Music is primarily about feel and emotion, and most successful musicians develop the ability to convey those two essentials through performing in front of a live audience. If your ultimate aim is to produce records that will connect with your listeners, it doesn't hurt to test your performance abilities and your material in front of real people, especially if you're just starting out. If you can see that the material works in front of an audience, you can have more confidence that a recorded version will stand up.
Here at SOS, we hear a lot of home‑recorded material that doesn't really work. In many cases the problem is either the musical content of the song itself or the standard of the performance — and often both. Also, you must appreciate that an arrangement that works live may not work so well on record unless you make some changes. Without the visual element to support them, long intros and repeated sequences quickly become boring, so you may need to rearrange your material to satisfy the low attention spans of typical listeners. This is where a good producer earns their fee, but in the project studio the same person often fills the role of artist, engineer and producer.
None of the issues mentioned can be solved by throwing more money at better recording gear, tempting though it is to try. While good acoustics and good mic technique will help you create a better‑quality recording, they won't cover a bad performance or lacklustre material. The reality is that even the most basic budget recording equipment and improvised acoustic treatment will allow you to produce perfectly adequate results if used properly. So while we all love to buy new toys, we occasionally need to face up to the fact that the source material may be in need of some improvement.
I can't help you with your songwriting, but when it comes to performance, the things that often mark a recording as sounding amateur are poor tuning and timing — with both instruments and vocals. Musical timing is all about feel, so the quantise buttons is of very limited help. Similarly, you're not going to create an emotionally engaging vocal performance by using pitch-correction software to try to patch up a poor performance. Yes, vocals usually need to be fairly well in tune to sound good, but more important than that, they need to convince the audience that they have something to say. You don't need to be technically brilliant as a vocalist to captivate an audience, but you do need to have that magic something that draws the listener into your world.
We should always strive to make recordings that are as technically excellent as possible, and I won't deny that good mics sound better than bad ones. But recording? The clue is in the name. It is all about making a 'record' of something worthwhile and then polishing it so that it stands repeated listening. It's not about creating perfectly tuned, quantised junk! Fortunately, there's no financial outlay involved in trying make yourself a better engineer, performer or musical arranger, and it's free to try out a new song at a local open-mic night. And what better time to work on your chops than during a recession?
Paul White Editor In Chief