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10 Secrets Of A Top Producer (Part 1)

mixing recording May 15, 2018

Several years ago I had the privilege of working with producer, Dave Eringa (Manic Street Preachers), recording my bands EP. Not only did I come away with a great EP, but a deeper insight into how top producers approach recording and mixing.

In this post I share these insights with you, so you can use them in your home studio!

1. Creativity is king

While every phase of the record making process is creative, the recording phase is where 80-90% of the sonic character is printed into the song. So it stands to reason that spending more time upfront creating sounds is where you will see the biggest results.

Experiment

While recording the EP we spent a lot of time creating unique sounds. For guitars we set-up a wall of amps; everything from Orange, Marshall, Fender, Diezel, and some rare vintage tube combos. Then for each guitar part we blended sounds to taste using the different amps.

We also set-up a chain of effects pedals and experimented in adding different textures to the parts, which really helped give each sound separation in the mix. As a guitarist, this was the most fun part of the entire experience! There are no boundaries when it comes to creativity, so let your imagination run. I once had great results playing back a sampled drum kit through my studio monitors, putting a mic up in the room, and blending it back in with the original signal to introduce some real “air” to the sound.

In home studios a great way to record guitars is through a DI, and use virtual amps to sculpt the tone. This makes it really easy to experiment with blending different amp models without having to own a bunch of boutique amps.

Don’t settle for bland

When it comes to recording, you should never settle for bland, but strive to create new sounds that inspire you and that are unique to your record. The more time you spend in the recording phase, the more your final productions will thank you!

2. Commit to sounds

When I first started to record I thought my goal was to achieve the cleanest signal possible, and I would often delay committing to sounds until the mixing phase so as to not back myself into any corners. However, there are some major flaws with this way of thinking.

Mixing is not a magic bullet

Mixing is not a magic bullet. By delaying decisions on how a track should sound until the mixing phase you are essentially leaving yourself far less room to adjust the tone. If you want a track to have a certain sound you need to spend the time finding and committing to it while recording.

Leaving decisions on sounds until the mixing phase will also mean that you are not accurately hearing how each new track will interact with the previously recorded tracks. This could cause you to choose instruments, parts and sounds that don’t always compliment the production.

Commercial studios tend to have a selection of outboard gear which can be used to sculpt the sound on the way to ‘tape’. In home studios where we typically rely fully on plugins this can still be a valid approach. If a specific plugin is fundamental to the sound, or you always add gentle compression to a bass guitar in the mix, then go ahead and print it while recording. As a general rule though, when tracking with compression keep it subtle – you can always add more, but it is very difficult to undo.

Commit during the recording phase

You should be looking to achieve the sound you want for the record in the recording phase, so be brave and commit when recording.

3. Get the sound right at the source

There are many components to what comprises of a final sound on any given track, but none more important than the instrument itself (and of course the player!). When crafting the sound of a track, the first thing to do is make sure you are using the right instrument for the job. For instance, if you need to record a funk guitar riff you would likely get closer to the sound you’re after with a single coil Fender Strat than a Les Paul with humbuckers.

Make the instrument sound great

When recording drums for the EP we experimented with 5 different snare drums before settling on one. We then spent more time making sure the tuning and dampening were right before we even started to test out any mics. While using different mics and adjusting mic positions can bring out different aspects of the sound, the bulk of the sound is going to come from the instrument itself.

Make sure you spend time choosing the right instrument or sample for each part before recording. Do whatever you can to get a track as close to the sound in your head using the instrument only.

4. Choose energy & character over perfection

The goal of capturing a performance should not be to capture perfection, but to capture the emotion, energy and character that the track is trying to portray.

Emotion often resides in the imperfections

Perfect performances can be bland, and it is often the little imperfections where all the emotion resides.

In a home studio it is tempting to keep recording takes and then comp together a performance. But something happens in commercial studios when time is money, where musicians seem to raise their game!

Next time you record, try limiting the number of takes you allow yourself, and see if a little pressure helps improve your focus when performing.

Remember to choose vibe over perfection, as it will almost always engage more with your listeners.

5. Maintain excitement through the arrangement

A good song arrangement is key to keep the listeners attention from the first note to the last.

Keep it engaging

A good way to keep the song engaging is to introduce new parts and sounds in each section so that the song grows. For example, chorus 2 might introduce a new guitar part to make it sound bigger than chorus 1.

For the EP we had access to numerous vintage synths such as a Juno 60 and Korg M1. Once the main instruments were down, we experimented with crafting supporting sounds and parts to embellish the production.

Be careful though – with unlimited track counts it is easy to fall into the trap of layering up sound after sound which can create a muddy mix.

Using fewer tracks will help avoid sounds fighting in the mix, and will usually produce a bigger overall sound.

Experiment with changing parts and sounds in each section of your song to keep the listeners interest.

To be continued…

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