There is no doubt that we have all had an experience where we know within a couple of seconds of hearing a track that we haven't heard before that it was recorded and mixed in a bedroom. I often find that amateur recordings sound “amateur.” But what distinguishes home studio creations from professional recordings? It's not about the style, whether that be Lo-Fi, vaporwave, or something distorted… you can still tell it's amateur. Amateur recordings tend to share certain characteristics that indicate that their mixing and recording are the work of novices. In order for you to achieve a more polished, professional mix in your own recordings, you should be able to recognize and address the following traits in them.
Too much bass
It is common for amateur engineers to monitor and mix through headphones or small speakers that lack low-frequency representation. Nothing says amateur mix than a boomy, overpowering bottom end.
As a result, it is normal to increase the bass instruments to compensate. However, this can result in muddy and indistinguishable mixes in turn.
In order to better gauge the appropriate bass levels in your mixes, try checking them against a commercial reference CD if you find they sound boomy on other systems. Poor drum levels are a sign of poor recording quality.
Everything in the recording chain matters: the room, the drums, the microphones (and of course, the drummer).
Professional engineers spend many days or even weeks tweaking each component of the drum cycle prior to recording a band in order to get the best drum sound, while at the same time making sure that no drum overpowers the others.
It is arguably the hardest instrument to record, as a large drum kit can require a minimum of 10 microphones, so it is no wonder that amateur recordings often fall short of the mark.
Arrangement and production have a part to play in the problem of clashing instruments. A song's parts can lack distinction when the different instruments are not given enough space to fit within the arrangement.
This is something that is more of an issue with arrangement than with production. A telling sign of an amateur mix is that most of us write as we record, adding layers to a song as we go, rather than planning ahead and recording only what is needed.
It isn't that there is anything wrong with this approach, per se, but it is that a professional producer refines the arrangements before setting foot in the studio.
The biggest difference between superstars and us wannabes isn't pitch, tone, or vibrato, but the fact that the arrangement is refined before they set foot in the studio. There's no doubt that some of the most successful artists are horrible singers, at least in classical terms.
In a sense, what distinguishes a good singer from a great singer is not so much how good they are, but how they control their voice's volume and, more importantly, when to change the volume.
And the ability to control their voice's volume has as much to do with their skill in front of a microphone as it does with their voice itself.
There is a difference between uneven vocals and a bad bar band where the singer is mumbling 2 feet back from the microphone or half swallowing the mic and screaming.
An amateur is a singer mumbling 2 feet back from the microphone, or half swallowing the microphone and screaming.
Reverb is used best when adding it sparingly for depth or ambiance.
A common mistake of beginners is to opt for the “some is good, more is better” approach. Nowadays, however, reverb is usually inaudible in commercial recordings, and adds texture to the sound without actually being noticeable, unless it’s used as an obvious effect.
It is best to increase the level of reverb until it is barely present, then turn it down a notch. Avoid soaking your vocals in deep chamber and hall reverb effects.
Even if you are not a trained ear, you can tell the difference between a Lexicon unit costing $3000 and a multitrack recorder that comes with free reverb. Reverbs with a cheap price sound like they're cheap. Particularly on lead vocals.
A good way to avoid reverb altogether if you do not have access to a decent plugin, is to avoid it altogether.
It is important to avoid obvious reverb, or at the very least, as mentioned above.
The drums are clearly programmed and trying to pass as live drums. Although this is not a problem in electronic and dance music, listeners are used to the steady quantized beats that are generated by drum machines.
The drum track of pop and rock is conditioned to give listeners a more natural, nuanced sound, and listeners have come to expect a more dynamic rhythm.
Muddy, indistinct vocals
Listeners should be able to hear the lyrics of a song if there are any. It might seem obvious, but it is an important point that is often overlooked by novice recordists.
Several factors contribute to indistinct vocals.
Too much room sound
If your room is not well-treated, or if you are recording in a large room, then it most likely won't flatter your recording.
However, a bad room does not necessarily mean bad recordings. (See the Portable Vocal Booth for more information.) Many classic albums have been recorded in less-than-perfect settings by engineers who knew how to limit the influence of the room on recordings.
When recording a song, try to minimize the sound of the room by close-miking whenever possible, and using microphones with polar patterns that reduce room noise captured during the recording process.
Professional musicians practice a song for weeks to months before recording it. There is one problem with amateur musicians, however, which is that if they write while they record, they effectively eliminate the need for practice.
As a result, beginners tend to approach recording with a fix-it-in-the-mix mentality, whether because of impatience or lack of experience, which naturally results in sloppy takes.
To sound like a professional, you don't need to aim for perfection. Nevertheless, you will need to make sure that your “keeper” takes are free of obvious timing mistakes.
You don't have to do much to make your track sound amateurish; it takes just one wrong snare drum strike to make your entire track sound like a mess…
As a beginner, you may find it difficult to record vocals more evenly.
The first and foremost thing you need to focus on is getting the singer the proper training. Before hitting record, make sure that the singer knows every change in the song and when to inhale for optimum breath control during the song.
Amateur drummers have a tendency to give off their tone, especially with the ride cymbal and the snare drum. The snare drum's tone depends on where and how hard the stick hits the head, and this is the same with the ride cymbal, especially near the bell of the drum.
Listeners often sense something's wrong when a drum track features 32 bars of 8th notes using the same ride cymbal sample at a constant volume.
It is also important to back off the microphone a few inches away from the microphone so that the signal is clearer.
Most vocal microphones boost the low frequencies of the sound sources that are close to the microphone. This is called the proximity effect.
Plosives are a blast of air that sounds careless and lazy when used without a pop filter. If you don’t have a pop-screen, you can easily make your own.
Poor or inappropriate EQ
Increasing the high frequencies of a vocal track is a common method of amateurs cleaning up a track and hoping to add definition to it. As a result of this, the vocal typically has an increased sibilance and a sharp, edgy sound, with no improvement in clarity.
You can safely remove everything below 100Hz from vocals with a low-frequency cut, so it is much more effective to clean up a track.
Your mix sells the vocal performance, so make sure the lyrics are heard and your microphone might even include a low-frequency roll-off switch for this purpose. It is important to make sure the lyrics are heard.
With over 8 years of hands-on experience in the music industry, Harry has run successful raves, played alongside industry heavyweights such as Max Chapman, DJ EZ, DJ Zinc and more (pictured below), had music played on national radio, DJ'd on live radio, produced until he hated every song, mixed until his ears bled, created sample packs from scratch using just a Zoom H1n and some sound design skills… and pretty much anything related to music production – he's done it, tested it, tried it.