How do we make our recordings better? I have thought about this for over 50 years and in this episode, I have tried to distill what I learned into a dozen general rules.
The best way to make great recordings is to start with great performers. But even if you aren’t recording the best talent in the world, there are still ways to improve what you get.
I’m Doug Fearn and this is My Take on Music Recording
How do you make a recording better? I think most of us always try to do our best, and I suspect I am not alone in feeling whatever I record could have been better.
Here are some of my thoughts on this, based on over 50 years of recording.
Rule 1: Your recording will never be good with a lousy song.
Rule 2: Your recording will never be good with lousy players.
Rule 3: If you don’t understand the song, the composer, the players, you can’t do your best.
We can buy the best equipment, have a professionally-design room, and the best musicians, but that is not enough to create a great recording. The ultimate consumer of your work, the average listener out there, doesn’t care how much work you did to make the recording sound great -- if they don’t like the song.
We have to accept the fact that no matter what we do, even with extremely successful talent, if the song does not grab the listener’s attention right away, you have probably lost them. All the work you did to get that third chorus to have the impact you wanted may be wasted because the listener will never get that far into the song.
Rule 4: The majority of songs are of no interest to the majority of listeners. This has always been true, and it is even more so now, since any song is instantly competing with over 10,000 new songs posted every day. Most songs have limited appeal. It could be the listener does not like that genre. Or the instrument they first hear is annoying to them. Maybe the singer’s voice causes the listener to immediately hit the button for the next song. You can’t please everyone, ever. There’s no point in trying.
I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture. This has always been the reality in music, even far before recording existed.
It’s more difficult now since the majority of music consumption is via streaming. In the days of radio, you had little choice but to listen to the entire song. If you didn’t like it, maybe the next one will be better. Now, people can have zero tolerance for something they don’t like. They can move on to the next song, or explore a different playlist. You couldn’t do that with radio, and it often forced people to reconsider their initial opinion of a song, after they heard it a few times.
I do not mean to imply that that was a better world. It mostly wasn’t, mainly because a handful of record companies controlled everything you would ever hear on the radio.
The landscape has changed, allowing anyone to put out their music.
Rule 5: Every song is somebody’s favorite. Every song is somebody’s favorite. It may mystify you that a terrible song you recorded is perfect for one, or a few listeners. You can never tell what is going to appeal to them emotionally.
Regardless, none of this should keep us from doing the very best we can, every time. If nothing else, we will learn something new. If you don’t learn something new, you are not making progress at mastering your craft.
Rule 6: If you lack the passion to master the craft of recording, your results are likely to be mediocre.
Most of us start out recording without knowing what we are doing. You may be a musician who wants to preserve your artistic effort. Or you might be technically-inclined and are fascinated by the beautiful equipment and software.
The musician-recordist probably isn’t much interested in the technical side of recording. They just want to push a button and capture their music.
The technical recordist might have no interest in the music. They just want to make the equipment work.
I suggest that neither will create a good recording. They have to cross over to the other side and learn to deal with recording from that dual perspective.
The musician needs to master at least some of the technical intricacies, and the technician needs to have some understanding of music.
Do you need to be a musician to be a good recordist? Maybe not, but it certainly helps to have some background in music. I’ve known people who got into recording from the technical side, but they really were not interested in music in general. They did not last long and found other interests.
Some of the highly technical people I have known had minimal interest in music until they were confronted with it in the recording studio. They quickly learned as much about music as they could absorb.
The majority of people can develop expertise across both disciplines. Some do it naturally. They are curious people who want a better understanding of what they do. Others will have to put some effort into learning something that they may have no interest in.
Rule 7: Music is an emotional experience. Just like any creative endeavor, emotion drives the art. If you can’t connect with music emotionally, you will not understand it and you won’t be very good at recording it.
If you record a wide variety of music, say in a commercial recording studio, you will probably find that you emotionally connect with some music better than others. That’s human nature. But if you are entirely disconnected from the emotional aspect of the music, it’s difficult to record it well.
Sure, your recording might be technically very good, but I believe you need to do more than that to make an exceptional recording. Your emotional involvement with the music will inspire you to be more creative. You may never be aware of that happening, but it does make a difference.
A disinterested recordist does not provide support to the artist, and the quality of the musicians’ performance can suffer. Being involved is a big part of the job.
You owe it to the creator of that music. It is important to them, so it has to be important to you, too.
In my career, I often had to record music that didn’t appeal to me. Or record people who weren’t very good at what they did. My coping mechanism was to find something to like about the music. It might have been some interesting thing that a player did that appealed to me. Other times, I would try to understand the music and where it came from. Everything has its influences. Find them, if that is what it takes to keep you engaged. You may find that what you thought you didn’t like has more appeal than you originally thought.
You can never let your lack of enthusiasm show. You are often the only audience at the session, so you need to provide that positive feedback to the performers. To prevent this from being dishonest, find the things that appeal to you. It might be the people you are working with, even if the music isn’t good.
Rule 8: You must be able to shift your focus from the emotional to the technical aspect of the recording you are making. You have to listen with your head and your heart.
Those are two very different perspectives. Some people are really good at one but not the other.
I believe that making the shift is something you can learn to do.
Often, we get so tied up in the technical details of the recording process, or in the technical perfection of the performance, that we miss the big picture.
No listener is going to listen to the recording the way we do. Your average listener does not care. They rarely notice any of those technical details in the performance or the recording -- unless they are so blatantly obvious and become a distraction. But then, you don’t want your name associated with that, do you?
Rule 9: Always go with the take that feels best, not necessarily the one that is a perfect performance.
You listen to the playback while experiencing how that take makes you feel. It might have imperfections. Some may be important, others not. Some you can fix, some you can’t.
