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What makes a great recording?

Published 7/19/2017

By: Rob Cleaveland


Everyone who has ever heard a song could offer an answer to that question. My objective with this article is to shed some light on the factors that have the greatest impact on a recording and how these factors relate to each other in terms of value for the Artist.



50% Great Music/Performance : This is so important. A good song and a passionate and proficient performance are critical to an excellent recording. No amount of editing, mixing,  layering or other production tricks will achieve as viscerally pleasing results as an inspired performance. For this reason, I recommend a song is played 100 times before it is recorded. If after 100 playthroughs you are sick of it, then it wasn't a good song. If on the other hand you still like it, that is a good sign of its integrity, and by now you have likely tweaked the arrangement and developed a deep familiarity with all of the nuances of the performance. At this point performing it feels like second nature, this gives you the creative freedom to focus on passion and style. This also means you're ready to play it live and you will be able to record live in the studio. Though it seems like a lot, it will save you so much time, money and frustration in the long run.


Let’s check out the math: Say you have a 4-minute song and each time you run it you discuss for 3 minutes on average for a total of 7 mins per run. This is 700 minutes. Divide that by 60 mins in an hour and your get 11.6 Hrs. This is two 6 hr days with a few breaks. Dare I compare it to a “day job.”


But, you might ask, where does this get you? When you play it live for an audience the first time, you will nail it. The bass player won’t be nervously watching the drummer the whole song for transitional cues. This confidence will boost the audience’s perception of you and their enjoyment of your music. In the studio, you will be able to set up and nail the basic tracks in the studio in a few takes. Compare this to running the song 30 times in the studio and over time diminishing everyone’s morale and a consequently their passion and performance. An even worse situation is having to overdub each instrument as you rework the parts. This can take hours, be very costly in studio time and increases the stress level of each performer when it’s their turn. When it comes to maximizing the investment in recording, preparation is everything.



15% Quality Room Sound: In many home/project studios the bulk of the construction costs are in soundproofing an existing room. Often very little consideration is given to the acoustics of the given space. Soundproofing is for your neighbors not for better sound. That said, every room has a range of resonant frequencies based on shape and dimensions. These resonances can build up in certain frequencies leading to the substantial coloration of sound recorded or monitored in that space. The easiest and most cost effective way to control these frequencies is to absorb them and remove them from the room. This is achieved by applying absorptive materials over flat surfaces. This does a great job of eliminating unwanted frequencies, however with that goes all of the resonance and thus the sonic depth of the environment. In a recording situation, this lack of resonance leads to flat and dry recordings. Sometimes this can be ideal, but not always, and definitely not for capturing multiple performers simultaneously.


So what do we do if we want to record live and have it sound great? This is where professionally designed studios come in handy. They are designed to control frequencies without deadening the rooms. This gives each room a unique and typically very pleasing sonic character. A good live room is critical for tracking a live rhythm section, and particularly drums. This approach imparts a natural characteristic to the recording that simply cannot be duplicated with effects. Often with vocals, the opposite approach is ideal. Lead vocals are commonly recorded in smaller rooms or “booths” that have a dead sonic character. This technique imparts isolation, clarity, and intimacy, gives greater control over the final vocal sound, as it is common to experiment and add effects to the vocals nondestructively in the mix phase. So if you want to create a great recording, it is worth budgeting for this. The cost of studio recording can be minimized by thorough preparation. (see the previous paragraph, can’t stress this enough)

10% Amazing Gear  Don't get me wrong I love sweet gear and great sound, however the correlation, though present, is weaker than many people understand it to be. Sometime around the mid 70’s, yes before most of us were born, recording engineers and equipment manufacturers figured out how to achieve really great sound. Since then the industry driver has been to take those capabilities and make them as inexpensive and efficient as possible. The results of this are that the tools we have now to capture and shape sound are orders of magnitude cheaper and in many cases afford greater control and flexibility throughout the recording process. Enough equipment to record a band once cost upwards of $500,000 but can now be achieved with just a few thousand dollars, and in many cases with as good or better results. So what has changed?

Since the tools of recording have become so ubiquitous and enumerable, much of the time users have only a surface level knowledge of their operation. I can remember spending hours trying to understand how a piece of gear with 2 knobs worked (LA-2A) and these days I may evaluate a plugin for all of 8 minutes before dismissing it as useless. What makes great gear sound great, is not so much the internal components or big thick knobs but much more it is a deep sense of operational understanding possessed by the operator and their ability to use it to maximum effect in an appropriate manner. Which brings us to the final piece of the pie, expertise.

25% Expertise: Anyone can buy a hammer, nails and a few pieces of wood and nail them together into some usable form. However, if your goal were to build a house, you would likely want to hire an architect and a contractor. The reasoning behind it: To get value out of the investment of building a house, professionals who have been building houses their entire career are employed to apply their expertise and make sure the house is structurally sound, built to code and aesthetically pleasing. When it comes to recording similar holds true. Anyone can buy a few mics and a recording interface, plug it into the computer and record something. This ability has become very empowering for many Artists. Home recording is a fantastic tool for composition, arranging, practicing, etc. When the demand for a professional record arises, it pays dividends to invest in a professional team to ensure that the end product is quality and commercially viable.

Whether a Sonic Sherpa or an Audio Architect, experience, can have a massive impact on the quality of the final product and the bottom line cost to get there. Do you know what the off axis coloration sounds like on that mic when you put it on a guitar cabinet? Are you familiar with the difference in sound between a metal snare and a wooden snare? Why would you use a 409 on a guitar cabinet and 4040 on saxophone? Do you hear that weird sound? What frequency is that? What does this knob do? You could spend years learning everything about recording and how to operate gear and approach the process. This is time spent not writing and perfecting great songs.  I encourage everyone to record. Record your demos, scratch tracks, new ideas, etc… When it comes time to get serious, and you're thinking about taking your project to a studio, it can pay dividends to have someone competent and experienced leading the process. Many studios have in house engineer’s or assistants. These engineers can be very knowledgeable about their room and equipment. However, in most cases, they do not have a vested interest in your project and may not even care for your music. Though most are professional and can still deliver a decent end product, there are no guarantees. For this reason, encourage artists to find their engineer or producer before the studio. Find someone who likes the music and gets along with everyone involved. This will help you avoid being charged for downtime. When you’ve found someone you like it may be a good idea to invite them to mix a live show or rehearsal and test how you work together. At this point, you can work with them to create a time line, realistic budget and find an optimal facility.


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