When I started recording more seriously, I was spending most of my time in professional studios. Fancy studios are awesome. You’ve got a pretty control room with a big console, patchbay, and couches. You’ve got a nice big tracking room, and you’ve probably got a couple of extra rooms or vocal booths thrown in there.

All this is great. For us home studio folks, chances are the musicians we record are no farther away than the other side of the room. Most of us don’t have the luxury of multiple recording rooms, vocal booths, etc.

While all those rooms are nice, I found that it’s VERY easy to fall into a trap. When you’re setting up to record something, you’re running back and forth from the tracking room to the control room, patching mics to preamps, checking levels, etc. It’s really a lot of fun. Then you turn up the monitors in the control room and start listening to the instrument you just mic’d up.

Let’s say it’s a drum kit, so you’ve got anywhere between 6 and 12 mics on the kit. You go through each mic, one by one, getting a good level, and listening to make sure it’s capturing the sound you want.

Problem.

What did we forget to do?

  • Set up mics. Check.
  • Patch mics into preamps. Check.
  • Make sure you’re getting signal from each mic. Check.
  • Set preamp gain to an appropriate level. Check.
  • Listen to make sure you’re getting a good sound. Check.
  • Start recording?? Bzzzz. Wrong.

What did we leave out? What simple little step will make all the difference in the world? (Hint: It has to do with your ears.)

What is it? We forgot to listen to the instrument. We could waste the next 45 minutes dialing in preamps, EQs, compressors, etc. trying to get the perfect drum sound, when in reality we have no idea what the drums even sound like.

Do you get how important that is? You’re banging your head against the console in the control room, screaming, “Why does the snare drum sound like a flimsy piece of paper!!!??!”

If you took one minute to walk into the tracking room and just LISTEN to the kit, you’d quickly discover the reason. As it turns out, the snare DOES sound like a flimsy piece of paper. No amount of EQ, compression, or recording voodoo tricks will fix a bad-sounding source.

This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s STILL something I forget to do sometimes. I mic up a client on acoustic guitar, and I immediately go throw my headphones on and listen to the sound I’m getting through the mic. Where what I should do is sit in front of the guitar and listen to what it sounds like.

Once I’m familiar with the instrument, I can then adjust the tools (mics, preamps, processing, etc.) to better capture that sound. But if I forget to listen to the instrument first, it’s like driving blindfolded.

Admit it…

Have you done this before, too? Come on…it’s okay to admit it. Acceptance is the first step to recovery. 🙂

Leave a comment…you’ll feel better, I promise.

[Photo by bark]

  • Xan

    One trick I found with crappy sounding snare drums is just mike the snare side – get some wire into the mix!

    The ironic thing about this, is that it sounds good that way only IF the snare drum is sloppy and doesn’t sound very “snarey”.. 🙂 If you do it with a good sounding drum, it sounds bad.

  • Back when I was first getting into recording, I did this just about every time. And now that I’m more experienced than my younger self? It still happens from time to time :/ Nowadays tho, I generally catch myself before I’m to deep into a session. Gotta love those “oh #&%^” moments.

  • Guilty of this not even a week ago…you are so wise! Thanks, Joe!

  • It depends on the headphones. I’ve got a $500 pair of Sennheisers that beat the pants off my monitors as far as accuracy and translation.

  • A year ago, we built a 5′ x 6′ isolation booth to record all of our overdubs in. I then tried to record an upright acoustic bass in there. All I got was extremely muddy, garbage sounding takes in that room. Someone finally told me that the microphone was picking up more sound being bounced off the wall than from the instrument itself. After many hours of frustration, I realized that most instruments just can’t be recorded in a small booth this size.

    After moving all instruments OUT of the room and into a bigger space, I quickly realized how that improved the sound of my recordings. Instruments need room to breathe and for sound to bounce around. Don’t get me wrong – the booth works great for vocals – but that’s about it.

    You live and learn I suppose…

  • Ben

    BANANAPHONE! <3 Raffi

    That might be the least-manly thing I've ever written.