4 Easy Tips For Getting Better Results From Your Home Recordings

4 tricks and techniques used by top producers that you can easily adopt yourself to improve the quality of your home recordings and mixes.

Ultimate Guitar

In my last two articles, I have discussed ways to reduce your stress when recording guitar, and ways to save money when recording an album. Taking a look through the comments sections on those articles, it struck me that one of the major barriers to people making effective home recordings is that they are not confident in their ability to get pro-quality results at home. So for this article, I'm going to share four techniques and ideas that most, if not all, top producers and mix engineers use when recording and mixing that you can use at home at no or minimal cost, to help you get a better sound.

1 Turn the volume down

If you go into any expensive recording or mixing studio, you'll see a pair of enormous studio monitors, probably bolted to the walls, ready to inflict an ear-smashing wall of audio doom on everyone within commuting distance of the studio. Here's a production secret for you: those things are just for show. They're there for when a client comes in and wants to hear his music at ear-splitting volume and serve no other purpose. I've heard that some studio owners actually charge the cost of those speakers to the marketing budget! You'd be amazed at the small, crappy speakers that the engineer will actually use while working, and the low volume levels he'll use.

Why? Well, as any guitarist knows, the louder something is, the better it sounds. That's great for listening for pleasure, but when you're trying to judge the quality of a recording, excessive volume can mask problems that would be much easier to find and fix at lower volumes. This is because your ears start to filter out frequencies and distort the audio at high volume levels in order to protect themselves from damage. So turn your monitors down (your neighbours will thank you for it as well). If you can hear everything clearly at low volume, you know you have a good mix.

2 Use the wrong speakers

Yes, you read that right. I mentioned above that pro engineers very often mix using crappy speakers, and it's for similar reasons to before mixing on expensive, high-fidelity speakers is like riding a bike with stabiliser wheels: it's easy, but in the real world you'll fall flat on your face.

There's a small, ugly brown speaker called an Auratone 5C that's long gone out of production. It's a nasty, tinny mono thing with the frequency response of a dead slug. Yet most of the big albums of the 1970s and 1980s were mixed in a large part on Auratones, and vintage Auratones fetch huge prices when they come up for sale. It's so sought-after precisely because it's so terrible. If your mix sounds good on an Auratone, it sounds amazing on anything else!

A lot of aspiring producers make the mistake of hooking their computer or mixing desk up to a pair of expensive, fancy hi-fi speakers. The problem is that hi-fi speakers are specially engineered to make everything sound great, including bad mixes. That's why they cost a lot of money and weigh so much. But how many of your listeners are actually going to be listening to your song on an expensive hi-fi system in ideal listening conditions? Probably not many. Most will be listening to it on iPods, in their cars, on their radios and on their computers, all of which feature inferior speakers, so you will need something to simulate that listening experience. Get a pair of proper studio monitors with a flat frequency response (the Mackie MR5 is a good buy), but also get something cheap and rubbish to get an honest idea of what most of your listeners will hear. If it sounds good on a cheap piece of crap, you've done a good job.

3 Plan ahead

I must admit that I'm bad at this, but I always end up regretting not doing it. We are all human beings, and we all have a limited supply of mental energy, patience and concentration. To get the best from a mix, those limited resources should be concentrated on getting the mix right, not working out where everything is and which of your 50 mix tracks is the one that you need to work on.

Almost all DAWs let you colour-code the tracks and clips, and all of them let you rename tracks. Some, such as Reaper, even let you add a little symbol of a guitar or whatever to a track so you can see at a glance what it is. Do all these things, you won't regret it. I now always colour my drums red, my guitars yellow, vocals blue etc, using the same colour coding in every mix I do. That way, when I load up a project I don't have to think about it. I only have so much brain to go around, and brain used remembering where everything is is brain that could be used to do something actually useful.

Even if you think you've got a handle of what's going on in your mix right now, you might have to come back to it months later, or hand it over to someone else to do a remix, and if you have to spend the first 20 minutes of a mixing session working out what everything is you'll be bored, stressed and bad-tempered before you even start, and that's the wrong headspace to be in when approaching a mix. Do your groundwork at the beginning and you'll save yourself five or six times as much time and frustration later on.

4 Rest your ears

Every producer, no matter how experienced, will reach the point at which they throw their hands up into the air and yell Aargh, it all sounds the f*****g same! Experience and discipline will increase the amount of mixing or recording time between these incidents, but they happen to everyone eventually. This is when it's time to take a break.

A lot of people feel guilty about taking a break as it seems contrary to a professional work ethic. I can assure you, however, that all the top recording, mixing and mastering engineers take breaks when their ears or brains get tired. They've learned that anything you do past that point is wasted. Once your ears get tired, any changes you make will make things sound worse, not better. This goes for recording as well. Once you get tired and frustrated, you're less and less likely to get good takes. Take a break it will actually save time and you'll be able to do something else useful in the meantime. Do your laundry, get some exercise, make some phone calls, but clear your head of music and sound. I take breaks of at least 30 minutes, but I've heard that some mastering engineers never take a break of less than 3 hours before getting back behind the desk. It's not just about recovering your ears and being able to hear more objectively, it's about lowering your stress levels and your temperament when working, which will make you happier and more productive.

