanted to) and it would be passable. I then went from there and recorded it with a producer and engineer. I now listen to the old and the new and the old sounds like a slightly degraded version of the pro tracks. This is a toughy. I think unless you spend the time studying recording techniques you really should let a pro do it. I also think that recording the album first for us was great pre-production for us to really shine it up. However, there are moments that the "Pro" version is a little too slicked out and the "home" version has more raw energy. I also think I know MY limitations as an engineer so my experience would not be like someone elses. Hmmm... I also think it depends on what style you are recording, how many musicians, the vibe of the CD, how much room, how you mic things...let alone mastering it so track #7 doesn't sound like a blaring 2am infomercial that wakes you up from your sleep. I guess it depends on the individual. I think even though some of your points seem like no-brainers they are good reality checks for home recording. Like when the drummer spends 4 hours with mic placement and then everyone is so distracted that they forget to retune to each other.

Good list for the most part, but 1 & 4 are BS...

May 31 | Unregistered CommenterCrix

I think #4 is true. The general advice here is, anything you add whilst recording cannot be removed later. But I do think guitar with distortion is a special case. Different distortion settings will affect the way you play the guitar. But if possible you can provide the guitarist a headphone mix that has distortion, but you're recording the track dry. Obviously only for an overdub situation. You can then do whatever during the mix.

June 13 | Unregistered Commenterfred

From my one measly cd I would add If you perform a lot, dial down the big
dramatic stuff you do a bit in favor of playing accurately. The recording for me sounded
hammy and over the top when it worked fine in performance. But I'm an acoustic musician with
very little backing.

June 14 | Unregistered CommenterMike

i'm glad a community like this shares interest in some engineering/production basics - and there's one thing i'd like to add, even though it's not a real mistake:

do not avoid to make decisions!

keeping 8 drum/guitarsolo/percussion/whatever takes at hand will become a waste of time and productivity as you're wasting your mind on 7 of these probabilities that will not end up on the final mix.

as soon as you're getting a feel for the spirit of your song start making decision about what to keep and what to forget. it will help you focus on the whole rather than 8 tiny parts of it.

September 16 | Unregistered CommenterteraBel

Another very obvious one, that a lot of engineers forget is to actually listen to the instrument your recording.

Go into the recording room and listen to the actual (acoustic) instrument before listening to it in the control room.

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterJ.Vincken

There's some good stuff in this article, and it could really help someone who's getting started with recording to avoid some serious pitfalls, but I wanted to add a few things:

Everything matters, but sometimes the buzzing isn't bad.

If you want a band to sound a little edgy it's often nice to have a higher noise floor (but never underestimate the value of rolling off unnecessary lows at the mic, what you can't hear can come back to haunt you in mix). It helps to give a sense of space and excitement to the recording. You can hear the room, and get more of a "live" feel.

Unless you've recorded direct...

While there is benefit to tracking a direct signal in case you want to reamp later, the chances are very high that with most guitar players you are not going to get the performance you want if you try to get them to play clean, and why should you?

When you have your recording engineer's hat on...

It's your job to try and best capture the sound of the artist, and much of the time that is best served by room treatment and mic placement rather than plugins. The subtle interactions between the player and effects are a huge part of what makes for a good performance.

Small next to big makes huge.

Try to get the best sound for the music you're recording, think of it as a part of the whole. Huge is not always good. Not for everything all the time. Music is balance, and like a photograph it's contrasts that make for the boldest colours.


Train your ears. Trust your ears.

A very expensive and creativity stifling mistake people make is to spend too much time worrying about the gear, and how the performance feels, but not enough time developing their ears and learning to critically evaluate how things actually sound.


Learning how to engineer is a very long and rewarding process. There are no unbreakable rules of recording, but everything should be done efficiently in a manner which best serves the music. Music which is finished is always better than music which is perfect.

February 13 | Unregistered Commenteriain

Technical Treachery.

As some of us have already been swallowed by the audio microscope software standard, we should not be drawn into the world of a mad audio scientist constantly focusing our microscope
to achieve audio perfection.

Instead, try, quite simply to get from heart to hand a sense of feeling and mood of our lyrics, to get the general vibe across and move on to the next song/composition or you most certainly will risk to much time being court up in technical treachery.

March 19 | Unregistered CommenterJimnazzstix

Anything you do from your own home as an independent professional requires discipline... And that's ok. If you acquire it, it becomes an extra strength that frees you!!

March 20 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

I remember hearing a bit of advice from tony Iommi of
Black Sabbath. He mentioned in an interview "whenever your in the process of making a new album, never listen to any one else music if you can help it" I think what tony was alluding to is the importance of originality and more over how to achieve it.

May 18 | Unregistered CommenterJack

This is such an awesome article. I think a lot of "newbies" don't understand the importance of a good quality recording and making a good quality master disc. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a (to put it politely) "unprofessional" recording come across my desk when I worked at a major record label. If I pop it in, and it's not a quality sound, I don't even waste my time!

December 14 | Unregistered CommenterNatz

These aren't just tips for recording at home, but also in the studio... attention to detail is key

Sam @ The Edit Rooms

Pretty cool list I've had a couple studios. I'm going to add, in the old school vernacular, always roll tape. I've seen some mind blowing takes lost because someone says "oh you don't need to roll I'm just gonna practice thru once" I had a few acts I would have that tape machine in record ready the moment they walked in the door and nothing went unrecorded. Also with virtual tracks keep every take. I've had some great solos where the player says oh I can do better than that just go over the old one. Wrong. Hours and hours spent trying to get something even close to as good as the one you erased. When you've got one then dump the others or comp a great one together

January 22 | Unregistered Commentermrtbuck

I would dispute a few things from this post. fistly the comment about kicking the mic stand needing you have to scrap the take.. well you will need to do a few takes anyway to get the best parts and then comp them together to fill over the problem area. No problem.

Secondly, about recording everything dry - that's not good advice. I wouldn't record anything too crazy to tape but if it's just some distontion or guitar tone that makes your sound what it is, then do it. If you record dry the sound has no soul and will affect the way its played, taking some of the life out of the performance. If you know what sound you want, commit to it, and make that creative decision. Otherwise you play a lifeless part, and then faff around with it in your DAW where you will have thousands of options - all to achieve the same thing you could have achieved just by recording with the effect in the first place. If you don't know what sound you want then I'd suggest working that out before you start recording.. not when you mix.

finally, the comment about going out and getting drunk - as it thats supposed to make us think we're all really cool and rock n roll... give me a break, the successful people in music work hard, whilst you're hungover. What terrible advice.

June 4 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Lowe

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