Music Production and Sound Quality: Start at the Source!

In my first article of this series I presented contrasting arguments on the importance of production quality, and the appropriateness of various levels/types of productions.   From that article, I hope we all came to agreement that many levels of production quality are appropriate, and that ultimately, knowing your audience and reacting to their needs is crucial.

As one of the stated goals of the Linescratchers site is to “raise the bar” of quality for our musical community, I will devote much of my articles in this series to improving the quality of our productions.  However, I will also continue to explore ideas related to all levels of production quality.   Please keep in mind that these articles are written to appeal to a broad audience and I can’t possibly write specifically to every genre, audience, and situation.   I’m just trying to give you some basic principles to consider.

This should go without saying, but in this day of Auto-Tune,  unlimited track counts, digital editing, and powerful processing, too many musicians lack an appreciation and understanding of the basics, and lean too heavily on technology to create a good finished product.   If you want to sound like every other overprocessed, artificially perfect artist – feel free to follow along with the masses.  But if you want to stand out and create lasting masterpieces – start with the basics.  Whether it be religion, construction, or music – reaching your full potential starts by having a solid foundation.    I’ll save some thoughts on songwriting, arranging, and performance for a future segment perhaps – I want to take this back even one step farther.

Let me tell a story to make a point.  I’ve done a lot of mastering work over the years. A couple years ago, I took on a project from a band that was recorded by a studio that I did a lot of work with.  I knew the studio well. I know their recording system in detail, know how they like to work, what they normally work on, and what their “sound” is.   I know that they consistently turn out one great sounding mix after another. Even so, I was a bit surprised when I listened to the tracks from this particular project. It sounded “classic” and “modern” at the same time; clean, warm, and full, with great clarity, no noise, and great dynamics. Honestly, it sounded like an album tracked in a vintage studio, but with better clarity and no noise. While everything this studio does seems to turn out pretty good, this project in particular had a nice tone and warmth to it that was beyond what I was used to hearing on most “modern” projects.  In a sea of “ok” projects, this one really stood out and grabbed my attention!

I questioned the engineer on his approach to this project. He acknowledged that a significant factor was the musicians themselves: “These guys have a ton of studio experience and they really knew what they wanted the individual tracks to sound like, so the sound happened very naturally.” He also noted that their instruments and amps lent themselves very well to getting a great sound.  When recording,  the band allowed the engineer to spend a great deal of time selecting the proper microphones and getting the right mic placement in order to get the sound that they were after right from the start. When it came time to mix, there was very little EQ needed on the tracks, and what EQ was done, was mostly subtractive. The results of this careful attention to detail up front, and conservative mixing are obvious.

Now, you might be assuming that this project was tracked through an impressive array of tube mics, running through racks of vintage preamps, and through the best quality converters available. You might also assume that the project was mixed, or at least processed, in the analog realm with tube compressors and EQ. You might even assume that they tracked, or at least mixed, to a nice analog tape machine. But, none of these things are true. This album was tracked through “stock” preamps, with “stock” converters on a recording system that was probably 8 yrs old.  Not a single tube mic or preamp was used, and the album was mixed “in-the-box”.  Sure, the equipment they used was good quality professional equipment, but the warm, spacious richness in the sound came from talented musicians who knew their instruments and how to get the best sound out of them, and who were willing to invest in a little extra time up front to get the sound right from the start.

This story illustrates how experience, talent, quality of instruments, preparation, and patience come together to make a great production from day one.   Before you ever step in the studio, make sure your instrument is well maintained, properly tuned, and adjusted.   Make sure you have the right gear for the job and make sure you know your instrument and equipment well.  After all of these years, I continue to be amazed when someone who really knows what they are doing picks up a less than stellar instrument and coaxes beautiful tones out of it, while the owner stares on dumbfounded.   Not that we all can (or even need) to be a virtuoso, but investing even just a little extra time into developing your talent and preparing in advance of your session can be a real game-changer.

If you have all these things addressed in advance, then when you get in the studio you can spend more time working with the engineer to capture a magical sound up front, rather than in doing take after take after take, or twiddling knobs on amps trying to find the right sound.   Yes, you can (and probably will from time to time) lean on technology and practice the “fix it in the mix” mentality, and  still come out with a good result – sounding pretty much like everybody else.  But if you really want to stand out from the crowd – put in the extra time and effort up front.

In my next segment, I’ll continue on this theme with some very specific recommendations and suggestions for various intstruments.  I’ll hit a number of points covering general suggestions, as well as specific tips to try while recording and mixing.  In the meantime, work on your technique!

Matt Mylroie enjoys writing, producing, recording, and performing. You can find him online at http://recordingpro.blogspot.com or http://facebook.com/1recordingpro

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Music Production and Sound Quality: Start at the Source!

3 thoughts on “Music Production and Sound Quality: Start at the Source!

  1. On some of the recordings I’ve done I can tell that I was hitting the drums too softly. I still hadn’t quite gotten used to the way the microphones picked up the drums. I was trying to avoid hitting too hard, but on some tracks I was playing softer than was natural or appropriate for the song, and it shows.

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  2. Probably hitting the drums softly isn’t the problem, it’s hitting the drums inconsistently. It’s next to impossible to play the drums softly and consistently, so lots of engineers just tell you to smack the drums as hard as you can. It also helps if you put a noise gate on the drums to play hard so the gates open and close consistently too. From what I understand.

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  3. That makes sense. There’s the difference in timbre at different levels too. Sometimes a softly struck drum can sound too thin, no matter how loud it is in the mix. And if there are inconsistencies in the volume and timbre that can be really distracting.

    I can hear the difference between intentional variation in dynamics and lack of energy from holding back on the volume – when it’s my playing anyway.

    I’ve heard that experience is something you don’t get until right after you need it. Next time I have occasion to record I hope I can be a step ahead learning from all the mistakes I’ve made.

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