While it can highly tempting to jump right into recording, great recordings (just like great paintings, photos, books, businesses, speeches, etc.) come from taking time to plan ahead. The term “fix it in the mix” is the dangerous and should be banished from your vocabulary. Something that’s been fixed in the mix will never sound as if you got it right in the first place, and usually it takes way longer than if you fixed it up front. Here are ten steps to getting your recording right from the very beginning.
1. Determine Your Destination
Many songwriters approach recording like playing with building blocks: they start off with a foundation (a song that works well for their instrument and voice), then they add more blocks (other instruments) on top until it feels right. This sometimes works, but it can be hit and miss and can waste a lot of time adding instruments that will not be used in the end result. Decide what you want the end result to be before you do anything else. Knowing your destination will affect every other decision you make during the recording.
2. Review Dynamic Changes
Take a moment to look at the song objectively. How does it change over time. Listen for changes in volume, tone, intensity, instrumentation, rhythm, and key. A song needs some of these dynamics to be interesting. If the song sounds and feels the same the whole way through, it gets boring very quickly.
3. Follow The Interest
Listen to the song the whole way through and ask yourself where your attention lies during each part of the song. When the lead instrument (often the vocals) stops, what takes over to draw your attention through the song?
4. Bring In Fresh Ears
Bring in someone who hasn't heard the song before and have them provide constructive criticism. If the arrangement is poor, or the song is too long, it's better find out before recording.
5. Ask "What Is This Instrument Doing?"
Determine each instrument's role in this particular arrangement. What does it have to offer to the mix? This will help you choose the instruments to use when recording, the mics you want to use, and the placement of those mics. If the acoustic guitar is only there to add sparkly high end, then you don't need a full sounding guitar, or a mic with lots of low-end.
6. Look For Competing Instruments
Are those two guitars serving the same purpose? Are the guitar and keyboard playing the same riff? If so, there's potential for them to get in each other's way and conflict with each other. Solutions can include changing the arrangement (a different octave or rhythm for one of the instruments), choice of instruments (make one guitar part a Stratocaster, the other a Les Paul), or equalization (one deep and full, the other bright and present).
Remove any instruments that aren't adding to the mix. Also, remove an instrument if the conflicts from the previous step can't be resolved. Once you've done that, remove any frequencies that aren't necessary (if can't hear the low end on that guitar in a big mix, cut the low end out. It'll just add muddiness).
8. Find The Best Instrument For The Job
The key here is for the job. A concert grand piano may sound excellent, but it will likely seem out of place in a bluegrass tune. Similarly, you'll rarely see a jazz drummer with a 28" kick drum. Pick the instrument that works best for the destination you determined in Step 1.
9. Find The Best Room For The Job
Sounds an awful lot like Step 8, but the room you record in can make a huge difference to your recording. Even if you record in a home studio, there are plenty of environments available to you: living room, bathroom, stairwell, garage. Try different rooms and use the one that's best for that instrument and how it fits into that song.
10. Experiment With Different Mics And Placement
I can't emphasize this enough: take the time upfront to find the perfect mic and placement. If you take the time to get this right, mixing will be done as simple as pushing up the faders. I know this is repeating myself, but ban the phrase "fix it in the mix" from your studio.