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Not getting press? Shocker – maybe it’s because your band’s last album sounds like absolute ass. Sorry to be so blunt, but just because you CAN record on your laptop doesn’t mean you’re qualified to do so.
After listening to literally thousands of first-time LPs and EPs from various bands throughout the years, I want to share with you six time-tested reasons why your album sounds like shit. These rookie mistakes will make you an instant bush-leaguer in any recording engineer’s eyes, and will virtually stamp the phrase “amateur hour” onto any promo copy you send out to radio and press.
And let’s not even discuss those 900+ copies of your CD still gathering dust in Disc Makers boxes in your basement. They’re not selling for a reason, and if you suspect one of those reasons is that they sound as though they were recorded underwater by lobotomized monkeys, then you should keep reading.
You know those classic crunch tones and amazing distortion sounds you’ve been listening to for years? You know, the perfect rock and roll guitar sound from your heroes? Well, it wasn’t recorded with a $39 distortion pedal. If you want real, honest-to-goodness natural overdrive, there’s only one way to capture it on tape that won’t sound like complete dog shit. Plug in a tube amp. Plug your guitar into it. Turn that beast up and wail. That’s it – a simple recipe for an amazing guitar tone. One ear-piercing reason your record might sound terrible is that your guitar player is insistent on using a God-awful distortion pedal on EVERY FUCKING TRACK, and it’s an instant distraction in the mix. The other problem, and this is the main one, is that whether using a pedal or overdriven tube amp, your axe-slinger’s gain is WAY TOO FUCKING HIGH!
Trust me, the amount of dirt you actually want vs. the amount of dirt you’re dialing in are wildly different. Less is more, and the more you dial down the gain (while still maintaining a decent volume to get a tube-saturated sound), the more appealing the guitar will sound on record. Now of course, if you’re going for a death-metal “hammer of doom” type of sound, by all means layer that shit on thick. But for most applications, cut the gain by half and listen to the new mix. You’ll be surprised at how much more articulate the guitar parts are (provided you can play them well and weren’t covering up sloppiness with distortion), and how much more dynamic they’ll seem even with less gain.
I’m just gonna come out and say it: play to a click track, drummers. You are human, so playing a flawlessly in-time track from start to finish is nearly impossible, even for the world’s greatest skin pounders. If you’re a mere mortal who needs some sort of context for your playing, that’s OK. Drop the ego, strap on some cans, and let the engineer dial in a click track at the song’s correct BMP. If your drum track is all over the place, your recording is doomed from the start. It’s like trying to build a house without a solid foundation; anything you try to put on top of it will come crumbling down. So, instead of pounding your chest and asserting your machismo, lose the attitude and actually listen to what your producer is suggesting. He or she is sitting in that chair because they likely know what they’re talking about.
Trying to fix mistakes, especially quantizing rhythm parts during your mix, is going to slow things down and lead to incredibly sub-par recordings that no one will want to listen to. I’ve heard otherwise great songs ruined by a drummer’s ego and inability to perform in time, leading to bandmates who can only do their best to salvage an already-doomed recording. Don’t be another “never was” because your group’s Ringo is being a doofus.
We get it; you’re an undiscovered musical genius brimming with ideas. Awesome! I mean this with all honestly – I wish there were more of you out there. But just because you CAN layer track upon track of instrumentation doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Shit, even Brian Wilson called it a day at certain points during Pet Sounds, and you should, too. Sometimes simpler is better, especially if the song is suffering because there’s simply too much going on in the mix and your melody has become a jumbled mess of flugelhorns and timpani.
Let the song speak for itself, unless the arrangement truly calls for the instrumentation you’re forcing upon it. Really, no one will think less of your talents as a songwriter or musician if your work features the standard indie rock set-up of two guitars, bass, drums and keyboard.
Hell, some of the most inspired records of all-time are the most sparse: Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon are brilliant in their simplicity. Listen to them on repeat to hear the nuances, the dynamics and the passion that a simple voice and guitar or voice and piano are capable of.
Look, we’ve all been there. The mic is live, the engineer has hit “record” and you’re on the spot. We all clam up now and again and need an extra take to work the nerves out of our system. No worries there. But unnecessary takes waste time and money, and if your band is waiting around for you to nail a part that’s just never gonna happen, it’s time to give up the ghost.
It’s OK to play parts that are at your skill level. Really, it is. Trying to be something you’re not is useless. Practice until you get there, and THEN hit the studio. But in the meantime, stop worrying about recording a Steve Vai inspired guitar solo if you simply don’t have the chops to pull it off. A lot of times (notice a pattern here?) simpler is better. Playing a perfect melodic line is often more important to the song than some weedly-weedly Floyd Rose-infused acrobatic journey around the fretboard. Never lose sight of the fact that the song is the most important thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this day and age tracks can be recorded piecemeal in various studios, bedrooms and basements. But they shouldn’t sound like it! Get your album or EP properly mastered. It’s the best investment you can make at the end of your project – the equalization, compression, leveling and post-production fx that your mastering engineer will employ can be the difference between a great sounding recording and an unintended lo-fi affair. Now, if lo-fi’s your thing, that’s totally cool. We still recommend getting your LP mastered with that aesthetic in mind, as a good mastering engineer will add a consistency to the tracks without sacrificing your sonic goals.
Sorry, can’t help you on that one.