If you have any experience with recording music you know just how much can go wrong. The list is long, to be sure, but there are a handful of common issues that come up for most engineers. We’ll take a look at five of the most common causes of bad recordings.
1. Bad equipment, bad recordings
This is a fairly common issue and the most obvious cause of bad recordings. Bad equipment doesn’t just refer to cheap gear, but also gear that’s not properly suited for the type of recording being done, or gear that’s been worn down over time. As far as broken down gear goes, audio cables are the main culprit. Cables of all kinds get relentlessly coiled, uncoiled, tossed, bent, stepped on, and tugged. This is why taking care of your cables is key, and having back up cables is even better.
Of course, other gear can contribute to bad recordings, too. If a microphone is damaged in any way it can throw off the entire recording. If it’s physically damaged or its relative response frequency is out of whack the microphone’s polar patterns can be thrown off, among other things. Additionally, gear like amplifiers, cabinets, and instruments themselves should all be in great shape before going into recording. Even a small issue when recording can become a much larger issue during the mixing process.
2. Improper monitoring levels
Having good gear that works is only part of the battle, however. Setting the proper recording levels and monitoring levels matters greatly. Hearing previously recorded parts of the song while recording will affect the way the new part is recorded. This can be positive or negative, but it undoubtedly changes the dynamic compared to just recording in solo. In most cases, recording a new part with at least one more track playing is helpful. In addition to the click track, these other parts can help the performer stay on beat, accentuate certain parts, and really feel how the song is coming together. Some performers only want to hear the drums or bass in their monitor, others might want the whole song.
If the monitoring levels are too high, your ears sort of “zoom in” on the sound, causing you to possibly perform with more aggression and loudness. This can lead to a loudness war within the song. If levels get too high you reduce your options when mixing, and you also lose some of the “bigger picture” that can only be heard when levels are low enough. Additionally, the volume will affect which frequencies you hear (see the Fletcher Munson Effect). This can be a tricky balance to strike when recording. If levels are too low the performer might not be able to hear the click track or other instruments. But in general, the lower you can get your monitoring levels and still hear everything, the better. If something sounds great at low volume, it will sound great at higher volumes.
3. Relying too much on mixing
If you’re reading this you probably know how important mixing is to produce a great song. But mixing bad recordings is kind of like polishing machines that are somewhat broken. In other words, the foundation needs to be solid for mixing to really matter. In this case, the foundation is a good recording.
Sure, plenty can be done after the recording stage; song elements can be compressed, EQed, given effects, blended, etc. However, it’s more efficient to get the sound you want when recording. This way you have a great foundation and you’ll have an idea of what to do with the track when it’s time to mix. For instance, if you’re recording a guitar track but not getting the best frequency profile, try moving the microphone further from the amp, closer to it, or at a different angle or position. This way you can get much closer to the sound you want before you even mix. In short, you should use mixing to enhance the sound you already have, not fix what you’ve already broken.
4. Not capturing the mid-range
This point is directly related the previous one. The mid-range of the frequency spectrum is between 500 Hz and 2,000 Hz. Ignoring this range is where a lot of bad recordings begin. If we liken the frequency spectrum to human anatomy, the mid-range is kind of like the spine, connecting the lower elements to the higher ones. It might seem less important than the booming low end or shimmering highs, but it’s the frequency range that cuts through any speaker you’re listening to, whether cheap earbuds or high fidelity studio monitors.
As mentioned earlier, you can always EQ to enhance the mid-range while mixing, but by paying attention to the mid-range at the beginning of the recording process, you set yourself up for a much easier mixing process. This might mean moving mics around a bit, but it’s worth the effort.
5. Unpreparedness/poor performance
Like the first point, this one is pretty obvious, but it’s worth mentioning due to its prevalence. No amount of good gear, great mixing, mastering, or clever editing can truly salvage a bad performance. If you’re recording a live instrument with a human player, make sure they’re prepared to play the part well. It’s normal and fine to make mistakes while recording, which is why multiple takes are possible. But too many failed attempts can be a huge time sink and source of frustration. So if you’re going to record, make sure you or whoever is performing did their homework.
Sometimes the performer’s not at fault, though. They might be playing everything perfectly, but their instrument’s intonation is off. This circles back to point one regarding bad equipment, but this is more about making sure your good equipment is in peak condition. Just as your performance should be top notch, so should your instrument’s performance.
This list isn’t meant to intimidate or discourage you from getting in the producer’s chair. Instead, it’s a reminder that things can go wrong, but they’re all avoidable. If your recordings suffer, there’s a good chance it’s due to one of these issues. Keep them in mind moving forward. Happy recording!