Recording raw or with effects on the way in?

Do you record your sounds with effects processing? Or do you record the raw sound and process it afterwards? Or maybe you do a bit of both, recording some instruments processed and some raw. Or maybe you record with some processing, but apply additional processing later on?

Or maybe you’re wondering what it all means.

  • Recording instruments raw (without any processing) means you don’t have to make an immediate decision about how the instrument will sound in the song – you defer that decision until later. This might take the form of recording drums and vocals without compression or EQ, or recording guitars and bass direct (to be re-amped later), or recording synths with the onboard effects bypassed.
  • Recording instruments with processing means you make a decision at the time the instrument is recorded, and you’re (mostly) stuck with that decision. This might take the form of recording drums and vocals with outboard compression or EQ, guitars and bass from a microphone and amplifier, and synths with onboard effects.

The advantage to recording the raw sound is that you give yourself the flexibility to tailor (or even change) the sound of the instrument as the arrangement takes shape and the song comes together. This is often referred to as ‘keeping your options open’.

The disadvantage of recording the raw sound (which is also the advantage of recording only the processed sound) is that it often increases the time required for post production (editing and mixing) and can reflect a lack of focussed creative direction.

Generally speaking, making music consists of a series of steps. It will vary depending of the project’s workflow, but an example might be:

  1. Establishing the concept / creative direction
  2. Composition
  3. Recording
  4. Mixing
  5. Mastering

In most cases, it makes sense to try to be as specific and make as many decisions as possible early in the process. This reduces the options available in later stages. This is a good thing. By ‘locking in’ decisions early, later stages of production require less time because there are fewer possibilities. The later you defer a decision, the more time and effort it takes to resolve it.

Consider the question of recording raw or processed audio. On one hand, mixing can be a long and arduous process – there decisions to be made and various options to consider. In extreme cases, there might even be many more tracks recorded than are needed for the song (recorded and kept ‘just in case’).

On the other hand, mixing can be relatively quick and painless if all the tracks are pretty close to how they need to sound in the final product.

The interesting thing is that it doesn’t take much extra effort to lock in a decision early in the process, but it takes a lot more effort to resolve indecision later on.

Of course, it’s possible to make bad decisions early on – and be stuck with them later in the process. This is most likely to happen to inexperienced producers and engineers. There’s no easy way to get past it – inexperience is beaten only by experience. Make lots of music. Keep in mind, however, that deferring decisions until later won’t allow you to avoid making a bad decision. You’ll still make a bad decision, you’ll just take longer to make it.

Don’t be afraid of making bad decisions! Be bold! Take risks! Make music!

-Kim.

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  1. Thanks Kim.

    I’ve been using my hardware synth more because it’s not a well-known one, and has a unique character.

  2. @Tom Mrak
    Unique character is a really good reason to choose one instrument over another. Another thing to keep in mind – unique character can refer to sound, but it can also refer to workflow. The layout or controls of an instrument can provoke a different means of musical expression, even if the underlying means of sound generation is the same.

    -Kim.

  3. What I usually do is set up a suitable effects chain for how it _should_ be recorded and then bypass that when actually doing the recording, but keeping the settings (either in DAW or on paper).

    After that I loop that recording back through the previous effects as a new file in my DAW, so I now have both the processed material and the original raw material in case I find I was wrong later.

    This sounds complex, but is actually very easy to do, at least in Reaper, once everything is connected and set up properly.

    Oh, and great blog by the way, it’s always an interesting read.

  4. @Christian Dannie Storgaard
    Recording both the wet and dry versions is a common compromise. It makes sense as a ‘just in case’ backup.

    How often do you find that you ned to go back to the dry recording and reapply the processing with different settings?

    -Kim.

  5. @Kim Lajoie
    Ah yes, that’s of course the main question.

    I actually very, very rarely go back to to fix anything but it happens quite often that I use the dry version again with different processing, either to give depth or to have an alternative version for a different place in the track.

  6. I used to worry about this, but I came to the conclusion to record with effects on for the reason that when I have the right tone, I will play it better….generates a performance with more feel. Recording dry is boring to me….I tend to play so I don’t make a mistake…. playing it just so, providing less mojo.

    This is mainly just bass, vocals and guitar though…..and I tend to add more effects when mixing…..but the base of the tone is there. I need it to track….and to inspire other tracks.

    Know what I mean…..probably pretty simple stuff, but thought I’d chime in….

  7. @Christian Dannie Storgaard
    Good point- sometimes the extra material can be used elsewhere for other purposes.

    @Ian Hudson
    Thanks for sharing – it might seem simple to you, but it might not necessarily be simple or obvious to other readers. I agree with you about playing through the right processing results in a better performance. Guitar processing is an obvious example – it makes no sense to record dry and add distortion later. No surprise that it also applies to other instruments too.

    -Kim.

  8. I like recording guitars in using an amp emulator such as Amplitube. Mixing guitars isn’t my forte, so I love the ability to just lay down a good performance and then work on crafting a good sound which will work in the mix.

    But yes, as much as possible, I make decisions early and lock them in. Once I’ve made a decision, it frees up my time to focus on the next step!

  9. @Fabian Aldersey
    When you work on the sound after recording, do you mainly focus on adjusting the amp settings (or even amp type), or is more post processing (such as EQ and compression)?

    -Kim.

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