How to make your recordings stand out from the crowd

You want a great recording and make your recordings stand out. If you are signed and you have a budget, the answer is to get the record company to get a top producer in to make it sound great! If you can’t get Tony Visconti, Steve Levine or George Martin for whatever reason and you are paying for the recording yourself, what to do then?
Having run a studio for 34 years, a question bands often ask is how can they make recordings which stand out from the crowd? It is a sad fact of life that many people in A&R hit the off button before the song has got going. If the first ten seconds don’t sound great, you have lost them. So the first rule of thumb is to make sure that the first ten seconds sound as good as possible. The second thing that an A&R person will want to know is that the singer has something about them, something a bit unique and a bit special. I personally believe that it is impossible to get great sounding vocal recordings without using the right microphone. In our studio we use a Neumann U87 large diaphragm mic. This gives vocals a professional quality. We also use A valve Preamp to process the signal. Thse two things combined make a world of difference. These days many artists program all of the music at home and then record the vocals over in a studio which has access to decent mics and preamps. Even if you can’t afford to do all of the recording in a studio, give some consideration to the vocals. It really will make all of the difference. If you will be doing a lot of recording, it is worth making the investment in the kit for your home setup. It isn’t cheap though.
So you’ve got a great intro and great vocals. What would be the other tricks of the trade. The most under utilised trick is using percussion to lift the song. A tambourine or shaker added into the chorus (not overplayed) can make a huge difference. Don’t be afriad to drop instruments out as well. Trya nd get a bit of light and dark between songs and make sure that the transitions between verses and choruses sound like transitions.
Some common mistakes are often made recording vocals. There are three main vocals pitfalls to avoid. The first is to let someone sing out of tune on a recording. Often the guitarist will do a few “la la’s” at gigs. Whilst this may sound great, if he is out of tune on the recording it will make it sound awful. The second is to add hundreds of harmonies which don’t add anything and clutter up the sound. The third is to have a long lead intro before the vocals come in. Whilst the band may be about far more than the vocals, an A&R person needs to be able to hear that the band works as a unit pretty quickly.
What about recording guitars? Unless you are doing metal where the guitar riff is the hook, make sure it sits comfortably in the mix and doesn’t overpower everything else. If the song has a solo in, then it has to be promement, but where there are vocal parts, keep it to a minimum.
With regards to bass. If you are using electronically generated bass, there is one consideration to bear in mind. If you are doing it at home and you have the mother of all subwoofers, the song will sound fat. If an A&R man is  listening to it in his car, it won’t. Make sure that the track sounds good on botha  car stereo and a club system. If appropriate, do two versions and put the club mix second. An A&R guy will get it. If you are using electric bass guitar, I’d consider using a split clean source and an amp sound. This will hopefully give you a really fat sound
Finally a few hints regarding keyboards (band keyboards rather than programmed up keyboards). In semi pro bands with keyboards and guitars, there is often no room left by he time all of these have been recorded.
If you have two guitarists and a keyboard player, then perhaps alter the balance between them for each verse. Try and make sure that something interesting and different is going on (ie not just three people playing the same part in the same way at the same volume for each verse).
Drums are abig issue for many people. Our studios have a sonically tuned live room, where drums always sound good. We also have a stack of good mics to capture the sound. Plenty of bands use us to record the backline and then take the songs home to mix. If your drummer can, play to click. One word of caution regarding playing to a click. I’ve never yet met a drummer who can do it, if they haven’t put hours and hours of practice playing to clicks in. If they haven’t bothered to practice, they won’t be able to do it and it will cost you money. We have a cut price drum studio (£3.50 per hour) with facilities for drummers to practice to click tracks. If your drummer wants a good recording I’d recommend at least three one hour sessions to practice the art. If he won’t do it, you won’t get a decent recording.
To understand what makes a recording great, we need to understand how the brain processes music. After about ten seconds of hearing a noise, the brain switches off and just accepts it as part of the background. Therefore to keep someones attention, something different needs to happen every four or five seconds., to keep the attentionI (if you are making a hypnotic dance groove, clearly slightly different rules apply, but consider using percussion creatively to add a few different flavours).
The final tip is to trust your ears. if it sounds a bit wrong to you, it is a bit wrong.
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