Lee’s D.I.Y. Recording, Mixing & Mastering Tips

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I just released my new single “Don’t Belong” online and as a video and got a really nice email from a fellow recording engineer asking how I got my sounds to come out so well. This meant a lot to me because for the last decade I’ve been trying to reach a level that impressed my fellow audiophiles and I finally feel like I’m starting to. Since I spent some time and brain power replying to him, I wanted to share these thoughts with anyone else out there doing their own recordings on a budget(ish) because I know how a few helpful tips can save a lot of time when you’re stumped. So below is the song/video and then my response, explaining how I get my sound…  I hope it helps.

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Hi and thanks for the compliment. I have been trying to get to a level the impresses other producers for over a decade so your message made my day. I think what I have found is that you have to acquire a few key mics, pre-amps and plugins and then follow the less is more rule. And yes, I do all the recording, mixing and mastering myself. In just a regular, non-recording room. I don’t have any acoustic panels, sometimes i just sit in front of a curtain. I don’t really think it’s essential to be in a completely quiet room. So long as the room verb isn’t too crazy. I even leave the window open sometimes because it’s hot and I don’t mind that a bird sings in the background of some of my recordings. But I like the indie diy vibe, so that adds to it.
screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-3-59-10-pm(This was recording a different song but using my fav vocal mic, the one I used on “Don’t Belong” Golden Age Project R1 Mk3 Ribbon Mic)

So it starts at the source. The instruments that you’re recording. If you love a guitar tone, find out what guitar it is and buy it or a cheaper one that sounds as close as possible to it. Same with drums. Make your drummers play your favorite drums. Borrow or rent a good sounding kit. Then pay attention to the instruments on your fav recordings. Is the player playing hard or softly? Can you hear the techniques? Have your players play like that. On your favorite songs, there might be a lot of instruments played sparsely, or only 3 instruments played more constantly. Pay attention to what arrangements move you. Same with vocals. I used to try to sound overly smooth and now I think my old stuff sounds forced because i was trying to sound smooth. So I just relax and sing as close to how I speak as possible. That kind of attention to detail has made the most difference in the feel and emotion of my recordings. For example, I only ended up using 4 mics on this drum kit, 3 of which were more than a foot away to avoid the more modern close miking sound. I wanted the vintage, distant sound.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-4-05-02-pm(My amazing drummer/percussionist Angela “AC” Cutrone on her custom Vessel Kit. Mojave MA300 and AKG Perception 100 as overheads. The kick has an Shure SM58 and then the room mic is my Golden Age Project R1 Mk3 Ribbon Mic. I didn’t end up using the snare mic which was an AC’s Audix of some type).

Next… what mic suits the thing you’re recording? I always used to record everything with a condenser but I realized once my ears got better that everything was just too bright and taking the highs down in the eq just killed the air. So I tried dynamic studio mics and a cheapish ribbon mic (Golden Age Project R1 Mk3) and found that the ribbon is great on my vocal. It has less clarity but more character and body and sounds more like the recordings I like. For guitars it’s weird because I have $1200 condenser (Mojave M300) and a $100 condenser (Akg Perception 100) and I love the more expensive one for bg vocals and overheads and voice overs and recording hip hop vocals but for some reason I just like how my Taylor sounds through the cheaper mic. It’s that sort of paying attention to the feel and sound instead of what my mind wants to think (i.e. expensive equals better). And PLACEMENT! Record and take notes of each mic at various angles and distances and then LISTEN. Which angle and distance one FEELS the best to you? Notice I keep saying “feels” instead of “sounds” on here?  The feel is more important than the audio precision. Never forget that music is about emotion and only nerds like us care about the clarity or audio perfection. ****Update: since I posted this blog I bought a Peluso P-28 Pencil condenser for my guitar because it’s allegedly modeled after the vintage and super pricey Neumann KM56 which has been alleged as the mic on most of Nick Drake’s guitar (which is my fav tone ever).****

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Preamps… I don’t use the Focusrite Voicemaster anymore unless it’s for a second mic on a stereo guitar or drum room or something. My goto preamp is the D.W. Fearn VT-1. And i have that on all my vocals and guitars. There’s a bunch of tubes in that preamp so it warms up and opens up the sound a lot. It costs $2700 so it was definitely an investment but it added a subtle, more expensive sound to my tracks. I would say that it’s not key because the average listener doesn’t have the ear to notice the difference, but I believe now that it’s not about the ear. All of these improvements may not be noticeable to the average ear, but I firmly believe that they all add up to reach them on an emotional level. The hardware upgrades, the attention to tones and performance style etc. They all matter. Even if the average listener can’t tell why.

FYI I think the computer, Digital Audio Workstation (DAW aka audio software e.g. ProTools or Logic etc) and digital audio interface you use are pretty interchangeable so long as they are not super dated. I use the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 as my  interface to get all my analogue signals into the USB of my Macbook Pro which is running Logic Pro X. Obviously there are PCs and other interfaces and the super famous ProTools. I imagine they all work fine.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-3-43-20-pmFinally, the plugins. The way I produce, in the box, DIY, no studio, little money etc… I think you have to have some key plugins, especially on the master channel, that really do their job and then be minimal with the individual channels. Mastering was the bane of my existence. I could not get the volume and high end presence to match hit songs without making mine sound squashed and harsh. For 10 years I hated mastering. And this might sound like an ad but I swear IK Multimedia’s Lurssen Mastering Console Plugin changed the game for me. It’s one of those key plugins that without it, the other plugins, and guitar tones, and mics and preamps don’t get to shine. It just makes everything loud and clear and keeps those important dynamics.

