Recording & MusicAt some point you’re going to have to grab a microphone and make noises at it. This part can be done with a gaming headset or iPhone, but it is one area where hardware makes a big difference. You don’t have to spend a fortune but spending a little more pays off big, like faction webs on Daredevils. Or gin.
Mics are like gin. You get what you pay for and they should probably not be mixed with fruit juice.Mic theory is well outside the remit of this article, and Berklee’s free Introduction to Music Production will give you a good grounding in that and many other things needed later. You essentially need to get your mouth sounds into a computer as cleanly as possible so that you can
Mattresses, carpet and duvets make great amateur sound dampingOf course you’re going to need to listen to the backing track or a metronome while you’re singing to match the tempo, so here’s my next top tip: invest in a set of over-ear, closed-back headphones such as my AKG K271s, which I love in a sexually inappropriate way. There are famous cases of the sound from artists’ cans bleeding into their mic on well known tracks, but in general it’s something you want to avoid. In a pinch use earbuds rather than open-back gaming headphones as they will minimise spill. Your music can come from a number of different sources. The easiest by far is a quality karaoke track from somewhere like karaoke-version (which I use and recommend). They have huge, reasonably priced catalogues and many support transposing so you can match the track to your voice. Do be careful if it has backing vocals, as they may conflict with your lyric – but hey it worked for Turpster so there’s no hard and fast law. It is possible to pull the vocal out of the original song by taking advantage of the fact that most tracks mix the vocal dead centre while the instruments are panned one side or the other, and vocals tend to sit in a specific frequency range. It’s a hack and works better with some tracks than others, but as a last resort it can suffice, especially for tracks that aren’t aiming for high production values (which is fine, I’m not judging you!). You may also have a friend or corpie who plays an instrument, or you may play yourself. Even though I can play guitar, my brother is far better than me so I pulled him in to help on “The Carebear Type” (thanks again Ploddy). Modern DAWs such as FL Studio or Reaper will let you program an entire backing orchestra with MIDI data and virtual instruments if you want to, or just lay down that jazz flute that you simply must have on top of AC/DC’s “Highway to Delve”. I’m doing the entire arrangement for “You Shouldn’t Mine” in Ableton Live 9 with some filthy guitar licks from my brother again. It’s fun if you dig that kind of thing, but it’s a lot more work than the karaoke track.
The MixThis is the part where a lot of people give up, so you need to HTFU. Because of the way your voice echoes in your skull (not to mention a shower cubicle) when you’re singing, it sounds different when you hear it recorded and played back, and it can crush you. On top of that your raw vocal won’t “sit in” the backing at first and you’ll likely sink into an absinthe-fuelled depression, tempted to end it all and join Spaceship Samurai. Don’t do it. This is known as the “poo phase” and it affects everyone, even the magnificent Sindel. You just have to push through it.
@blackhuey Also, it’s not that I haven’t done anything, they just sound like poo. These are all done or almost done. pic.twitter.com/Gsn7KxS0Cb — Sindel Pellion (@SindelPellion) October 22, 2014I could do an entire series of articles just on mixing, but here are a few tips to get you through. In general, do things just enough so that they improve the track, but not so much that they are individually noticeable. There are of course an infinite number of exceptions to this. Reverb is essentially the sound of echoes. If your backing sounds like it was recorded in the O2 Arena, and the vocal sits on top sounding like an intimate piano lounge, you need to adjust your reverb. The more reverb, the deeper a track will sit in the mix. I hit The Mittani’s voice with this on “Jita’s on Fire” to make it sound like he was addressing a crowded space station hangar rather than nerds on Mumble. Compression squeezes the difference between the soft and loud parts of a track to make the levels more consistent. This makes it easier to listen to, especially in a noisy environment or on lower quality equipment like earbuds. Most non-orchestral music today is compressed and people subconsciously expect it, but don’t overdo it as it will give you ugly sound artifacts. Have you ever listened to amateur recordings such as podcasts which are too soft, even with your volume turned way up? They didn’t normalise. This is usually done on the master track, after compression, to bring the peak levels up as close to 0dB as possible without going over. You can use a limiter to force the peaks under 0dB, but to avoid artifacts it’s best to set your normalisation as close as possible and use the limiter as a safety net rather than relying on it. Remember if you change any of your track levels, you’ll need to re-normalise; so it’s usually done last. Pitch correction, such as the ubiquitous Autotune plugin, is a contentious technique. Essentially it adjusts a vocal track to correct flat and sharp notes to bring them into tune, and is seen by some as a crutch for poor singers. It’s the ECM of mixing. The fact is that the vast majority of modern music is pitch corrected, and it can help a lot with listenability. Either go full on T-Pain or do it subtly; the worst pitch correction is when you notice it and you’re not meant to. Remember the Celine Dion Curzon Dax Paradox: perfect pitch and good music are independent of each other. EQ allows you to adjust specific frequencies to correct things like nasal singing, or cut low frequency noise. It’s almost always better to correct by reducing (cutting) certain frequencies, rather than boosting others. Finally, listen to your mix on a range of different hardware; PC speakers, cheap earbuds, HiFi etc. What sounds awesome on your studio cans might sound tinny on a phone, and you can make adjustments to give yourself a decent sound across the board.
Track 1 is heavily compressed and normalised. Track 2 is too soft. Track 3 has good dynamic levels but might need some compression to make it more listenable on suboptimal equipment.