People are creatures of habit, and just like with any other task, we can develop routines that throw some best practices into the wind. We have broken up this article into sections that outline the typical audio production workflow to help you steer clear of the common pitfalls in each phase.
Recording and live sound
These two sections are grouped together because they both require engineers to get it right on the spot. This means having a good setup, the right levels, and that the recording was rolling to capture that perfect take or that random improvisation that makes it onto the final cut.
Poor cable management
Good cable management is crucial when troubleshooting a problem with signal flow, both in the studio and at an event. Keep your cable runs clean and tidy, avoid sources of interference and label and document your setup. Make sure that your cables are in good running order and that faulty cables are marked for repair and kept in separate bin. Being able to repair XLR and TRS cables is a great starting point and is a good skill to add to your resume.
Bad signal-to-noise ratio
This is the Goldilocks zone of recording levels. Recording a signal at too low a level will leave it competing with your equipment’s noise floor, while too much gain opens the possibility of picking up too much background noise, clipping or feedback. Striking the right balance leaves you with a signal that captures the sourceâs dynamics and can accept further processing to its level.
Having a fix-it-in-post mentality
If you notice a mistake and it is in your power to do something about it right away, then you should. The best practice is to prevent mistakes from making it on the recording by being thorough and prepared.
This stage should be about expanding on what is already present in the recordings.
Overzealous signal processing
Work with what is given and make it shine. Don’t make changes just for the sake of making it sound different. Avoid the Christmas tree effect of having a compressor, EQ, reverb or digital signal processing (DSP) on every track just because you can. You can avoid this by giving your signal routing a more natural quality and using bussing on your reverb, placing performers or instruments into logical groups, using group compression, and using summing to reinforce those relationships. These are just a few routing ideas.
A good example of summing is sending the microphones of a two-person interview recording to a single stereo output.
You can avoid this by giving your mix a more natural quality through grouping using busses and placing your final compression, reverb, and other DSP. This is known as summing. A good example of summing is sending the microphones of a two-person interview recording to a single stereo output. You can set the balance of each individual track and apply EQ as needed before applying additional DSP on the output group. Your project will benefit from requiring less processing while sounding tighter and more natural by routing your signals in a more lifelike way.
Ignoring the meters
Your meters are there to give you an indication of your signal levels and how much headroom you have available. They should be used in tandem with your hearing at the appropriate monitoring levels. It is no use playing back a track at 50 dB SPL and thinking you need to turn up a sound effect until it sounds right, only to then realize that you have used up all the headroom. This is a bit of an extreme example, but these sorts of errors do occur on a smaller scale and add up over time with a decibel lost here and there until you find yourself having to rework the mix in order to gain back some headroom just so the dialogue can fit.
The meters and indicated levels will differ depending on the equipment you are using. Analogue mixers can either use dBu or dBv for their metered levels, while digital systems use dBFS. There also different types of meters, Peak Program Meters and VU Meters. These can be either use mechanical moving needles or bar-graph meters that use lights. The best practice is to read the labels and specifications of the equipment you are working with. Know your meters.
Inappropriate monitoring levels
The recommended monitoring level for speakers is 85 dB SPL because it provides the evenest frequency response to how we hear low, mid, and high frequencies. See the Fletcher Munsen Equal Loudness Contours for more information.
A quick way of getting these levels will be to download an SPL meter app on your smartphone of choice and to bring your levels up to around 82 db SPL with some reference music. Decibel 10th is free and available on both Android and iOS, while not ideal, it will put you on significantly better footing.
You should, however, also be dimming your mixes. Most consoles and audio interfaces have a physical or software switch that lower the output level by a preset amount. For example, Focusrite products tend to use 12 dBFS as their preset point. This allows you to check how your mixâs dynamic relationships hold up. Is the dialogue still sitting above the mix, or is it now buried or too high? Do your sound effects and background music levels remain balanced? The same applies to your stereo image. Does it collapse or maintain its presence? The goal is for your mix to retain all the qualities that make it sound great at louder levels. You should also be constantly shopping your mixes around on other systems to make sure that the same relationships mentioned above hold up.
Inadequate speakers or headphones
Make sure you have a pair each of monitor speakers and headphones that are up to the job and that you are also familiar with; you should not be mixing on low-end consumer speakers.
Audio and video are collaborative industries and you may not always work on a project from start to finish. Your file structure should be clear and easy to follow. This makes it easy to navigate and share with others when sending it off for mixing, overdubs, mastering and printing.
Disorganized filing system
A project is of no use when you cannot easily locate and identify its assets. Itâs recommended to have a separate hard drive for your audio projects. We tend to create folders for clients and their subsequent albums, songs or videos. If a project includes video, you will find folders containing the source material, mixed material and video project.
Default file nNames
Default file names like Audio01 are of no use to anyone. Your computer and digital audio workstation (DAW) project might know what they are at that point in time, but that will not easily translate to another DAW or project. If the track is the front of a kick drum recorded with an AKG D112 then a name like Kick-Front-D112 might be more appropriate. File names should contain hyphens and underscores because computers are not the most tolerant on spaces.
Now that we know that we used a D112 on that kick drum, we should also know how we positioned the microphone. Document your setups because you may have to replicate them or hand the project off. While photos make a helpful contribution, you should also draw diagrams and keep track of your routing schemes.
Would you, as the owner of an expensive Ferrari, forego a full coverage insurance policy? Of course not. The same goes with all the data for the projects that you have put in countless hours of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Buy a backup hard drive and use it religiously. Buy another one and keep it in a different location or purchase some cloud storage space. You get the idea, back up your files.
Before computers, there was a limit to how much you could do with tape splicing and editing. Computers and DAWs have drastically changed how we perceive and go about just about every step of the process. We will focus on time-based edits and just how much control we now have over controlling the delivery of a performance. Pro Tools has Elastic Audio, Logic Pro has Flex Time, and Ableton has Live Warp. Once you look past the difference in packaging you notice the similarity in their mechanics.
These tools are not an excuse to be lax during recordings, but you inevitably notice a small slip that was missed. Find the need to use extra material from other takes, get creative and find a way to contribute to the recording.
We have found ourselves using this tool in the following circumstances:
- Editing material from one take to use in another and fine-tuning the timing to match the destination.
- Moving the start and end of a dialogue, vocal or instrument that came in or ended early.
- Massaging the metering of a hastily recorded vocal.
Blag has a B.A. in Recording Arts from California State University Chico. He is a sound engineer and web developer with a love for music, video and tinkering.