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Some people may scoff at the diminutive Fender Champ 600. After all, it’s only 5 Watts and has a tiny 6″ speaker. But those naysayers may be missing the point about the Champ or any super-low wattage speaker for that matter. It’s not meant to be a performance amp; though you can certainly hook it up to an extension cabinet, and it’ll do just fine in a small venue – hey! I do that A LOT. But the secret behind the beauty of this little $149 wonder isn’t on the stage, it’s in the studio.

I’ve heard feedback from various people that they get frustrated with this amp because it’s missing certain features. Let’s face it folks, with a single volume knob, no tone control, and not much gain on tap, it would be easy to dismiss this amp as nothing more than a toy. But it’s no mistake that its venerable sibling, the Champ, has been a mainstay in professional studios for decades. It’s all in how you make use of what it has to offer.

First off, let’s establish what I think is the most important thing when recording this amp: The Champ is really good at creating your base tone, and that’s all that it should be used for. It’s up to you to shape it. Keep that in mind, and you’ll get more than a lot of mileage out of it. So let’s look at some key factors when recording with the Champ:

  • The Champ is naturally bright because of its small speaker. So microphone placement is absolutely critical. If you want to get a bright, twangy sound with lots of treble content, place your mic head on in the center of the cone, or just off center to avoid getting those treble “pops.” If you want less treble response, move the mic off-center, nearer to the edge of the speaker cone. I’ve found that the richest sound comes from angling the mic at about the same angle as the speaker cone, placed right at the outer ring about an inch off the grille cloth. The EQ response is a lot flatter there, and makes it easy to dial in your EQ in your DAW.
  • Even cranked in the high input, and even with humbuckers, the most breakup you’ll get is about “dirty blues” overdrive. But that’s why we have overdrive and distortion pedals, right? I’ve found that Tube Screamer and TS-type overdrive pedals work great with the Champ, though my Holy Fire distortion can make the Champ serve up some whoop-ass if dialed in just right.
  • Looking for Fender cleans? The Champ does raw Fender cleans – and quite well. Again, it’s all about mic placement when recording cleans with the Champ. My favorite is angled as I described above.
  • Do yourself a favor and replace the stock tubes with NOS tubes. I’ve never been a big fan of Groove Tubes (though I know some people like them). But with a great NOS pre-amp tube (I’ve got a ’59 GE long plate), and a solid NOS 6V6 (mine is a ’53 GE 6V6), you’ll immediately tame the harshness of the amp. In fact, I’ve never seen a need to replace the power transformer or the speaker because of this $50 investment.

So with those points in mind, go and record. What you’ll get after you’ve played around a bit is a great, raw guitar tone. But your work isn’t done yet – or it could be if you’re satisfied with the raw tone. Personally, I like to add filters and effects in production to make the recording sound like it’s coming from a much bigger amp. Yes, boys and girls, you can make it sound MUCH bigger!

A Word on Amp Modeling

One thing that I have also done with the Champ is to record a purely clean rhythm tone, then run it through IK Multimedia’s Amplitube plug-in to essentially “re-amp” my guitar. You can get some amazing guitar tones with the Champ when it’s re-amped through this software.

My Champ 600 Recording Process

A couple of people have asked me how to record the amp, so I thought I’d share the process I employ:

  1. First, it starts with the guitar. Am I looking for a single-coil or humbucker tone. The cool thing about the Champ 600 is that what you hear when you play through it is your raw guitar tone. There’s no EQ so you have to establish that on your guitar. Simple enough.
  2. Then I’ll determine whether or not I want to track with effects. Usually, I’ll only track with overdrive or distortion. I leave all the modulation effects to production.
  3. Next, I place my mic head, dead-center on the speaker, then record a chord progression and perhaps some quick lead licks.
  4. Then I’ll move the mic off-center and repeat the same thing I played with the mic centered.
  5. Finally, I’ll angle the mic as described above and repeat the same progression. More likely than not, I’ll use this position because I like it the best, but different guitars actually sound better with the mic positioned dead-center.
  6. Once I decide what mic position I’ll use, then I’ll record the track.
  7. Once I’m finished, it’s time to apply EQ, filters and modulation effects. I like to use a hi-pass filter on most recordings with Champ to “tame” its natural edginess.

