Last week, I went into the details of how a well-written song can result in more radio plays. Taking the same approach to writing for streaming platforms can be even more beneficial if you know that’s where your audience is growing (hint: it probably is).
But as I pointed out last week, a great song is more than just great writing. There are tons of hands involved with most of these songs before they reach any major type of airplay or playlist inclusions.
On the plus side, digital distributions is cheaper and easier than physical ever was, which means the money that you used to have to put into physical product can now go into the production side (resulting in a better “product”). By investing in your creative team, a better song can mean more streams, which turns into more shows & more merch sales.
One of the biggest places you should be investing is the recording itself. A great recording engineer should encourage a creative and productive environment, both of which are enabled by their experience from past tracking sessions. Here are some of the biggest things a recording engineer should be doing in a session to help your song sound the best it possibly can:
Notice I said technique, not selection. There’s no reason a recording engineer these days should have to invest in a mic locker that costs thousands of dollars to achieve a great sounding recording. More importantly, they should know how to use the mics that are available in a way that captures your sound accurately.
Moving a mic around to find the “sweet spot” is a common practice. Engineers know that mic placement on almost anything is going to have a major impact on the final sound. They know that room mics can be great in the right room, but that close micing and instrument in a smaller room to reduce the room’s effect can be preferred.
Ultimately, they’re going to be responsible for getting the sound you’re after with the tools at their disposal. If you’re in an engineer-owned studio, they’re going to know that room better than anyone. Renting out a larger studio comes with the perks of a bigger room and bigger mic selection, but also requires a bit more of the engineer’s time dedicated to find the right sound. Trust the process – if your engineer knows what they’re doing, they’ll get the right sound every time with good mic technique.
Watch For Clipping
In a recording session, seeing red in the DAW is bad. If your meters are coming anywhere near clipping in the tracking session, I fear for your mix, honestly and truly.
Digital clipping is one of the worst mistakes a tracking engineer can make. It not only distorts his or her sound (no, not in the good, saturated way), but it makes the track harder to use for anyone down the line in mixing or mastering.
A clipped track is going to have absolutely no headroom since it’s already hit the ceiling. Anything you do to a clipped track after tracking will either make the problem worse, or was the space above it. You can’t save a clipped track by bringing the level down after the fact – you’re just lowering the ceiling even more. If you’re looking to add some bite after the fact, try clipping correctly with a plugin like JST Clip.
Instead of recording as loud as possible, a good engineer will maintain balance and headroom in their tracks. The overall level will be reduced, but you’re not losing quality by tracking at levels lower than your DAW can handle. If you’re tracking yourself, try to allow for 8-10 dB of headroom minimum on each track.
If that’s not loud enough, reach for the master volume on your interface instead of the gain knob on the track. If you’re fighting to hear yourself above other tracks in the session, there’s nothing wrong with pulling those levels down temporarily. Try working with template groups for quick mixing during tracking sessions.
Everyone’s A Producer
Don’t think that because you’re just one of the musicians in the group or the person pressing record with the engineer is moving around a mic that your input isn’t valuable. Recording hit songs is a group effort, and speaking up is necessary if you hear something that isn’t right.
Maybe you’re recording a metal track and the engineer is going for a rounded out bass tone when you’re envisioning something a bit clankier. Situations like this happen all the time and unless the bassist speaks up, the engineer is going to think he’s giving you exactly what you wanted.
Even if there’s only a conversation around what it should sound like and the group decides rounder is the way to go, you’ve voiced your concern and made progress. Everyone has made the conscious effort to give his or her input to achieve the best recording possible.
Record, Record, Record!
Practice makes perfect, and recording sessions are no exception. The more recording sessions you work on, the more familiar you are with the process and the more comfortable you feel in that environment. Engineers have a level of comfort in a studio they’re familiar with that’s unparalleled. They’re not wondering “what should I be doing with this”; their instincts take over and they begin crafting their sound before the session even starts.
Anyone can get into this mindset ahead of time by recording themselves and practicing while recording. Tools like click tracks can be daunting to musicians that have never used them before, but they’re one of the best ways engineers keep everything in time in a session. If you’re not used to click tracks, go pick up a metronome or download an app with one built in. Use it in your usual practice environment so it’s not a surprise when you get to the studio.
If you’ve got a laptop, recording yourself is a great way to put yourself in the engineer’s shoes too. Using tools like Toneforge will give you plenty of tonal options for guitar or bass that you can load up in all major recording software. A cheap recording interface can be picked up for about $100 and will take a guitar, bass, or mic directly, making it easier than ever for any musician to start recording themselves at home.
Time To Mix Things Up!
You’ve written a great song. You’ve recorded it to the absolute best of your ability. Now it’s time to clean those tracks up and make them shine in the mix.
To learn what every Top 40 engineer is doing in their mix sessions, sign up for the JST email list below and we’ll see you next.