Everyone’s favorite whipping boy, bad gear is often the first place many of us look to and point the finger at when something about our recordings doesn’t knock us out. And let’s face it: First-class gear sounds great, and that can’t help but make things sound better — but only if you know what you’re doing with it. I’ve been amazed by the quality of some recordings I’ve heard that were done on primitive or inexpensive gear, however, that says more about the engineer than the gear. Still, it’s important to scrutinize your system from time to time and probe for weak links. Did you upgrade your mixer, but not your monitor speakers? Nothing works in isolation, so consider where the best improvements can be made to enhance your system’s sound quality as a whole, and don’t obsess on any single area (like having the best mic cabinet in the world if you don’t have preamps that are equal to the task).
THE CURSE OF THE ADAPTIVE EAR
Even in a well-designed control room with great monitors, our ears adapt to EQ changes very quickly — that’s how you can enjoy hearing your favorite song on a cheap TV speaker or a high quality system. Our ears perceive the extremes of the audible frequency spectrum differently at different playback levels, with the flattest response being at about 85dB SPL. Our ears also tire after long hours, especially at unsafe monitoring levels. That EQ tweak that sounded great last night after 10 hours of playback at 105dB might not sound so hot the next morning. Having high-quality reference material that you can A/B with your mix can help you get back to reality when EQ changes start to throw off your perspective over time, and so can watching your levels and knowing when to quit when your ears have had enough for the day.
NASTY CONTROL ROOM ACOUSTICS
Thankfully, more people are starting to understand the importance of room acoustics (both for mixing and tracking), so we won’t belabor the point. But some people just throw up their hands and say, “My room was never designed to do acoustics, so it’s hopeless.” No it isn’t! Just a few strategically-placed bass traps or diffusors can make a huge difference, as can monitoring at lower levels if you use near-field monitors; that way, room acoustics become less of a factor.
LACK OF TECHNIQUE
There’s a certain charm in just randomly placing mics and turning knobs until you find something that pleases you, and you may be lucky and come up with a masterpiece that way. However, your odds of success are better if you have a basic understanding of how your gear was designed and how it works. But note that it’s equally important to know your gear so well you can make it do things it wasn’t originally designed to do; some of the classic sounds of all time came from people who knew how to mis-apply their gear as well as apply it — and created their own musical voice in the process.
Arrogance isn’t the answer, and self-examination of your weaknesses is a good thing now and then . . . but a little confidence is also crucial. Second-guessing everything you do and doubting your own hard-earned experience and skills can kill you, so “trust your feelings, Luke!” If something sounds great to you, and it makes everyone else in the room nod, sing along, play air guitar, or all of the above, you might be on to something.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PERFORMANCES
The best edit is a performance that doesn’t need one. If you have to edit, it’s a lot easier to do if you have tracks with generally solid performances, few errors, and great feel. Piecing something together from sub-standard performances is inherently doomed; if things are not quite “there” with the artists with whom you work, take some time to do pre-production rehearsals before you get into the studio so that you can help get things as tight as possible before you start waxing tracks. More rehearsal = less editing.
AND NUMBER ONE, WITH A BULLET!
Two words: the material. A so-so recording of a great song still leaves you with a great song. Of course, we’re not in the business of making so-so recordings, and everything matters, so take a moment to evaluate the weaker areas of your whole rig — including your personal skills and musicianship — and plan out a strategy for improving each of them. This might mean books on music theory, spending time going to songwriting panels, more collaborations, or even returning to school for a few classes . . . your recordings and productions will only get better as a result.