No matter what type of music you record, or how simple or complex your studio is, there are a few tips to keep in mind when you're starting your recording project. Remember, these aren't just beginner's tips; I know many recording engineers - myself included - who've been doing this for years who live by these same rules!

tips for recording 1
The Better The Source, The Better The Recording. Think of your microphone as your ear. If something sounds bad to your ear, chances are it won't sound great in front of a mic. Making sure your source is the best it can be is the first thing to remember whenever starting a new project. That could mean a new set of strings, fresh drum heads, or having your vocalist do warm-ups before tracking. Remember that there's a lot you can edit out later on down the line, but there's a lot that you can't add if it's not naturally there.

tips for recording 2
Save Your Work Often. Nothing is worse than losing something you worked for hours on, especially when you're running your studio as a business and you have a paying client. Always save your work between takes. It also doesn't hurt to have an external hard drive that you backup your sessions to nightly; if something happens to your hard drive, you'll at least have a copy to start over from, and you won't have to waste blank media backing up every night.

tips for recording 3
Always Keep Spare Parts. Keeping basic items at your studio will always help keep things going smoothly when the inevitable happens. Stock a set of guitar strings (both electric and acoustic), some drum sticks, and always keep spare instrument and microphone cables on hand. You never know when your session will be saved because you came to the rescue! It also helps to be able to kindly suggest a new set of strings to the stubborn guitarist who showed up with old, dead strings on his axe.

tips for recording 4
Nothing Leaves Until The Check Clears. This tip applies only to the home studios that record for profit, not your simple project studio, but it deserves a mention of it's own. Don't ever, ever let any mixes leave your studio until you're paid in full. This includes mp3 copies you send out via email, and CD-Rs you let leave your studio with rough mixes. At any point during the recording process, a financial dispute of some sort may arise, and they've still got a rough mix. This is rare, but it happens.

tips for recording 5
Keep It Simple. I can't stress this last tip enough: keep it simple. One of the biggest and most common mistakes a new recording engineer can make is being too fancy. You'll waste a lot of time — and your client's money, if working for profit — by overdoing it in the studio. Examples of this include recording an instrument in stereo when a mono (single) track will do, doing too many vocal overdubs, or laying down too many guitar layers. Let the band's music speak for itself.

The Recording Process
The most common mistake is recording vocals too loud or too soft. The main goal to recording a solid vocal is to get all of the performance. It's not easy to set levels with a good, dynamic vocalist. As soon as you think you have the level pegged, they do something like move a few inches and you find out they are louder than you thought and meters are in the red. So you lower the level and find out that the meters are barely moving at all. If the vocalist is nervous and moving around, you might spend hours and never find an optimum level. The human voice is extremely dynamic, from soft whispers to piercing screams. If the level is too low, you will be bringing in noise and hum if you amplify it later. However, if you record too loud, there will be times when the file goes "over" which will likely result in damage that cannot be corrected later. The solution to this madness is to use a compressor in the chain after the preamp. The compressor, essentially, automatically lowers the volume when the input exceeds a certain threshold. It's like an invisible hand on a volume control. This allows a vocalist to get louder without going into the red. One of my favorite settings is to have the input to the compressor boosted so that all the "soft" words come through with a strong level. As soon as the vocalist gets louder, the clamping down begins and if they scream, it clamps down hard. The ideal is to have more consistent loudness no matter what they are doing.

Microphone sensitivity
The more dynamic (louder) the vocalist, the less sensitive the mic needs to be. Some condenser mics will distort like madness if the vocalist is too close when they scream and it is an awful sound, especially if you are wearing cans (headphones). There is nothing you can do to fix that audio either. Because the distortion happened before the signal hits the compressor, all the compression in the world cannot help. If there is a -10 or -20 pad on the mic, use it with untrained wild vocalists. Otherwise, use a dynamic mic which is less susceptible to break up under high sound pressure levels (SPL). Or you can have them take a step back before they commit their bellow from their personal living hell. But oops, that's in the next section.

