sound engineer

The hitchhiker’s guide to music production

So today it’s my birthday and so I decided to write a really long guidelines about how first time recording artists should approach the production of an album. Yeaaaahhhh, instead of getting presents I decided to give a really shitty one to the world. I hope that while reading this you are going to have at least half the fun I had writing it. You can find this divided into sections even in my A lot of words & thoughts (articles) page.

Hello everyone,
due to existence of popular beliefs and common mistakes I decided to write some basic guidelines about how musicians should approach their first production of a music album and in the case they decide to work with me how to send me material. I’m not writing this to be an annoying freak or because I’m a sound engineer that follows rules like they are some sort of dogma. My first aim is always to look after the quality of the production and to make any tune sound as good as possible. At the end of the day the work of a sound engineer is the medium that carries your art from your head and hands to the ears of a wider audience.
These are not in a particular order but please consider them a list of what comes to my mind randomly while thinking about these topics and believe me when I say that I fought hard to avoid writing another trilogy in 5 parts.
If you find any debatable or untrue facts or opinions in this pages please contact me, you would be given 2 choices: A) a chance of helping me make this guidelines better with full credits to your contribution; B) a big signed picture of my beard to use exclusively as a shooting target for your weapon of choice, I personally suggest the slingshot or the crossbow.
I will often update this pages if anything else comes to my mind.
So you are a musician/s with enough material you’re proud of and you want to record it in order to present yourself to the world. Perfect, that’s when the trained ears of a sound engineer like me come in handy to take the best out of your songs. However there are some common mistakes done by artists who never set foot in a studio, these mistakes can be easily fixed.
  • Compose and arrange the songs prior to recording. Some musicians think that a recording studio is similar to a rehearsing room but with way more microphones in it. If you have unlimited budget and time this can be true but with the state in which the music industry is right now this is an extremely unlikely possibility and if you find yourself in such a situation please call me because I honestly want to shake your hand and congratulate you. The recording studio is a sacred and magical place where you have the unique chance to print in history the product of your imagination, a product you have spent many hours working on, composing it in order to make it as close to perfection as you are able to. Having everything ready for recordings means that you can avoid long recording sessions that are usually very frustrating and tiring because after a while the human brain just stops working clearly and you may experience some sort of crazy hallucinations (I don’t necessarily mean seeing big clowns dancing upside down but even just experiencing the effects of a mild sleep deprivation). It is in my experience that a good performance usually comes in one of the early takes rather than in one of the last for many reason: one is because at the start you are fresh and relaxed, one of the others is because after many hours you are tired and you are playing just with muscles’ memory and without much of the passion you had at the beginning therefore at the end of your session you may perform mechanically and lifelessly. The best way to take advantage  of the time  you are fresh and full of energy is by having everything ready so you can set up your gear and start playing without worrying if what you are playing is right.
  • Rehearse your songs to respect yourself, your bandmates and the engineer. There is nothing more frustrating for them than having a band member not remembering properly his/her parts during recordings. I played in many bands and being part of one means trusting each other, they are your brothers and sisters, you should respect them and they should respect you. The only way to gain their trust and respect is by being always ready. Furthermore everything I said on the previous point applies even here.
  • Do not be afraid to speak. We (sound engineers) and your bandmates are just people, usually we are more than willing to answer to your questions and doubts and we can make mistakes. If you approach any topic with calm and respect you can be sure that the session is going to be smooth and productive. Please keep in mind that a relaxed environment is often where the magic happens.
  • Always make arrangements with the rest of the band and the engineer about what food and drinks you want in the studio. I’m an avid coffee drinker but you might prefer tea and it’s always good to keep such habits intact e.g. if your singer is used to drink a hot cup of tea before a gig, do the same in the studio.
