I’ve started to notice a trend among modern bedroom producers, and even within some starting professional studios. They have too much disregard for the importance of capturing good source tones during production. Many people put too much reliance on their secret-sauce plugins and EQs that will “fix” their tones for them. But truthfully, if you go the lazy route with production and pre-production, you’ll usually end up spending more time trying to salvage your tones than you would by capturing good ones to begin with.
If you’ve ever seen any behind the scenes footage of producers working in world class studios, you’ll notice that they can easily spend complete days auditioning different sounds to find the ones that will provide the best end result. They’re not looking for “workable” tones; they’re looking for the best tones possible. Sometimes this means trying dozens of different drum kits, and even Frankenstein-ing the pieces together to find the best combination of sounds. Not all of us have access to dozens of drum kits and guitar amps, but we do have access to VSTs and Amp Sims, which are the same for us in the realm of digital production. Don’t just load up one setting that worked last time or one that you saw in a YouTube video. Perhaps try 10 different tones. Maybe more. Don’t be lazy. After all, for you to try 10 drum kits in a VST is still infinitely faster than trying even 2 drum kits in real life. Undeniably, this is where a truly great mix starts. With a great production.
Another reason that this method is effective is because it results in way less time spent tweaking sounds in the mixing phase. Often times with great multi-tracks, a mixing engineer can push up faders to find a general balance, and he/she has a half decent mix already. Less time spent fixing technical problems and weak points means that you can actually spend more time with your mind focused on what matters. Less stress about why your guitar’s source tone sounds like an electric Kazoo is less worry that you’ll fall short of your client’s expectations. And that’s an absolutely fantastic advantage to have when you get to post-production.
You’ll also have a much more natural sounding mix if you have to make less EQ moves in the long run. I’m not saying EQ is bad, and even big EQ boosts/cuts can be great if warranted. But you shouldn’t rely on those to help you out. Miking your guitar cabinet right the first time will provide a much more natural sound than miking it way too close to the outside of the speaker and then just boosting the shit out of the highs and mids. This might be an extreme example, but that doesn’t make it any less true for the same idea presented in a smaller degree. EQ’s can shape sound rather drastically, but an EQ still sounds like an EQ. And you probably want your guitar amps sounding like guitar amps.
Knowing how to capture great tones is also great for improving your working knowledge as a producer. By understanding what these source tones should sound like and what characteristics you should be looking for, you’ll better know how to identify certain problems when they do arise. You will have increased recognition of strange frequency build-ups (or even lack of frequencies) that can plague the inexperienced producer over the course of their career without them even realizing it. All the tools are available for you. Especially when working in the box (as most of us DIY guys are), you should have no excuse for not taking DI’s whenever possible and MIDI-ifying your drums to make sure that you don’t back yourself into any corners with a shitty production. You’ll thank yourself in the end and be proud of the skills that you’ve developed! So get out there, and chase those tones!