I’ve had many songwriters come to me saying they need to make the recordings of their songs ‘broadcast quality’. They either want me to produce their songs, or to help them make their own recordings better.
‘Broadcast quality’ is something that publishers, licensing companies, and ‘middlemen’ like Taxi often request. What does it mean… and how is it attained?
What it means is the simple part. Basically, they want what you want – for your stuff to sound as good as what’s out there on radio, TV, CDs, Spotify, etc. It’s the ‘quality’ of what is ‘broadcast’. That stuff usually sounds good because it was played (or at least edited), produced, mixed, and mastered by professionals.
So, assuming you don’t yet have that level of technique, what can you focus on to get there?
1) Performance. The most neglected factor.
Artists and songwriters often worry most about the audio quality, but the most common problems I hear are performances that aren’t precise enough. Making a good recording is like building a good house (or building a good anything) – it’s got to be solid all the way through… particularly the foundation.
Don’t rush through the beginning part – get the feel right, play the basic parts accurately and with good time. Getting the ‘basic track’ right will make everything else sound better. And everything else has almost no chance of sounding any good if the foundation is flimsy.
Make sure all the instruments are really in tune – with themselves and with each other. That goes for all the vocals too. And of course having your lead vocal be as strong and solid as possible is essential. That’s what’s at center stage.
Be patient. Everybody wants to record things quickly during fits of inspiration. But few of us are like Prince, who could do that and still have the quality be exceptional. Most of the greatest artists aren’t like that. Their finest recordings are usually the result of painstaking and time-intensive work (as were Prince’s – he could just move faster, and do everything himself if he wanted to, so he was just more prolific than almost anyone).
2) Recording Quality. Keep this simple; you don’t have to be a genius.
Don’t record things too soft or (especially) too loud. Watch out for distortion. If you see your fader going into the Red, back it off! Again, taking the time to get this right will pay dividends.
If you’re a singer, try a bunch of microphones in your price range. Buy the one that makes your voice sound the best. Get the best pre-amp and A to D/D to A (Analog/Digital) converter you can afford. There’s a lot of pretty good reasonably-priced equipment out there these days. Use it carefully and you’ll be fine.
3) Mixing. What usually matters most here is what you’ve recorded. That’s what you work with when you mix.
As you build your track, think about how the part you’re recording fits into the big sonic picture. Is there room… or is that space already taken?
Getting better at mixing has a lot to do with training your ears. There are a lot of good tutorials out there, both free and paid, as well as friends and teachers, that can help with this. But always pay attention to the overall sonic picture – the lows, the mids, the highs. Try for a well-balanced arrangement.
4) Mastering. The last stage.
Mastering is often best done by a pro. In fact many people who do home studio-type recordings then go out and spend money on a mastering engineer. (This goes for mixing too, but that adds another layer of expense.) Mainly they want another good pair of ears involved, as well as what is usually better equipment, at the final stage.
If you can’t afford to do this, or don’t know someone you can trust, getting acquainted (again, through tutorials and friends) with the basic functions of a Limiter – which can make your mix louder (but don’t make it so loud that it alters or distorts your mix) – is the basic element.
‘Broadcast quality’ includes having your volume be similar to everyone else’s. You don’t need to be the loudest, but if they have to turn up the volume when your song comes on, you’re in trouble.
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