Over the years I’ve collaborated with many self producing songwriters and music producers, all of whom have their own ways of recording and mixing in their studios. From all these experiences I know that working with others is a great way of learning new and interesting audio production techniques and mindsets that we can take and apply to your own workflows. However, I’ve come across a number of questionable studio techniques in my time, many of which I can only describe as studio bad habits.
As well all know, bad habits are extremely easy for us to adopt in everyday life, some are even a form of comfort to help us cope with the stresses of everyday modern life but what causes a bad habit to creep up on us? They typically consist of three main components; a trigger, a routine and reward. To illustrate how this works, let’s look at smoking.
The trigger for a smoker is a momentary sense of not feeling satisfied. The routine, being the only response suitable, is to light up a cigarette with the reward, or payoff, being a sense of achievement and feeling pleased with one’s self as trigger sense craving a smoke has been fulfilled. The only way to quit smoking or indeed any bad habit, and I am very much speaking from personal experience here, is to recognise the cycles around it and break them by addressing the trigger factor face on.
Let’s now apply the cycles of a bad habit to a typical vocal mixing approach. The trigger being a vocal track that we feel sounds a bit dull. Our routine (or go to approach) could be to add a top end airy EQ along with some heavy compression and washed out reverb with the reward being what we believe to be a better sounding vocal.
But what if some of our go to music production decisions are in fact bad habits? What if the way we add top end EQ to a track or even the EQ plug-in we reach for, time and again, are in fact harming our vocal mixes?
Some may be unaware that some of the things you do could be interpreted by others as bad habits. Some may use one or two of the examples in this article of studio bad habits as a way to help them feel better about their creative decision making when in reality these choices could harm the results of their work as well as slow the development of their music production skills. Other producers have a number of bad habits as a way of cutting corners. Whatever the reasons, it’s important to be aware of how we approach our sessions to ensure we are doing the very best by our music by not letting bad habits get the better of us.
From overdoing pitch correction to over-indulging a mix, in this article we explore a number of typical studio bad habits that we find that self producing artists can fall into quite easily. We explain why each of these should be avoided as well as ways to overcome each bad habit.
Using Reverb As A Way Of Hiding Problems In A Performance
Some vocalists like a touch of reverb in their headphone mix when they record. This is known as a comfort reverb which is absolutely fine to track with. It’s easy to set up. Feed a touch of reverb into the foldback mix via an effects return which enables us to do two things. One, track a dry vocal to be able to apply a more considered ambience later in the mix. Two, gives the vocalist a sense of space to feel comfortable singing in. What you’ve got to be careful of, is when it comes to the mix stage applying too much reverb on a vocal track (or indeed any track type) because you or the vocalists do not feel 100% confident in the quality of either the performance or take you’ve recorded, once the comfort reverb is stripped away.
I’ve heard too many people say “Just add reverb to that vocal and it’ll be fine, it’ll hide that bum note!” That kind of mindset couldn’t be further from reality. Reverb often makes problems like pitch inaccuracies more obvious. Reverb should be used to add a tasteful sense of depth, realism and vibe to elements of a mix and not to be used in a way of trying to blur the image for the sake of hiding something unflattering you don’t feel comfortable hearing. Furthermore the more reverb you add to a mix the less focus it has, if you want punch then reverb isn’t your friend as it smooths the edges.
If you find you are applying too much reverb to hide issues then recognise this approach as a bad habit and avoid washing out the tracks in your next mix with reverb. Instead, consider taking some time and effort to re-record better takes that you confidently feel work in your music and then be able to use reverb for what it is intended for.
Cranking The Volume Of You Studio Monitors In The Mix
The volume of your monitors will play a very large part in getting your mixes to sound good in both your studio and out in the real world on consumer playback systems. It's so easy to crank up the volume of your studio monitors in a mix stage but be aware that loud monitors can do a lot of harm to both you and your music.
Sitting between a set of loud monitors for long periods of time at best will inevitably fatigue your ears and shorten your concentration span and at worse damage your hearing initially with temporary hearing loss but with prolonged exposure that temporary loss and turn into a permanent loss.. Loud monitors can also cause frequency response problems with what you hear from your listening position making it difficult for you to judge the effects of compression and EQ… to name a few. If you struggle to hear a compressor’s attack and release times or balance low end in a mix then lower the level of your monitors as it is much easier to hear subtleties in a mix this way.
