I've been recording for almost a decade, and doing it professionally (meaning people pay me to produce their band) for almost four years. In that time, I've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't when it comes to making records. In this article, I'm going to give you the 5 best tips I can offer for any upcoming producer/engineer.
I won't be doing any gear talk in this article. If you want to learn more about my favorite gear, check out our other articles here.
1) Keep it real
When I first started getting paid to do this, I was editing everything to the grid tuning every vocal note and harmony to "perfection." Certainly, there are some styles that I still do this for (mostly metal). But I have really come to appreciate personality behind an imperfect song. Some sections, drummers speed up a hair ahead of the click, sometimes the vocal is just a bit flat. It pushes a song in a way that is natural for the band and makes the song a bit more alive.
These small imperfections make a band stick out. This is blatantly obvious in Melophobia by Cage the Elephant. It's a chaotic album and over accentuates what I'm saying, but it's part of what made it a great album. Even though the drums aren't time aligned, the vocals aren't tuned and some guitar parts are intentionally off time, the songs still get radio play today. It's because they are honest and feel more human than the other songs on the playlist. More importantly, you will never mistake any other band for Cage the elephant.
As a producer/engineer, it's your job to capture the most notable parts of a band. I'm not telling you that nothing should be edited. Absolutely not. I still do lots of editing to clean things up in my own work. I'm saying you should find what makes the band great and then show it off.
There are two parts to setting up. First, know your gear. When a band comes in to record, you should know what all of your tools do. This is where being a musician helps.
If you can write a verse, record each part on a few different mics and preamps in the chain. Check the sounds you get out of each combination and do a quick mix. If you like what you hear, then you now have a bar to hit each time. Start each project with this end goal in mind.
The second part to setting up is making sure your instruments are in good shape for recording. Intonating guitars, changing strings, drum heads and amp tubes all make a massive difference toward reaching a pro level mix. If a guitar amp sounds like trash, there is no mic or preamp that can make it gold. Get it right up front so both you and the band are happier in the end.
3) Know your monitors. Really, really know them.
If you are producing at home in a spare bedroom (as most of us are), then you probably don't have the best listening environment. Furthermore, your speakers might not even be the flat response you were hoping for. The best thing to do in this case is listen to your favorite mixes on these speakers any chance you get. Teach your ears what sounds you really like so you know what to listen for when you record.
I've tried using a graphic EQ to tune my speakers and that helped a little. Everything felt a little weird though, almost like the phase has been a little messed up between the left to the right speakers. Going through the extra electronics didn't help as much as I had hoped and it threw off the virtual center of the mix. If you just know your speakers really well, then you can make anything sound good.
4) Keep Tuning
Have you ever heard a pro record that slowly kept getting further and further out of tune? Ever heard a pro bass track that sounded wobbly because it was flat compared to the guitars? Probably not because professionals never stop tuning.
Between every guitar take or two, I have the guitar players tune. Between drum takes, I'm checking that the skins didn't go flat. This will create consistency and punch throughout the entire production. Bands really appreciate it as well. It shows them that I care about what they sound like just as much as they do.
In the end, it's your name on the credits. Take small steps like this and set the bar high for yourself. If you keep it up, it will lead to bigger and better projects.
5) There Are No Rules
If you have been on any recording forums, you may have seen some "rules" people posted about not boosting/cutting any EQ more than 3dB, not compressing at all and only using natural room reverb. This is nonsense. The tools exist for a reason. You can't be afraid to use them when the song calls for it.
In the end, do what sounds good. If you're compressing 20dB with an 1176 and it sounds great, then stick with it. The more you push things, the more exciting the mix gets.
These are my 5 best tips for upcoming producers. Don't forget to check out our YouTube show, PPA Unfiltered for more tips and gear talk.