Tech Tip:The 5 Most Frequently Made Indie Recording/ Production Mistakes.
by Stacey LeFevre
They say that 'first impressions last", and that certainly holds true for an independent artist's music. To get our music heard and acknowledged in this industry is no easy task. Our recorded works are our 'calling-cards' in this business, so if our music is recorded or presented poorly, there's a good chance that we may never get booked, get published, get promoted, get press, get gigs, get fans or get signed.
After listening to thousands of independently released CDs over the years (I've managed bands for years), I've compiled a list of the 5 most frequently made recording/production mistakes I've heard indie artists make time and time again. For the sake of being fair, I won't discuss subjectives like talent, song quality, etc.--although its these elements that ultimately decide whether or not fans continue to buy your music. Rather, I've focused on objective areas of recording & production that I feel an artist can improve upon rather quickly. These 5 mistakes are not, by no means, complete recipes for disaster, though. Like I mentioned earlier, its possible to make awful recordings of great songs and still become successful. But if you avoid most of these mistakes, you may start seeing more doors open up for you and your music than ever before. See if you agree with me:
1. Buried Vocals: Probably the single most important instrument on your CD is the lead vocals. The lead vocals intimately tell the story of your song and carry the main melody--you know, the one that people will be humming days after they hear your masterpiece. It's a shame then that the most important instrument in the mix is usually the most sonically neglected when bands mix their CD. So why do artists bury the vocals? Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a couple of theories:
a.) Singer lacks confidence-- The singer in this scenario is so embarassed at hearing their voice on tape (rightly or wrongly so) that they insist on mixing the vocals much lower than the music and/or processing them with a million different effects--to the point where the vocals are almost never discernable.
b.) Singer is the singer 'by default' --Here's what happens: The person in this scenario usually sings not by choice, but out of convenience or necessity (ie; no-one else will sing or they wrote all the songs.) They almost always play another instrument (and usually extremely well) and never consider themselves a singer first, but rather a drummer/singer or guitarist/singer etc. So, at CD mixdown, our guitarist/singer in this scenario says something like this:
"Whoa, I can barely hear my bitchin' guitar tracks. Let's turn 'em up a litle louder. Oh yeah, my lead guitar fills are coming up here, better turn them up a little louder, too. And don't forget, the solo has to be even louder than those tracks."
Before you know it, the vocals (and everything else for that matter) have been buried underneath a wall of guitars. Satisfied that his/her guitar tracks can now be heard in all their glory, the lead guitarist/singer doesn't even realize they've pushed the most important melodic/bonding element way out of the average listener's range of hearing.
c.) The artist mixes the CD themself and doesn't fully understand the technical process --In this golden age of technology, independent artists have more tools available to them than ever before. Recording technology found at the consumer level today is far more advanced and affordable than what was found in state-of-the-art recording facilities just 5 or 6 years ago. Its no wonder as technology advances and prices fall, our demand for tools like Sound Forge, Cubase & Logic Audio continues to soar. Unfortunately in our quest to have the biggest, baddest toys around, we sometimes neglect to learn how to use them properly, and its always apparent in a poorly mixed CD. Don't get me wrong, I'm a BIG proponent of doing it yourself (I've spent thousands of dollars in commercial recording studios over the years and will NEVER step foot in one again), but sometimes, for the sake of the project, it's always good to bring in other people who may understand things a little better than you. If you feel like there are some 'problem areas' in your mix, don't be ashamed to ask someone with a little more engineering experience for assistance. It may breathe new life into your mix instantly.
2. No Low End: Low-end (bass presence) gives a track power and depth. Boosting the low-end can instantly transform a thin, wimpy, amateur mix into a 1000 lb. monster that won't let you go. It puts the "pump" in dance, hip-hop & pop and gives rock music its 'balls' (power chords alone won't do it). If you find your mixes are sounding a little on the thin side, try pumping up the low and mid frequencies and watch your mix come alive. But be careful--too much low-end can muddy things up.
