Updated: Oct 3, 2019
Deciding what's the first topic of your shiny new blog is a little daunting: so many interesting things to talk about, so many experience to share, so many new people to get to know and get ideas from!
After some thinking, I've settled to start The Audio Blog with a question I've heard (and discussed) many, many times. Truth be said, the main purpose is to have someplace where I can point people to, the next time I hear it!
The question is (you guessed): what does it take to make a great recording?
There's lots of us making records nowadays: singles, albums, EPs, you name it. As in my case, often we are the artist, but also the recording engineer, the manager, the songwriter and so on. We create in bedrooms, dedicated rooms at home, sometimes we even go and pay time in little studios. We all care for the music they produce (a lot!), and therefore we are concerned with getting the best quality possible.
Which is very cool.
However (usually due to that lack of "proper studio" experience, following someone who actually has recording skills), some of us think that the answer to "how can I make a great recording?" is in terms of what gear to buy, or in questioning if the gear we have is good enough.
Gear is fun and holds the implicit promise of greatness.. if I buy a Neumann U67, I will sound wonderful! If I buy a Neve 1073, my recordings will be sound just like Led Zeppelin's! If only I had that guitar, I would play much better!
Well, it ain't so.
Gear is useful and necessary, and yes - in broad terms - better gear will give you a chance of better results. But creating a great recording depends on stuff that comes way before it. Way before!
Let's keep it short. When it comes to recording, your sonic results come pretty much from the following, in order of importance:
The artist's performance
The musical material and its arrangement (if we're talking a song)
The musicians' performance (again, in case playing music is involved)
The acoustics of the room(s) where recording takes place
The gain structure you use
The position of the microphone(s) in the room
The actual microphones(s) you are using
Let it sink in.
These factors make almost all of the quality of the result. Almost all!
Note that gear as such, doesn't make it in the first three factors. Heck, it doesn't even make in the first six!
The factors above are like 98% of your total quality. The rest, in little more loose order, comes from:
The preamps and how you use them
The A/D converters (if you're recording digitally) or the tape type and tape machine (if you aren't) and how you use them
The recording medium itself (tape vs. digital recording - one's not better than the other, they just allow for different things)
The mixing and mastering (for music)
The playback medium (vinyl vs. cassette vs. cd vs. audio file, compressed or not and how much)
(the order here is looser because the impact of each depends more on how you use the gear and the skills you have in using it)
What this means is that an awesome performance of great material, recorded with a cheap mic, will still sound way more awesome than a mediocre performance recorded with a great mic.
Or that a great mic, used in a crap sounding space, will sound way worse than a cheap mic in a good sounding room. And so on: you get the gist.
So if you want to make a good recording, it's simple: first, forget new gear.
Second, make sure that you have a great artist (yourself?): well rehearsed, expressive, emotional, knowing how to sing/play/whatever it is that needs to be done and make it feel real. Make sure the material is good - especially the arrangement, which is really critical to how a piece of recorded music sounds.
That's half of the heavy lifting.
After that, the most important thing you should look at is your recording room: is it well treated? Does it sound good? If the answer is no (or I have no clue or what the heck do you mean "sound good?"), check out my post on what does it mean that a room sounds good.. and spend your money on acoustic treatment and our time in learning how to set it up.
Then, once your room is good, take whatever gear you have, and explore how where you place your microphone in the room affects the recorded sound.
Finally, it's worth looking at your microphones to see if you really need something better or different.
Only then - when everything else is very good already - look at your preamps, A/D converters etc to get the final silver dust on the icing of the cake. But honestly, in most cases there's really little need.
I know it's hard: it's much more fun to go out there and buy some nice shiny things and be all proud of owning them. But if a good recording is what you're after, that "buy shiny things" step is often way down the line and unnecessary.
You will improve your results way better by delivering better performances, honing your songwriting and arrangement skills, and treating your room acoustically. Buying a new Neumann, an expensive A/D converter or a nicer preamp won't help at all if you haven't taken care of that first.