  • Same topic but different perspective. Performing on a stage or in a studio are totally different things: on a stage you are exposed and excited, in a recording studio there is an intimacy and insulation (listening to yourself through headphones doesn’t help) that force you to look inside yourself before anything else and this might be frightening. Therefore is very useful to behave like you would normally do before, during and after performing. For example when I was a teenager who tried to be as cool as Steve Vai with a guitar, I was used to do 30 minutes of light stretching before playing, I do the same now before starting a session, it’s just something that lead me into the right state of mind.
  • Try to limit or avoid the use of substances such as alcohol or other fun drugs. I’m not saying this because I’m against those, believe me that when I finish saving a project in 19 different locations (yes, I show sign of OCD when I have to be sure that a session is saved and safe) I’m going to be the first one to say “ok, let’s go to the pub”. Moreover I’m not necessarily talking about being drunk or shitfaced but even being very tipsy can be dangerous. First it is well documented that alcohol could make a person aggressive and alter the judgement, this surely doesn’t help in the quest for a calm and relaxed environment. Secondly and maybe more importantly alcohol and drugs often influence the way you hear sounds (google it if you don’t believe me, you will find many reliable sources) so if you drink few pints too many during a session you can end up with one of this 2 possibilities: A) you play something, you think it is awesome, you wake up the next morning and it’s still awesome. B) you play something that you think it’s awesome, you wake up the next morning and it sucks and then you are left with the music industry version of the “walk of shame”. Take your chances.
Anyway there is no person on this planet that knows yourself better than you do. Part of what I just said means that you are largely responsible for making yourself able to perform at your best. Other people can help in creating the right environment but at the end of the day you’re more subjective to what is going on inside your head, so behave like you would normally do, know your strengths and limits and everything is going to be fine.
Recording should be fun. For me as a sound engineer it surely is, being in a studio recording great artists makes me love everything and everyone. Therefore try to avoid factors that bring unnecessary stress to the session.
Material to be Mixed
If you require me or anyone to mix your prerecorded songs please be aware of the following suggestions.
  • When you record your material try to record at a higher sample rate and bit rate than the CD quality. I recommend 48 kHz and 24 Bit as a general compromise between performance/tracks count and sound quality. The reason for this, especially the bit rate part, is that you can record at lover levels without worrying about digital distortion and at the same time having a very low noise floor. It is suggested to record at a slightly higher sample rate in order to avoid the summing of AD conversion errors in the 20 kHz area and recording at 48 kHz pushes those errors out of the audible range. There are very technical explanations behind these concepts and I’m not in the position to explain them because first of all you can write a zillion pages about this topic and secondly Bob Katz makes you understand  this and other concepts in the best possible way in his book “Mastering Audio”.
  • When you record straight in your audio interface and then into your DAW of choice do not record at high level. I can’t tell you how many good performances I saw ruined by digital clipping. I know, if you watch documentaries about the making of historic albums you often see engineers cranking up the preamp gain but please remember that is fully analogue clipping which is nice, warm and awesome and usually then the engineer would compensate those gain settings with the off-buss levels (the levels of the signals that go to a the tape machine or DAW). The gain of the preamp on your audio interface is also the level of the signal that goes into the AD (Analogue to Digital) converter and if you are clipping there you are losing a good part of your sound transforming it in a nasty digitally distorted noise.If you are a glitch artist fair enough, that might be what you are looking for. However if you are a rock band always check your meters and if you are recording at 24 bit stay somewhere near half way the scale the meter. If you are recording at 16 bit record somewhere near 2/3 of the scale of the meter so you still have a nice signal to noise ratio.
  • The next is a request that falls into the category “please be nice to the sound guy since he/she is the one that is gonna handle your songs and possibly taking them to the next level”. There is no worst way to piss off your mixing engineer than forgetting to label the tracks correctly. An experienced sound engineer can understand roughly what is what by looking at the sound form, but receiving a project which contains an endless list of tracks and regions labeled Audio_01, Audio_02 and so on means that the engineer has to spend time listening and labeling the tracks correctly in order to move freely and quickly in the project so he/she can always know where to look for the Bass Drum, Snare, etc. Remember time is money which is often yours.
