By: Michael Laskow
There are several issues involved in determining whether a recording is considered "master quality" (also known as "broadcast quality") or "demo quality." There's a persistent myth that you need 24 or 48 tracks in order to create a M.Q. recording, but it really has nothing to do with the number of tracks.
It's more about how well you use the equipment you've got. A pro engineer will make a better recording with a 4-track Portastudio than an inexperienced engineer will make with the equipment found in a $2,000,000, world-class studio.
The first factor is that it be clean, which generally means two things - no substantial hiss and no unintended distortion. Hiss is a function of analog recording. You combat this by setting your record levels as hot as possible without causing distortion, but it's an inherent problem for users of low-priced, analog cassette multitracks.
While they're terrific for demos, such machines are a major uphill battle if your goal is master quality. Distortion can be a wonderful effect when used on purpose - it helps to create a sense of edge or aggression.
But unintended distortion - as a result of too much level hitting a microphone, or setting your record levels too hot - is a fast indication of demo status (meaning that film/TV supervisors and record labels would need to re-record it before using it in a scene or releasing it to the public.)
The second factor is instrumentation. Say, for example, you've written a song that calls for a horn chart in the bridge. If you have the money, you can hire a horn section to play the parts. If not, you can use a synthesizer to demonstrate what the part should sound like. Of course, with modern technology, there's a third option.
Certain samplers will give you such a realistic sound for horns, strings, etc. that most people can't tell the difference. They can get pricey, but it's still cheaper than hiring the string quartet every time you've got new material. This is one of the major reasons why composers are now able to create master quality recordings at home.
A related area is the drum machine. If you intended for a real drummer to play on the song you've written, but circumstance requires that you use a machine, then make sure you know how to program it to sound as human as possible.
Recent programs like Acid have made this easier than ever, but it still requires you to invest your time and money. Naturally, this point doesn't apply to all genres of music. In much of Electronica, for example, the drums are meant to sound cold and machine-like. But if that's not your aim, make sure your drums sound warm, fluid and human. (Tip: don't use the 'quantize' feature, it'll just add to the stiffness.) Until you've mastered the art of drum programming, you'll be hard pressed to create master quality recordings with a drum machine.
The final issue that comes into play when evaluating the sound quality is the listener's gut feeling. Can they picture the music as a record in a store, or matched to pictures in a film or TV show? Or do they picture the artist in their bedroom, still learning their gear.
While you can't control their gut feeling, you can do these two concrete things: practice aiming mics and setting levels to find the fine line between hiss and distortion; and make sure you've invested in recording gear that gives you realistic instrumentation.
The information above came from "Studio Buddy -- The Home Recording Helper." It's a self-contained, easy to use database of recording tips designed specifically for people with home studios. If you find this article helpful, you should download the FREE program at: www.studiobuddy.com.