Who would have thought a few years ago that the digital revolution would be able to turn just about any laptop into a mini recording studio? For an investment of just a few hundred dollars, DIY musicians the world over can now have a recording rig on their home computers with a seemingly unlimited number of tracks, plus drum loops and libraries of virtual instruments that would have made most music producers drool just a few years ago.
These recent innovations have turned countless bedrooms and basements into home recording studios, and made many a DIY musician fancy himself/herself to be an underground music wunderkind. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars for tracking sessions at an expensive recording studio when you can do it all right in your bedroom with your own guitar or keyboard?
Umm…not so fast.
While digital technology has certainly put a lot of useful tools into our hands, learning to use those tools effectively is quite a different story. In other words, just because you have the capability to record and mix your own tracks, that doesn’t guarantee you will mix those tracks well. You might be able to come up with a respectable “rough mix”, but unless you are skilled and educated in the finer points of tweaking tracks, you are probably not going to come up with anything close to the quality of what would happen in the acoustically tuned control room of a recording studio.
And here’s the thing: you might actually think you’ve pulled it off, and come up with a great mix—or at least, you might think that you’ve come up with something that could fool the majority of your listening audience and your fan base. But that’s not necessarily the case. Consider the following:
- The general public can usually tell when a recording is good, even if they can’t explain why it is good. If you have something in your mix that is even subtly unpleasing to the ear, people can tell, even if they can’t pinpoint what’s wrong—like knowing a freshly baked brownie doesn’t taste quite right, but not knowing what’s missing.
- The “other side” of the DIY revolution is that there is a lot more competition on the market. In a playing field like this, the subtle differences between a good recording and a great one can make all the difference between success and failure.
- Music industry pros can detect a poor mix where the public can’t. If you have any dreams at all of trying to get signed, you’ll be up against some stiff competition. An amateur mix can land your demo in the circular file really quickly.
In other words—you’re not really fooling anyone. If you cut corners on the mix to save a few bucks, fancying that you can handle it yourself, you might get by on the local level, but you can pretty much forget about reaching a larger audience.
So what is the solution—especially if your budget has limited funds? To make sure your mixes are up to par, you basically have two options:
a) You can get a professional recording studio involved in your project, either partly or completely. (You might be able to record the tracks at home, especially if it’s all done with virtual instruments in the digital domain, but you’ll still want to take them to the studio for mixing.) OR…
b) You can acquire the skills to mix the tracks yourself—in other words, get an education, so you can utilize your digital tools more effectively.
As some of you may already be aware, I recently began a recording studio apprenticeship with the Recording Connection, and have started to document my experiences right here on this column. The primary reason I chose to go through this program is that I recognized that as a DIY musician, I was flying blind quite a bit when it came to recording and mixing. I am serious about getting my music heard by the industry at some point, and I know the competition that I’m up against. And yet, like many of you, as a DIY musician without label backing, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the studio is just not in the budget. So I’m going with option “b”—I’m getting an education in the studio, so that I have a better vocabulary for recording and mixing, and can at least tackle some of my own projects with a bit more know-how and improve my own mixing skills.
Whatever you decide for yourself, the important thing to understand is that even though the DIY market is wide open right now, that doesn’t mean the competition isn’t fierce. You might be an absolute musical genius, but if your mix sucks, you could be dead in the water before the race even starts. Don’t cut corners with your recording; either be willing to invest the money to get it recorded and mixed the right way, or make sure you have the education to do the job right yourself.