Lessons From A Recording Engineer

By Glen / September 5, 2017
Lessons from a recording engineer

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Nowadays, with more and more tech making recording, mixing and mastering tracks way easier than before, people tend to overlook some very important details.

I’ve had the chance to hang out in a music studio for quite some time before I started working there myself. In my honest opinion, no piece of studio equipment can replace a solid advice and someone talking you through the basics as well as the more advanced steps of recording music.

Here are some of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve gotten during the years I’ve spent as an audio engineer. I think it’s only fair to pass them on to you!

1. Get to Know Your Gear

I bet most of you would agree that recording equipment, though it won’t make you a pro by any means, is a crucial part of any music studio.

However, knowing your gear is essential for anyone looking to progress in the business.

I’m not just talking about you knowing each and every model of mics, racks and audio interfaces you’re using, and how much they cost. I’m talking about knowing exactly how everything’s routed and hooked up.

Doing so is important, and gives you a couple of advantages:

Firstly, you can always try out different combinations of devices in order to get a different sound. It covers microphones, microphone placement, racks, and everything else. Knowing exactly which component of your setup contributes to the end result can make a huge difference.

Secondly, when something goes wrong, and in a music studio that happens quite often, you will know how to diagnose the problem.

You wouldn’t believe how many times a band showed up for recording and something stopped working even though I double checked everything before they arrived.

Cables break or contacts get loose, microphones disconnect (especially if you’re not using a stand, and they’re hanging on the cable), and numerous other things happen that you can’t really expect.

Always have a layout of your setup in your head and you will be able to diagnose and fix any problem in no time!

2. Know Your Way Around in Your DAW of Choice

As we’ve just mentioned, knowing your equipment is important, and the same goes for software.

If you’ve never used a DAW before, go for one that’s suitable for absolute beginners. Things can get pretty complicated pretty fast in this business.

On the other hand, if you’re a more experienced audio engineer, have in mind that you will never stop learning new things.

Once you’ve  gotten the hand of the basics, it’s always a good idea to set up some macros. Think about the controls you’re using all the time, and map out the hotkeys. You can achieve an even better result and have a more constant workflow if you’re using a MIDI controller besides your standard mouse and keyboard setup.

Editing is often overlooked, make sure you give it a good practice. Though it may be boring, no one wants a track that’s poorly cut, with the click sound audible and unrealistic fade- ins.

Update your DAW regularly, and keep track of patch notes. Anyone can get their hands on basic recording equipment and a DAW, but it’s the skill that will set you apart from other recording engineers!

3. Organization Is Key

Before you start hooking up the mics, make a detailed plan of the recording.

Talk to the band first, see exactly what they have in mind, and give them a rough estimate of the time needed to do everything in a professional manner.

Once you’ve divided the project by days and instruments you’re going to be recording, it’s time to organize the project in the DAW you’re using. Here’s a couple of neat tips you can go by in order to avoid wasting any precious time:

  • Listen and identify – First, you need to get a good sense of the structure of the song you’re working on. Once you’ve done that, it’s a good idea to make memory locations to know exactly where, for example, the bridge ends, and the verse starts.

  • Color Code – Make up a color scheme for different instruments, and stick to that code on each and every project. Give different layers of guitars different shades of the same color. You can even do similar colors for drums and bass, as they make up the rhythm section. Having a consistent color code will give you the advantage of immediately knowing which track you’re working on, without having to read the actual names.

  • Lay off the delete key – Never, ever, delete a take, track or anything you’re working on until you’re absolutely sure you don’t need it. Once you’re satisfied with the piece you’re working on, go on and delete the rest. You never know when you’re going to need something that you’ve previously recorded but deleted it in an instant.

4. Adjust Your Gear in Accordance With the Room’s Acoustics

One thing that, mostly beginners, tend to overlook when building their home recording studio is the acoustic properties of the room. If you need some more information check out our acoustic treatment post.

Unless you’re recording everything directly, and not using any microphones, having good isolation or properly calibrated microphones is a must.

Think of it this way: if you’re playing an instrument in the room you’re recording in, the actual track is going to sound the same as you hear it, but with added noise and reverb you’re not able to hear yourself.

It’s important to calibrate the levels in your DAW in order to get a good result. More experience definitely makes the whole process shorter, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of trial and error.

Play the same riff or beat over and over again, but experiment with microphone placement as well as levels in your DAW. Once you’ve found the sweet spot, save it as a preset, and take a photo of the exact positioning of the mics.

It’s always easier to work in a properly isolated room, but if you can’t afford it, or you plan on recording in your bedroom, try these tips out, they definitely help.

