photo by *** Fanch The System !!! ***

photo by *** Fanch The System !!! ***

We’ve all got one…that first album you ever recorded. Maybe it was on a little portastudio cassette recorder. Or perhaps it was on a computer with free software.

My first two albums were actually somewhat similar. They were both recorded using free software and cheap equipment.

I had a blast recording both of them. I didn’t know a thing about recording technique or mixing. I just knew that I loved to sit in front of a microphone and click the red Record button.

Recording as a Musical Instrument

I’ve always been a musician. It started with singing and piano lessons as a kid. Then I picked up the guitar.

Like most musicians, I spend a lot of time practicing and improving my craft. When I ventured into recording, it took me a while to realize that my recording equipment was another musical instrument that I needed to learn through practice.

Perhaps you’re at that early stage. You’re new to recording and are trying to learn this unruly new instrument.

Trial and error is a great way to learn things. Another really effective way to learn is by learning from someone else’s mistakes. That’s one of my goals for Home Studio Corner – to share my recording experiences to help you bypass some of the hurdles I had to deal with.

With that in mind, here are three things I wish I had known about early on.

Things I Wish I Had Known

1. The Benefit of Multi-Tracking

I went pretty “old school” with my first albums. What I mean is that I recorded everything live. I set up mics and recorded through a mixer directly into the computer. I sang and played guitar and recorded it all to a stereo track.

I did do some multi-track recording, but for the most part I recorded everything live.

Because of this, I lost all ability to go back and mix the tracks. If the vocal was too quiet, I couldn’t change it. If I wanted to change the EQ on the guitar, I couldn’t.

This didn’t really matter to me, because I didn’t even know what mixing was. I thought you just needed to capture the performance and burn a CD. Now I know that mixing is just as much a creative and musical process as singing and playing an instrument.

I left out this crucial process on my early albums.

2. How to Use EQ and Compression

I didn’t use a bit of EQ or compression. As I mentioned above, mixing is a HUGE part of the creative process, and EQ and compression are essential tools for mixing.

Blending a bunch of sounds together almost always produces a muddy mix. EQ is essential for “carving out” a space in the mix for each instrument. It is by no means an easy task, but I can almost guarantee that if you don’t use any EQ on your recordings, they won’t sound as good as they possibly could.

I knew nothing about compression for a long time. I had never heard the term used, and I had no idea what it was or how to use it. Compression, like EQ, can be a necessary component to the mix process. A lot of times compression adds just the right amount of “glue” to a mix, holding everything together.

Had I used EQ and compression on those early mixes, the guitar would have been less muddy, and the vocals would be much clearer and more defined.

I plan to go in-depth into EQ and compression in the future, perhaps in a couple of eBooks. (Anyone interested?)

3. The Importance of Mastering

This is is a big one. I had no idea that something needed to happen to my mix before I burned hundreds of copies to CD.

It became pretty obvious, though, that something was missing. In my car, I had to crank the volume knob all the way up to be able to hear the songs at a reasonable level. Then, every time I’d switch over to the radio or a different CD, the volume change would almost blow my speakers. They were so much louder!

Enter mastering. The mastering phase of the recording process is one that I could dedicate an entire website to. However, at the very basic level, mastering is the process of taking finished mixes of songs and “preparing” them to be put on CD.

Mastering involves a lot of things, but the most obvious would be compression and limiting. On top of using compression during mixing, it is a key component in mastering as well. Mastering engineers use compression and limiting (which is basically just an extreme form of compression) to bring up the overall volume of the recordings.

Had I sent my recordings to a mastering engineer (or even attempted to master them myself), I would have had a much louder CD. Now, loudness certainly isn’t everything, but there are certain songs on those albums that you simply can’t hear in the car if you’re driving down a noisy interstate. They need that compression to bring up the overall volume.

Conclusion

There are plenty of other things I would have done differently on my first few albums, but these are the big ones. However, one thing I wouldn’t change? The fact that I made an album. I didn’t wait around until I completely understood the process. I just went for it. I took action.

That’s what I want to encourage you to do. Learn from my mistakes and experiences, but jump in and make your own mistakes. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll be making better recordings.

What mistakes did you make that you can share with the rest of us? Leave a comment!

  • Richard Gudnitz

    My first album makes me happy. Great article.

  • Nice. I wish I had remembered to compare each song of mine to a commercial recording to make sure the vocals were prominent enough for the style of song.

  • thanks for putting “i just went for it. i took action.” in your conclusion.

  • Lukas

    That’s my first comment here (hopefully not the last one), so I just want to say how much I appreciate your effort in putting all this priceless information for everyone to read. Keep it up!

    Regarding the things I wish I had known when I first started – I wish I had known about audio interfaces… What I did in the past was simply plugging the mic directly into souncard in my PC and boosted the signal in Windows Control Panel. Obviously levels got hotter, but so did the noise. Not to mention that A/D conversion was something I had never heard about either. Going even further back in time – my first recordings were made on a dictaphone and a boombox. Quality was so crap but I had the time of my life. I made like 3 albums (oh, my beloved cassette player…).

    Since I got myself a proper set-up I have been struggling to finish one EP.
    I’m not saying I got bored or anything, I actually think it’s the hunt for pristine quality (so obsessed with it) that is stopping me from simply getting the ideas down. Ah, I will take your advice and I promise to make a studio work schedule, set a deadline and so on.

    Regards, Joe!

    • Your story sounds very similar to mine, Lukas. Welcome to HSC, and thanks for the comment!

  • BC Fortenberry

    When I was starting out, it was much easier to get my head around EQ than it was compression. It’s good to read as much as you can on the topic, but I couldn’t agree with Joe more. It’s best to learn by doing.

    The name compressor refers to the fact that they compress the dynamic distance between the loudest and softest sounds in a piece of audio. It’s like an automated volume control that pushes loud sounds down and soft sounds up. The threshold and ratio controls dictate how fast the reaction occurs and how much reaction there will be.

    It takes a while for most new engineers to hear how the parameters on a compressor translate in real sonic terms. My advice: Take some time to play with the controls on your compressor and really explore how they effect the program material. You won’t break anything!

  • Travis

    Joe, I would love to see an ebook on EQ and Compression. This is the part of the recording process that I understand the least. With the way you so easily and practically explain things, I’m sure the ebook would be a huge help to all of us lowly, aspiring readers.

  • Skip

    Joe
    Thank you for what you are doing. It is inspirational. This article, in particular, speaks directly to me and my circumstance. My mission is to get past the fear and intimidation that is inherent in ProTools and get off my arse and just do it!
    S

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I’m looking forward to an ebook on the subject. I’d like to know more about the subject definitely. I need to get crackin’ at recording music no matter how limited I might be at certain aspects of the craft. I have over 20 years experience with recording. But I’m still not as good at it as I would like to be.

  • I have tons of songs but absolutely no recording experience. Most of the terminology is way over my head. I’d love a couple e-books on EQ and compression.

    • Thanks Justin! I’ll try to put out some helpful material to get you up and running. In the meantime, I’d say dive right in and start recording your songs!

      • I have – and they sound awful! 🙂

        Working on a reply to your email.

  • I use EQ and compression, but I admit I just sort of tweak things until the tracks sound like I want them to (or at least close enough). I don’t really know what it is I’m actually doing to get rid of some of the mud. I’d love to hear more about these two, like you suggested…