Proper Mic technique.
This depends on the volume of the vocalist. A soft sensitive voice requires that the vocalist nearly devour the mic. 4-6 inches away. Otherwise, the rule of thumb is about 1 foot away. The vocalist should back away a few inches when they get loud and come in a few inches closer for quiet intimate parts. The vocalist should not sing directly into the mic, or bassy wind noise will get in the way. Just a few degrees to the side is better. A pop filter should always be used. This is not only a good device for getting rid of plosives and spitty sounds, but can be used to keep the vocalist from getting too close and out of the range where a proximity effect might engage excessively.

Pre-amp Trim level
This is the amount of gain (volume) applied to the mic signal, and it is calibrated in db (decibels) from 0 to typically 60db All mics differ a bit on how much juice they need. If you have a condenser mic, phantom power needs to be engaged to power the preamp. Dynamic mics don't need phantom power. Most mics will fall between 15-40db of boost. Have your vocalist practice singing and try to get the loud peaks to peg close to 0db. This will give the compressor a healthy level to work with. If you are not using a compressor you will have to lower the trim to ensure the signal never reaches 0db. That is a much lower signal than you might think.

Compressor Settings
Setting Gates: Compressors do add noise to a signal, and they do destroy dynamic range. Noise is taken care of by gating the signal. When it dips below a certain threshold, the audio signal is muted. This is effective for getting rid of low level noise you do not want in the file, such as bleed from headphones, or the vocalist moving, turning pages on lyric sheets, etc. Gates have two parameters: 1) The noise floor threshold, and the Rate. The Noise floor threshold eliminates all of the signal when it dips below the threshold, which is set from -50db to -10db. I keep mine set to -30db. Yet one has to be careful. If the gate is set too high, then the attack of the vocalists words may be cut off or come in too abruptly. The Rate parameter "fades out" the audio signal as the gate come on. This is effective to prevent the gate from chopping off the tails of the words. Usually a rate of 1-1.5 sec is enough.

Setting Threshold:
The Threshold is the all important level at which the compressor kicks in. If you set the threshold to -10, it will leave all of the signal under -10 alone. When the signal exceeds -10 then it starts compressing at the ratio. -10 is an excellent place to start. Don't confuse this with the fact that your gear is outputting -10 or +4 impedance wise. Though the threshold seems like it is a volume control, it is not. It is merely telling the compressor at what level compression takes over the signal.

Setting the Ratio
2:1 is probably the most common setting for a compressor recording or playing back nearly anything. A great starting point. What this means, simply, is that it takes 2 decibels of sound energy to raise the output meter by 1db. You can read the 1st number as the db IN and the second as the db OUT. Again, 2db IN equals 1 db OUT.

Setting Attack and Release:
These settings can be tricky as they can "delay" the effect of compression on the attack and make is hold on a bit too long on release if set improperly. I suggest till you get these tricky settings figured out (which takes quite a bit of experimentation) you simple use the fastest attack and enough of a release so the vocal is not boosted as the word trails off. Otherwise a word may pump on you unnaturally.

Setting the output:
This is the final adjustment as the signal leaves the compressor. It's sometimes called the "make-up gain". They call it that because compression often lowers the overall signal and you may need to boost it back up. Basically you want to optimize this so it does not ever go over 0db in the recorder. With luck you should see a consistent healthy level on the recorder's input meters regardless of how loud the vocalist is singing.

Just a final note,
you can compress again after the vocal is recorded as you prepare your tracks for the mix. So, don't get too wild with settings at the input (recording) stage. You want the recorded vocal to sound natural, where the compressor just makes it an overall more useful signal to tweak later with exciters, harmonizers, pitch intonation correctors, and effects like reverb, delay. etc.
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Scott said...

Great list! I have a pretty cool studio mic but haven't messed with it very much. The only music editing program I have is Sound Forge XP. Have you ever heard of it?

JK said...

yes I use sound forge as well. I think I will be writing a review on it soon as it is an amazing program

Recording said...

Very informative - at the end of the day it comes down to these basic golden rules. Thanks