Computer History Museum: Reel-to-reel tape machineNow that you’ve done some good pre-production on the song, the next step is to start recording, right?

Some people spend way too much time recording, agonizing over every single track until the song loses all its energy. Others breeze through the recording process as fast as they can, just so they can get straight to mixing. (Which of these describes you? I tend to fall into the second category.)

Whether you’re too fast or too slow, the recording process is so crucial to the rest of the process. These Production Steps all build on one another. If you don’t do a good job on one step and move on to the next, don’t expect awesome results.

The Key to Better Mixes

If I was to ask you, “What’s the key to great-sounding mixes?” what would your answer be? Would you spit out some of the more common answers, like acoustic treatment, great monitors, good converters, nice plug-ins, good ears, lots of experience, good EQ and compression skills?

While all of those are great…if that’s where your mind goes when I ask you about how to get great mixes, then you might need to reboot a bit. Here’s what I mean.

A fantastic mix will always begin with fantastic tracks.

When you finish step 2 and move on to editing and mixing, you should be able to simply hit play in Pro Tools, with no plug-ins whatsoever, and hear a nice-sounding mix. If you can’t, then you probably dropped the ball somewhere in the recording process.

Mixing should be all about enhancing an already-great-sounding recording…not fixing a bad one. That’s why it’s so crucial for you to think about your mix while you’re recording. Mix with the microphones. Do whatever it takes to capture the sound your mix is going to need.

Get it Right at the Source

You knew that was coming. It’s like the gospel message of home recording. Get it right at the source. Say it with me now! Get it right at the source!

If you suffer from the “fix it in the mix” mentality, your mixes are going to suffer, too. You simply can’t expect a couple of plugins to fix a mediocre track. You can’t expect AutoTune to make a crappy singer sound like Freddie Mercury. It just doesn’t work that way.

Rather than being lazy during the recording process, work extra hard to make the recordings sound great, then the REST of the steps (editing, mixing, mastering) will be much easier. Do yourself a favor.

If you’re not sure HOW to get it right at the source, just start trying stuff. Move that microphone around. Mess with the tone controls on that bass guitar, simply try new things. And if you haven’t read it yet, check out my simple recording formula for getting better recordings every time.

Slow Down…or Simplify

If you tend to rush through recording, just slow down a bit. Give yourself a few extra days or weeks to get it right.

If you tend to drag out the recording process for forever, wake up and realize that 28 takes of bass guitar probably isn’t going to produce a killer-sounding track. AND you’re just making more work for yourself in the editing phase. I tend to record 1-5 takes of any instrument. Anything more than that is simply overkill.

If I haven’t made my point clear, let me try it one more time. The Recording phase is SO…IMPORTANT. Don’t gloss over it. Don’t let yourself off the hook when that guitar track just doesn’t sound “right.” Swallow your pride and go back and change something. Some of my best recordings almost ALWAYS come on the second attempt, after I move the mic or change a setting. There’s nothing wrong with changing things. In fact, that’s the sign of a mature engineer.

Do you agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know!

And if you want to see how I go through the entire production process, and watch how I set up microphones, make mistakes, make corrections, and get great-sounding recordings right here in my home studio, then join the Production Club. The doors are open for a brief time, then we’re diving headlong into finishing a song from start to finish. It’s all delivered via download. You can join from anywhere in the world. Check it out now!

  • Martin

    If i record my guitar directly through the soundcard, in which step should I add Guitar Rig?

  • Stephen

    That’s trademarked…but I’ll sell ya a t-shirt… ; )

  • Hi Joe,
    I’ve been meaning to thank you for a long time now but never got around to it. All my work has improved immeasurably since I enrolled on 1 hour challenges.
    My biggest problem was vocals. I’m sure a lot of us have the same problem in that we live near a busy road and there is always traffic noise etc to deal with. My answer to this was to turn down the pre amp and sing much closer to the mic hoping that this would cut out the traffic noise. It did but I had huge problems trying to get a decent vocal sound. Since moving back about 10-12 inches, my mixes are much much better.
    I know that I for one am hyper critical about my work and any background noise was a problem. Then I started asking myself “How many of “Joe Public” will be able to hear that?” and in reality, unless you have a Harley screaming past, the answer is likely “No-one”.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Allan

    Hello Joe, I have got Logic Pro which I have been learning, just got a new electric axe (Epi Les Paul Studio) and I have an old (74) D35 Martin plus a Washburn Elec/Acou with 3 band EQ. My latest purchase is a TC Elec Impact Twin. In saying all this I am closely following all your great advice and hope to achieve some pleasing results with my new gear. Of course there is a steep learning curve but I find your style and info top notch from someone who clearly knows and does what they are talking about. Kind regards

  • fz

    Could you advise on electronic tracks, though? Stuff Music that you mostly create in/on the DAW? I’ve tried your method for a rock track, accidentally, and it worked out very well. But for electronic music, or electronic elements in general, I’m stumped. There is no “recording mix” there, is there?

    • What do you mean “recording mix”?

      • fz

        The bare-bones mix, the first mix, the one you’ve told about here – by recording your stuff such that it makes for a good mix without any processing or plugins.

  • Frank Nitsch

    Hi Joe,

    once more: so simple, to true. Even if most things around these steps are (should be) common sense, it is helpful to get a reminder on a regular basis… 😉
    My perception is that the biggest problem today is the “no limits” situation brought to us with computer based recording. Most recordists have computers with almost the performance to control a space shuttle… I think this promoted the “fix it in the mix” attitude more and more over the years.
    Thinking about the 80s, when the best thing you could have was an 8-track recorder – maybe digital, maybe not. At least you was limited to the “get it right at the source” principle and this forced everybody to track things the way it suited the mix best. No multiple takes, no editing, just the performance, just done right. Mixing those days really was mainly levelling, panning, a few effects here and there.
    I know it is hard to set limitations, which aren’t really there, but trying it out could be a real win. Why not just setting a limit like “2 takes of each instrument” and “just # tracks in total”? And while we are at it: why not trying to mix a song with nothing more but levelling, panning and delay and reverb on a bus? Try to get this simplistic mix sound good and you could have learned a lesson for free. 😉

    Take care and thanx for your “reminders”…

    Frank

  • Joe Cushman

    It is SO crucial to get it right at the source. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but there’s still things in every project I do that make me say to myself “Why did I decide that that was good enough?” I realized the other day, that Every single thing I mix teaches me a little more about what to do/not to do when recording.

    • Absolutely, Joe. That’s why I always encourage people to just keep working on projects and finishing them. I learn something new every time.

  • Stephen

    Like so much of what you teach, this is pure common sense…sadly, a commodity sorely lacking in our fast food twitter world. Thanks for the tips and tricks (and TRUTH) Joe, you and Graham are indispensable for us home recorders out here.

    • Thanks Stephen…of course, now you’ve gotten me liking the phrase “fast food twitter.” Might be a good record label name. 🙂