Next Step Home Studio Moves: 5 Ways to Improve Your Tracking and Mixing

To a large extent, the term “home studio” is an oxymoron; and if I own it, it’s definitely more to the moron side. Self-deprecation aside, however, a home studio really isn’t part of the family home, nor is it a world-class studio. I operate in my basement without a control room, for example, but I’ve never let my location stop me from stretching out — and neither should you.

I learned the recording ropes from the wise, witty and Grammy-winning Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Will Smith. Joe and his twin brother Phil owned a beautiful, huge studio in Philly and I’d sometimes get dejected when I compared it to my lousy Tascam 4-track. But Joe taught me something I still subscribe to this very day:

“It isn’t about the plane; It’s the person flying it.”

I still have that Tascam 4-track, along with a hot-rodded Pro Tools HD rig, and in between, I’ve learned quite a bit from pros about how to upgrade my home studio chops. I’m going to share five ways of improving your tracking and mixing, and in part II, I’ll suggest five gear upgrades you really must consider if you want your recordings to sound more like records and less like ham-fisted demos.

1. Subgrouping and Stems

Through the early 1970s, rock’s greatest bands didn’t have the luxury of recording drums, for example, across 16 tracks. But they knew how to get the most out of just two tracks, creating superior “stems,” or stereo submixes.

I love stems. When you put eight balanced, well-crafted stems together for a final mix, you cut preciousness and fussiness from the process. A variation on this theme in our age of unlimited tracks is to send instrument groups to auxiliary stereo channels. That way, you can go back and tweak instruments in a group, but everything ends up on stereo channels you can now move up or down in the mix easily. I work this way every time.

2. Playback on Two sets of Monitors

It is easy to get obsessive about monitoring. Then again, The Beatles made their best mixes on one speaker, and it certainly don’t hurt them, did it? Don’t take my word on this. Ken Scott, who engineered the “Magical Mystery Tour” sessions, told me about this in an exclusive interview soon to appear on Reverb. He was there and much prefers the mono mixes to this day.

In the stereo age, I use two sets of monitors because each pair gives me a different reference point. My Mackie HR824s are clear and bright, but a touch light on the low end. So what do I have as a backup? Get ready to plug your ears: a small, trashy pair of JBL Control Ones. But there is a method to this madness. I get to hear two playbacks at once — polished and pedestrian. Nicolo taught me about this when he used Yamaha NS10s. Though NS10s were in lots of big studios, Nicolo said they sounded so unimpressive that if an engineer nailed a mix on them, it would sound good anywhere. I treat my JBLs that way, while using the Mackies to make fine-point decisions. It’s a great mix in more ways than one.

3. Mic Your Room

Shure KSM44A

Shure KSM44A

The late Jay Bennett, formerly of Wilco, talked about recording as not just a series of left-or-right stereo decisions, but also of front-or-back. So get out of the just-DI mode, or running guitars simply through a Line 6 Pod.

Put a mic about 15 feet back from an amp and see what you get. Ditto for drum kits; place a mono mic with a figure-of-eight polar pattern on the floor 10 feet back, or use two mics on the floor, at least 10 feet back and forming a 90-degree angle with the kick drum. For mono applications, either the Shure KSM44 or KSM44Ais affordable and works very well.

If you’re having trouble getting great drum sounds, do this: Cut at a big studio. Treat this as a master class in Advanced Drum Sounds. Take notes, ask the engineer questions and bring that knowledge back to your basecamp.

4. Use Multiband Compression

Compress the mix! Compress the mix! In other words, if your bass is the fat guy in the room and your high end the skinny guy, they should both fit in the same pair of jeans, right? Instead, try some multiband compression: that is, compressing various EQ ranges of the mix in different ways to glue it together. You’ll need practice, but a few plug-ins will aid your quest. Waves makes a C4 Multiband ($149), while Universal Audio offers a Precision Multiband ($249). I work with the UA version, which has a fun-looking graphic display. What’s virtual gear without the fancy lights and colors?

5. Post Production

Beginners too often assume a mix is “done when it’s done.” Mike Hagler of Kingsize Sound Labs (Wilco, Neko Case) showed me how to overdub on top of a finished mix — even if it’s mastered — to add effects and brief bursts of sonic color. After that, simply bounce the new version.

I’ve even re-sculpted kick drums for entire songs this way, though that takes time and patience to get right. This will be much easier if a client lacking raw tracks provides you with an instrumental mix you can use for lining-up purposes before you transfer the new kick to the vocal-version mix. Speaking of which, be a pro and always dub instrumental mixes for your artists. I call them “TV versions” for obvious sing-over-live reasons … and because the name makes me sound important.

Experiment on your own at home, to be sure. But don’t go it alone. And hey, send me an email. If I can ever get out from under my piles of gobbledy-gear, I’ll gladly share whatever I know.