Here are some clips that I put together based upon the process above (I skipped recording head-on, off center):

Clean (Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Chorus, Parametric EQ, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

Overdriven with Tube Screamer for Extra Drive (Gibson Nighthawk 2009)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Flange, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

It’s amazing what EQ, filters and effects can do to the recording! And it really didn’t take that much work to dial in the final version of what I wanted to ultimately print!

Finally, here’s a song I wrote and record awhile back (sorry for the over-abundance of bass). If I remember correctly, I used four guitars in six parts in that song (Epiphone Explorer, Gibson ES-335, MIM Strat, PRS SE Soapbar II), all recorded with the Champ – and with the stock speaker no less!

Rock on!!!

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I wrote this song a few years back, and had the hardest time trying to record it. Unfortunately, the stock drum tracks in GarageBand just don’t cover the blues very well, so I finally found some decent audio drum loops that I could use. Ostensibly, this is a song about everlasting love, and how in marriage or even lifelong relationships, despite their occasional downs, if you truly love someone, you’ll return to them.

With this song, I wanted to capture a smoky lounge with a jazz quartet kind of groove. And BTW, the guitar in this was recorded using IK Multimedia Amplitube Fender. Damn! That ’57 Champ sounds great! Anyway, here’s the song:

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite
Amplitube Fender Edition
IK Multimedia Amplitube Fender Edition

Summary: Modeling 12 of the most famous Fender Amps, Amplitube Fender is pretty amazing. It’s scary how close to the real thing this software gets!

Pros: Super-easy to install, and super-convenient to use in your DAW software. The package comes with TONS of presets that require very little tweaking.

Cons: This is just a little nit because it sounds so good, and I don’t want to take that away from this excellent piece of software. But it doesn’t quite respond like a real amp.

Price: $229 Full Version / $139 Studio Version

Specs (from the IK Multimedia site):

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 overall, but for a recording plug-in, it gets a 5.0

Being a snobbish purist about “real” gear, 🙂 I’m not easily impressed by emulation software. But when I heard clips of the Fender Edition of Amplitube, I knew I had to check this software out. A million thanks go to the folks at IK Multimedia to letting me evaluate this software because I am definitely impressed by Amplitube Fender! It’s not everyday that you have access to 12 awesome Fender amps, and to have them literally a mouse-click away is just insane! I don’t think amp software will ever replace a real amp, but this software comes so close to sounding like the real thing that especially for recording, I’d be hard-pressed to NOT use it for recording lots of guitar parts!

I used an earlier version of AmpliTube a few years ago, and was not at all impressed by how it sounded. But being in the software development world, with time, software gets better, and I have to say that this software is absolutely incredible!

Now and then, I go off for a weekend alone, and I lug a couple of guitars, a couple of mics, an amp or two, and my MacBook, along with my MBox 2 interface to just do some writing and recording. With Amplitube Fender, I don’t need to lug my amps! I can just load my laptop and MBox an a couple of cords and a mic, and I’m home free! Hey! Not having to lug any extra gear is HUGE! I’m sold on using this software! Not only do I have my four real amps, I now have 12 other amps to choose from when I record! It’s really exciting!

How It Sounds

Imagine that! No need to write a section on fit and finish! 🙂

In a word, it sounds AWESOME! Right after I installed the software, I plugged my Strat into the DI jack of my MBox 2, opened up GarageBand, started a new project, added a new track, and selected “Amplitube Fender” from a plug-in drop down. It was literally that easy! I randomly picked a ’57 Deluxe Dual Mic, then started to strum this little ditty in Am. Before I knew it, I was adding drum and bass tracks, to record the riff.