I also add to the master channel (in this order) Waves Vintage Aural Exciter, Waves PuigChild 670 and Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher (which is crazy cheap at around $50 and frequently less on sale), all in very subtle enhancemnent amounts and all above/before the Lurssen plugin. I think each one of them is a great product and adds to the quality of the sound but the Lurssen is the only one that isn’t replaceable as far as I’m concerned. That’s where I get the massive volume.

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So that’s the key part of the software. This might be sacrilege but I think it’s mostly about how you master, how you add that volume and sparkle in the end can make or break or absolutely destroy a great mix. But of course the individual channels are important too. If you record the source well, you won’t have to do much at all on the individual channels. I just use the stock Channel EQ in logic X if it needs to cleaned up. I also pretty harshly cut the low end of all my channels. Where I cut depends on the instrument. Approximately: Kicks at 30hz, Bass at 40hz, Vocals at 50hz, Guitars and pianos at 60. So there’s no rumble at all. Also, a lot of sources have that mud in the 140-220 range that I dip 1-3ish db in many of my channels too. That allows for more volume and clarity in the end too. To really hear where the mud is, I like to listen to my mix on my little portable Bose speaker because it is so unforgiving in the muddy sections of the mix. It tells me exactly where the problem areas are. Listening on my expensive monitors is great when I need to hear everything clearly to see if there’s anything obvious but once that’s good, mixing on unforgiving bass enhanced consumer speakers make me confident that it will be good across the board.

Now in saying that about keeping the channels sparse, I must admit I have come to love the Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher on all of my individual channels as well. It seems to be good at giving them their own space in the mix. I use the presets for the instruments that come with the plugin and then tweak them as needed. So unless you get great separated sound from your mics and preamps I recommend something like that (Greg Wells has a line of Waves plugins too that are supposed to be good for enhancing mixes and individual instruments) is helpful too if you can’t get your instruments to stand out from each other. I’m sure Native Instruments have some channel enhancers too. Anything with the equivalent of some sort of exciter, compressor, eq etc. A lot of them you can try before you buy.

Also for individual channels I have some of the Waves Abbey Road Series plugins that I love. Their Reverb Plates is such a good and familiar reverb that I use as a bus reverb pretty much on all channels, very subtly. It has that sound that everyone has heard before so I think it subconsciously makes a new song familiar. I have their J37 Tape Emulator that I put on my vocals to warm them up and boost saturation and even add a subtle tape slap delay. And then I like to send my vocal to their Reel ADT in a bus and it can give a subtle stereo boost that makes the vocal bigger, punchier and more modern.

And lastly, I’ve been trying to use no compression on individual channels at all. But if there is a vocal or guitar or anything that has one section that is way louder than the rest, it might be necessary to keep it reigned in. On “Don’t Belong” I only used it on the strings and I chose the Waves CLA-2A for it’s smoothness and warmth (the strings were naturally quite thin) but I also like the stock Logic compressor with it’s many options.

So that’s where I’m at now. That’s how I’m getting my sound now and I’m sure it will change as it always does. Thanks for reaching out and I hope that helps. Happy music making!

Cheers,
Lee

***UPDATE: Since I posted this song and blog a few weeks ago I purchased Waves Audio’s “Center” Plugin and love what it does to the punchiness and focus of the master channel. I put that right before my Lurssen plugin with the “punch” nob all the way to center. And “low” slightly to the center and “high” slightly to the sides. I also have the sides volume pulled down a couple DB. To me it adds a mastering focus that I have been after for years. I keep the rest of the channels and master channel settings pretty much the same as this original blog states except I removed the PuigChild from the master channel as the Center adds a similar but more focused punch. You can hear an example of it on this live version of the same song here. *****

(MORE SCREENSHOTS FROM THE “DON’T BELONG” SESSION):

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Equipment list for “Don’t Belong”

Acoustic Guitar: Taylor 110e
Electric guitar: Kay Speed Demon K571 (1961)
Drums: Vessel Drums Custom
Piano: Native Instruments Maverick
Bass: Logic Stock Instruments (Strings: Basses Pizzicato)
Microphones: Golden Age Project R1 Mk3 Ribbon Mic (vocals, violins, drum room), AKG Perception 100 (acoustic guitar, drum overhead), Shure SM58 (kick), Mojave MA-300 (overhead mic).
Hardware: D.W. Fearn VT-1 Preamp (vocals, guitar, strings), Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 (audio/digital interface for everything).
DAW: Logic Pro X
Audio Channel plugins: Waves RDesser, Logic Channel EQ, Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher, Waves J37 Tape, Logic Guitar Amp, Logic Pedalboard, Waves CLA-2A (on strings).
Mastering plugins: Waves Abbey Road Reverb Plates, Waves Aphex Vintage Aural Exciter, Waves PuigChild 670, Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher, Lurssen Mastering Console.

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