By Fett, of Azalea Studios
A professional recording studio sound can be created right at home by avoiding 7 Dead Giveaways. With decades of experience, Fett, describes how to get professional quality, even if you record at home.
In my job as a producer, recording/mixing/mastering engineer and “teacher of all things music production,” I get to hear a lot of recordings made by other people. Many of them are recordings made for commercial use, as either artist/band releases, or for film and TV cues.
Problem is, many of them aren’t anywhere near ready for commercial release! And what’s most interesting to me is that the things that make them not ready for prime time stand out like sore thumbs. I can hear many of them in the first 10 or 20 seconds of a recording. If I hear them, so will other people in the industry, and in many cases, the fans as well.
When people hear deficiencies in a production, they immediately label it a “home recording” as opposed to being done in a professional recording studio. We all know it’s possible to make phenomenal recordings at home today, so the “home recording” label doesn’t refer to the equipment a recording is made on, or where it’s made; rather, it refers to how it’s made. In this context, “home recording” is taken to mean “amateur recording” or “not professional recording.” It means that certain recording and production techniques were not used, which is what made the results sub-par.
Here are 7 Dead Giveaways that you can avoid in your own recordings, to prevent them from getting the dreaded “home recording” label. I’ll break them into four areas: arrangement, recording, mixing, and mastering. By avoiding these common things, you can get that professional recording studio sound right at home.
If you’re going to make a recording for commercial use, arrangement is something you need to have some idea about before you ever lay down any parts, even if it’s just a rough sketch of where the song should be heading.
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #1: All Parts, All The Time
In many “home” recordings, most of the instruments (except maybe a solo) start at the downbeat of the song, and continue playing through to the end. No parts ever “take a break” and “lay out” for a while (or better yet, don’t even come in until later in the song).
The problem with this approach is that it quickly leads to boredom for the listener. There’s no progression and no change in the arrangement of the song as it moves along, so it’s easy for the listener’s attention to wander. If, on the other hand, you have different parts come and go, and leave “space” for each other through the different sections of the song, then the arrangement is interesting to the listener and keeps their attention from start to finish. It also gives them a chance to “catch a breath” from time to time as the song progresses, so they can take it all in.
The old adage, “we can fix it in the mix” is a myth! Some things have to be addressed during recording, and can’t be taken out or masked or “corrected” later, regardless of all the miraculous technology available to us nowadays. I’ve always believed that the more attention you pay to what you’re doing at the recording stage, the less work you’ll have to do at the mixing and mastering stages. Here’s one standout recording “mistake” that I hear in many “home” recordings.
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #2: Too Much “Room” In The Tracks – Especially Vocal Tracks
I’ll often hear a recording that sounds pretty good during the intro when just the instruments are present, but as soon as the vocal comes in, I can literally “hear” the space in which it was recorded. That space is part of the sound of the vocal track, even when it shouldn’t be, and doesn’t match the overall spatial “placement” of the rest of the parts in the production. This is the result of recording in an acoustically untreated (or poorly treated) room, which has the wrong kinds of reverberance (short and long reflections) in it.
Even when we don’t notice them in the room, those short and long reflections are picked up by the mic along with the vocals, and once they’re on the vocal track, they can’t be removed (yes, there are sophisticated “transient designer” tools today that can have someeffect on taming these built-in reflections on a track, but they can only take them so far, and can often make the track sound worse). So we’re stuck with them.
These unwanted, unnatural reflections in the vocal track are a major cause of vocals sounding “disconnected” from the rest of the production, no matter what we try to do in mixing and mastering. They manifest themselves as a distraction to the listener, and distractions (just like boredom) can be the kiss of death.
There are several simple solutions to this problem, and if you’re willing to take the time to implement them, your vocal tracks will definitely sound better, as well as “sit better” in the mix.
- You can simply record in a different space (even within the same room). You’d be surprised how different locations in the same room can emphasize (bad) or de-emphasize (good) the room’s reflections. And of course, you can always move out of the bedroom or bathroom into a clothes closet (honest!).
- You can simply “tame” the space in which you record vocals. A few well-placed blankets or pillows can make a world of difference in the reverberance of the space around your vocal mic. Or if you want to spend a little cash to treat just the immediate vocal-recording area, you can use a product like the Reflexion Filter “portable vocal booth” from sE Electronics, ranging in price from about $99 to about $299, depending on the model (there are several other similar models from other companies out there now, so shop around).
