Sometimes when you're recording an artist or a band, it's easy to fall into relaxed habits and forget how important it is to give each track its own unique flavor and excitement. It could be that you've stopped pushing yourself, or it could just be that the artist has written an album of really repetitive songs. Either way, here are 15 tips for adding some excitement and diversity to otherwise tired recordings. Photo: York Tillyer.
1. Experiment with unmatched reverbs
Don't try to match your reverbs so that all the instruments in the mix sound like they've been recorded in the same room. Play with using different, and even contradicting, reverbs on different instruments.
2. Experiment with melodic contrasts
Slap some subtle auto-tune on the backing vocals. This creates a nice contrast when you're recording a fairly plain singer, or perhaps a hard rock album, and the vocals get repetitive and need some melodic polish. Don't tell the band, most of them will have your head for this!
Or, on an overly melodic track, have the backing vocalists in the room minimize the number of notes they sing to give the lead melodies more of a solid foundation.
3. Dirty up your polished vocals
When you start layering up vocals and harmonies, the lead vocal can start to sound overly polished. In pop, this might be desirable, but sometimes it means you lose the grittier side of the human voice. Try sending some to a distortion plug-in and lower the send volume so it's just loud enough to give the main some grit and raw energy, but not quite detectable to the average listener with untrained ears.
4. Start somewhere crazy
Change the order that you usually follow when mixing instruments. It’s wise advice to begin with the bass and drums so as to give yourself some headroom, but once in a while tell the rules where to go and try using something crazy as your mix foundation.
It’s always possible that it won’t turn out sounding good anyway, but it’ll make you think about the elements of the song and new ways to showcase them in the process.
5. Don’t be constrained by genre-based techniques
Use recording and mixing techniques from a totally unrelated genre on an instrument and see if it fits. Differentiate from your direct competitors--other artists in the same genre as you.
It doesn’t even have to be a recording technique. Try musical techniques from other genres. On a heavy song, throw an acoustic guitar rhythm track in and mix it behind the distorted guitars.
6. Manage drum recordings differently in different tracks
Have you ever noticed that on some albums, the sound of the drums never changes? There are engineers who grid-align and sound-replace every single drum track on every single album they record.
Don't process drums the same way on every track. Instead, line them up to the grid on one song to get the sound of pure precision, replace your sounds with samples on another to get pure clarity, and on yet another one, just use them as they were recorded.
This all depends, of course, on how well the drummer played and how well you captured the sound. A well-played take doesn't always need to be lined up to the millisecond. Play with different ways of drum editing so you don’t get a mechanical sounding album, just don’t let the sound suffer by neglecting to edit when it’s really required.
7. Resist the urge to find the perfect middle ground
There’s too much “perfect middle ground” music out there. If the track sounds sparse, don't add more instrumentation--try and work with the space. If it sounds full and crammed, try cutting frequencies instead of cutting entire tracks completely out of the mix.
As always, don't let experimentation get in the way of a good mix--delete excess tracks if you need to.
8. Mic up more than you’ll need
Remember that the song may only seem to call for a few mics on the drum kit, but it's much easier to set up extras and take them out of the mix later than to re-record the drums with more microphones. That extra room or hallway mic could help you vary the dynamics and depth of the song later.
9. Roll your own
Using synthesized drums? Try rolling your own instead of using your favorite patches. Need a saw for your industrial track? Fiddle with the knobs and get your own sound going.
Everyone else is using the popular patches of the day, so this is an easy way to differentiate your sound and you might find that your synth serves the song in a way no preset could.
10. Use new dogs for old tricks
Got an old method for creating a certain sound or effect? Toss your method out and find another way to go about it. Instead of automatically reaching for reverb to make vocals sound more natural and spacious, try a short and slappy delay.
11. Forget fanaticism regarding the “One True Guitar Recording Technique” for a day
I’ve seen fistfights over which method is best for recording guitars, I kid you not. I bet many of you reading this have seen similar things. Put aside your zeal and fanaticism for just one song and give the “other” method a shot.
If you usually mic up an amp for your electric guitars, try plugging straight into a preamp and using a good distortion plug-in. If you usually plug straight in, run the guitar through an amp instead. Same goes with acoustic guitars--if it has the capability, try plugging it in instead of setting up microphones.
You could also try plugging in and using microphones.
12. It’s okay to clip once in a while
I don’t advocate being careless with your mix and letting things clip, but once in a while it’s alright to let something be if it doesn’t sound bad, or even sounds better, when the lights go red.
This doesn’t apply to your master fader, though, and it shouldn’t be a common occurrence in your session, but being relaxed about your mix to a certain extent can imbue a more relaxed, natural vibe on the recording, too.
13. Reverse the frequency cuts
If you cut two tracks in different frequency ranges in order to let both of them pop out more in particular ranges, try reversing the cuts. You can always put the frequencies back to the more standard settings if it doesn’t work, but sometimes the “standard” settings and rules sound worse.
14. Make irreversible changes
Okay, so you should only go near this one if you’re really getting stumped on how to differentiate your mix. Use AudioSuite or something similar to make permanent changes to your audio files instead of using effects as inserts.
You’ll spend more time focusing on getting the sound right and listening for the nuances in the recording when you know you can’t reverse the change.
15. Zoom in and cut it up
Believe it or not, there’s plenty of music where it’s not expected that the engineer will do heavy snipping, cutting and re-arranging of the instrumentation. If it’s not commonly done in your genre, give it a shot--give the song a whole new arrangement, and snap those notes to a grid while you’re at it.