Welcome to Day 13 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Setting up for a recording session takes time. You’ve got to deal with mics, stands, cables, etc. It’s normal to want to jump in as soon as possible and start recording.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this. Three hours later…I’ve recorded a lot of material, THEN I listen. If it sounds bad, then I’ve wasted three hours of my life.

Front-Load Your Sessions

It’s understandable to want to rush through the setup process to get to the “good stuff.” If that sounds like you, I want you to try something.

Next time you have a session, make a conscious effort to to spend twice as much time setting up the microphones as you normally would.

Spending just a few extra minutes on mic placement can save you exponentially more time during recording AND mixing. I wrote about this in 7 Things I Wish I Had Done Differently on my Album. I rushed through recording the acoustic guitars. Granted, I recorded them quickly, but I had to spend a lot of time EQ-ing them during mixing to get them to sound right.

All that extra work could’ve been avoided if I had spent more time making sure the microphones were set up properly.

Listen

It should be obvious to us that we need to listen to our recordings, right? You’d think so, but it’s fairly common to go several minutes, even hours, without really listening to what you’re recording.

So here are the steps you should take to make sure you’re getting the best possible sound before committing anything “to tape.” (“To tape” is just a fun way of saying “to hard drive”…or simply “recorded.”)

  1. Know the source. Before setting up the microphone, simply stand in front of the instrument/vocalist and just…wait for it…listen. You need to become familiar with what the actual instrument sounds like in person

    You’d be surprised how many recording engineers will listen to the instrument for the first time through the monitors in the control room. How can you possibly know if your recording sounds accurate if you don’t even know what the instrument actually sounds like?

  2. Take your time setting up the microphone. Find a “sweet spot,” a place where the mic sounds especially good.
  3. Listen to it in the control room. Does it sound bad? Go back and move the microphone(s). Does it sound good? Great! Record a minute or so of the musician playing.
  4. Stop recording! Don’t get ahead of yourself.
  5. Listen to what you just recorded. Before you jump in and start recording 5 guitar takes, listen to the recording you just captured. Listen to it in context of the mix. Listen to it solo’d. Does everything sound as good as you want it to sound? Are there any changes you would make? If so, now is the time to do it. Don’t wait until it’s too late to notice that there’s too much low end, or that one of the microphones has a buzz in it.
  6. Once you’re content, then (and ONLY then) you should start recording.

Follow these steps, and you’ll save yourself hours of wasted time.

Day 13 Challenge

We’ve all wasted time in the studio. We’ve all been in such a hurry our recordings suffered. Leave a comment below and share a quick story about one of these such occasions that you have encountered. Sometimes it’s encouraging to hear that other people make these mistakes, too, and hopefully we can learn from each other’s mistakes. 🙂

  • Great points as always Joe. I’ve fallen short on this one A LOT. I’ve really been working on getting the levels right before I start tracking. That may sound like an obvious lesson, but I don’t know how many times I wanted to pull my hair out as I’m staring at the mix levels that peaked during the performance!

  • Arjun Ramesh

    One problem that plagues me is the “Input Only Monitoring” feature. It is such a simple feature to leave on, but many times, when other engineers before me used Pro Tools, they would have “Auto Input Monitoring” turned on for overdubs, in the studio that I worked at a couple of years ago. When I opened a new session, I would be pulling my hair out trying to figure out why the artist was not hearing himself and why I could not get any levels. I would waste about 5 minutes trying to figure it out, until it hit me to check that feature.

    • Yeah, that’s a hard feature to figure out, but it’s very useful.

  • Preshan

    Definitely suffered from the click track bleed issue!

    I was recording an acoustic song for a band a few weeks ago, and at one quiet section of the song, the guitarist was actually counting along with the click track! I didn’t notice until the track was compressed and the counting became louder, and then you could just hear “1…2…3…4…” in the background. The band leader wasn’t so impressed with his guitarist 😉 Luckily we were able to re-record that part with some tape over the guitarist’s mouth while tracking, and it turned out fine.

  • Francisco Arbolay

    Great post! This is something that I try to do always. Even before getting to the studio, I like to see the band on a rehearsal, or live on a gig. I like the idea of capturing the sound of the artist or the band the way they sound live or in full performance. I like listening to the instruments before I start recording. Sometimes artists get impatient because they like jump right away to the recording part. But at the end listening and understanding how the instrument should sound will give the best results.

  • Anyone else rushed through setup and recording only to discover a great take but the click track bled through the headphones into the mic? 😛

    • Joe R.

      Yes I have…….. I learned to monitor at lower levels and always listen to the track soloed before commiting to the track. That lesson hurt a lot.

    • Ugh…this is especially annoying with acoustic guitar takes. Even with good, isolated headphones, it can still bleed. I finally learned to AUTOMATE the click track volume to turn down at the final chord of the song, so the guitar can ring out without that annoying “tick…tick…tick…” in the background.

