Top Five Mistakes Made While Self Producing Your Music
Ok, you have formed a band, practiced countless hours, and started playing live around town. This is great, but now you want to record some music and use it to get more exposure, perhaps even start a career in the music business. This is the next logical step and my goal is to help you achieve that.
First realize that this is a business. The only way to be successful in this business is to sell music or sellout your live shows. I am not talking about selling out your art, what I am talking about is selling your bands brand. I believe that you must be loyal to your craft, but you need to realize that this is a business and the dollar rules. I have been in this business for over three decades and my goal is to help the talented artist who wants to succeed to flourish in the music industry. Here are my top five mistakes that I see artists making while self producing their own music.
5. HAVING TO FIX IT IN THE MIX
Yes it is possible to fix things in the mix, timing issues, pitch issues, and arrangement conflicts are all fixable to a certain degree. However the least amount of fixes needed always presents much better results. Fixing it in the mix can result in audible artifacts. It is argued that almost eighty percent of all music that is made today uses some form of Autotune on the vocals, that is true I get it. But the amount needed should be reduced as much as possible. It is best to have the song tight and know what you can and can’t do before ever hitting the record button. Leave the ego behind, and perhaps realize that it is possible your singer really doesn’t have a six octave vocal range. Also VERY IMPORTANT, unless there is a MUST HAVE effect on a track leave all the effects off, and then add them as needed in the mixing stage, you really can’t go back on this. In fact during the final mastering stage it will become even more present in the mix.
4. TRACKING THE SONG WITHOUT THE BASICS: Vocalists should never touch the microphone while recording. A great microphone can’t do it all. Try out different microphones on your singer, every voice is different and not always your best microphone proves to be the best microphone for that particular singer.
B. Phase Issues: So your singer is feeling a bit Janis. Do not let your singer move his or hers head back and forth (while getting into the moment) as you are recording, make sure that the singer stays focused on the proper distance to the microphone as well as the angle. Typically I like to place the microphone so the singer is singing upwards to it just a little over down to it. This opens up the vocal chords and does make a noticeable difference.
I get some interesting and often out of phase drum kits too. One of my favorites techniques is using the famous Glyn Johns technique, It really simplifies things and reduces phase issues. However, if your drum sound is solid do what is working for you.
C. Bleed: Isolate everything. To truly get professional results try recording every instrument separately starting with the drums. Have a rough draft recorded and have the drummer lay the tracks first, then the bass all while using a headphone mix. The goal as an example is to not have a guitar or snare drum bleeding through a vocal track. We as mix engineers need to process both of those very differently. For tracking purposes closed headphones are preferred over open headphones to prevent bleed.
D. Noises: Check the room that you are recording in, it may present some noises such as fluorescent lighting causing a buzzing sound. Also listen for air conditioners and refrigerators and ceiling fans. They may need to be turned off while recording some of the tracks. If you have noise coming from outside such as street sounds or airplanes wait till the sound passes by and possibly place the microphone as close to the source as possible, then record.
E. Gain staging: I will assume that you are recording on a DAW like Pro Tools, Logic, PreSonus Studio One Etc. Your volume level does not need to be as hot (loud) as possible. That was used during the analog tape days to help reduce the noises of tape hiss. With today’s digital gear make sure you are not clipping at most points in the source chain. There are arguments to be made about overdriving preamps and compressors for effect. Digital clipping is not your friend, so keep your levels on the lower side, I usually keep it about 5 db. below clipping on the mixing boards channel.
F. Lackluster instrument tones: Use a DI Box for your guitar, bass and keyboards. Real simple, this gives the engineer the option of using a better sounding amp if needed later in the mixing stage. As an example, the guitar amp being recorded was a 22-watt Peavey, but you want to sound like a wall of Messa Boogie triple rectifiers amps. It is possible with a DI box and the right software emulation plugins to do so. Another huge advantage (especially on acoustic guitars) is the ground buzz being eliminated, on a quality DI box you will get a cleaner and quieter signal.
G. Organization: Separate your solo tracks from the mix. It shouldn’t need to be said but as an example if you are the only guitarist in the band and in the song there is a guitar solo, put the solo on a separate track from the rhythm track. I have received mixes with over twenty layers of the same rhythm guitar part, more is not always bigger. Sometimes it can cause phasing issues as well. I get great results with just two or three doubled guitar lines.
Follow these steps and you are well underway to getting a professionally tracked song.
