Whether you record on your laptop, a dedicated handheld device, or your smartphone, fancy technology can only get you so far. Here we reveal 10 secreTs every would-be Rick Rubin, Phil Spector, and Sir George Martin needs to keep in mind to avoid glitchy, sterile-sounding tracks and capture pristine, amazing tones.
Digital recording has been a boon to music in innumerable and immeasurable ways. And the ubiquity of hi-tech devices in our daily lives today—as well as the incredible rate at which sophisticated features trickle down to the masses—has only compounded the effect. Today, it’s affordable and remarkably convenient for just about anyone to make high-quality recordings on the run, in home project studios, and at rehearsals and gigs.
But while the possibilities are nearly endless with this new technology, that doesn’t mean creating a great recording is simply a matter of having a kick-butt computer, smartphone, or dedicated recorder. Technology only gets you so far. Now, more than ever, you have to know what you’re doing to get great results—because it’s just as easy to make a bad digital recording as it is to make a bad analog recording.
To that end, we’ve compiled this list of 10 must-know tips for digital recordists to keep in mind no matter what platform or interface you’re using. Armed with this knowledge, your guitars, your platform of choice, and an impeccable set of ears, you’ll soon be cranking out digital recordings that are clean, clear, fat, full, and ready to capture the hearts and minds of listeners everywhere. Let’s dive in!
Turn it down. For the best fidelity when tracking, keep levels between −18 and −14 dB on the meters.
1. Turn it down!
In the analog tape days, the goal was generally to get the hottest signal down to tape as possible, just short of distortion. When presented with high levels, analog tape responds with soft compression and gentle saturation that sounds great, especially on drums and other percussive instruments. But digital doesn’t work that way. It’s not forgiving of peaks, and if you push it too hard you run the risk of digital distortion, which sounds awful. For this reason, and to allow plenty of headroom for later processing and mixing, it’s proven best to record signals to digital at levels in the −18 to −14 dB range on the meters. This allows plenty of headroom for peaks and for later work on the tracks. Some audio interfaces have built-in peak “over” protection, but do yourself (and your tracks) a favor: keep the signals in that −18 to −14 dB range, hard as it may be to resist the temptation to light up those meters! Your reward will be cleaner tracks, better dynamics, way reduced danger of digital distortion during recording, and easier mixdowns.
sample rates matter. or not. Unless you have a compelling reason to use a higher sample rate, 44.1 kHz is optimum for most productions.
2. Sample rates matter. 0r not.
The sample rate determines how many “snapshots” of your audio signal are taken in a second. Sample rate determines just one thing: the frequency response of the system—in other words, the highest frequency the system can record. Today’s digital gear is capable of working at 192 kHz sample rates (or even higher), which provide frequency response up to 96 kHz—nearly five times the highest frequency the human ear is generally credited with being able to perceive. There may be situations where those super-high frequencies are worth capturing. Some “golden-ear” listeners claim to hear a difference when those ultra-sonic frequencies are present, but this assumes the music is being delivered to the listener on a DVD or some other medium that supports sample rates over 44.1 kHz. Some recording engineers also feel that certain types of input filters and plug-ins work better at higher rates. But for most of us operating in lessthan- perfect bedroom and basement studios, there are few reasons to use high sample rates. A big drawback is that you have to get that high rate converted down to 44.1 kHz to deliver it on CD, which can potentially impact the audio quality. Another is that high sample rates dramatically increase the size and computer load for a project. If you have a full-on Pro Tools HD or HDX system, that’s no big deal. But if you’re running a native digital audio workstation (DAW), then that extra load can be a problem. Personally, I record at 44.1 kHz if the project will end up on CD or MP3. I rarely work at high sample rates.
(Top)Watch plug-in gain. Even if your mixer channel meters seem okay, it’s possible that you are overloading them from inside one of your plug-ins. (Bottom) Choose where the color comes from. Many plug-ins that model or emulate the sound of vintage hardware units—such as the Universal Audio Fairchild limiter plug-in shown here—can contribute nice colors to your mixes.
3. Bits matter.
The number of bits in a digital signal affects its resolution and dynamic range. Each additional bit doubles the resolution of the signal. The difference is dramatic. A 4-bit signal has 16 steps of resolution to “measure” and represent the signal—sort of like using a tape measure only marked in one-foot increments to measure something. Moving to eight bits gets us 256 steps. Sixteen bits get us 65,536 steps. And 24 bits jumps us to a whopping 16,777,216 steps! That’s like using a ruler marked off in 100,000ths of an inch—we’re talking super-fine measurements.
For this reason, it’s best to track at 24 bit, then convert to 16-bit for CD or to MP3 as the last step in the process. Having all that resolution also allows us to record at conservative levels (see number 1, above) while still having plenty of resolution and dynamic range to make a great recording. If you have a 24-bit system and you record at −18 dB, you’re still getting 21 bits worth of dynamic range (each bit adds 6 dB of dynamic range) and 2,097,152 steps of resolution. That’s plenty for excellent quality.
4. Watch plug-in
It’s so easy to drop plug-ins onto a track to EQ, compress, or otherwise process a signal. But be careful—many of those addictive little software processors can change the gain or level of the signal, which often leads to clipping (distortion) that’s easy to miss in the heat of mixdown. Be sure to double-check the meters and clip indicators inside each plug-in to ensure that no overloads are slipping past you. Boosting the gain in the plug-ins too much can also force you to have to pull down the channel and master faders later, which isn’t good gain staging and can impair the audio quality.