For example, if the tempo is wrong, or inconsistent, it’s not possible to fix that while maintaining the recording quality we strive for.
But if there is a wrong note, an out-of-time note, or an out-of-tune note, we have tools in the digital realm to fix that, probably. As you are recording, listen for any errors and make a decision whether they are fixable or not.
Maybe you can make a good composite performance by editing various takes together, or using alternate versions of an overdubbed track.
One potential problem if you are editing together various takes is whether the tempos match. These days, most people record to a click track, which makes this simple. But a lot of music breathes in tempo throughout the song. That’s a good thing in many music genres. It helps convey the emotion. I have never recorded with a click track, although I have tried a few times. It just doesn’t work for me and the music I record. I prefer to use a good drummer who will keep the tempo solid as much as possible. But even then, the players may feel a need to speed up or slow down during a certain part of the song. That’s good, but it may make difficult to assemble a composite take.
Often, maybe most of the time, every take is going to feel slightly different. When everyone playing is locked-into the right feel, the performance can be magical. Listen for that. It might be the best take you will get, even if it has other problems. Trying to assemble a perfect performance from takes with slightly different feel is going to sound awkward, even to the casual listener.
In the days of tape, it usually wasn’t practical to keep every take. Some takes were obviously not worth keeping, when someone made a major mistake and everyone stopped playing. We would rewind and go over that take with the next one. At most, we would typically save only three or four takes.
Why? Well, tape was expensive. But even with a big budget, the time it took to change reels, add the calibration tones, and check that reel for consistency with the previous one, could take 20 minutes. That’s plenty enough time to ruin the mood in the studio.
Today, we no longer have that limitation. We can keep every take, every partial take, and every take with mistakes. But the best part of that is that we can keep recording.
Rule 10: If everyone is at their peak, keep going. Don’t stop to listen. Often you should not even stop to discuss it. What I do is tell the performers something like, “That was great. Let’s do another one right now.”
I might even simplify that to “One more,” to keep the flow going. With people you have a rapport with, everyone may say the same thing at the end of good, but not great take. Keep it moving so you preserve that mood.
When you do have a take everyone thinks is worth considering, have them come into the control room to listen. There may be several takes in a row that deserve a listen.
With everyone in the control room and ready to listen, start the playback. It might be the most recent take, or one from earlier. In any event, you have a roomful of people who, ideally, are concentrating on listening. Some may listen only to their own performance. Others may only listen to the overall feel. It’s good to have both perspectives going on. You need to be sensitive to the emotions in the room.
Often, a player will point out something they didn’t like in their performance. You have to know if that is fixable or not. You did hear that, didn’t you? It’s your job, after all. But sometimes something that doesn’t break into your consciousness will be a glaring problem for someone else. You have to put yourself in their shoes and hear it the way they do.
A lot depends on the experience level and talent of the people you are recording. A lack of experience, or insecurity can result in a defensive response from a player. This can be poison in any session.
Rule 11: If everyone is not properly placated, you are unlikely to get any more useable performances that day.
A big part of your job is making sure those awkward moments do not occur, or, if they do, smoothing them over for the sake of the project. You have to be the calm guiding hand to prevent an incident from boiling over.
Actually, I have no recent experience with this problem. Everyone I work with is a professional and such an incident will never occur. But early in my career, this was often a problem I had to solve.
That doesn’t mean everyone will agree all the time. But when working with musicians who are experienced in recording, they will accept the decision and move on. You have to have their trust to make this work, of course.
If you are in charge of the project, acting as the producer, or de facto producer, you and the artist may want to agree that you are there to please yourselves. Unless you are doing a “work for hire” production, like music for video or a commercial, I presume you are trying to convey the artistic intent of the creator of the music.
Have a discussion with the artist ahead of time to make sure you both understand and share the goals. You cannot make a hit record. Well, maybe a follow-on to a hit by that artist has a good shot. But for most situations, you are creating an artistic work that will be sent adrift among a sea of other songs, good and bad, and everything in between. No one knows what will appeal to the fickle listening public. It’s largely a game of chance. You and the artist need to accept that.
And lots of music is never going to have universal appeal, just because of its genre, or its quirky nature. That’s often my favorite music. But even if it’s not your favorite, you still do your best to help the artist achieve their goals, which leads to the final rule.
Rule 12: Make the recording to please yourself. And please the artist, too. I believe that is the only way to put out an honest recording. And people respond to that genuine emotion. They may like the song even if it is not destined for greatness. The listeners will appreciate the honesty and dedication to the art, even if they have no idea why.
Often, I send a finished song to a colleague or two. These are successful people who I think will appreciate the subtleties of something I did, or captured well. Usually they respond with a positive comment on those things. They hear them. They know what went into achieving that, and they appreciate the effort. Sometimes we do things that will only please ourselves and maybe some of our peers. Even the artist and the musicians on the session may not hear it, or understand it.
The listener is unlikely to hear the subtleties of what we have done to please ourselves. It is lost on them. They are not interested. And because of their listening situation, they couldn’t hear some of these things anyway. We do it to please ourselves.
And to please the people we are working with. Some may not hear the subtleties, but they still respond to it on a subconscious level. Your extra effort may inspire extra effort on the part of the players and singers. Something that sounds exceptionally good elevates the mood in the studio.
I am convinced that subtleties in our work do have an impact on the listener, even if they could never hear those things, or articulate what made them enjoy the song just a little bit more than they would have otherwise. Your dedication to the music and the art of recording comes through regardless.
And that makes your recording better.
Thanks for listening, subscribing, and commenting. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is My Take on Music Recording. I’m Doug Fearn. See you next time.