How to Record Better Music at Home: A Separation of Concerns

The new home recording era is upon us. Many of us are successfully writing music, recording, mixing, and even mastering at home. This is an exciting time to get involved in the home recording process! Yet we often find ourselves failing to complete the work which we love. This article address one of the more common pitfalls we face.

The Separation of Concerns

The term “separation of concerns” is borrowed from the computer programmer’s playbook. Software programming involves splitting a program into distinct concerns. Concerns are unique sections of the code that interact with other concerns. If that sounds confusing to you, let’s consider how this principle could apply to producing music.

For this article, I will define “a concern” as a unique part of the recording process for music. Do not think of a concern as a worry or being concerned about something. But rather, it is a functional part of the process.

1. The Song is the Heart of Your Recording

The first concern is writing the song. Your lyrical content, chord progressions, and arrangement. Let’s face it, you could perform every other step in this process perfectly. If you fail to write a song that anyone wants to hear, it’s only a learning experience. Granted, you also need those experiences to get better. The point is, the song is the heart of the recording.

2. Tracking Your Song

Tacking, or recording, your song is the second concern. Sitting down with your guitar or a microphone and hitting record can capture the raw emotion of your song. When those moments happen, it’s like magic. Even if you’re taking it slow, line by line. When you hear it all together and it’s you! It’s your song. It came out of your heart and head. That is so fantastic!

3. Mixing Your Song

The next concern is mixing. Tracking or recording your song doesn’t result in your finished product. Mixing dramatically enhances the song you’ve just passionately recorded. You will go through each track you’ve recorded, intelligently applying EQ, compression, and special effects. You will not want to forget the most important part of mixing… adjusting volume faders throughout the song. This is such a critical piece of the chain today.

4. Mastering Your Song

Mastering your final mix is the last step among the concerns. It is highly recommended that you don’t master your own music. This brings a fresh perspective on what your song needs. In short, mastering applies a final polish to the song. An un-mastered song will generally lack the loudness, fullness, and overall sound of a professional recording. It’s not really a step you should skip.

The Dangers of Crossing the Streams

If Ghostbusters taught us anything, it was to never cross the streams. The same is true with this separation of concerns. Each concern is like a stream from a proton pack. As a producer of my own music, I often run into the temptation to cross the streams. Let’s look at why we might want to avoid doing this.

Publish Better Music Faster

If you want to publish more music faster, keep these concerns separate. Once you start blending them, each edit you make will ripple through the other concerns. Changing a guitar solo during mixing puts the vehicle in reverse and gets you nowhere fast. Likewise, mixing while tracking can steal your focus from capturing your best performance. By the time you’re done, you have written, recorded, mixed, and mastered the song several times over.

When I work on someone else’s music, it’s more straight forward. They can’t come into the studio every night and add a new part. Unfortunately, I can. And that’s where I get in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible to be able to work on your own music at your own pace. When you sabotage your own music, less music is actually created and what does get finished comes out incredibly slow.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course, there are times when you are mixing down a track and you realize that you need to add a part. Go ahead and add it. Then take the rubber band on your wrist, pull it back, and release. This is a reminder that you didn’t do the first concern correctly. Composing is the most important part of recording music. Without a great composition, you can’t proceed any further. I, for one, need to get better at it. If I spent more time composing, less time would be spent on production.

Another possible exception to this rule is electronic music composed inside the DAW. In this instance, the DAW is used more as an instrument for writing the song. It’s totally fine to write music in your DAW. However, it is still best to keep the actual mixing and mastering processes separate. I’ve done this both ways, and for me, it brings out even more creativity in the mixing phase.

All this being said, there is no better time to start recording your own music at home. Even if you do it incorrectly, you will have something that you made, learned from, and enjoyed! Now go make music!