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5 Recording Mistakes We ALL Make

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One of the things that makes recording both a fun hobby and a fulfilling career choice is that you never stop learning. I like to view the process of recording as if it were one big experiment. There are always new ways to approach capturing interesting sounds and making the process fun.  But while there aren’t really rules about what you have to do to get great recordings, there are a few things that you probably should not do.  Inevitably, we all do them from time to time — myself included — and that’s okay. It’s important to be aware of them and minimize those mistakes in order to capture great recording and make the process a far more enjoyable one.  So without further adieu, here are 5 common recording mistakes we all make.

1. Recording Too Loud

I made this mistake for years, and I see this mistake all the time in sessions I receive for mixing.  To be fair, for most of us, we’re just doing as we were taught.  Early on when you were learning to record, someone probably told you that it’s a best practice to crank up the input gain as hot as you can without clipping so you get a nice, loud signal.  Back in the days of tape and pure analog recording, this was good advice. Tape has an inherent “hiss” sound that becomes more apparent in a recording the quieter the signal is.  This would often be magnified by the outboard gear or console being used to record and mix the song, as each of these things add noise to a recording.

Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t hold true for digital recording.  In many cases, following this advice will make your recordings sound worse.  The reason for this has to do with the way audio is affected by digital converters as it travels from the source into your computer/DAW.  When a super hot signal hits those converters, you get digital distortion, clipping, etc. even if it doesn’t necessarily reflect on your VU or track meters in your DAW.

Even with digital recording, you still don’t want to record quietly, but shooting for a nice middle ground is key to capturing a great sound.  A general rule of thumb that works well is looking at the input gain of a track in your DAW. As you’re recording, shoot for somewhere between 50% and 75% of the way up the meter for the best results.  If you do this, you’ll find that you capture a better recording and it gives you far more flexibility in the mix process, as you can add volume by pushing up the fader without having to worry about digital distortion.

2. Ignoring acoustic treatment or treating a room poorly

It took me a considerable amount of time before I bothered to treat the room I was recording in.  When I finally did, it changed my life. Using acoustic treatment in your studio will have a huge impact on the way you go about recording and mixing.  What you hear coming out of hour monitors will be more true to the sound that you captured in the recording process.  This is true even of inexpensive monitors.  It’s a cliché by this point, but a $10,000 set of monitors in an untreated room is nowhere near as useful as a $600 set of monitors in a treated room.

Just as bad as having no treatment at all in a room is treating it poorly.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen home studios with acoustic foam along the wall behind the computer screen and studio monitors and nowhere else.  Putting acoustic foam there certainly won’t hurt your room’s acoustics, but it doesn’t really help it either.  Think about where the sound coming from your studio monitors hits the walls of the room and starts to reflect — that’s where your treatment should be.  Generally speaking, placing an acoustic panel at what’s called the “angle of first reflection” and setting up bass traps in the corners is enough to improve the acoustics of your room considerably.

The angle of first reflection is a fancy way of saying “the spot where the sound from a speaker hits the wall first.” Take a look at your studio monitors.  Most likely, you have them angled towards your ears.  Draw an imagining line from the center of one speaker to the wall it is facing. That is the angle of first reflection for that speaker.  Do the same for the other.  If you place acoustic panels in those two spots with bass traps in the corner, you will immediately improve the acoustics in your studio.

3. Rushing the recording process / Being lazy

We’ve all been there.  When I have a really cool song idea, I can’t wait to see it develop. I start thinking about how the finished product will sound, sharing it with people, what they’ll think about it, etc.  So much so that I don’t always spend as much time as I should with capturing a great performance or sound.  But this is a really bad habit that we should be break as soon as we can.

One way I’ve found to scratch the itch of seeing the song to develop is to record scratch tracks.  I’ll make a pass through the song, usually even playing my guitar and singing at the same time, just so I can get an idea of how the song will sound when it all comes together. It can also tell me what parts of the song could use some more creativity or flair to make it more interesting.

After you get your scratch track down, it’s time to take a breath and start to record properly. You’ve probably heard engineers say things to the effect of “you should record it how you want to hear it.”  They say that because it’s true. If you spend the time needed to capture a great guitar sound that actually sounds like (or at the very least close to) how you want it to sound when all is said and done, you’ll produce better recordings in general.  Take your time with it. If you’re recording guitar parts, play through the song (or each part) a few times each.  This will give you options to choose from later, giving you an opportunity to comp the best takes together.  Whether it’s guitar, vocals, bass, or anything else — take your time with it, get it right, and record multiple takes.

Oh, and in response to a commonly asked question when it comes to recording guitar — no, you can’t just duplicate one guitar track and pan them in opposite directions.  Well, you can, but you probably shouldn’t.  The subtle differences in playing for the L and R tracks are what gives guitars the sonic characteristics we expect in our recordings.

4. Improper Mic Placement

This can apply across any instrument, but the most common place I see this mistake is with vocal recordings.  Chances are, you’re standing way too close to the mic.  With most condenser microphones, you’re best bet is to stand between about 8 inches and a foot away.  That may sound crazy, but trust me, you’ll get better results.  When you record vocals too close to the mic, not only does it pick up on pops and clicks in your voice that come naturally with singing, it also reduces the dynamic range and makes it difficult to control. The mic becomes more sensitive to the singer’s head movements, loud parts are super loud and quiet parts aren’t quiet enough. Back the singer up and you’ll get far better results.

5. Thinking you can fix it in the mix

Most of these mistakes feed into this one.  The mixing process should never be about “fixing” problems with a song.  It should be about bringing out the best in a great recording.  Going back to the “record it the way you want it to be heard” advice, if you put in the effort to capture a great recording, the mixing process becomes a breeze — it becomes less about hiding warts with the song and more about being creative and showcasing the song in its best light.  

You can do some incredible things the mix process, for sure, and there are some mix engineers out there who can really take a song to the next level. But with audio engineering, if it goes in a turd, it will come out a turd - it just may be a little bit shinier. If you let go of the idea that something can be fixed in the mix and focus on getting it sounding the way you want as you record it, not only will the end result be better, but you’ll be far more satisfied with your mixes, whether you’re doing it yourself or submitting it to someone like myself.  It will absolutely make you a better engineer and your music will be better as a result.

So there you have it — 5 common mistakes we all make in the recording process. By no means is this all of the mistakes we make, but taking steps to avoid these will have an immediate impact on the quality of your recordings and the end result after mixing and mastering.

Since you’ve read this far, I want to give you a gift - a free cheat sheet guide that condenses everything we talked about here into an easy to follow guide that you can print off or reference on your phone, tablet, or computer.  I go into specifics with regards to input level, distance from the mic, etc. so you don’t have to flip back to this article to check something!

Scroll to the top of the article and tell us where to send it!

Gabriel Hawkins