As many of you know, I’m in the process of mixing my album, and members of Mix With Us are mixing it right along with me.

We’re learning a ton about how to mix and how to overcome all sorts of obstacles for mixing in a home studio. However, one source of difficulty (and also embarrassment for me) is the quality of some of my recordings.

Productivity IS Important

I’ve written about productivity a lot here on Home Studio Corner. In Roadmap to Finishing Your Album (one of my free eBooks), I made the point that you really shouldn’t take forever to finish an album, that you should focus on getting things done, scheduling your time wisely, and learn how to accomplish more in your home studio.

Having that sense of urgency is important, and setting limitations for yourself can really unleash your own creativity in the studio.

However, we must be careful not to sacrifice audio quality for the sake of productivity. It’s a fine line to walk. One the one hand, we can crank out recordings like a factory, but they may not sound as good as they possibly could, but at least we’re producing something. On the other hand, it’s very easy to go too far in the other direction, spending hours upon hours getting the sound you want, but never actually finishing a recording.

“We can just fix it in the mix.”

We’re all guilty of saying this at one time or another.

“Don’t worry about that guitar tone. We’ll fix it in the mix.”

“It’s okay if you can’t play in time. We’ll fix it during editing.”

“Don’t worry about that out-of-tune take. That’s what AutoTune is for.”

“Just throw a mic in front of the amp. We’ll make it sound good later.”

I could go on and on.

We’ve all done it, and with so many digital tools available to us, it’s really easy to do! But don’t forget why we do this. It’s all about the music. Don’t sacrifice the music on an altar of efficiency or fancy toys.

Get it right at the source.

This phrase has been ringing in my ears over the last few weeks. I’m very guilty of the fix-it-in-the-mix mentality, especially when I’m recording guitars. I get very impatient. I want to set up the mics as soon as possible, listen to it briefly, and then start recording a bunch of takes.

It isn’t until I start mixing that I start to regret how I rushed through the recording process.

The problem is that I, like most of you, am oftentimes both the musician and the engineer. When I’m recording acoustic guitars, I rarely even listen to the microphones through anything but my headphones. That’s bad. For one thing, my tracking headphones don’t have a super low frequency response, so I’m unable to accurately hear what’s going on in the bottom end.

On top of that, it’s hard to really critically listen to something while playing an instrument. What I should do is record a few bars of the song, then go listen to it on my monitors (or my high-end mixing headphones). Then I should move the microphones if needed. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Hear it for Yourself

Unfortunately, I didn’t do this when I tracked acoustic guitars for my album. I was so focused on getting all of the songs recorded, and playing the parts well, that I didn’t spend much time actually LISTENING to the audio. Everything sounded full in my headphones, when in fact the microphones were far too close to the guitar, creating a TON of low end in the recordings.

I couldn’t hear this at the time.

I originally put the microphones so close because I wanted to minimize the amount of room noise the mics picked up. Unfortunately, having the mics so close brought out our good friend, the Proximity Effect, and introduced a lot of bass into my acoustic guitar recordings.

Take a listen:

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As you can tell, there’s way too much low end. After doing a ton of ninja EQ tricks, I was able to get it sounding okay:

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As you can hear, it’s not ideal. There’s still a fair amount of noise, etc. This is the best I could do. Solo’d it doesn’t sound awesome, but it works well in the mix:

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While I was able to rescue these tracks somewhat, I’ve learned a valuable lesson. Get it right at the source.

This is nothing new. We’ve all heard it before, but it’s easy to forget.

There’s one thing I do want to point out, though. Even though these guitar parts aren’t perfect, I’m NOT going to record them again. I’ve committed to finishing this album. I’ll make my guitars sound better on the next project, but I’m not going to put this record on hold indefinitely while I back-pedal and re-record things.

Mixing these acoustic guitars made for a challenging experience, but I’m glad I did it. Am I somehow advocating “Fix it in the mix”? Not at all! Had I been more diligent when recording, my mixing experience would’ve been much more enjoyable.

What do you think? Got any stories you want to share? I’ll need 10 comments, folks.

[Photo by 1Happysnapper (photography)]

  • Barney Cockburn

    Joey Sturgus has made a serious impact on the metal production world by ignoring everything in this article. i honestly have to say many of his mixes are incredible, but however, when listening to his catalog, i often feel like i’m rarely listening to the bands that he is producing, and really just listening to him replacing their shit performances with incredible sampling, techniques and tremendous amounts of post production. go see we came as Romans live, you’ll see what i mean.

    • Yeah, I can see the merits to what he’s doing…but I personally would want to RECORD it awesome and then mix THAT. πŸ™‚

  • Babcock

    I think these are all good ideas, but it is also important to remember that when mixing something might not need to sound “hi fi” in order to fit in the mix. For instance in certain situations it makes since to filter out the bottom end of an electric guitar for it to poke through, which might not sound very good when you are searching for “the perfect tone” with the instrument soloed so you might want to also consider these things when tracking. Or instead of using distortion plug-ins on drums to get that super fat feel, overload a dynamic mic through a tube preamp in front of the kit and mix it in… just a suggestion

    • Exactly. I write about this all the time. I really don’t care what tracks sound like solo’d…as long as they sound good in the mix.