  • If you are going to take care of the editing by yourself to save a bit of money there is nothing wrong with it. In my opinion there are 2 reasons to do editing: the first is to slightly adjust the arrangement of the song if you think that a solution works better than another after you recorded it, the second is to fix performance, timing or sound issues. I know many songs which have improved by cutting down bars from a verse too long or by looping a section but I’m an engineer and If I’m not asked clearly for my opinion as a producer and musician I’m not going to say anything about the arrangement, I’m going to respect you also as the person fully in charge of the artistic side of the production. However, if you are doing editing for the second reason, use a bit of common sense. With this I mean do not make your song lifeless and robotic. E.G. by using always the same kick and snare hits to replace and fix an inconstant performance, by looping the best take of a melody or a bass line over and over again, by quantizing every single hit and note on the grid, etc. I say this to remember you that little mistakes are what make us humans and differentiate us from a programmed MIDI track. A groovy and dynamic performance is always better, interesting and more pleasing to the listener ear than a straight on the grid, repetitive and often boring tune. Obviously everything is relative to the kind of music you are making: if you are a jazz musician probably you would leave the performance as it is, on the other hand if you do drum & bass you could decide to behave differently. How can you understand if you are doing too much editing? Quite simply use your experience as a listener: remember your favourite albums and artists, what makes them appealing to you, how they produced, composed and performed, how they succeed in making a product that reached positively many people. Edit your songs to the point that you would happily listen to them (even though it’s often difficult to avoid hating a song you’ve been working on for quite a long time).
  • There’s no real “fix in the mix” method to improve your recordings. Nowadays technology provides us with a great deal of tools to work with. But remember that the quality of your final product is going to depend on the quality of your root material: the recordings. There is no way to fix bad recordings and make them sound as good as the sound you hear on famous albums. What a sound engineer can do is just masking the problems with something else shifting the focus of the listener. So please bear in mind that if you have recorded your vocals with the wrong microphone placement or with a wrong performance you are not going to sound like Freddie Mercury singing Innuendo. Yes we have Melodyne, Autotune, powerful tools but they can be used to subtly fix problems; any heavy processing is going to be noticeable and unnatural. Think about Melodyne & co. as the Dark Side of the Force in Star Wars; they can be appealing and an apparently easier way to get from point A to point B, but nothing beats a great performance.
  • Please tell the engineer, possibly in a written form, about any reference song or album so we can understand what kind of sound you are looking for. Moreover explain what view you have for the song and which instruments have to be in the spotlight and which ones can go in the background. There are different ways to mix a song and it’s good policy to make sure that everyone is on the same page from the start so no one’s time goes wasted.
  • Do not normalize the audio files. Normalization kills dynamic and groove and the same reasons that I wrote about editing can be applied here.
Material to be Mastered
Awesome, you put together an album, you or someone else for you have mixed the song and you need just one more step to have the songs ready for distribution (almost ready, there are more steps but as far as the sound engineering side of the production goes you can see the finish line). Now there is often a cloud of mystery around what mastering is. No ordinary musician seems to grasp what it really is and for sure it is one of the processes in audio engineering that are more difficult to teach. Experience and trust in your ears are everything in this field. Some people think this is the process of making the song “loud as fuck”. Well, it is not. Here a dictionary can be helpful but for the sake of brevity I’m going to state that it is the process of making the songs conform to the technical limitations of the medium on which they are going to be distributed whatever that is: CD, vinyl, digital delivery, radio, etc. Obviously there is more going on: like making sure that the volume and the frequency spectrum is somehow consistent throughout the album. This is not necessarily implied in the meaning of the word mastering but listeners have been trained since music has started to be recorded to expect this and who are we to try to change the listeners’ mind out of the blue.
