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The One True (Terrible) Secret To Making Great Recordings

by Zach Varnell
music & audio

how to make better music recordings

You might not know this yet, but it turns out that there is actually only one secret to making really great sounding recordings, and it works for any genre and applies to any DAW. You won’t find this secret on message boards and you can’t buy it or download a cracked version of this secret anywhere.

The problem is, you don’t want to hear it.
The secret to making great recordings is to pour a ton of time and energy into recording and do it over and over again until your good.

There, now you have the secret. Go make great recordings. No seriously, you should stop reading this right now and just go record something. I’m going to warn you though, that unless you have been doing this a while, it’s probably not going to be great. I mean don’t get me wrong, it might be good, but chances are you won’t be entirely happy with it. But don’t get discouraged! Because step two is remarkably similar to step one: Do it again, and this time try something else.

You may want to read online about what you could have done better, or even visit a message board or two to get ideas. That’s all great, but just make sure you actually try it again. It will probably be a little bit better. Keep going. Keep following this same path, likely for several years, and before you know it, you’ll be really good at make great sounding recordings.

The reason no one wants to hear this secret is that it’s not a quick fix, nor is it an easy solution. It takes a lot of hard work and requires a lot of time and patience. The truth is, success at any creative pursuit, whether it’s recording music or writing a book or taking a good photograph only ever comes from a million tiny improvements stacked up over time.

My wife wants to be an author. She has never written a book in her life, so this fall she decided to set her alarm for 6:30 every morning and write 1400 words before the kids usually wake up. Every day, for the next 3 months. By her birthday, she will have written a book. It might not win a Pulitzer, but when she’s done, she’s going to start over and write another book. I’m completely convinced that my wife will become a great writer simply because this is the only way that anyone has ever become great at anything.

One of my favorite interviews was with Michael Brauer in Tape-Op, where he told a story about his first job to mix a recording. He was told by other engineers at the studio that compressors were really important to making a great record, so he used compressors on everything. The client came back unhappy that all the dynamics were gone from the song, and demanded a remix. From that point on, he said that he refused to use a compressor again until he knew exactly how to use them. He spent years listening to each compressor in the studio, over and over again, until he finally felt like he really heard what each one sounded like.

Presets and Patches

Let me first say that I am not the kind of engineer that thinks presets are somehow wrong, are cheating, or even that they don’t serve any purpose. Presets are great to start with. You can learn a tremendous amount, for example, just by pulling up a preset on a McDSP MC4000 multi-band compressor for an LA-2A and looking at the compression settings on each band. You learn kind of what an LA-2A is supposedly doing to the dynamics of each range of frequencies. It’s a clue into what to listen for, or where to start from. Presets are a great starting point as long as you use them as such. The problem begins when you start with the assumption that pulling up the preset for an 1176 called “Start Me Up” is going to magically give you the snare sound exactly as Chris Kimsey intended on the Rolling Stones’ classic. The truth is, so much more went into that snare sound than the settings on the compressor; the fact that the snare mic was piped back into the room with a PA to give it more ambience, for example. Guitar tones are the newest stock setting, with patches and IRs of cabs available all over the internet. Again, nothing wrong with using them as a starting point, but don’t assume that simply purchasing one of these will give you the exact tone that you want. A lot more goes into tone than the settings on an amplifier.

The Improvement Curve

My guitar teacher told me in high school that improvement at any skill over time follows the shape of a logarithmic function. Without getting too geeky with the math, what he is basically saying is that at first minimal work leads to big improvements. Over time, however, much more work is required for seemingly small improvements. As you get better, the work gets harder and the achievement gets murkier.

recording better music

The 80/20 Rule
Especially with mixing, I’ve noticed that 80% of the mix comes in the first 20% of the time I invest. After about 30 or 45 minutes (after setting up the session), I roughly know where I am going to take a mix sonically, and I’m on the path to get there. This is where the real work begins. The next 20% seems minimal in sonic impact, but takes 80% of my time to get there.

The problem with perfection
My dad was a surgeon for 20 years and I was surprised when he told me a golden rule of surgery: “perfect is the enemy of good.” This is definitely not what you want to hear from your doctor who you are entrusting with your life, but when he explained why it made a lot of sense. The goal of any medical intervention with the body is to do as little as possible while still making the change that the body needs. If you spent hours trying to restitch a wound over and over again until it was perfect, the healing time in recovery would grow exponentially. While a song is certainly not a human body, I believe the same approach applies. Do the best you can with a track but don’t spend more time on it than you need to. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do. If you can’t hear the difference between a hard knee and a soft knee on a compressor, you’re probably not going to learn that in the next 30 minutes, it will likely be closer to several months of practice. And that’s okay. Do the best you can and move on.

Real-time Bounce
Pro Tools recently introduced “offline bounce” to it’s 11 upgrade, and it definitely saves a lot of time. However, I remember watching a producer I worked for finish a mix, turn down the studio monitors, and go by himself into an iso booth to listen to the final mix being bounced in real time on headphones. He would come running out of the booth at least 12 or 13 times and cancel the bounce to make a slight adjustment before settling on the final mix. This is all part of that final 20%. This point may seem contradictory to the last one, but there is one key difference: he knew what he was listening for. He wasn’t practicing, he was executing. It’s important to be honest with yourself about when you’re just grasping at straws and twisting knobs and when you’re meticulously executing a plan.

You don’t know what you don’t know

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Zach Varnell

Zach began recording in his parents basement in Denver with a two track reel-to-reel and a mixer from radioshack. In the summer of 2014, Zach went back to education, working with CreativeLive as a content producer for the audio channel.