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From Start To Finish

Paul White's Leader By Paul White
Published June 2010

Over the past few years, as the cost of recording systems has fallen, those people striving for more professional results have realised the benefits of buying better microphones, more highly specified converters and other carefully selected pieces of hardware. This makes a lot of sense, as most hardware products don't suddenly become incompatible with the rest of the system if the computer OS changes, and high‑quality microphones can last a lifetime. Why is it, then, that many of these same people seem to throw away most of the benefits of their high-performance recording systems by compromising at the extreme ends of the recording process?

At the recording stage, many project‑studio recordings are let down not by the equipment itself but by poor acoustics in both the recording and mixing areas. We've covered this subject many times in our Studio SOS articles and other features, but it still seems to be an area where people are reluctant to spend their money, even though a DIY solution can be both simple and inexpensive. If your vocals sound boxy or lack focus, the chances are that buying better mics and preamps will simply allow you to record the boxy ambience of your room with greater fidelity. You'll find plenty of useful information on the web site, so please check it out; you may be surprised at how much better your recordings sound once you've installed even some basic acoustic treatment.

At the opposite end of the recording process, we have mastering, and it is here that we have to face the thorny question of loudness. Over the past few years, various strategies have been employed to try to make mixes sound loud when played next to another artist's work, usually involving some pretty assertive compression and limiting. When used carefully, compression and limiting can help knit the elements of a mix together, making it sound more polished, but, sadly, commercial record companies often pressure mastering engineers to push the subjective loudness of mixes to such an extent that real damage is done, the practical outcome of which is that the consumer finds the mixes harsh and fatiguing to listen to.

Why such a quest for loudness? Radio play is part of the equation — naturally, you want your record to sound just as loud and appealing as all the other commercial releases. However, radio stations usually add some fairly hard multi‑band compression of their own, so that an over‑limited mix can end up sounding truly horrible. More recently, the use of MP3 players to play songs in a random order, rather than as albums, has increased the pressure to keep mixes loud. Experienced mastering engineers using the very best equipment currently struggle to make their mixes sound listenable at the loudness levels record companies and artists demand, so it comes as no surprise that those trying to make their home recordings match the level of commercial releases using only basic plug‑ins often spoil their music in the process. Maybe it's time to say 'enough is enough' and do what's best for the song, not simply what makes it loudest. If anyone complains, tell them that after five million years of evolution they should have figured out how to turn up a volume control!

Paul White Editor In Chief