By Quanah Potts
Edited for Grouptonesblog.com by Dan Adler-Golden
I thought I would try and compile the basics of recording and mixing for musicians looking to release material but not knowing how-
This piece is for first-time home studio musicians. Recording and mixing are incredibly complex processes, so I’m going to try and keep it short and sweet so you can just focus on the music. You can look at Sound on Sound, The Recording Revolution, or Into the Lair for more elaborate explanations.
Google is your friend. Search for unknown terms.
1 Buy some gear-Mixing is not about gear, but you do need some: headphones (monitors if you’re serious), a microphone, an audio interface, some xlr cables, a mic stand, a pop filter (for vocals), and a computer to record (Mac or PC, doesn’t matter). You don’t really need more than one mic unless you’re recording real drums, which is good but often not viable. Obviously you also need your instrument rig (guitar, bass, amp, pedals, cables, midi controller for synths, etc.). Also, don’t buy any plugins. Use the ones that come with your DAW.
The most important thing about gear is that in the end, you can make good music with just about any decent equipment. It doesn’t need to be crazy expensive. \
Don’t get swamped in the trillions of potential choices to make here!
- Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH M-50s $120
- Monitors: KRK Rokit 5s $150/ea
- Mic: Behringer B-1 Condenser $100 or Shure SM57 Dynamic $100. If you have the cash: Audio-Technica AT 4033CL $400, Shure SM7B $350
- Interface: Focusrite Scarlette 2i2 $150
2 Choose a DAW: Pick one program and learn it well. In my experience something like Audacity or Garageband doesn’t really cut it, so look into stuff like ProTools, Logic, Reaper, Ableton. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose in the end (no one’s going to be able to tell), so do some research and choose one you like. ProTools is the standard, but Logic is very common too.
I use Ableton.
3 Make sure your music is good: this doesn’t have anything to do with recording! You can make a great mix out of a bad song. Listen to the radio (heyooo!), but for the good of everyone, be self-critical of your writing and ideas before you commit yourself to the immense work of making them real.
4 Set up your gear: put mics in stands, put pop filter on stand if recording vocals, put mics in front of audio source, connect mics to interface, connect monitors/headphones to interface, connect interface to computer.
5 Set up the song in your DAW: this is dependent on your program, but always involves setting the tempo and time signature, sometimes the key, and opening and “arming” tracks to record onto. Put down markers for different parts of the song, i.e. “chorus 2” or “bridge,” etc. for organization.
6 Acoustics: you need to make sure things like guitar strums, AC drone background noise, and people talking in the background aren’t recorded-seperate your amp+mic and your guitar+computer and finding a mostly quiet room. Try and isolate the microphone (pillows, blankets, foam, etc.) so it is “dry” and only picks up what you want it to, and make use of unidirectionality: the mic only records from the front. You can also use “close miking” to reduce noise, where you put it really close to the signal source (the amp), turn up the amp level and turn down the interface gain.
7 Start with drums, and use a click track (!!!) : If you’re just starting home recording, you should use midi drums, so this is the point where you set up your virtual instrument and write the midi file. (I have no experience recording real drums, but with two mics you can use the Recorderman Technique). Even when recording with the drums there, I still use a metronome for most recordings. Making sure everything is in time makes editing so much easier later on.
8 Make sure your signal doesn’t clip: digital clipping sounds terrible! Test your signal level going into your DAW. Make sure it’s not red. Aim for like 50-75% from 0db on your master fader (where all the tracks go). Quiet is better. Headroom is good. Check all your tracks again when you start to mix.
9 Mic placement: Where you put the mic has an impact on the resultant tone, so experiment with this a little. Move it from the left to the right of the amp, move it further away, move it closer. All the while, listen back to the part and compare what sounds the best. Always at least try two positions. A good place to start is 6-8 inches from the audio source, but it’s not set in stone. When singing, try to stay a consistent distance from the mic.
10 Record everything how you want it to sound the first time: lots of people think “I’ll just fix it in the mix,” and while there are some things you can fix, your goal should be to make it sound exactly how you want the first time you record it. Mess around with your amp and stomp boxes and redo your performance until you get it as close as you can to how it sounds in your head. Get it right. This will save you so much time.
11 Before mixing, save the session as just raw tracks: this way if you make a mistake, you always have the unaffected audio to go back to.
12 Monitor/headphone levels: set the volume at which you hear things (through your interface) to a conservative level. Be able to have a conversation over what you’re hearing. Louder stuff sounds artificially better. You need to make your mix sound great while quiet.
13 Track volume: try to balance your mix and make it sound good as if you only had volume faders, no plugins. Change the overall level of each track through the faders or clip-based gain and balance the whole song with just them.
14 Editing: you’re usually going to have to cut and paste and move parts around and take parts out and so on throughout the mixing process. This includes removing stuff like distracting breaths and “s” sounds in vocals, tiny guitar noises, talking, etc. Do not neglect your editing. If you do, you will sound amateur.