I’ve played through a ’57 Deluxe in the past, and I was amazed at how the software emulated that warm, bright and crisp sound that that amp is known for! I kept on thinking to myself, “This couldn’t be software – it sounds to friggin’ good!” After I recorded that rhythm track, I took out the Goldtop to play a lead. I ended up playing for over an hour this evening just tooling around with different amps. In the end, I wanted to get a sample out, so I chose a ’59 Bassman with a Fender Fuzz-Wah plug-in to get some fuzz, then recorded the following sound bite:

I don’t know about you, but I really can’t tell the difference between the real thing and software. Maybe because I’m starting to lose my hearing and my ability to discern audio fidelity is kind of going south. No matter, I think this software ROCKS!

Overall Impressions

Amplitube Fender does a fantastic job of amp emulation – there’s no arguing that at all. But there’s a certain “mojo” about a real amp that just can’t be captured with software, no matter how close to the real thing that software sounds. That said, however, even one as snobbish as myself, and other gear freaks I know would be hard-pressed not to seriously consider adding this to their arsenal of recording plug-ins!

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Amplitube Fender EditionIf you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d know that I’m into tube amps – real tube amps – and I typically eschew modeling amps or modeling anything because they’re well, models. But I’m VERY intrigued by IK Multimedia’s Fender Edition. Thanks for this information goes to John over at Gear4Music in the UK for bringing this to my attention.

I will share a video demo in a bit, and based upon the videos and clips I’ve seen and heard, I’m incredibly impressed! Here are the amp models that this edition portrays:

  • ’59 Bassman® LTD
  • ’65 Twin Reverb®
  • ’57 Deluxe™
  • ’65 Deluxe Reverb®
  • ’64 Vibroverb™ Custom
  • Vibro-King® Custom
  • Champion™ 600
  • Super-Sonic™
  • MH-500 Metalhead™
  • Pro Junior™
  • Bassman® 300
  • TBP-1 Bass Preamp

I’ve used AmpliTube with ProTools in the past, but I had just the simple plug-in that came bundled with the LE version. IK Multimedia has really made huge leaps forward with these models. Check out a video:

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Soft/Hard Knee Compression

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this article for almost a year and a half. The back story behind it is that I was having a discussion with my eldest son about why I didn’t like the music he listened to. He was arguing that if I make the claim that I like all kinds of music, I shouldn’t contradict myself by saying I didn’t like his kind of (he was really into hardcore punk at the time). My response was that I actually liked the songs, but hated the vomit screaming vocals, and hated the total lack of regard for dynamic range in the music – it was all one volume from start to finish! I shared with him that I didn’t believe it was a function of the song, but a function of the mastering, and an endemic problem in music being produced these days.

To demonstrate, I grabbed an old Cars CD from my collection, and played a couple of songs for him. There were perceptibly distinct swells and dips in volume in all the songs – very dynamic. Then we put on one of his CD’s and listened to a couple of songs. After we finished, my son couldn’t believe the difference in recording technique used 20 years ago. Even he said the performances on my old CD seemed so much more alive, where the songs from his CD didn’t have nearly the amount of dynamicism, and they seemed almost muffled compared to the clarity of the Cars’ recordings.

I told him that it was due to the heavy compression that producers are using these days, and gave him a simple explanation of what a compressor does. I also shared that I believed that producers were just being lazy and using compression as a shortcut so they didn’t have to teach their musicians and singers proper mic and recording control. Heavy compression and limiting means you don’t have to fix the recordings as much, saving studio time, and thus getting a production out faster. I did say that compression is not bad, but it is overused. Correctly and judiciously applied, compression can really have a positive effect on a production.

But despite that, I didn’t write the article. I can’t explain why… Looking back, I suppose it may have been in large part due to wanting to focus more on getting gear reviews out, and focusing a lot on my own recordings. But I recently read an article in the new issue of Guitar World that covered compression: What it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply compression to vocals and various instruments. It was very instructive. As I eluded above, compression can be a very useful tool in the studio to tame wide swings in volume in a vocal or an instrument, and can add presence, and because of how it works, in many cases, a compressor is used to add sustain. At its most basic level, a compressor reduces the amount of dynamic range by reducing sounds that exceed a predetermined volume threshold; but because this also reduces the overall volume of the signal, makeup gain is added to bring up the volume of the quieter sounds. The end result is that you get a “fatter” signal.