OK, I consider myself not to be a mastering engineer. Firstly because I’m not near the 10 years experience threshold that I consider essential to call yourself the god of sound engineers (yes that’s the amount of respect and regard that I have for true mastering engineers). Secondly when I compare myself to the real guys, well I feel somehow embarrassed thinking about their craft and expertise. However I try my best to avoid to ruin your album and that’s how I describe what I do when asked to do mastering. My inspiration and reference as always is Bob Katz and his wonderful book “Mastering Audio”. There are no tricks here, just my ears and passion.
So let’s go on with some suggestions on how to ensure that your album is going to be properly mastered:
  • Be nice to this guys: he/she is the last one to work on your sound and if pissed off he/she can be a bitch in some tricky and nasty ways. On the other end they can also make your album sound incredibly good. Pretty much treat these engineers as German shepherds, they can be your best friend as long as you don’t kick them.
  • This can seem stupid but it happened. DO NOT SEND LOSSY AUDIO FILES. I don’t think I need to explain why but I’m gonna do it anyway. Lossy audio files have been already compressed (not in the dynamic range point of view) and therefore part of the material is missing. Secondly they have dithering already applied. I could explain what dithering is but if you are a musician you are probably not going to read it and this is a topic that deserves way more than few words.
  • Do not apply dithering. It is important to leave maximum freedom to the engineer even about which shape and amount of dithering is best.
  • If possible make the mastering engineer in contact with the mixing engineer, they might have few technical details they want to discuss.
  • Mix Buss Compressors during mixing are very useful but please avoid setting the ratio to the maximum and the attach to the minimum. Be careful in setting these, they can do wonders or destroy the groove. Do not kill the dynamic range of a song: it is well documented that a tune that has movement and amplitude variation has more impact on the listeners than the usual modern production mastered so loud and compressed that its wave form has taken the shape of a brick. For more info about this read every  article written about the Loudness War.
  • Same topic. DO NOT NORMALIZE your song.
  • Leave headroom let your mix breathe, don’t make your mix picking constantly at -2 dB FS. Take your mix buss fader a bit down so that later the mastering engineer has the freedom to apply whatever processing he/she sees as appropriate for the production without the need of applying a stronger limiter setting than what should be necessary.
  • Personally I prefer the songs to be mastered to be delivered to me in the same format they’ve been recorded to, so if you have recorded at 48 kHz and 24 Bit do not down-sample the songs, let me take care of that.
  • As stated in the mixing chapter, provide the engineer with a list of reference albums so he/she can understand what’s your target of listeners and adjust the master to be appealing to them.
  • Tell the engineer on which medium you plan to release: different mediums require different processing.
  • Provide details on track list, transitions between tracks, what to write in the CD-Text, metadata and IRSC codes if present.
In conclusion I would like to add a general thought. I believe strongly in a clear and straight to the point communication between all the parties involved in the production. Give and require respect and clarity in such communications, a bit of basic psychology helps a lot. Make the effort of understanding what kind of person sits in front of you, believe me when I say that the sound is going to partially reflect the relationship between the all the parties involved. You, as an artist, can just benefit by doing this; remember that your name, the artist’s name, is going to be the first one associated with the product while maybe the credits for the work of the engineers is going to be on the last page of a booklet written in a size 9 Helvetica font and the amount of people that wants to check the credits is usually restricted to other geeks like me (I’m proud of being one) or other sound engineers (I’m proud of trying to make a living being one) that particularly liked the production.
Thanks for reading.
Good luck.

Thanks to my very good friend Candice Clemente for having the courage of going through this words and correcting the first draft. She’s been very helpful.

2 responses

  1. Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit
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    26/08/2015 at 10:01

    • hello mate. Thanks for asking I really appreciate that. I’m a bit surprised you want to quote part of my content since I do not think I’m a good writer nor I’m good at explaining stuff however I have no problem with being quoted. Just let me know what material are you going to use because I case I need to modify part of my content I can notify you. And mayne in the future we can co-author stuff and share ideas.

      29/08/2015 at 13:15

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