We’re all likely to succumb to “gear lust” from time to time. “If I just had one more compressor plug-in…”  “All I need is another 8 preamp channels.”  “I sure could use four more drum mics.”

I’d like to suggest a cure for the creeping acquisition bug: keep it simple. You may not need lots of equipment. And during a mix, you don’t need to use everything you have.

Especially for small project studios or home studios on a budget, less is more. Using minimal equipment and processing not only saves money, it often sounds better, because there are fewer elements in the signal path. Your main goal is to convey the music of the performer. Often that happens when there is very little electronics and processing between the musician and the listener. Too much processing sounds fatiguing and actually hides the music.

Sometimes I think a recording is more impressive when it’s a simple, honest representation of what the performer can do.

Beginners, you don’t need to be overwhelmed by all the choices out there. Get a clean, natural, well-mixed recording first. Then rely on a few favorite plug-ins or effects to enhance that basic mix. You can do a lot with just one or two choices each of compression, reverb, echo and chorus.

What are some other ways to simplify life in the studio?

Try minimal drum miking. Put a large-diaphragm condenser mic overhead and put another mic in the kick.

Avoid using a patch bay. Connect directly from one device to another. It’s a cleaner signal path.

Don’t use effects while tracking — just during mixdown. You’re going to use them anyway, so avoid adding noise, distortion and complexity by omitting effects while recording. Instead of compressing stuff while recording, just record at a lower level — like -6 dB maximum. (Set the DAW meters to read peak levels, not rms).

After getting a good mix with reverb and effects, try turning DOWN the effects return as far as you can, to a point that still sounds good. Often, less reverb gives a tighter, punchier mix.

Don’t compress everything, just the lead vocal if necessary. Maybe bass, maybe kick drum. You’ll retain the dynamics that make music exciting.

Use acoustic solutions for acoustic problems; use electronic solutions for electronic problems. If your recorded vocal sounds phasey and colored due to sound reflections off the ceiling, put some foam up there instead of trying to fix the coloration with EQ.

Try subtractive mixing. Mute one instrument at a time, and see if the mix sounds better. If so, you just learned something! Maybe you don’t need those four rhythm-guitar parts.

These are not rules. They are just suggestions for those who are overwhelmed by all the choices, or who lack the funds for elaborate equipment and software. Anyone could argue for the opposite approach. There are times when a song needs a lot of sonic fixes. Just sayin’, don’t let the technology get in the way of the music.

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Bruce Bartlett is a microphone engineer (, audio journalist, and a recording engineer. He is the author of “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition” and “Recording Music On Location.” If you have questions about recording techniques, please email Bruce via


Originally posted 2009-08-29 12:03:59.