- You can use a vocal mic that has a much narrower polar pattern (also called pickup pattern) so that it mostly captures the sound directly in front of the mic, and rejects much of the sound to the sides and in back of the mic. This isn’t a perfect solution, since the very nature of “bad reflections” is that they occur randomly all over a room (including in front of the mic), but it can still make a huge difference.
There are other solutions, but these three are a great place to start.
There’s a lot we can do in mixing nowadays (sometimes too much, in my opinion), but I’m often surprised with what gets either overlooked or over-used in many “home recordings” today. Just like recording, mixing is a fine art in which, the more attention to detail you pay during the process, the better results you’ll get at the end. You really do “get out what you put in,” as they say. I could teach an entire course on ways to avoid mixing “mistakes” (well actually, I do!), so it’s hard to narrow it down just a few super-duper-obvious ones, but here are some…
Many “home recordings” today have a problem with “frequency distribution,” which means that there isn’t a nice, natural spread of frequencies across the mix. Often, the mix tends to have one or two frequency ranges that dominate all the others. Interestingly, this problem is usually the result of two opposing factors: either very little or no EQ has been applied across the board, or too much EQ has been applied to a couple of parts.
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #3: Not Enough EQ — Especially With Virtual Instruments
On the “too little/not enough EQ” side, many recordings today use a lot of virtual instruments. Virtual instruments are wonderful because they allow us to include instruments in a production that we’re not able to play (or hire someone else to play). But virtual instruments, just like real, live, analog sources, still have to be adjusted to fit well into the specific recording at hand.
You wouldn’t take a “one size fits all” approach to the way you mix an acoustic guitar recorded with a mic when mixing a ballad vs. a rocker, so why would you do it with a software-based instrument? Virtual instrument manufacturers want their products to work well in the widest possible variety of musical contexts. As a result, their frequency distribution is intentionally left fairly “flat” out of the box; they are expecting their instruments to be EQ’d for each different use. Chances are, if you just go with the “stock” sound of a virtual instrument, it won’t sit well in your mix. So take the time with your EQ to carve out the right frequency space for the instrument in each production.
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #4: Too Much EQ In The Wrong Places
On the “too much EQ” side, many “home recordings” feature a couple of frequencies that are super “hyped” at the expense of the entire rest of the frequency spectrum. This is almost always the result of two things:
- Focusing too much on just a couple of parts in the mix (e.g., vocals, kick drum, bass guitar); and/or
- Listening to parts too often in isolation (i.e., with the “solo” button on) when mixing.
What ends up resulting is an uneven balance of frequencies in the final mix, which, when heard by the listener, leads to a phenomenon called listener fatigue. When there’s too much “energy” in one or two frequency ranges, the listener’s brain has trouble handling the constant, unnatural barrage of those frequencies, and eventually just tunes them out. The listener literally can no longer “hear” the music, and eventually just stops listening. Again, the kiss of death!
A lot of times, I can tell where someone’s musical proficiency is (e.g., playing guitar, drums or keyboards, or singing), because that’s where they put all of their attention in the mix, and those parts tend to stand out too much and dominate the other mix elements. Remember: mixing is a balancing act, and every part in the production deserves its own, appropriate placement. Otherwise, why are they all there in the first place?
I’m a big believer in the adage, “the vocal is the centerpiece of the mix” (or in the case of instrumentals, the melody instrument). Poor vocal mixing is one of the most common deficiencies in “home recordings.” Mixing vocals is definitely an art that is learned over time, but there is one area that’s critical, and can be addressed fairly easily: vocal dynamics.
A vocal whose volume is appropriately controlled doesn’t “sit” wkk in the mix along with the rest of the parts. And as with EQ, it’s usually the result of two opposing phenomena…
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #5: Over-compressed Vocals
You’ve probably heard recordings where vocal has no dynamics: it has exactly the same intensity on every note and every syllable, all the way through the song, regardless of what else is happening around it. This phenomenon occurs when too much compression is applied to the vocal in a production that doesn’t call for it. I call this “lazy man’s leveling,” where the mixer simply slaps a compressor on the vocal track, turns the controls up to 11, and says, “we’re done.”