15 EQ: this is nearly half of mixing! EQ is how you make your tracks mesh sonically and create “space.” EQ changes how prominent certain frequencies are, lows, mids, and highs. EQ in mono to remove the illusion of space that panning creates., t
The basic process is to “swoop” around (set high “Q” and high gain, then test different Hz) for bad frequencies to cut and good ones to boost. The rule is: cut sharp (high “Q”) and boost gently (low “Q”). Generally keep changes around 3-4db. Add a “high pass filter” to cut out inaudible low-frequency noise from every track except for bass and kick drum. Use “complimentary EQ” to separate two similar tracks (cut a frequency from one track and boost the same one on the other). The goal is to be able to distinguish tracks from one another, and create a pleasing spectrum of frequencies. Use EQ to fix tracks.
Here are some rough guidelines, excerpted from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook
16 Panning: pan after EQing and you’ll find even more space. Keep important things like vocal, bass, kick, and snare down the middle. Pan everything else left and right. You can try LCR panning if you want, where everything is either 100% left, center, or right, or use more precise panning.
17 Compression: this is the other half. Compression is how you give your tracks energy and polish. It evens out the dynamic range of a track, creating consistency. It’s especially important on bass and vocals. Don’t overdo it or else you will kill your tracks.
Compression reduces the gain of any signal above a decibel “threshold” according to a “ratio,” where a higher ratio results in more compression. A 2:1 ratio means (1/2) 50% of signal over threshold remains. 3:1 means (1/3) 33% remains. 4:1, (1/4) 25%, and so on. The “attack” is how long it takes to start this reduction while the “release” is how long it takes to stop it. These two control tone. For example, faster attack means it’s less “punchy” and more “fat” because you’re reducing the attack transient. “Makeup gain” allows the now-compressed signal to return to its previous level. Manipulate these parameters to create energy and consistency. This takes trial and error and is difficult to describe in brief. Rule of thumb: 3:1 ratio is a good place to start, look for about 4db of gain reduction.
18 General EQ/Comp. tips: yes, you still need to mix midi drums. Start at the busiest section in the arrangement. Start with the least important instruments; i.e. finish with vocals. Resist the urge to solo tracks. Compare your work to what it sounded like 10 minutes ago to make sure you made the right choices. Take breaks. After EQ & comp., listen to the song at -20db, on low-quality speakers and earbuds, in your car, etc. to gain perspective. Listen for the bass, kick, snare, and vocal, distractions, and high/low end presence.
19 Coloring plugins: use reverb, delay, saturation, harmonic exciters, etc. to color your tracks and create different tones. As usual, experimentation is the name of the game here. The specifics of use depend on which particular plugin you’re using. Reverb/delay are usually important on vocals to correspond with certain genres and moods. Just remember that while these are helpful in creating a unique mix, they alone will not make a good one.
20 Other tricks: use vocal doubling, “telephone” EQ, de-essing, parallel tracks, sends, panning and volume automation, and other creative miscellaneous tricks that I have no idea about to make your mix better.
21 The principle of limitations: throughout the recording and mixing process, it is generally a good idea to try to prescribe to the rule of “less is more.” You don’t need twelve different compressor plugins. Do good work with just one. This applies to everything: gear, tracks, plugins. This will make it so you’re less distracted by all the options and choices you have to make so that you can focus on what the music sounds like.
22 Reference mix: find a song you think is mixed really well and compare the choices made in it to your own. Theirs are made by professionals, and so some choices would not be obvious to you.
23 Optional master fader and group plugins: this is something you should do before you mix individual tracks, but you can optionally use single plugins and effects on your entire song (master fader) or groups of tracks (i.e. “drums” or “guitars” or “vocals”) to do less work and to create cohesion. It isn’t required, but it is helpful.
24 Leave it alone: after you’re done, leave your mix alone for a little while to get fresh ears.
25 Variations: when all is said and done, bounce down different versions of your mix for assurance. “I might want the vocals louder later,” or “I might want the drums quieter” or “I might want LCR panning” or “I might not want reverb in the chorus” and etc.
I don’t know anything about mastering, really. I just used a limiter plugin to make songs roughly the same volume. If this is your first project, it is probably not especially necessary. If sound production is your life’s aspiration, you should do some research here.
I don’t really like mixing. I find it really cumbersome, it makes it so I get worn down by my own music, and I’m only pseudo-competent at it, but it is a necessary evil. Your writing isn’t magically going to turn into audio. If you want people to hear your music and not be distracted by how it was recorded, you have to learn recording and mixing. This guide has the absolute basics, and there’s a lot more to it than just this, but the basics will get you far.
I hope it helps.
Sources include Recording Revolution, Into the Lair, Sound on Sound, reddit, personal experience, and miscellaneous YouTube videos.
If you’re interested in my music: http://onewon.bandcamp.com
The original post can be found on reddit here