Rethinking Modern Recording
Here's an outline of where I believe musicians are going wrong in the modern industry and what you can do to get ahead of the field.
Recording music used to be limited to signed artists and people with lots of money. However, technology has come a long way over the past 10-15 years and now people are enjoy the benefits of home studio setups and sharing music on the internet. The problem is that the quality of the music being released by these musicians isn't usually of a particularly high standard. It's easy to pick out the professional bands from the ones that have recorded everything themselves. Labels listen to these demos and rule them out instantly. Why? Because if an artist is serious, they would have a professional product. As a musician, your music is your product. That's what you create and most importantly what people first hear. You wouldn't watch a movie that was shot on an old iPhone, edited in Windows Movie Maker if it had a description explaining that it was "the best equipment they could afford" you'd turn it off. Music is the same. If a band sends me music that sounds terrible, I wince and turn it off. It could be the best song in the world, but I'm just not going to enjoy listening to it.
Learning mixing is a long and time consuming job. I have been mixing now for over 10 years and I'm still learning new things every day. Until you become skilled enough to mix to a professional standard, your songs will never sound professional and ultimately this will limit your growth as an artist.
"a bad sounding track could ruin future opportunities and close doors with the label in question, so be sure to make the track sound as good as possible"
Studios can be an expensive place to go. With daily rates at a decent studio starting at around £250 in the UK (roughly $350), budgets soon go out of the window and unfortunately the quality of the recording goes with it. Say you have a budget of £1500 to record an entire 11 track album. That would buy you 6 days in a studio at the rate set out above. Tracking drums properly should take around 3 or 4 days, if it takes less, either your drummer is a machine (well done) or you're just hoping that it'll get fixed up later. A professional band would spend at least an entire day setting up the kit, getting the mics set right, testing different snares, toms, kicks, tuning drums etc... on this budget that's not going to happen.
So you've tracked your drums the best you can in say 2 days. You now have 4 days left. You can't afford to pay the studio engineer for 3 days of his time to edit the drums, so you carry on and figure it'll get sorted later. You track guitars to the drums in a day and bass in half a day, then take the rest of the time to track vocals.
Day 6 is over. Your vocalist is destroyed, your entire album is tracked to drums which, besides the tuning issues that have been happening over the course of tracking, are drifting in and out of time, and your guitar isn't as tight as you'd like it, not to mention the tone sucks because you just didn't have a day spare to get it right. The bass probably sounds pretty good. You've most likely taken a DI and run it through a sansamp or something similar. It is, unfortunately out of time.
Your studio engineer mixes all of the tracks when he gets a few hours spare and sends them over to you. You've now got WAV files of your entire album and it sounds terrible. To make matters worse you're £1500 down, and you'll have to pay the studio engineer for the time it takes him to get the raw files rendered and sent over if you want to have a crack at it mixing it yourself.
This, for some unfathomable reason seems to be the go to practice of most bands I see around in the UK.
With modern technology there's a much, much better way to do this...
Let's take the exact same budget of £1500 and apply it to a fairly in depth analysis of where it could go:
One member of the band surely owns a decent home computer. We'll call him Bob. Bob has a standard home PC. It's not a top of the range, fancy, all singing, all dancing 12-core Mac, but it doesn't need to be.
The band invest in a recording interface. It's a Focusrite Scarlett Solo. It costs £69 (literally, I just looked it up).
The band are now able to record themselves. They don't have a DAW (recording software), so they buy Pro Tools 12. It's subscription based now and they won't need it for long so they but a month subscription. It costs $25 which is roughly £17. They also need an iLok to run Pro Tools, they're £26 from Andertons Music.
They can't record drums at home, so they need a solution.... they buy Steven Slate Drums 4.0 custom. It's only $39. It contains only one kit... but they only need one. They clearly need to track guitars... they buy JST Toneforge. It's $69 (around £48). They pick up a microphone from eBay for less than £100 (AT2020 - around £70, SE2200A - around £50). Incidently I've used the SE2200A on professional releases. Finally they need a pop shield at around £10, or use a pair of tights over a coat hanger if you're feeling rock and roll.
So.. the band are set up to record their whole album from home and have only spent between £250 and £300.
Optional extras: Studio monitors, Studio headphones...
Their studio time is now UNLIMITED. They can track for days at no extra cost (I lie, if you got over the month it will cost another £17 in pro tools subscriptions). In fact they can record any future albums in the same way so they're set up for life.
The new home studio:
They install all of their software onto Bobs machine of dreams. It's not perfect but it does exactly what they need it to do. They put a click on and lay down some scratch guitars by running their guitar straight into the instrument input on the Scarlett interface, then using Toneforge for the tones. Once they've set up the track, the drummer sits down and writes his drums using MIDI. If he's feeling like he wants to push the boat out, he can buy an electronic kit or borrow one of his friend Axel. Either way, he writes the drums. They sound amazing off the bat.
The computer Isn't the best, so they freeze the audio to free up resources now that the drums are done.
They move onto the guitars now. They record them properly taking as long as they want, one track either side or 2 either side if they want to sound "massive". The bassist is ready for his moment of glory and does the same as the guitarists using the Pro Tools "sansamp" plugin. They track leads, then a nice solo which probably takes longer than the rest combined.
Now the singer is up. He plugs his mic in, gets a level and he's off. He starts tracking and notices there's too much room ambience in the recording, so they get Bobs matress, prop it up against a wall, grab his duvet cover (comforter) and hang it behind his head while he's tracking. The singer and Mic are now sandwiched between the matress and the duvet. It works like a charm.
The band proceed to finish each track in the same fashion until they have their entire album recorded.
Making it sound professional:
After the band finish tracking, they send it away to be mixed by somebody like myself. Depending on how much work needs doing (probably not a lot in this case) you are given a quote, then you receive back tracks which sound like they've been recorded in some of the best studios in the world.
This whole process makes total financial sense and actually makes it easier for me as long as you follow detailed instructions provided by your chosen mixing engineer.
- I don't have to spend 5 hours editing the rushed drums on each track. Only to have to edit the guitars and bass afterwards because they we recorded out of time.
- The guitars are really tight because you've had time to track them properly.
- The instruments sounds great. Without time restraints, you've tuned constantly, replaced strings when they sound dull and tracked great performances.
- The vocalist great. He's not been tracking for 2 days straight and his voice isn't sounding warn out.
- The songs are better. You've heard problems with them after recording, so you've gone back and changed them, improved them and now they're refined.