Even if you can't feel your ears getting tired, they might be anyway, especially after a long recording or mixing session. That's why I NEVER send the first mix of a project to a client, no matter how great I think it sounds. I always listen to it again the next day, because I know that I'll hear some boneheaded mistake that I missed the night before. With mastering, I repeat this process every day until I decide not to make any changes two days in a row. Then I know I'm happy with it and that the client will be too.


About the author: James Scott is a London music producer, writer and audio engineer. He works with up and coming artists to help them get noticed in the industry. Subscribe to his free newsletter and get an exclusive FREE guide, "Getting the best results from midi drums", as well as discounts, news, tips and more that he does not share anywhere else. Already subscribed? James will be sending a link to the guide with the next edition of his newsletter so nobody misses out.

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    cheaper speakers will not always yield best results, flat response speakers will
    James Scott
    Thank you for your comments everybody. To clarify one point that I evidently didn't make clear, I wouldn't recommend doing much actual mixing on cheap speakers for the reasons pointed out. I know that some pro engineers will do this, but that's because they have enough experience to know how that sound will translate to other speakers almost instinctively - I've not been doing this long enough to be that confident. Most mixing should be done on specialist flat-response studio monitors, but having some cheap speakers to check your work, especially if you can arrange to quickly switch between them and your monitors, can be very educational about the quality of your mix in stress conditions. The main point is to stay away from hi-fi speakers, which will hide weaknesses that will become painfully apparent elsewhere.
    good article. When my band records (we do all of our own at home), we generally listen to a piece on at least 8 different speakers. Usually we all listen to the tune on our iPods, so 4 different headphones. Then we all listen to it at home on our computers (4 different speakers) and finally, we give it the ol "car radio test". If it sounds good in the car, then it usually sounds good all over.
    That advice about using bad monitors is misguided. You should get a great mix on great speakers, then test the mix on other speakers that aren't as good. Mixing on bad speakers to start with will leave you with a bad mix that gets worse with better speakers. Good mix = translates well to most situations Bad mix = bad on everything
    Aldo Chircop
    Some no-nonsense advice and to the point You mentioning the idea of having some generic, cheap and cheerful speakers to check a mix on, along with studio monitors, made me realize I should be doing more of that. I do listen to mixes on different systems afterwards, but having the possibility to do that also *while* mixing would probably help!
    Draven Grey
    My bands have always "checked" our expensive studio mixes on our car stereos in the studio parking lot. It's definitely important to hear it on less than stellar speakers. One thing I'm surprised you didn't mention is using a reference mix. That way, no matter what speakers you're listening through, you can compare it to a mixed song that you're used to already.
    GS LEAD 5
    Great article, except the bit about using less than stellar speakers. Ive tried it before- what always happens is that I end up trying to compensate for the poor frequency response of the bad speaker and when used with a genuinely decent system there is always either too much treble or too much bass.Ive gotten the best results from using headphones. Its actually logical. Think about it. Say youre using monitors that have a massive mid spike and very poor treble and bass response. To make your mix sound balanced you end up boosting basa and treble. And when you try playing it on a system with good response, it sounds massively mid scooped. Thats exactly what happens to me.
    I really enjoy your articles and it helps me a lot. After school I'm studying to be an audio engineer myself. That low volume thing really works I was abit shocked about the crappy speakers but it makes sense also resting your ears is great advice too it really works. Keep up the good work man. I have an idea for your next article, I dono if its just me but I'd like to know more about where and how to connect which types of amps into an audio interface without busting your pc or even the audio interface. Thanks James ur awesome
    Great work again, James. Planning ahead is super important. I used to be completely lost and frustrated coming back to old sessions until I started planing things out and getting sessions organized.
    Dan Acheron
    Great article once again James! Really informative and I will keep the advice in mind when I start building my studio.
    Agree with all of the other posters. Some times it's easy to get caught up in all the technical details of things and forget about the simple things we can do. Good article!
    Good tip (although I guess somewhat obvious) on color coding your intrument tracks, naming them, etc. It especially helps when you shelve a song for a while and go back to it later. Instead of spending time trying to figure out where everything is and on which track, you can get started immediately.
    Leather Sleeves
    Nice, I`ve these things in passing but it`s good to see an article that deals with the various aspects of testing your mix. I think it`s important that you mentioned testing your sound on what most people will listen to it on and there`s a distinction between that and just using bad speakers.
    +1 on checking the mix on crappy speakers. My favorite technique is to burn a CD and listen to it while driving. If I can hear everything clearly despite the noise, then the mix is good.
    I could not agree more about not rushing to show your work. Many times I thought had a solid mix and shared it with some friends, saying "Dude, you gotta check this out! It's amazing!". Then the next day I realised how horrible it actually sounded and I felt like an ass. So always wait a day or two before letting anyone listen to your mix, lol
    #2: I'm rigging up a pair of salvaged speakers from a keyboard for exactly this reason. Great advice, thank you!