      • Ricky

        Hey Joe, Great post (I’ve taken today to dissect your archive and posted on some threads that are years dormant!) Just utterly curious but the boomy guitar track sample you’ve upped has its sixth string outta tune. About as soon as the progression reaches the root chord. Am I hearing things, or did you ignore that? πŸ™‚ Also, what guitar did you use? Do you have a list of your gear? Cheers

        • Doesn’t sound out of tune to me.

          It’s a Taylor 314ce.

  • David S.

    the very same thing happened to me, Joe. I recorded my bass guitar very, very poorly. I’m totally regretting it and have pondered the idea of re-recording it. But, I think I’m going to bite the bullet and just use it, try to fix it as best as I can and be done. Alas, if I’d only taken the time….
    Great post.

  • Ricky

    I think we are all missing a very important part of the equation. The decision making process. We are all making decisions from the inside looking out. There is ultimately a reason why the top music acts in the world opt not to produce or engineer themselves. It’s not just the fact that they can employ people that have hit making experience. It’s also to transfer the decision making process to someone more objective and more experienced.

    The main thing I would add to this is that if you do make an error in judgment, don’t be too hard on yourself. The great thing about owning ones own studio is that you really can make the decision to stop, go back and fix it at the source.

    For those who own commercial studios, I think the trend in today’s ever changing economic climate has to be honesty with the client. It’s time for studio engineers/owners to be totally upfront with the client and include them in the decision making process.

    We were recently tracking our new album at a rather well known studio. The head engineer, after a great take, informed us that he forgot to run midi on the keyboard part. I am really glad I didn’t find out when we were mixing and decided to use a different piano sound. We did go back and re-record the keyboard part with midi and, the studio gave us a 1 hour credit. That’s the way it should be, IMHO…Ricky

    • Great points, Ricky. Sometimes I wish I could hire someone to come in and engineer my own studio while I’m performing. It’s difficult to be both engineer and artist and do both well.

  • chrisw92

    I admit it, I have done that before… It was a rapper I was recording and he stood so close to the microphone that all you could hear was loads of bottom end and it sounded really muddy and horrible, I thought I could EQ it out but this meant that in the final mix you can tell I have done loads to the vocal channel strip to try and make it sound as good as possible. oh and it was still not that good in the final mix.

    • Sometimes a pop filter can be your best friend. Put the pop filter 8 inches away from the mic. Then have the singer sing against that. He feels like he’s right up on the mic, and you don’t have to deal with too much boom.

      • chrisw92

        ahh, nice tip… I used a pop filter but it was only about two inches away from the microphone. I will try this next time.

  • Great post Joe.

    A couple of things:

    When I’m recording an acoustic instrument (that includes voice), I’ll leave one of my ears outside of the cans so that I can hear both the tracks and the live performance. Especially with recording myself singing, I find I have better intonation when I can hear myself live in the room along with recorded tracks coming in one ear.

    The “fix it in the mix” mentality comes into play if I have to make a hard choice between a great performance & flawed recording versus pristine recording & chance I won’t capture the “magic” again…

    I don’t know, it’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t kind of dilemma isn’t it? There were some fantastic songs that were horrible recordings – Slau’s deconstruction of Stevie’s “Superstition” is a great example. By today’s standards, it was (technically) a horrible recording, but it’s got some great performances.

    Today, with home studios and all, we have the luxury of (seemingly) endless time to do as many takes as it takes to get everything just right OR being lazy and fixing everything after the fact.

    But, that then raises the question – by having these luxuries, are we sanitizing the end result too much? Is there something being lost? If Stevie recorded Superstition today, what would it sound like?

    • Man, Dave. You ask a lot of REALLY good questions.

      I definitely think there’s a tendency towards “sterilizing” music today. And I think that’s the perfect word to describe it.

      People really don’t care if it’s perfect…they really don’t. My wife is my gauge for that. She doesn’t know much about music and recording, but she can recognize a good performance.

      It makes me want to put a band together and track everything live. Who cares if there’s bleed or noise?

  • I hate the “fix it in the mix” attitude, but as a mixer I’ve turned “completely shit” into “I can’t believe its almost not shit”

    Gonna have to come back and actually read the article and other comments later.

    • Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing on this record I’m mixing. The audio files are far from perfect, and I’ll record them better on the NEXT one, but for now I’m sticking with ’em, and making them work.

      I like it when you comment and don’t read the article. Keeps me on my toes. πŸ™‚

  • It can also be said that you have to put some limitation on how anal you are going to get recording a great source sound. Yes, it’s always better to do some experimentation and different placements, but sometimes that can backfire too and you end up spending way too much time finding the perfect sound without realizing that when you’ve got it close, you’re not in the mood to record anymore πŸ™‚
    So it’s a double edged blade, or a fine line you have to tread. Or (insert cliche here).

