As Mixing For Dumb Idiots expands (most recently with a page on composition, and there’s more to come), writing it has helped me clarify what I think the most important elements of recordings are. I’ll talk about my top three here. I recommend spending a good amount of your time and energy on these, especially if you’re starting to make your own recordings (HAI CORY).
#1 – The composition itself; its melodies, chords, rhythms, lyrics, and so on. This could go without saying, and I can’t help you much here (see MFDI), except that I think of recording’s arrangement as an element of the composition and that we can talk about.
The best raw musical material in the world can end up an interesting failure if the arrangement doesn’t present it in a dynamic way (almost like telling a good story). In what order are ideas (hooks, verses, choruses, bridges, solos) introduced? What elements repeat, and for how long? How many and which instruments are used? Does the introduction attention-grabbing? Is the ending satisfying?
Great answers to these questions will elevate any material. Poor answers will undermine even the greatest melodies. The good news is that I can give you the questions in a blog post (I can’t do the same with writing melodies, chords, and the rest) and you can start applying them right away like people with years of experience; just experiment with different answers on your material until you find ones you like. Shorten and lengthen a verse. Instead of opening with the chord progression four times, start with an acapella verse vocal. Use a piano instead of a guitar. Use household objects instead of drums.
#2 – The vocal performance. Is it compelling? (Note; not technically or conventionally “good.”) Does it draw and hold attention? The vocal is most listeners’ way into the song, and it’s a make-or-break element.
Record the best vocal performance possible, whatever it takes. That might mean catering to the artists’ preferences for space, time of day, substances available, and so on, or it might mean pushing the artist enough to create some healthy, constructive stress. Whatever compromises are made in terms of mic technique or other technical aspects of the recording will be more than made up for if it improves the artist’s performance.
#3 – Match the recording fidelity with the conventional goodness of the performances.
Let me explain.
Low-fidelity (4-track tape, for example) recordings sound conventionally “right” no matter how professional and tight or mistake-filled and loose the performances are. The highest-fidelity recordings only sound “right” if the performances are also error-free and precise.
Does that make sense? Try this:
The Cool Drugs EP was a bit in the zone of deathy frustration, and was hard to mix as a result. That’s the experience that drove this home for me, and now I hear it in everything. High-fidelity, loose-performance recordings can be awkward for me to listen to.
I can’t stress enough that matching these aspects of recording continues to challenge me. In today’s recording world, where affordable, high-fidelity digital interfaces are the default for most of us, especially when we’re starting out, hearing our shortcomings in perfect detail can be really frustrating. Never underestimate the power of background noise, bleed, tape hiss, analog distortion, and all the rest of it to present less-than-Steely-Dan level performances in a context that flatters them.