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account what is going on during the song, i.e., what the words are saying at a given point in the lyric, and what the other parts are doing musically at different points in the composition. The result is that the vocal sounds unnatural and detached from the rest of the parts in the production. The listener is unable to make an emotional connection with the vocal (because its emotion has been removed by too much compression), and tunes out. Yep, there’s that kiss of death thing again…!
The lesson in this is, if you’re going to apply heavy compression to a vocal to get its dynamics generally under control (or secondarily, get the “sound” of a particular compressor to use as an effect), you stillhave to pay attention to what is happening in context as the song progresses, and adjust the the vocal accordingly. If the compression has left you absolutely no room to do that, then you need to back off on the compressor’s controls to put a little “life” back into the vocal track.
Which leads to the inevitable question: how do you adjust the dynamics of the vocal throughout the course of the song? The answer: through volume automation.
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #6: Lack of Vocal “Fader Riding”
The flip side of an overly-compressed vocal is when the vocal is extremely inconsistent over the course of the song (some notes/syllables are too loud, while others are too soft, making the listener strain to hear them). The vocal “comes and goes” and is either too loud or too soft in different lines of the lyric. This is the result of not adjusting the vocal’s volume levels adequately (whether it’s compressed or not) as the song progresses. Human beings convey meaning through emotion, and part of that emotion involves natural changes in volume. And different syllables and even different letters have different perceived volume levels to our ears, even if the meters say they’re the same.
This means it is absolutely necessary to take the time to make fine adjustments to the level of the vocal track with volume automation (in the old days, this was called “fader riding” because the recording and/mix engineer had to manually adjust the physical faders on the vocal channel in real time). The goal is to get the vocal to feel as if it’s at the center of the mix at all times, and never loses focus. That requires specific words or syllables or even individual sounds (e.g., the “t” at the end of a word) to be turned up or down to smooth them out and make them “sit” consistently in the “vocal pocket” of the mix. This smoothing out of the vocal can NOT be accomplished through compression alone; it requires time and attention, and the results are most definitely worth it!
Mastering is supposed to be the stage when we subtly enhance the production and fine-tune all of the work we’ve done in recording and mixing, in very small increments. Very often today, unfortunately, mastering is used like a sledgehammer, to “hype” a production that quite often just doesn’t need it. One of the most unfortunate results is that many of today’s “home recordings” are much, Much, MUCH LOUDER than they need to be–but I won’t even go there! Instead, there’s….
Home Recording Dead Giveaway #7: Livin’ In A Double-wide
A common “home recording” mistake I hear on the mastering front (either mastering the mix as a totally separate step, or including mastering processing on the master stereo channel of the mix), is that the stereo spread is unnaturally wide. I’m a huge fan of wide panning in general, but when it’s overdone (especially after the mix is done), the left and right sides of the stereo spectrum become spread so far apart that the various musical parts sound like they’re playing in different rooms, and there’s no musical cohesiveness between them in the mix.
This phenomenon is almost always the result of the person doing the mastering becoming overly-enamored with a tool that’s usually called something like “stereo widener” or “stereo enhancer.” The potential misuse of these tools is twofold:
- They can be applied even if they’re not needed, because they “sound cool,” and the result is that they’re almost always set too high; and
- Because they do their job through the use of a combination of EQ and phasing tricks, they can often introduce sonic “artifacts” that, in addition to making the mix too wide, sound really, really unnatural to the ears.
Stereo wideners can be very useful if a mix is extremely “center-heavy,” but just like any tool in our recording and production arsenal, they need to be understood, experimented with, and then used only to the extent that they enhance the production, rather than detractfrom it.
Don’t Be a “Home Recordist” – Even If You’re Recording At Home!
Whew – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Hopefully these observations and suggestions will help you make your own recordings sound like they were done in a professional recording studio– regardless of where you make them.
Do you have any “home recording dead giveaways” and remedies that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
For some more info on recording at home, download the FREE recording guide.
p.s. If you’d like to go a LOT deeper than this, in addition to private, one-on-one mentoring, I also offer a number of music production-related courses that are taught entirely online, so you can take them whenever you want, from wherever you are. Here’s the list:
You can find out more about all of these courses (and see some sample videos of each) at this link: