Top Five Mistakes Made While Self Producing Your Own Music
Ok, you have formed a band, practiced countless hours, and started playing live around town. The Coronavirus sets in and gigs are hard to find. Now your plan is 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 it by avoiding the pitfalls that crushed many musicians over the years.
First realize that this is a business. The only way to be financially successful in this business is to sell music. I am not talking about selling out your art, what I am talking about is selling you as a brand. I believe that you must be loyal to your craft, but you need to realize that this is a business and it is the dollar that rules and gets the attention. I have been in this business for about three decades and my goal is to help the talented artist who wants to succeed, to flourish in this industry we call music.
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 a much better result. 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. But the amount needed should be reduced as much as possible and preferably not at all.
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 five 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 those effects will become even more present in the mix, trust me on this, I see it all the time.
4. TRACKING THE SONG WITHOUT THE BASICS: Vocalists should never touch the microphone (more on this coming) 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 singers needs.
Sylvia Massy a prominent Mix Engineer and Producer once told a funny story when she was tracking the Tool record "Undertow" in LA. Maynard's voice wasn't all there the first day, she tried several microphones and the vibe just wasn't there. The next day Maynard came into the studio holding a AKG C1000 microphone, she asked him why, he said he has tried it and sounded good with it. Sylvia thought okay he is bringing a microphone that costs under a couple of hundred dollars, not confident she tried it, and it worked great! Next Maynard said he would like to hold the microphone like he does when he performs live. Any tracking engineer would be terrified of this because of the hand bumping noise on the mic. Sylvia had a plan, the plan was to cover the mic with as much studio foam as possible and hope for the best. BOOM it worked and "Undertow" was recorded! The lesson here is to try things, perhaps break a rule or two, but know the rules first!
B. Phase Issues: So your singer is feeling a bit Janis. If possible, do not let your singer move his or hers head back and forth (while getting into the moment) as you are recording the vocals, 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. 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. Also when running twelve live microphones versus four, the phasing issues as well as noise issues can be greatly reduced. However, if the 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 rhythm section like 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 tracks. Mix engineers need to process both of those very differently. For tracking purposes closed back headphones are preferred over open back headphones to prevent the bleed from headphone to live mic. For mixing purposes, from my experience the open back ones work best, they seem more accurate.
One of my favorite mixing headphones is the Sennheiser HD 600, I love them, they sound fantastic and are very comfortable to wear.
D. Noises: Check the room that you are recording in, it may present some noises such as fluorescent lighting causing a buzzing noise. Also listen for air conditioners, 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, then record.
E. Gain staging: I will assume that you are recording on a DAW like Pro Tools, Logic, 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. Unless you are driving a compressor hard or an analog mix console as an effect. The artist Prince used to do this all the time, so there are arguments to be made about overdriving preamps and sound boards for effect. However, digital clipping is not your friend, so keep your levels on the lower side in general. I usually keep it about 4 db. below clipping on the mixing boards main channel.
F. Lackluster instrument tones: Use a DI Box for your guitar, and bass along side your microphone and cabinet setup. Real simple to do and this gives the mix engineer the option of using a better sounding amp, cabinet and microphone if needed later in the mixing stage. As an example, the guitar amp being recorded was a 22-watt Peavey, but the band wants it to sound like a Mesa Boogie triple rectifier amp. It is possible with a DI box and the right software emulation plugins to do this. Another huge advantage (especially on acoustic guitars) is the ground buzz being eliminated, on a quality DI box you can get a cleaner signal. But, putting a microphone or two with the DI on the acoustic guitar does give you more options and highly recommended.
G. Organization: Separate your solo tracks from the mix. If the guitarist in the band has a guitar solo in the song, put the solo on a separate track from the rhythm guitar tracks, and label EVERYTHING.
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 and unfortunately there is only so much and engineer can do.
2. HAVING A FRIEND OR BAND MEMBER MIX YOUR SONGS: 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 during the recording session, no bueno unless he is also an accomplished guitarist! What you will need is someone who specializes in mixing and or mastering doing your songs. Mixing really is as much of a craft as learning an instrument.
B. 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 down (not loud enough) but the guitars are blazingly loud in the venue. 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 experienced 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 more of a focus point, but vocals should 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.
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 can be fine for you and your band members. In the music business you need standout, but also be playable to the markets that you're 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 kick drum it wouldn’t work well at all. This is not about selling out; I am talking about getting paid to have your music played on media sources like Apple Music, Spotify and numerous others with much more demand.
D. Communication: Everyone needs to be on the same page, making sure everyone is in agreement is easier said than done. The entire band and management has to be 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 rarely listen from the first song to the end of the album in order. 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, You really don’t need more thought than that.
1. NO CLEAR MARKETING PLAN: No marketing plan is number one, 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 assuming that the CD is ready to be released.
You need to also get your music on radio and streaming services. If you release a few singles prior to the CD release you could be gaining exposure, and exposure is good. Releasing singles is one of the most obvious and overlooked marketing steps. Also think about it, if you submit the CD to Spotify, Apple Music and a few others and wait, you are wasting valuable time. Why not consider submitting to internet, FM, and college radio stations as well, a lot of bands never try these markets. Submit your songs in songwriting contests, even look into getting a song into a movie. Gigs are tough right now with the Pandemic but it doesn't mean wait until it is over.
For any of this to work your music has to be professionally performed, recorded, mixed and mastered. How can you tell if your music in market ready? Put your songs on a playlist with other commercially mixed bands in your music genre. Listen carefully, does your song fit in seamlessly? The performance, the tracking and the mixing all have to be evaluated to see If so you're on the right path. If the performance and tracking is good but the mix and mastering isn't, then hire out those positions of needs. Big labels know this, and they find great mix engineers to give them the best possible sounding songs.
The most problematic part is often in the mixing of the music. Ever wonder why some music is not selling? Good demos generally don’t sell. No offense but it is a very difficult task to do everything great yourself. Putting yourself in a labels perspective for a moment. If you have to choose between two bands and you like them both equally, but one band needs to be re-recorded and the other doesn't, who would you choose? Play to your strengths and hire for your weaknesses, it really is that important!
CONCLUSION: 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 five mistakes that I see, it really is timeless because I have been seeing them now for decades.
SoundBurst Studios is an online mixing and mastering studio, founded by Drew Puzia, a certified audio mix engineer from the Berklee College of Music. Drew has over 25 years of experience in professional music mixing, and provides affordable mixing and mastering services to musicians everywhere.