recording FOR BEGINNERS
3 simple moves that will improve the clarity of your mix

By Jeremy Drakeford

So you've got a microphone, an interface and your DAW of choice (Garageband, Pro Tools, Logic etc.)
With these  things, you've got a world of creative power at your fingertips. You can create almost anything.
But when you start recording your voice or instrument, it just doesn't have that crisp clarity that you hear in other recordings. 

Why?
Before you blame your gear, keep in mind that this mix was recorded in a bedroom, on a budget interface and a cheap mic.
You don't need to spend a lot of money these days to get a semi-professional sound.
What's more important is knowing how to process your recordings in a way that reduces clashing frequencies and muddiness.

Here's 3 easy steps to gain clarity in your mixes:

1. EQ - LOW CUT

The most common mistake I hear in amateur recordings is boomy vocals and muddy acoustic guitars. 
What's great is that the majority of this problem can be fixed with one simple effect: EQ. 

Every DAW has some form of EQ. It's a fundamental effect and arguably the most important one.
EQ allows you to boost or cut certain frequencies in the spectrum. Most EQs will also let you to cut off everything above or below a chosen frequency.
Using a Low Cut is a great way to remove unwanted bass frequencies from instruments that should not have a lot of bass. 

Vocals, for example, should be cut below a certain point to avoid unwanted boominess, rumbling and pops. 
The cutting frequency depends on the vocalist's range. If you're not sure where you should cut, 130Hz is a good starting point.
Be careful not to make your cut too high or you may be removing valuable harmonics or throat noises which help to shape the tone. 

 Logic's Channel EQ on a male vocalist

Shown above is an example of a typical low cut that you would apply to vocals.
With this cut in place you will remove a great amount of undesired frequencies and make way for the bass instruments to do their thing. 

This effect does not just apply to vocals. If any instrument doesn't need to be below a certain point, Low Cut it!

2. Avoid Clipping (Distortion)

Another common mistake I hear on beginner recordings is clipping (either on the master channel or individual tracks).

Wikipedia describes clipping as  "a form of waveform distortion that occurs when an amplifier is overdriven and attempts to deliver an output voltage beyond its maximum capability."

Whilst this is referring to analog clipping, digital clipping is similar. When you try to push the sound past 0dB on any given channel, the result is generally a harsh distortion which compromises the quality of your track. 
Distortion can be used as a tasteful effect in some cases but as a beginner you should avoid it at all costs. 

Clipping on your interface

Most interfaces have a warning light to indicate clipping/peaking. 
Before you commence tracking, do a test recording to set the levels and make sure it doesn't clip.
For vocals, sing the loudest part of the song. For a guitar, strum the loudest you possibly would in the song. 
If it's clipping, turn down the gain on your pre-amp. You want to leave a little bit of headroom to ensure there's no unforeseen clipping.

CLIPPING In Your DAW

If any of your channels are peaking at over 0dB then you may be experiencing digital clipping. 

 None of these channels are clipping

You'll see in the picture above that none of these channels are hitting the red. All of the numbers above them are green and have a minus symbol before the number. This indicates that they're below 0dB and not clipping. This is what you want. 

Adjust your faders so that your channels do not peak at any point, even at their loudest point in the song. 
If doing this makes your channel seem too quiet then you may want to boost its overall loudness with a Compressor or Limiter. 

Pictured above is the output/master channel and as you can see, it is clipping quite badly.
The number indicates that the sound is 3.9dB too loud and I imagine that this would result in some nasty digital distortion. 
This could be simply fixed by turning the fader down, however if you want to retain the same level of loudness, you can add a Limiter to make up the gain. 
A Limiter will prevent the signal from passing a certain point (e.g. 0dB) and avoid clipping. 

 Waves L2 Limiter

Waves L2 Limiter

 Logic's Limiter

Logic's Limiter

Shown above are 2 different Limiters.
I won't get into the more complex functions but make sure that the gain reduction (or attenuation) does not exceed 4 - 6dB.
If you squash the master too much then your song will lose punch, clarity and dynamics. 

3. Avoid Excessive Reverb/Delay

Reverb and Delay are great ways to bring depth, emotion and character to a track.
As beginners, a lot of people overdo it and drown their vocals in these effects; causing the mix to become messy and incoherent.
Almost everyone goes through this phase. I was guilty of it too. 

Just because you have access to an effect, doesn't mean you should abuse it. Be tasteful. In many cases, less is more.

So first and foremost, find a tasteful level for your effects.
Choose a reference track (a commercial song in a similar style) and play it alongside your mix. Try to mimic their Reverb/Delay levels.
Check your mix on headphones. Sometimes the sound of your room can throw off your perception of space/reverb.

Now it's time to apply the techniques from Section 1 (Low Cut) to Section 3:

EQing Reverb/Delay

Reverbs and delays are essentially 'echoes' playing over the original sound source. Because of this, they may cause a build up of certain frequencies, leading to a muddy mix.

A great way to avoid this is to apply EQ directly to the effects. 
By doing this, you could perform a low cut that would only by applied to the effects and not your original sound source.

Most mix engineers use auxiliary effects channels but the technique I'm about to show you could be applied directly to the instrument's channel (if you prefer to work that way).

 Logic's Stereo Delay plug-in has an inbuilt Low Cut and High Cut

Here's an example of Logic's Stereo Delay. As you can see, at the bottom of the plug-in there is a Low Cut and a High Cut. 
You can choose which part of the sound you want to delay, avoiding all those muddy low frequencies. 
The High Cut is also handy if you want to muffle the delay and make it stick out less (try setting the High Cut to 2000Hz or so)

A lot of reverbs will also have built in EQ so make the most of it and cut out everything that you don't need.
Once you start doing that, you create space for the things in your mix that matter.

conclusion

If you implement these 3 techniques correctly then I can promise that you will have more clarity in your mixes.
Your vocals will be more crisp and defined, your bass will sit tighter and you won't have any nasty clipping on the way out.

Good luck and happy recording!
- Jeremy

Email me your mixes, questions or feedback: jeremy@spectrumsound.com.au