Home Recording Studio - The Critical Importance of "Mixing"
We live in a fantastic time right now. All throughout my childhood I dreamed of one day being able to record in a studio. Since the day I first saw Pink Floyd's Live at Pompeii it's all I wanted to do. Between performances from the Pompeii Coloseum there were clips intercut of the band in the studio recording tracks for their then upcoming album, Dark Side of the Moon. I was in love from that moment forward.
For me personally, while I enjoy taking in a live show of a talented band, it's the albums being created that are the real showcases or art. Those recorded performances are what become immortal. I see the studio album as being a form of art. Especially in cases like the above "Dark Side of the Moon" album by Pink Floyd. My all time favorite. It's a concept album. An album made up of 9 tracks that are all related in theme and all fit together as one single piece. To listen to individual tracks from the album is to only hear a part of the complete piece.
My dream since it all began is to make a piece of studio recorded art like that album. To use the studio as a kind of instrument in itself. A paint kit or chisel or other form of artistic tool. Not just to record live music performances, but to piece together a bunch of pieces into one cohesive, coharent piece of artistic expression, like a painting. Today, where just a decade or two ago you'd have to invest hundreds and thousands of dollars to rent "studio time", now there is home equipment that you can buy to build your own studio. Of course this can get expensive as well, but for a relatively modest investment you can be off and running with your own studio. Over time you can piece it together, adding equipment here and there where necessary, as I've done.
For the first time in history, it's now possible to record music that's nearly as good quality wise as studio albums were just a decade ago. My dreams are now much more within my reach. Where before you basically had to acquire a recording contract, now that's not necessary. Which means nobody else has any say so as to what you do.
The below track was a learning experience for me. Audio recording can be a daunting process when you first get into it. The tools can seem complex and hard to understand. Probably one of the biggest obstacles for many attempting to take this journey on their own is the understanding of the audible spectrum. We humans can only hear a relatively small portion of the sonic spectrum. And we can only hear one frequency at a time along that rather narrow spectrum.
So if you record multiple tracks, like a guitar track, a bass track, a vocal track, and a drum track, you'll often find that when played together each component somehow sounds empty or hollow and not as complete as it sounds when played on its own. This is because these various tracks tend to overlap in frequencies. When two or more tracks play the same frequency, that same frequency is muted to our ears by the one dominant track. It's like it just 'drops out'.
One of the primary skills needed to record your own music is to understand this. Through using equalizers and limitors and compressors and such, you'll find that you have to kind of carve out spaces for each instrument to breathe. Cut back those frequencies of one instrument to make room for another. If done properly then each track will sound complete and full when all played together, though playing the track by itself now sounds cut back and hollow. This is because those other tracks are now filling in the gaps that you've created. Now it all works together and sounds complete.
The below track is a cover I did of the song "Search and Destroy" by Iggy and the Stooges. I was never really a big Stooges fan. They to me were too far into the punk category. I never before really appreciated the musicianship of punk bands because the whole point of punk music was that it was simple and anybody who wanted to flail around on a stage with a guitar could do it. So I always tend to find the music and musicianship too simplistic for my tastes.
It wasn't until I heard the above song in Wes Anderson's fantastic movie "The Life Equatic with Steve Zissou" that I took notice of this song. I immediately fell in love with it. I had somehow made it through three decades of life without ever before hearing it. The lyrics and the overall flow of the song just grabbed me. And I found out through learning the song and breaking it down into its component parts that this song is way more musical than I usually attribute to punk bands. There's complexity there that I didn't expect.
Recording a cover to this song gave me what I needed during that portion of my learning experience. I needed to piece together a song made up of multiple tracks to practice my "mixing". Mixing is the process I described above, where you maximize each track individually by shaping it sonically so that when all played together the tracks "mix" well.
It also gave me the opportunity to practice recording multiple tracks myself, but make it sound as if it's a live/fluid performance. Often times, when you're recording each of the tracks yourself, you find yourself in need of sticking to a structure. Like a click track. Because you're not able to just play with a room full of musicians, and go with the feeling of the others in the room, you'll find it's crucial that each track is recorded in perfect time so that all the pieces actually fit together when you mix them. This, while making the mixing process much smoother, can often times take away from the fluid feeling of a song that's so much easier to get when playing in a live group where each member can play off of each other's performance.
This is a performance style that can be difficult to replicate recording a track at a time yourself. It's easy for the track to begin to sound too structured. It tends to lose some of its potential character.
Give a listen to the below track to get a sense of what can be done nowadays in a home studio. You can piece together a studio on par with what I used here for around $500 or so, which isn't bad if you consider that buys you your own in-home studio that is there at your disposal day or night. That, of course, doesn't include instruments. That's primarily an audio interface, which is basically a glorified sound card that gives you studio quality connections, studio monitors, a decent preamp, and a decent microphone.