The Electronic Musician Guide to Doing Everything Better

Whether you’re in the studio or on the road, try these 30 easy tips
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Don’t let your cellphone ruin the take. It’s not enough to turn off your ringer—if possible, remove the battery so EMI caused by background updating doesn’t get picked up by high-gain circuits.

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Boost your lead guitar’s ego. Add a slight 900Hz–1.2kHz boost before distortion to articulate leads better; this also adds sustain by making notes in that range distort more readily.

Convert your open-back guitar amp to closed-back in five seconds. To record a closed-back amp sound with an open-back amp, lay the back of the amp on a rug, and point a mic down toward the speaker. (Be careful about ventilation!)

Manage “harmonies” onstage. Using one of those whiz-bang harmony synthesizers on your live vocals? Monitor the dry signal, because monitoring the harmonies is going to mess with your mind. And your pitch.

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Loosen the chokehold on master compression. For a lift in dynamics without the “sound” of compression, set low ratios (below 1.5:1) on two compressors, and run them in series.

Give amp sims some sugar. Add a steep, narrow notch post-sim; sweep slowly in the 5–10kHz range and notch out any “fizzy” frequencies. Then, precede with a de-esser to compress the highs before going in. If you still need more sweetness, cut a bit at 2kHz before going into the sim.

QC your CD. Listen to your reference CD all the way through in mono to make sure no strange phase things will come back to haunt you. Check the CD-Text entries for typos. Push Play, then push the Next Song button repeatedly to make sure there’s a track marker for each song.

Put a nervous singer at ease. If you’re doing loop recording, leave plenty of space before and after the punch points so the vocalist doesn’t feel pressured. Oh, and turn the lights down.

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Work your computer like Lisbeth Salander. Set up a dual monitor. Master keyboard shortcuts! When you have a lot of tracks in a project, use track icons—the mind parses images faster than text. The same is true for color; use a consistent color protocol for tracks.

Make over your computer USB for $25. If hard drive noise and other artifacts are invading your audio, install a USB port card (not a combo FireWire/USB card) and use that for your audio interface(s) instead of motherboard ports.

Take the “machine” out of drum machines. Create virtual room ambience by adding four delays in parallel as send effects, with prime-number delay times. (Try 11, 13, 19, 23ms.) Mix these in at low levels to support the drums. Overdub real cymbals instead of using the drum machine’s sampled ones. Final touch? Adding even 52% swing can liven up the sound.

Control your gear from afar. Buy a wireless QWERTY keyboard and use your program’s key commands for control—this is great for recording vocals from a vocal booth. For more range, add a USB extender cable to the wireless receiver that connects to your computer.

Save your BIOS butt. When you get a new PC, go into the BIOS during startup and write down all the parameter values. You’ll be glad you did if you ever need to reset, or the battery dies.

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Don’t blow a fuse on stage. And I mean actual fuses. Some gear has a fuse inside the case—carry a spare for those too, not just the gear with external fuse posts.

Tighten your mix with one tweak. Use a highpass/lowcut filter on all tracks to cut lows below an instrument’s range, to get rid of “flab.”

Remember the mono test. Start your mix with all instruments panned to center (mono). This will highlight tracks that “step on” each other, as well as phase issues. Get levels and EQ sorted out, then exercise the panpots.

Make one VSTplugins folder to rule them all. Create one VSTplugins folder, install all VSTs there, and set it as the sole VST search path for all programs that use VSTs. When you install a new VST plug-in, install it to that folder—don’t let installers scatter VSTs all over your root drive.

Be better about backup. Establish a regular backup schedule. I nag my Twitter followers the first week of the month. 

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Get an instant Sun Studio slapback. Set delay time to 150–160ms. Great balls of fire!

Try some E-Z multiband processing. Multiband compressors make great crossovers for multiband processing. Duplicate a track to create as many copied tracks as multiband compressor bands, set each band’s compressor for no compression (ratio 1:1), solo a different band for each track, then process each track/ band individually.

Kill computer noise with a faux vocal booth. Option 1: Grab a wireless mic like the Line 6 XD-V70, leave the noisy room, and close the door. Option 2: Bring an SD card-based field recorder (no moving parts!) with XLR ins and +48V phantom power, and a premix of the song on one track. Go someplace quiet, sing to another track, then transfer when done.

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Bump up the bass track. Compress it, big-time. Seriously. Granted, too much compression is worse than too little, but bass is different, because playback systems have such nasty bass response. The more even the notes on your bass, the better the odds they’ll make it through to the consumer’s ear—even through (gack!) cheap earbuds.

Extend an Li-Ion battery’s useful life. Storing rechargeable Li-Ion batteries either fully charged or discharged shortens battery life. A 40- 50% charge is good. And when you use gear with rechargeable batteries for the first time, charge them fully before using the gear.

Remove master bus effects when mixing for mastering. If material is going to be mastered, don’t put any effects on the master bus—no dynamics, EQ, imaging, nothing. That’s the mastering engineer’s job, who has better plugins and analog processors than you do anyway.

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Get better Windows 7 performance with your DAW. In Win7 (not XP), give priority to “Programs” instead of “Background Services.” Go to Start > Control Panel > System > Advanced System Settings > Advanced tab > Settings button > Advanced tab.

Practice safe copy protection. If you use System Restore (Windows) or Time Machine (Mac) to return to a point prior to where a copy-protected program was authorized, you may lose the authorization.

Nuke latency, seven ways. 1) Wear headphones to avoid the delay from speaker to ears. 2) Freeze instrument tracks for less CPU loading. 3) Do a full bypass on processors (e.g., disconnect from CPU) until mixdown. 4) Download the latest audio interface drivers. 5) On laptops, disable internal wireless functionality when doing audio. 6) Use zero-latency monitoring judiciously. 7) Upgrade your CPU.

Document your sessions—painlessly. 1) Dedicate an audio track to narrating all the details about the session. 2) Take pictures of settings of your outboard gear, string the pix together in iMovie or Windows Movie Maker (a free component of Windows Live Essentials), render the video, and store it in your DAW’s video track. 3) Save all your MIDI device data as Sys Ex within your project. 4) Some DAWs let you write really long track names—instant documentation! 5) Aim for having everything you need contained in one project; if there’s a notepad function, write the lyrics in there.

Improve MIDI guitar tracking. 1) Enable legato mode and mono mode on each synth channel. 2) Add a short attack time (10–20ms) to the amplitude envelope. 3) Mute strings slightly. 4) With magnetic pickups, make sure they’re not getting interference from transformers, fluorescent lights, or other “dirty” EMI generators.

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Help your ribbon mic live long and prosper. Although newer ribbon mics aren’t quite as picky as older models, it’s good practice to store them vertically so that the element is straight up and down.