I’m not going to go into any technical detail about compression. For that you can read this excellent reference. In fact, I’m going to assume you already know a bit about compression.

And while compression is very useful, as with anything you can have too much of a good thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t use it, but I am going to make an appeal: Don’t get sucked into the trend of creating a less dynamic recording. I can understand the need for compression over radio, but this trend is simply making for much lower audio quality and less dynamically expressive recordings.

Good Mic Technique

I was once speaking with this old timer named Patrick who, at 72, is still gigging and recording. I was talking to him about recording, and he said that young people don’t know good mic technique, and complained about the overuse of compression. His words, “Boy, back in the day, we didn’t have compression. So when a singer like Sinatra got to a phrase where he needed to pick up his volume, he just moved away from the mic. It ain’t goddamn rocket science. But compression made people lazy.”

Wow! What a statement, and it really is easy to do for a singer. But what about guitars? This is a bit tougher, but at least what I strive for is to make sure I’ve got a lot of dynamic range in my recordings by either tweaking the input or output gain so my waveforms have as much vertical travel variation on the track as possible. I will sacrifice volume for dynamics. After the fact, I may add a touch of compression, but only very limited, and to keep true to the natural output of the amp, use fairly short release times. This is approach can be a lot of work because it requires that I play fairly consistently, but that’s also good training. It’s also a lot of work to get a good mix, but in the end it’s totally worth it!

I believe if you just start with good mic technique, and use compression sparingly, your recordings will come alive.

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion Pedal

Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire Overdrive/Distortion


Summary: Overdrive and Distortion and tons of gain in one box that will NOT alter your tone. Has built-in wave shaping that responds to attack and input gain that simulates overdriving the front end of an amp.

Pros: Possible to achieve all sorts of clipping from swampy grind to searing distortion rife with harmonics, overtones and feedback, and it can do all this at ANY volume – freakin’ amazing!

Cons: Operationally, none. But its circuitry is so special that it requires a special 48V DC adapter – it will not run from a standard 9V or 18V power supply like Dunlop DC Brick. But for what it brings to the table, that’s a small price to pay.

Price: $195 direct

Knobs:

– “G” Gain
– “O” Overdrive – Soft clipping circuit – has built-in wave-shaping to react to input gain much like the front-end of a tube amp. Higher levels evoke increased wave-shaping ensuring even distortion throughout the EQ spectrum.
– “D” Distortion – Square wave form distortion
– Hi-cut (variable sweep hi-cut, fully open gives you all the tone, dialed back scales back the hi-freqs)

Tone Bone Rating: 5 This stuff is magic.

The guys at Creation Audio Labs must be wizards – or at least half wizard – because they’ve created what I consider to be the only overdrive/distortion pedal that does what it’s supposed to do, and doesn’t alter the tone of your amp! Mind you, there are times when you want that. For instance, to me, the classic overdriven mid-range hump of a Tube Screamer is an incomparable sound, and something I will always have on my board because I like the way it changes my tone. But in a lot of other circumstances, all I want is grind or all out distortion, and I don’t want my tone changed. That’s where the Holy Fire overdrive/distortion comes into play.

This is truly a magical pedal. Not only does it look awesome with that brushed metal exterior, and glowing red “Holy Fire” letters, it kicks the freakin’ pants off pretty much anything that’s out there that claims tone transparency in my opinion. And I don’t say this lightly. Remember, if you’re a regular reader of this column, I’ve got a real penchant for overdrive and distortion boxes – especially overdrive boxes. So when I say a pedal totally kicks ass, I mean it! You might not see too many reviews on them here, only because I only take the time to write about gear I love and would put in my chain. This is a pedal that will be taking up space on my board! And at $195 direct from Creation Audio Labs, this is a must-have box!

What’s so special about it? Actually, the question should be: What’s not to like? You get the best of both worlds here: Completely transparent overdrive or beautifully compressed distortion. Playing just with the overdrive and the distortion completely rolled off, you can get that classic, mildly crunchy, gritty grind to rip-roaring rattle that’ll make you think your amp’s bottles will shake off. Conversely with the overdrive turned all the way down and sweeping the Distortion knob, you can go from sweet and mild distortion, to heavily compressed gut-wrenching distortion replete with harmonics and overtones that’ll make you feel you’re getting scalped! But the best settings combine certain amounts of both. When you find your sweet spot, it’s epiphany time!

