Ten Recording Tips For DIY Bands

Pre-production, pre-production, pre-production.It’s become fashionable to track a lot of different instruments and takes, then cut them all together afterward to form the completed song. This is especially tempting if you have a home studio and aren’t on the clock, but even so, pre-production is extremely important to the end result. If you’re a band, or even just flying solo, it’s often preferable to commit to the arrangement before you ever press “record,” and rehearse the song until you know it cold (better yet, play it live for an audience to gauge their reaction). This gives the musicians a chance to build tension and dynamics as the song progresses, which is more exciting for both musicians and listeners.

Don’t spend time perfecting a mix or editing while you’re recording.
One corollary to the above is when you’re tracking, you’re tracking. Spending time mixing, or doing anything other than the most basic edits, will likely make any live vibe disappear from the tracking process.

Make technology serve you — not the reverse.
Use tools like Beat Detective to create a tempo map from a human drummer, rather than line up the drummer to the grid. Use pitch correction to revive a funky old instrument with bad intonation, rather than make every note of a vocal track perfect. And if you do use pitch correction, don’t use it in “automatic” mode — tune the offending notes manually, and if there are too many of those, try another take. Use technology to capitalize on your strengths, rather than cover your weaknesses.

Retire your patch bay.
Patching and re-patching is a pain, so get an interface (or mixer) with enough inputs that you can leave everything patched in and ready to go. Just remember to mute any inputs that aren’t in use.

Use effects and samples “in addition to,” not “instead of.”
Because you have virtually unlimited tracks in a DAW, you can use effects and samples on a copy of the original track, and then blend it with the original, rather than replace the original track altogether. If you have an anemic snare drum, rather than replace it with a sample, replace a copy of it with a sample and blend that with the original. If you want a heavily compressed vocal, compress a copy of the vocal track and blend in the original track to retain some dynamics.

Object-oriented editing: the scalpel, not the machete.
Along the same lines as the above tip, it’s so easy to process a track with an effect — maybe too easy, because sometimes you really just need to process a small part, but you leave the effect on because it’s too much hassle to automate it in and out (if indeed it can be automated). With object-oriented editing, as found on Samplitude, Sonar, and some other programs, you can isolate just the section that needs to be edited and apply the effect. This saves on CPU, too, as the effect uses CPU only when needed.

Make eye contact.
Bands thrive on interaction; try not to record in an environment where you’re isolated from each other. Put amps in amp booths if necessary, stand in the same room with the drummer, and make sure you can all see each other while tracking. It’ll save a lot of frustration and/or editing time later.

Let it bleed.
I’ve mentioned this before, but a little bleed can be a good thing. If you don’t believe me, then why do some drum software instruments include “bleed” controls when they could just as easily have no bleed at all? Having the whole room sound in at least a few tracks tends to “glue” the whole mix together better. And if you’re a solo musician, consider putting a mic in the room when the monitor speakers are cranked up, and recording a little bit of that on its own track. Sometimes it’s the “secret ingredient” to making a song sound more real.

Nail your sounds the day before.
If you’re both recording and performing, there can be a tendency to tinker with the technical details so much that the performance itself suffers. Experiment with different drums, amps, mics, and so on before you start the “official” sessions, so that you have some idea in advance how things will sound — that way you won’t kill the performing vibe by spending too much time messing with getting the sounds right. When you do your setup, get your sounds, and have everything ready to go the day before a session, then when everybody comes back the next day, they can just warm up and be ready to focus on the music.

Don’t make too many rules.
Note that all of the above suggestions are tips, not “rules” to be applied to every situation. Very rarely does any recording technique apply to every recording, room, band, or song. In fact, these very tips are simply attempts to counterbalance today’s prevailing attitudes with some alternative ways of thinking, which I hope will spur even further imaginings and experimentation. You’re DIY, you can do whatever you want and whatever sounds good to you . . . and that’s a liberating thing!