5. Choose where the color comes from.
Analog tape and processors color your recording signal in a slightly different way—that’s part of their beauty. Today, we can emulate a lot of those colors with modeling software that recreates the sound of the original gear, including the coloration it provides. By selectively choosing the modeled processing you use, you can carefully add analog-style coloration exactly where you want it and where it can be most useful. Drums, for example, often benefit from analog-tape-style or analog-compressor-style coloration. Delicate acoustic guitar, on the other hand, may not fare so well if you hit it with a highly colored processor.
6. Get it right at the source.
Just because we can do so many things with digital audio, doesn’t mean we should—it doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to capture great sounds at the source. Life is so much easier, projects come together so much faster, the process is far less painful, and the final product is so much better when the original tracks are in tune, are tonally solid, are recorded well, and aren’t plagued by background noise. “Fix it in the mix” is just as much of a negative with digital as it was with analog.
7. Upgrade the right stuff.
I’ve been covering this in recent installments of my Guitar Tracks column here in Premier Guitar, but it bears mention in this space, as well. Upgrading or improving certain things in your signal path will make more difference than others. For example, I’m a firm believer in having the best monitors you can afford. You hear everything through those speakers or headphones, so you have to be able to trust them. I’m also a firm believer in capturing with the best quality possible at the source. This means great mics and preamps. And a few key pieces of processing gear, such as a nice analog compressor, can go a long way toward making the later digital representation of many of your signals that much better.
Samson MediaOne 3a pair $99 street
M-Audio AV 40 pair $149 street
Alesis M1 Active MKII pair $239 street
$500 to $1,000
Tannoy Reveal 601a pair $499 street
Focal CMS40 pair $790 street
Dynaudio BM 5A MKII $998 street
JBL LSR4328P $1,559 street
Neumann KH 120 $1,499 street
Sonodyne SM 200Ak $1,590 street
Shure SM57 dynamic $99 street
Audio-Technica AT 2035 large-diaphragm condenser $149 street
Rode NT1-A large-diaphragm condenser $229 street
$250 to $500
Sennheiser MK 4 large-diaphragm condenser $299 street
Blue Microphones Baby Bottle large-diaphragm condenser $399 street
Shure KSM32 large-diaphragm condenser $499 street
Mojave Audio MA-201fet large-diaphragm condenser $695 street
AKG C 414 XLII large-diaphragm condenser $999 street
Neumann TLM 103 large-diaphragm condenser $1,099 street
Behringer autocom pro-XL
mdX1600 $109 street
alesis 3632 $149 street
dbx 266xs $149 street
$299 to $500
art pro-VLa ii $299 street
dbx 160a $429 street
drawmer mXpro-30 $497 street
Chameleon Labs 7720 $535 street
aphex model 240 $699 street
tL audio 5021 $999 street
Art Tube MP Studio V3 $69 Street
PreSonus TubePro $129 Street
Studio Projects VTB1 $149 Street
$150 to $500
dbx 286s $199 Street
ART Voice Channel $399 Street
Focusrite ISA One $499 Street
Grace Design m101 $565 Street
Chameleon Labs 7602 MKII $719 Street
JoeMeek twinQ $949 Street
the room still matters. The iconic drum track from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” has been sampled innumerable times over the years, and a huge part of its classic vibe is due to where it was recorded. In this scene from the 2009 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page stands in the foyer of Headley Grange, the East Hampshire, England, home where Zep recorded tracks for four of their most famous albums. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
8. The room
This is a corollary to item 7: One of the best investments you can make in your digital tracks is to acoustically treat your recording and control room. You’d be surprised how much the sound of the room affects what you do, and digital captures all that roominess with perfect clarity … so make sure the space you are working in is doing the job.
9. Hygiene is key.
In the analog days, you had to demagnetize tape heads, clean the tape path, wind the tape for proper storage, and perform other routine maintenance tasks at the beginning and end of every session. The same is true with digital—the tasks are just different. Lots of takes and edits can result in a ton of files scattered around your computer and slowing down your system. Unused mixer channels and plugins can end up hiding in the system, weighing down the project, and eating up CPU and memory resources. Lots of small apps running in the background on your computer will also sap it of precious processing resources. Keep it clean and organized, and your system will always perform its best.
But basic maintenance extends beyond this to installing current versions of software, having plenty of space available on your recording drive, installing plenty of RAM in your computer, and otherwise optimizing your system for maximum performance. However, don’t do those things the night before a critical session— give yourself plenty of time to learn and test new versions of software or plug-ins before you put them to work for real.
digital data is fragile. Saving multiple versions of a project under new names provides some protection against corrupted fi les—and it’s a great organizational tool—but for real protection, you must back up your work regularly.
10. Digital data
The virtual ones and zeros that make up digital data are not robust. One small mishap and your hardwon tracks can vanish. For this reason, it’s imperative that you save and back up your data constantly. By habit, I hit the save command in my DAW every time I make a change. And when I’ve made a significant number of changes, or I’ve gotten to the point where it would be extremely painful to have to recreate my work, I save a new copy under a different name. (Project 1, Project 1a, Project 1b, Project 1c, and so on.) This way, if a project file gets corrupted, I can always step back to the last version and work forward again without losing everything.
Likewise, at the end of every work session, I back up the project to a separate hard drive. That way, if the hard drive in the computer goes down, I’ve still got my work on a second drive and can quickly recover and begin working again.
It’s all about the outcome.
Digital has been a true godsend for musicians who want to capture and distribute pro-quality recordings without waiting for some major label to finance the dream. It’s made super-powerful recording tools available to pretty much anyone. But it’s about more than just the tools. Keep these 10 simple tips in mind during all your future recording adventures, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much the quality of your digital projects improves as a result of such straight-ahead measures. More than that, you’ll find they make studio life easier and less stressful— which can only portend good things for your creativity and performance quality. Good habits are good habits, whether you’re working with analog or digital, and in the studio, good habits lead to great recordings!