3. Karaoke MIDI: There's nothing worse than listening to a CD full of stiff MIDI noodlings--no processing, no reverb, no EQ... no feeling. Just cheesy, lifeless, quantized General MIDI (come on, do you really think that General MIDI electric guitar patch sounds real?). I've heard hundreds of these kinds of CDs over the years and I still cringe everytime I hear one. And I'm not talking about electronica music, either--there's a BIG difference. I'm talking about music that's sounds like it was pulled right off the presets of a $29 Casio keyboard. But the sounds alone aren't the only consideration here--the 'feel' of the music (or lack thereof) can greatly determine whether or not you retain a listener's attention. Overly-quantized sequences end up sounding sterile, boring, and uncompelling.
Solution? The tracks NEED some life; some realness; some soul; some passion. Add some real instruments and/or some good session players to the mix and watch a CD like this come to life. If you have to sequence your music, try using a "groove" quantize feature to give your patterns more of a human feel. Most sequencers today have this function and they're definitely worth checking out. Oh, yeah--and ditch the presets. I'm sure you can come up with something better anyway.
4. Signal Distortion/Level Imbalances: What's a guaranteed way to get people screaming in pain after listening to your CD? Signal distortion--and not the cool, lo-fi, intentional kind, either. I'm talking about the kind that's caused by excessively "hot" signals clipping the meters on your multi-tracker. It's not pleasant, to say the least, and it can render your CD almost impossible to listen to.
The solution? Watch your meters carefully and invest in a compressor. A compressor is an amplifier whose gain decreases as its input level is increased and its one of the most important pieces of gear a recording artist can own. Sadly, most don't own one. Here's a list of good compressors you can find for under $300:
1.) Presonus Blue Max: Highly recommended. Its Preset settings for a number of instruments (3 for vocals alone) make it one of the easiest-to-use compressors I've ever seen.
2.) Joe Meek C2: Another great, easy-to-use compressor with that distinctively British tonal quality.
3.) ART TubePAC: Part tube-based mic preamp and compressor. Very warm!
4.) Alesis NanoCompressor: Clean, quiet & compact. The least expensive of this bunch at around $99 U.S.
5.) Behringer MDX1400: A good, dependable compressor that also features a limiter and expander.
5. Bad Drums: I love drums... big drums. I love groove. I love rhythm. It kills me to hear a great track ruined by bad drums. More specifically, badly programmed drums. Here's a controversial tip for all of you one-person bands out there: If you don't understand drums, rhythm and how the drummer interacts with his kit, then don't program a drum machine by yourself... especially if your music of choice is rock, metal, punk, jazz or country! Hire a real drummer for your session or hire a professional programmer (and/or drummer) to program your drum patterns and sounds for you. I know that doesn't sound fair, but if you're not ready, then sit back and learn from those who know a little bit more about rhythm than you do. If you don't have the means to hire a live person to either program or play for you, there are also plenty of 'How-To" drum machine programming books out there that have "suggested" drum patterns for a number of different musical styles and they're usually in an easy-to-understand diagram form, too. A number of companies offer MIDI drum grooves (played and programmed by real drummers--some famous, some not) all queued up on floppy disks and ready for you to load into your sequencer, so check them out.
If you absolutely have to program the machine yourself, then please listen to the following advice: When recording a rock song, don't forget that a real drummer only has two hands! Tom hits with simultaneous percussive hat fills and simultaneous snare triplets and cowbells (not to mention the short-decaying 909 cymbal crash) sounds FAKE! Real rock drummers only have two hands, so it's difficult for them to maneuver these kinds of aerial feats! Now, if you're doing a jungle, drum-n-bass, pop, experimental or any other type of electronica style of music, then these kinds of awkward kit matches may sound acceptable, even kind of cool. But not for rock, metal, jazz, punk or country. And especially not if you're trying to make the rythm flow like a real drummer would.
As for choosing the right kit sounds, well, that's a pretty subjective thing. Usually, what sounds good to you will work for your song. But you may want to keep this little tidbit of advice handy: If you put reverb on your kick, (I don't recommend much--irregardless of the type of room or arena you're trying to simulate. It will usually just make your kick sound muddy and mask the "click" and presence that's so crucial to rock drums.) you should probably put the same kind of reverb on your snare and hats), too.(again, like the kick, you probably shouldn't put too much reverb on the hats and cymbals as they'll lose their character--apply just enough to give them a sense of the room you're in)