It never fails. An amateur band's first recording has most of these problems:

This is what separates the experts from the novices. It takes practice. But there are some things you can do about these problems:

  1. You need to plan your final mix so similar instruments are separated in space and time.
  2. Make sure the instruments aren't playing the same part. Even if they are an octave apart, you will never pry them apart if they are playing the same darn notes.
  3. Pan instruments in the same frequency band to opposite sides.
  4. Try to avoid having instruments that sound like each other. Piano and acoustic guitar are so alike in frequency bands that they tend to blend together into a "guiano." Another similarity creates the "tromboon."
  5. Separate similar instruments by having them play in counterpoint (for an example, think "Dueling Banjos"), or in alternate verses.
  6. Separate similar instruments with different EQ settings.
  7. Many times, there are just too many instruments fighting for top billing. Get rid of a few, or alternate them, if that's the case.
  8. At most, only one instrument should be playing chords. If more than one instrument plays chords, they are very hard to separate.
  9. If the instruments are really "clashing," you may have a tuning problem. Make sure everyone is in tune. And don't tune acoustic instruments to each other. Use the keyboard, or some other fixed pitch reference. Also, if you use a tuner, make everyone in the band use the SAME tuner (yes, they can be a little off from each other).
  10. Remember that when you do an internal bounce to one track, the result is in boring mono. Now you have a whole bunch of stuff inseparably panned to the same place. You need to plan your bouncing, so that dissimilar instruments end up panned together in the final mix. Like this:
  11. Note that, unless you use stereo tracking and bouncing techniques, or record parts during the mixdown, you can have no more pan positions than you have tracks.
  12. If your studio is acoustically live, and the musicians play loud, a lot of reflections get into other mics when tracking instruments together. The result is mud.
  13. Check your trial mix out on several different sets of speakers, so the coloration of one set doesn't alter your mix.
  14. If your monitors reproduce a frequency band with less volume than other frequencies, you will tend to overexaggerate instruments that work in that band. This is especially true at the extreme high and low frequencies.
  15. Practice your bounces several times before actually recording them. Vary the level of each track until the mix for the bounce sounds balanced to you. Only when it sounds right to you in the various sets of speakers you try should you actually record the bounce.
  16. Mix with your ears, not the control positions or meter indications. Make it sound good to you. The recording level meters are there to tell you the signals are there, and to keep them from overloading the tape. They can't tell you how much of a part is too much, compared to the other parts.
  17. Solo the clashing parts (if you have solo), and check what they sound like together, but without the other parts. For me, an after-fader solo is a must to getting a proper balance.
  18. What??? No solo buttons on your PortaStudio??? You can fake it quite easily on all but the MiniStudios. Here's how:
  19. If the singer seems to be hiding in the next county, check to see if too much room, or too much reverb, is getting into the singer's track.
  20. If the singer is off key, or the wrong level, check the monitor levels. It might be that the singer can't hear himself, in relation to the other parts.
  21. Don't put two parts that need to be in tune with each other in opposite ears of headphones. People can't stay in tune without both parts in the same ear.
  22. If the singer is too far from the mic, he will sound like he is too far from the mic. But if the singer is eating the mic, then his or her voice will be changed by the presence of the microphone in the area of the vocal tract, changing the shape of the vocal tract, and thus the sounds it produces. Usually 2 to 6 inches is the best spacing between mouth and mic.
  23. One thing that really messes up a mix is when a mic picks up a monitor during tracking. This can cause all kinds of unexpected changes in the mix, including making parts disappear, moving pan positions, canceling out certain frequencies, and making parts seem distant and hollow. Use headphones when recording with mics.
  24. Tame that room! All of the following are methods to reduce reflections, standing waves, and other problems in the recording room:
  25. Room response is NOT linear, but varies with how loud the instruments are being played. Turning down during recording will give you better tracks.
  26. Don't use a concert amp stack to record with. By the time the guitarist gets it up to where the speakers produce the distortion he wants, the poor little mic has already given up on making good sound, and the room is shocked into resonance. Use a smaller amp or speaker box, and the recording will sound like it was made with the big amp.
  27. If you (the engineer) also play an instrument, be careful to not subconsciously overemphasize or underemphasize the part played on the same instrument.

All it takes is a little work and practice, and soon your recordings will sound like they were done by a pro.

Mixing your own sound