    Loved the post though, definitely something to think about.

    • Great point, BjΓΆrgvin. You definitely have to [choose your battles, learn when to say when, know when enough is enough]. Cliche’s are fun!! πŸ˜‰

      But seriously, you’re right. I think I tend to drift from one extreme to the other.

  • rick

    This recalls your recent post about tracking vocals further away from the mic. I always avoided that, because of all the room noise it introduced. Never really dawned on me why the vocals never sounded that “airy” or “warm.”

    Until a few days ago, when I decided to try it. Wow. What a difference. Obviously it picks up everything in the room (and right outside the room), but the difference in vocal quality is night and day. If I must err on one side or the other, I would rather have the more natural, “me” sounding vocal with some room noise.

    And now, I think I can make do without a getting a new pre, I see the need for acoustic treatment, and I might grab a dynamic mic πŸ˜‰

    • πŸ™‚ That’s exactly it. I’m leaning that direction as well.

      Also, the SM7B is slowly climbing my list of must-haves.

  • “get it right at the source.” that’s should be written above the studio door, don’t you think?

    emboldened by the help i’ve found in HSC, i took to re-mixing a song by my former band (as if 8 months were a long time…). i can’t stop listening to my new mix! the old one sounds like i recorded it through the wall πŸ˜›

    i had no trouble re-mixing the intrumental tracks, which sounded awesome from day one (reason drums + bass and line 6 pod for guitars). everything was fine and rockin’, until it was time to re-mix the vocals. they were recorded with this very cheap, very lightweight Sony dynamic mic, the kind you use at a fast food restaurant. since i didn’t have a pop filter, i instructed the singer to literally “mind his P’s and Q’s.”

    (don’t worry for my future vocal tracks, now i’m saving up for a sm57 -enough to do a decent demo at home.)

    needless to say, the vocals sounded paper-thin and bassy because of the proximity effect. the sound wave looked very faint at some points, but i didn’t care. i thought i could EQ/compress those vocals into sonic decency…

    after an hour of tweaking with my plug-ins, i gave up. there’s no point in polishing garbage. i just adjusted the levels and let it go. the final mix turned out okay, but i really wish i had the proper gear back then.

    my fellow HSCers, save your mouse hand some strain and get your sources straight!

    • “the old one sounds like i recorded it through the wall” Ha ha ha…

      You’re a funny guy, Diego. Thanks for the comment. Nothing against the SM57, but I really like the AKG D5. Same price, and I think it sounds better on some vocalists. Check out my shoot-out here.

      The shoot-out is technically with an SM58, but they sound basically the same.

      • thanks for the advice, Joe! i just checked out your shoot-out, and i found it extremely helpful for my purposes.

        in my neck of the woods, customer service is still a thing of the future, so it’s better to gather your info beforehand. thanks again! πŸ˜€

  • Liam

    I’ve always felt that an hour spent getting the sound right at the recording stage is about 5 hours saved at the mix. Of course…this could just be from my own lack of experience (and lack of ninja eq moves! )

    • I can give you private ninja lessons. πŸ˜‰

  • Joe…you’re absolutely right. I have been guilty of this I don’t how many times. It’s also true when you are engineering other bands and musicians as there is an invisible sense of pressure to hurry up and get the right sound so we can record all 20 of these songs in a weekend πŸ™‚

    I wrote about pretty much the same thing the other week:
    http://therecordingrevolution.com/2010/05/11/the-secret-to-getting-great-mixes/

    • I wholeheartedly agree, Graham. I think we could post stuff like this every day…and still forget about it when it comes time to record. πŸ˜‰

  • I think the “fix it in the mix” mentality produces shortcuts that often don’t serve the song, and like you’ve shown here the “shortcuts” actually cause more work. I think you walked the line in a healthy way, deciding to commit to what you recorded IF you could get it to sound good in the context of a mix…which it does sound really good. While you technically did fix it at mixing-time, it reinforces the desire and best-practice of getting it right at the source during tracking.

    For me, as a beginner I’ll just be so insanely happy landing at a full, well-performed, mix that I won’t mind doing battle w/ EQ and having _some_ tracks not sound as good solo’d. It’s a trade-off I’m not willing to make often and I’m going to do my best to get it right at the source to begin with: A/B’ing mic positions and (if I’m patient) tracking a few bars and auditioning the audio before the take.

    There’s such a huge temptation to just produce and get stuff done, and you’re right about challenges faced when you’re both musician & engineer — these two roles fight each other: “let’s just PLAY…no, wait let’s see how that sounds…no let’s just get it done!” (yes I have voices in my head…then the producer voice comes in and sides with the musician “can we just have a finished song TODAY?” and the engineer side just shakes its head and punches the record button). Yes, recording @ home can sometimes make you mental…

    • Julian, you and your voices are welcome any time. πŸ˜‰

      It’s definitely a battle. It reminds me of a Fathomless Regression guest posts here on HSC from several months ago – The Many Hats of a Home Studio Owner. Begin the balancing act. πŸ™‚