5. You Can Only Cover Mistakes Up to a Certain Point

This tip may seem as more focused towards a musician going into a recording studio, but at the end of the day, it’s your job to make everything sound tight.

It’s important to explain this to the musicians you’re recording. No matter how much you cut, copy and paste, some mistakes simply can’t be covered up.

You’re better off losing a couple of hours trying to record the perfect take, than having to puzzle together a mess of a recording.

Don’t hesitate to tell them to stop and start over, no matter how much time it may take. You need good material to work on. After all, it’s engineering, not magic.

6. Mono Before Stereo

This one is focused on absolute beginners.

For the final recording, you want to use stereo mics of course. However, it may be a bit difficult to set everything up and get a good sound if you start with more microphones than one.

Instead, try experimenting with various microphone positions as we’ve discussed previously, until you feel you’ve gotten a hang of it.

Only then it is smart to add the second one to get the stereo effect.

7. Always Start With Volume

In order to get an at least decent sounding recording, you need to follow a couple of simple steps.

Your first step after setting everything up should be adjusting the volume of the numerous tracks you’re doing work on correctly.

Step by step, it should look something like this:

  • Volume
  • EQ
  • Compression

If you don’t set the volume levels first, playing around with equalizers won’t give you the correct image and feel of the mix.

When talking about compression, it’s kind of the same things. You won’t be able to apply this effect correctly if the volume is all over the place.

However, setting the volume up at the beginning doesn’t mean you’re done.

Rebalancing is crucial for keeping the right levels at all times.

A good idea is to set the volume, apply EQ and compression, listen to the recording for a couple of times, and repeat the whole process.

8. Know Your Way Around The Equalizer

Unless you’re using the simple 3-band EQ, hitting the right spot can be hard at first.

While there isn’t really a right way to do this, here are some tips that will help you maneuver around the numerous knobs and faders:

  • Use the bus EQ option – This means that the EQ settings will be applied to groups of instruments, and not individual tracks. Try to group similar sounding instruments, or go with the role in the band (rhythm, lead, etc).

  • Apply the EQ on the effects as well – Don’t  forget to adjust the levels of the effects. This goes especially for reverb, as not filtering out the low- end will result in a muddy mix.

  • Think ahead – You should always have at least a basic idea of the sound you’re trying to achieve. Don’t just blindly play around with the knobs and faders. It’s also important to stick with the plan once you’ve started out. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be open for changes, but once you’ve started adjusting the levels, go through with it. If it doesn’t sound good, try again from the beginning.

  • Filters and shelving go great together – If you don’t really want to use filters too much, but you need to get rid of extra highs or lows, use shelving.

  • Lay off the boosts – Sometimes not using boosts, and instead, raising the volume with a slight cut gives a better end result. Less is sometimes more, at least when talking about EQ.

  • A resonant boost with low pass filters can make wonders – This tip is especially useful when talking about guitars. You can filter the highs to the high mids, and add a resonant boost. This will not only give them a more natural and present sound but will help them with cutting through the rest of the mix as well.

9. Think in 3 Dimensions

Panning is important, sure. But in order to get a very rich and wide recording, you need to position the instruments in the 3rd dimension as well.

Depth gives the recording layer of diversity which can hardly be achieved in any other way.

Some instruments, or even elements like samples and parts of the singing need to be in the front or in the back of the “space”.

The positioning is often genre- specific, but that shouldn’t restrict you in adding your personal touch.

Think of the general idea and feeling the song should invoke in the listener, and fill the space with instruments accordingly.

10. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

Not to sound cliché or anything, but it’s really true. Don’t push yourself too hard.

Set a goal for yourself each and every time you head into the studio to do some work. By hitting a bunch of smaller milestones instead of frantically chasing a big one, not only will you progress faster, but will feel better with each and every task you’ve completed so far.

Recording, mixing, and producing takes a lot of time, practice, and dedication. Use every chance you have to talk to people and listen to their words of advice.

Try not to overextend and do your best to bring every component of recording that you’ve learned so far to a solid level before trying to advance.

While there are certainly more things we could talk about, I feel as if this rounds up the 10 most important things a beginner or a more advanced recording engineer should know and have in mind.

We hope that you found this text useful. Thank you very much for reading, and see you next time!

About the author

Glen

My name is Glen Parry. I've been in the audio world for over 15 years. This includes guitar, keyboard, ukulele, speakers, headphones and everything else that comes with it. I spend all my free time on music production and jamming with friends. I hope to use this site to share my experience and help anyone looking for solutions to audio related problems.

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