Imagine all this in one little stomp box! And the kicker is that your amp will still sound like your amp! Mind you, I didn’t read any reviews of this pedal before I got one for review. I didn’t want to taint my assessment of the pedal. The VERY first thing I noticed as I twiddled with the knobs is that my test amps never lost their voicing (I used three amps: An Aracom RoxBox combo, a Reason SM25, and my trusty Fender Hot Rod Deluxe). In all cases, the amp I was playing still sounded like my amp except it had grind and/or distortion. And no matter what output volume I had, the pedal operated the SAME WAY!!! So imagine the versatility this pedal brings to the table! I’m going to do a test later on with my Fender Champ 600, and see what wonders the Holy Fire will conjure when I lay down some tracks. It should be interesting as well as rewarding. So whether you’re on stage or in the studio. If you need breakup in your sound, this pedal will do it.

But wait there’s more!

On top of all I discussed, the pedal is sensitive to input gain, and has what’s called “wave shaping” that responds to higher input gain and acts like you’re overdriving the front-end of a tube amp. When you hit the pedal hard with either a booster or diming your guitar’s volume, or just picking hard, the pedal’s LED changes to a yellow color indicating that you’re overdriving the pedal. The magic behind this is that wave shaping evenly distorts the input signal across the EQ spectrum, so all your input tone is completely retained. The damn thing works too! It ain’t no marketing gimmick! So just as you’d expect when you do the same things with an amp, the Holy Fire will do it as well. Like I said, it’s magic.

I should make mention to a very cool effect that happens when you turn the distortion knob past 2 o’clock. The circuit actually starts compressing the signal, so you lose a little volume, but you get a very fat signal. In my opinion, that’s where the magic occurs with the distortion. After playing around with lots of combinations, I ended up just diming the distortion knob altogether, then just layering in varying amounts of overdrive and gain. Truly candy for the ears here, folks. With that, I’m going to post a couple of YouTube vids here so you can see and hear for yourself.

January 12, 2009

I’ve written a follow-up on this pedal. In a nutshell, I got my first chance gig with the Holy Fire this past weekend, and it was a true revelation. Talk about being on cloud nine while playing the guitar! Read the follow-up here.

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Home Studio There are different schools of thought around this subject, but I thought I’d throw in some of my own thoughts, since I’ve been at it awhile. Note that I won’t be talking about techniques necessarily, though I will include some tips and tricks… So without further ado…

First, let’s establish something here: You don’t need to buy super-expensive gear to sound good, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. I’ve found that in a lot of cases, while more expensive gear will afford you convenience features, and a better sound quality, for the home studio enthusiast, a lot of times this gear is overkill. I’ll go into some details below, but in my opinion, recording technique is far more important. So with that said, let’s start talking about what I think are essential pieces of equipment:

Computer Equipment/Software

You probably already have a computer, but it should be configured to handle digital recording. While drive speed is important, it isn’t necessarily critical. My MacBook Pro’s hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and I have no problems recording stuff. But what you do need is space. I’d recommend getting two hard drives: one for programs, and the other dedicated to saving data. It’s just a cleanliness thing. Also, get as much RAM as your machine can handle. I’ve got 4GB on my machine. That’s even more important than a hard drive. You don’t need a super-poweful machine either, but dual-core machines really work well.

Okay, Mac or PC? Go with what you’re comfortable with. There are lots of programs out there; among them is a neat little program that works great on both PC and Mac called Audacity – it’s free! Todd Rundgren recorded a lot of his latest album using Audacity, so it’s definitely doable.

What about ProTools?