  • I’ve certainly rushed to record and still have the proof ; ) Really, a click track is a GOOD thing.
    Another aspect to mention in this same vein – if you’re recording with someone else (you’re the performer) and have a certain sound in mind, make sure the engineer and you are on the same page. I remember tracking my bass and thinking how great it sounded, only to be disappointed with the end result. I’m sure the engineer thought it sounded fine, but …

  • Matt

    oh boy… sadly, I’ve made this mistake MANY times…
    The last time was when recording a horn section (5 horns). The players were all very seasoned pro’s that preferred to stand in a (nearly) straight line, shoulder to shoulder with each other. They were all very concerned with the headphone mix as well. So, being flustered, I hurried through putting mics up in front of each player, asked them to keep the horn’s bell 8 or so inches from the mic and got right to tracking (as I could see they wanted to move along…). When it came time to mix, I had so much bleed from other horns onto the mics, and such a disparity in signal levels for each player (some players blow harder than others), that the mixing was a BEAR!!! Compression just made the bleed more noticeable. It was just not one of my better moments……. ;-{

  • Sorry Joe, but for me there is no wasted time in my studio because when I started the engine for me there is just a lot of fun in just to make music. I´m not in a band so my homestudio is my band in the box. Every single second in front of my MacBook making music (just playing my guitar to a jam track or recording some ideas) is fun and joy, never wasted time.

    • You’re right, Jens. But for a lot of people that’s all they ever do…and then they complain to me that they never have time to finish their album or project. THAT’S when I tell them to stop wasting time and to actually FINISH something. 🙂

      • In my opinion making music especially writing songs is a very personal process. For me personally there is no masterplan where I could fail or wasting time in not following such a masterplan. But for me it is just a hobby so I can do this in that way. There is no one behind me who forced me to finish something. But … hey … you´re the professional, I´m just a beginner in homerecording 😉

  • Hector Gutierrez

    Hi guys so Im wondering if anybody could help me out in this one…Im having a bit of a problem with an AKG C214 Condenser mic…I was trying to stereo mic using the AKG and an AT mic but its very strange cause I dont get much signal out of the AKG its like very little..I can hear the sound when I approach to it but not when Im a little further away…If I want to get it to sound as loud as the AT then I have to crank the level of the preamp almost to full and then the mic starts to get buzzing, also another thing to point out is that the AKG is facing the 12th fret of the AC Guitar but still I think its weird..if anybody could help I would appreciate it..

    • There might be a problem with the mic…or it might just be a quiet microphone. When you’re using two completely different mics, it’s not uncommon to set the preamps to different gain levels.

  • Rob

    The performer I usually record is.. myself… Any good ideas on how approach this? It’s really hard to “know the source” when you’re recording your own vocals… It’s also hard to position yourself on exactly the same spot when you’re running back n forth to the computer. The latter is even harder with mic placement for, lets say, acoustic guitar.. Trial n error can be quite frustrating at times 😛

    • I record myself a lot, too. That’s why it’s REALLY important to take time to listen to what you’ve recorded before you start recording a bunch of takes. What sounds good in the headphones may not sound good on the recording.

      As far as positioning yourself on the mic, you’ll just have to do your best. One thing that helps is positioning a pop filter exactly where you want your mouth to go, then simply sing directly into the pop filter whenever you’re recording.

  • Everett Meloy

    A problem I have is with the impatience of the performer wanting to get on with it. This creates a lot of stress and helps create a hurry up attitude which usually ends with a disastrous result or at least “it could be better”. I totally understand the feeling but not sure how to get around it.

  • Joe R.

    Guilty! I rushed thru a Electric Guitar track. The performance was awesome! Later I noticed a noise, it was coming from the guitar track.. Hissing, crackling, humming. I had to do my best to fix it… took a lot of time.

    The culprit…. A cable!

  • I’ll add that with digital recording, you NEED to be aware of the gain staging!

    Ideal recording level into a DAW is around -18 to -20dbFS. At these levels you’ll avoid any clipping of the analog stages, and the level will also be ideal for most of your plugins too.

    Countless times I’ve done the quick-set-up-and-record, then gone into the session and I’ve clipped the preamp horribly on the vocals!

    In fact, I was remixing a track I did a while ago with a friend when I first got my SE2200a mic, which we recorded as a test – holy hell did I record those vocals hot! As you say Joe…just adds extra time trying to fix it in the mix, and the results are nowhere near as good as if I’d spent the time to get the recording level and position perfect!

    As a one-man operation, I do find it hard finding the right mic position with acoustic guitars…I’ll record a bit and listen back, but once I’m back in the seat to do the take, I can’t remember the *exact* way I was sitting, so the mic isn’t exactly where it was the first time round! I kinda have to rely on what I’m hearing back through the cans for monitoring, which isn’t ideal but we make do.

  • Christopher w

    following on from what I said yesterday, I set up really fast. I check through the monitors once everything is placed and then I make little tweeks with positions (not as much as I want to as sessions are limited time wise). I get a sound that I find okay or “it’ll do” to the point that I don’t need much EQ but I am still getting an average sound, it dosen’t help that the kit sounds below average in the first place.

  • I just had a session at my home studio where I didn’t like the tones of the acoustic guitar no matter what I did for a certain Song i Tried different mics to no avail. So instead of rushing it actually decided to step back and tried to focus on the way it was being played and then I refocused my efforts and was able to get a good sounding take by completely changing the way I would normally mic and play/ strum the guitar. I was much happier with the take then.

  • Tom

    +1!