6 Reasons Your Song Doesn’t Sound Professional — And you’ve just started recording your songs at home
If you’re reading this, then you’re struggling to make your songs sound anything remotely close to the records you love. Maybe your vocals don’t sit right, or you have too much bass in your song, or your mix just plain hurts your ears — but something about your song just isn’t right.
Your song probably sounded dope when you were making it, but when you woke up from your drug-infused haze, you realized you were drinking the kool-aid, heavily — “‘cuz it’s just not sounding like I remember, Lucy!”. Been there. Done that. Which leads me to …
#1: You’re not hearing what you think you’re hearing
To put it bluntly, your ears can lie to you. Our brains are powerful processors, and one thing it’s real good at, is eliminating information it doesn’t need and leaving “the essentials for survival”. What that means for your recordings is, all that nasty stuff that makes your song sound like a shitty demo, is what your ears and brain had to eliminate to get to the meat and potatoes of the sound while you were creating the song. The more we listen to the same sound, the more we get used to, and immune, to its problems. By mentally eliminating what our ears are hearing, we stop actually “hearing” what we’re supposed to be hearing, and start getting used to the “bad sounding” audio coming out of our speakers… or maybe, we “couldn’t” actually hear it in the first place,which leads me to …
#2: Know you’re listening environment/ monitoring gear
We’re never going to hear “exactly” what’s coming out of our speakers, headphones, or room for that matter, but we can always get close enough. Unless, you spend a lot of money to build a recording space from the ground up, we will always have to take our best guess — but truthfully it doesn’t really matter. Our rooms may not be the best, and we may not have the most expensive monitors or headphones, but as long as we know what our favorite records sound like on our speakers, in our rooms, and on our headphones,we can make good records, based on educated guesses – you’ll just have to figure out exactly what you’re hearing and not hearing, depending on your set up. With that said…
#3: Maybe your gear or room just sucks
There’s a difference between good gear and bad gear — and the price doesn’t always tell the whole story — but good gear matters. Don’t go cheap on your recording front end. Microphine’s, pre amp’s, interface’s, even cables, matter. Buy as best as your budget allows. Do some research, listen to examples or test some gear out if posible, save and sacrifice, but get yourself some decent gear — at least for the peace of mind of knowing that it’s you that sucks and not the gear.😉
Your room on the other hand is a lot harder to change. Do what you can with the resources you have, to eliminate the problems specific to your room. Whether that’s creating bass traps to hear bass better, putting rugs on the floor or hanging blankets to eliminate weird room reflections, or adding things like wood or mirrors to get more room reflections, there’s a lot of tried and true methods to control, and or enhance, your listening environment. Do them. Try it all. See what works for you… but remember throwing money at the problem isn’t always the answer. Maybe you need to move the microphone. Or move that couch. Your bed. That book case, etc …
#4: You’re recording way too hot
In a time long ago, conventional wisdom for audio recording was “record as loud as possible in order to get the best ratio of sound quality to tape hiss”. Today, that is not the case. Most everyone’s at home recording with a computer so we don’t need to worry about the hiss and limitations of tape, because computer recording now is far more – and I mean far more – powerful than your dad’s old tape recorder. So now, we have to worry about recording quieter, not louder.
Without getting into too many details, recording in the digital realm is a lot like putting water in a glass – there’s only so much water you can put in a glass, thus, there’s only so much audio you can fit into a computer. And that tip top limit of recording on a computer is 0 dBFS (Zero dB full scale), which is very different than zero dB on an analog tape recorder.
What this means for you, recording on a computer, is, simply, record quieter. You should never “hit red” on a computer, red means bad. Repeat with me, “red means bad”. The ideal range for your recorded tracks, on average, lies somewhere around -18 dBFS. That is too say that your audio peaks should be anywhere between -20 dBFS and -12 dBFS in your computer. If you’re following with your DAW on your computer, you’ll realize that the ideal range for individual recorded audio tracks may very well look to be about half way up your master fader – i know wimpy, right? – but as the tracks of your song start to add up, so too will the “water in the cup”, thus eating away at your computers headroom. If individual tracks are recorded quieter though, when they start to add up you will stay out of the red, saving your song the embarrassment of heavy digital distortion. Nice. Next up …
#5: Frequency buildups and frequency masking
Even if you have the best gear in the best room, and recorded things correctly there is still some chance your song just doesn’t sound “right”, and usually this has to do with concepts known as frequency buildups and frequency masking.
When I refer to frequency build ups, Im referring to how microphones pick up sound. If you’ve ever been to a public event and someone speaking sounds muffled and garbled like he’s talking into socks, that’s frequency buildup – in this scenario, the culprit is most likely too much low mid frequency build ups in the speakers voice, picked up by the microphone’s frequency response, amplifying that range creating a less than optimal vocal sound, (but any number of other variables could also be the problem.)
I found the main areas for frequency buildups when recording single instruments and voices in home studios are found in the mid range, somewhere between the 250hz-1khz range (but really depending on your gear, and your sound source, there could be resonances and peaks almost anywhere).
Frequency build ups as a concepts, pertains to when you’re capturing a sound, even the best sounds with the best gear may sound a bit off if the engineer is not careful about too much build up in any particular band of frequencies.
Frequency masking on the other hand, is similar to frequency buildup, in that they both deal with too much energy in a particular band of frequencies, but masking comes into play once multiple instruments and voices start playing at once, as would in a completed song. If two sounds are similar enough in a song, they’ll be fighting for the same range of frequencies and the same attention of your ears and brain, thus one will sound will sound bigger and one will sound smaller, or disappear entirely. And that’s when masking has messed with your song.
There are ways to fix masking though, so hope isn’t entirely lost. There’s equalization of instruments and voices, there’s changes in the arrangement, or really, maybe some things just need to be muted. In any case, masking may be killing the vibe of your song. And…
#6: Maybe you suck
Be honest with yourself. Audit your skill set honestly, and either improve where you lack, or find people that are better than you in those particular ares. We all feel we’re creative, or we wouldn’t be herein the first place,but the truth of the matter is, maybe you’re not good enough yet on your instrument to sound like your favorite records. This is not a knock, it just means you have to get better. Practice your instrument more. Make more songs. Experiment recording yourself more. With time your songs will get better, just trust the process. Be patient. No one is born an over night success and is a great at anything, skills are learned, period. Put in your 10,000 hours to master your craft. Be in it for the long haul because great things take more time to happen… now go out there and make it happen killer. Get em !!