I’ve got it. It’s great. But the learning curve is super steep. In fact, when I first started recording, I spent more time learning how to use the damn software than getting my ideas down and that just frustrated me to no end; so much so, that I lost my taste for recording for several months – I just didn’t want to mess around with the software! I just wanted to get my freakin’ ideas down! I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s complicated, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the program. With the home studio, what you’re after is getting your ideas down with reasonable quality – and fast. That, at least, is my opinion. In light of that, I use GarageBand to get all my ideas down. It has built-in rhythm loops so I don’t have to use a click track, and there are lots of add-ons, both free and affordable, that you can use in GB. The sound quality is excellent, and it even has some mastering presets that work amazingly well!

Digital Interface

There are lots out there. I happen to use the DigiDesign MBox 2, which has two analog inputs, MIDI, and a couple of others I don’t use. Very handy little box. But there are lots of solutions out there in the $300-$400 range. Most use USB, though FireWire is probably the optimum – it also costs more.

Microphones

Now this is just my opinion, but you’ll need at least two mics: One ribbon mic, and one dynamic mic. I have a Nady RSM-200 ribbon that cost me less than $200, and it works superbly! I also swear by my trusty Sennheiser 835 stage mic, which is a workhorse similar to the Shure SM-58, but I think it’s warmer and has a much flatter EQ response than the SM-58 which can get kind of boomy.

MIDI Controller

Being also a piano player – not nearly as good on this as I am on guitar – having a keyboard to trigger MIDI and add MIDI-based instruments is another essential. You can go the small route (2 octave) or go the full-size keyboard route. I use an M-Audio full-size stage keyboard myself only because it doubles as my MIDI controller as well as my gigging keyboard. It was also cheap at $300 new. Nice.

From my standpoint, this is all you need as far as essential equipment for recording. Now let’s get into some techniques and some nice-to-haves:

  1. Always record acoustic guitar using mics – and use two of ’em. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve tried going direct into my computer, and the sound is horrible. But using two mics works great. I usually place my ribbon mic about six inches from the sound hole, then place my dynamic mic pointed at a 45 degree angle at about the 3rd fret to capture sounds coming off the neck. Also, to take advantage of the ribbon mic’s rear pickup, I have a board, or hard, reflective surface placed about two to three feet in front of me to reflect sound back. It gives just a sligh reverb effect that really fills out the recorded tone.
  2. If you can swing it, get a couple of low-wattage amps. In particular, I use a Fender Champ 600, which is a 5 Watt amp with an 8″ speaker. Another one I’ve used, but don’t own is the Epiphone Valve Jr.. What a nice little amp! Since you’re recording at bedroom levels, a small amp that puts out less volume works wonders. Now here’s the trick I’ve found to recording with these small amps. You can make that sucker sound HUGE by close-mic’ing the amp. I use a dynamic mic pointed at an angle along the cone of the speaker, and place it no more than 2″ away from the grille cloth. Then I use a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals to get grind or searing distortion, then in my software boost the low frequencies. The end result is that it sounds like I’ve just recorded a full-size stack! You have to play with your settings, but it’s definitely achievable. The other nice thing about using a small amp for recording is that the naturally bright voicing really works well in a digital recording environment.
  3. For vocals, always use a pop filter. I’m an experienced singer, and even though I have great mic technique, nothing is worse on a recording than picking up those oral transients that your mouth makes when making consonant sounds. Pop filters cost less than $20 and believe me they’re a life saver.
  4. While we’re on the subject of vocals… Avoid using a compressor on vocals as much as possible. When you’re singing a louder phrase, move away from the mic. It’s that simple. Compression is good to a point, but there’s a lot to be said about having volume dynamics in your vocals. You get a lot more emotion coming through when you have it. If volume is pretty much the same throughout a song, it’s well… boring in my opinion, no matter how good a singer you are.
  5. Avoid EQ as much as you can. Dial in the EQ on your instruments before you record, then only do wholesale volume adjustments later to make mix corrections. What you’re trying to do is capture the natural sound the instrument makes as closely as possible. The only exception I make to this is when I’m recording a low-wattage amp and want to boost the lows. Otherwise, I just do volume adjustments for the mix.

These are just a few things I’ve learned over the last few years of doing this. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, so if anyone else wants to add to this, please feel free!

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