Another benefit of breaking the habit of mixing at loud levels will be that you may find it easier to mix a better sense of punch and clarity into your music. If a mix sounds big and powerful at low monitoring levels then that presentation should translate at loud volumes, however, the reverse rarely works. If you mix loud and want a punchy sounding mix then your ears will fool you into thinking you've achieved this effect but when you take your mix out of the studio to reference on a consumer playback system at low levels you’ll quickly realise that what you heard in the studio hasn’t translated very well.
Over Indulging A Mix
If you regularly spend days or weeks tweaking a mix then there is a good chance your default production or mixing workflows are over indulgent. Let's start by talking about deadlines and why they are important. If you don't set some form of end point when producing a song you run the risk of over-egging the pudding which can undo all of your hard work. It's all too easy to keep tweaking a mix but be aware days spent on a mix can make you lose sight of what you originally set out to achieve for your song. Deadlines sound restrictive but they actually useful tools that can enable us to keep our creative minds focused on our goals. Without deadlines, the law of diminishing returns can start to come into play, which if you charge for your work, will have a negative impact your income.
If you notice that you label your mixes numerically, if you go above 10 versions then you need to recognise that you maybe overindulging your work.
If you don’t have a budget then create an imaginary one, for most pros the budget often dictates how long they can spend on a mix, set yourself some deadlines.
Mixing On Autopilot
While it’s good to have plug-in chains or recording and mixing techniques that you know you can rely on, be aware that one or two of your trusted methods may not always be the best option to use on autopilot mode for every production you approach. As we mentioned earlier in the article, you may use what you feel to be the perfect vocal chain and process for tracking and mixing a vocal but every song is different. Consider adapting your go to chain or look at something completely different to get the very best results. “Go for what you know” is a good way to get things done in a studio session, but your “go to” may not always be the best option.
Too Many Tracks In The Pursuit Of Getting Big Sounding Productions
There’s certainly no rule of thumb when it comes to how many tracks a song should have in a mix. To say it again, every song is different but over recording parts in the pursuit of getting a big sounding production could be another studio bad habit to avoid. Large sessions are notoriously difficult to navigate, which can slow your productivity to a snail’s pace. Some inexperienced producers can end up with up to 4 times the number of tracks for the sake of getting a big wide sound, which can work just fine on a gang vocal. However, while this can be a good approach from time to time it shouldn’t be employed as a go-to recording technique for different instruments or vocal sections. In reality too many elements playing at once in a mix will tend to blur the image, taking the focus away from what’s important in the music. Consider that it is possible, and indeed quite easy, to get big sounds from a single microphone with great performers, smart mic placement and tasteful uses of EQ & compression. Big sounds often come from the vibe and energy of the performer and the music they are portraying through their energy and talents. Capture that and you’re most of the way to getting an engaging sounding production that will most likely mix itself.
‘Photoshopping’ Performances Within An Inch Of Their Lives
Whether it’s pitch correction on a vocal, quantising MIDI performances or tightening up the timing of multi-track recordings, you need to be using your ears to judge what tracks (if any) need any repair work. If certain areas in a song need some attention, because you can feel there’s a timing issue or a flat section in the pitch of a vocal performance, then gently work those areas to sound musically correct. Don’t let the graphics of a DAW or fancy pitch correction plug-in make you feel as though you need to colour neatly between the lines all the time. Pitch correction plug-ins are very good at giving us the impression that every note in a vocal is out of tune, don’t play into their hands and fix everything. Overdoing pitch correction for instance is a fast track to sucking the life and human element out of your music.
Try not to approach every track you record as needing some degree of tightening or pitch correction. By correcting every track you record you only waste your time ‘fixing’ things only to discover that the overall feel of your music now sounds too “in the pocket” and mechanical. That of course maybe a sound that you are chasing but generally most producers pursue a sense of organic feel to the music in which performances sound musically right but not over touched. A gentle approach to pitch and time correction is the key to maintaining that tangible human element in the sound and feel of a production.
More Bad Habits?
We have also explored the topic of bad habits in the past. Check out our series Our Top 10 Production Bad Habits And How You Can Fix Them in which we explore many more studio bad habits we can have in both music and post-production workflows along with several strategies to counter each of them