3. THE INTERFERENCE OF ALCOHOL AND DRUGS
May sound simple but if you want to be taken seriously you have to perform your best. I understand that having a drink can relax a person and can lead to a better performance. If that is the case a drink is fine, but getting hammered will NEVER get you a better track. Plain and simple, it is a huge problem in the music business. I have received tracks that the singer is literally slurring through it.
2. HAVING A FRIEND OR BAND MEMBER MIX YOUR SONGS
A. Mixed by a non professional: Have someone who has experience, the proper mixing gear and listening room is very important. You don’t want a buddy or band member saying, “hey I have been doing this for years, I have some really cool gear and I know what I am doing” this usually doesn’t work. It is like asking your bass player to do lead guitar lines when they only do it during the recording sessions, no bueno! What you need is someone who specializes in mixing doing your mix.
B. Wrong point of view: Keep in mind, when your band performs live, everyone in the band hears their own instrument or voice louder in their own monitor mix. It is the Front of House Engineer’s job to balance this for the audience to hear. You don’t want the audience to hear for example vocals up (loud) over the guitars down lower in the mix. The point is that the same goes into you studio mix. So this is the time to leave the ego at the door and listen for a nice balanced mix, and get an outside ear involved.
C. EGO: Look at this as a business; you must play to your strengths. Example, if you have a monster guitar player, the guitars should be a focus point, but vocals will always rule. But what if your keyboards are not adding much to the song? Perhaps it is better to reduce the role of the keyboards either by reducing amount of parts in the arrangement or lowering the volume and or the placement of the keyboards in the mix. This really is all about the overall song. Communication is paramount here. There are many ways to mix a song, but keep this in mind your goal is to sell music. So the idea of I want to sound like nothing out there is fine for you and your band members. In the music business you need to be playable to the markets that your in. Writing the songs is much different then mixing the song. Example, I hear a lot of sub low frequency (808 kick) in hip/hop music. If I were to apply that much low frequency to a metal band’s bass guitar it wouldn’t work well at all. This is not about selling out; I am talking about getting paid to have your music on media sources like iTunes, Spotify plus numerous others.
D. Communication: Everyone needs to be on the same page, making sure everyone is in agreement is easier said than done. What recordings do you admire and want to sound somewhat like, is the entire band in agreement? I have experienced bands not doing this leading to fights and even breakups, that is not good to anyone.
E. To much thought on the song order: Song order is not as important as it once was. In today’s market and listening lifestyle people just rarely listen from first song one to the end of the album. It is sad but true, it is a singles market today and it has been that way for the last fifteen years. Generally put what you think is your best song first, and your slowest tempo song last. You really don’t need more thought than that.
1. NO CLEAR MARKETING PLAN
No marketing plan: Yes that is number one! We didn’t come this far to just say hey “establish a clear marketing plan” now see you later. The old line, “if you build it they will come” doesn’t work here and hope is not a strategy. So you must establish a clear marketing plan. My purpose with this article is to help the artist get their music to market. Plain and simple, that is the goal. So here are a few ideas now that the CD is ready to be released on how to get your music to market.
Take a song that is not on the album you are producing, and give that song to your fans for FREE. You need to get your music on as many playlists as possible as well on radio and streaming services. This is one of the most obvious and overlooked marketing steps. Think about it, perhaps use your Facebook page to download it is free and everyone loves free. Now down the line hopefully it will be put in their playlists. The important aspect here is they will look and buy more songs through iTunes and other media sources from your band after getting familiar with your music.
For any of this to work your music has to be professionally performed, recorded, mixed and mastered. If you were to put your song on a playlist with other bands in your music genre that were commercially mixed and mastered, does your song fit in seamlessly? If so you are on the right track. However, I am hearing a lot of bands self producing their music and they simply just don’t cut it. The most problematic part is often in the mixing of the music. Ever wonder why it is not selling, well good demos generally don’t sell. No offense but it is a very difficult task to do everything great yourself. Play to your strengths and hire for your weaknesses. Have a clear marketing plan.
Do not just be a dreamer, that is safe but it is the ones with the plan who succeed. If you want it you have to work for it. I have engineered countless recordings and these are the most common mistakes that I see.
Drew Puzia is a multi-award winning Mix Engineer at SoundBurst Studios in Las Vegas. Drew is certified in Audio Engineering from the world renowned Berklee College of Music. His experience spans over three decades in the music industry and he has recorded and mixed countless musicians in many genres of music. Drew is the founder of SoundBurst Studios online mixing and mastering services.