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Modern music recording hardware and software give us many options when it comes to applying effects to our tracks. Should we record with effects applied, and trust our ability to capture a great sound? Or should we record dry i.e. without effects, giving us the option to add them later?
As a general rule, it is better to record without effects. This allows you to add and change effects later, as part of the editing and mixing stage. If you record with effects, those effects cannot be removed later. If that sound does not work in the mix, your only option would be to re-record.
The choice between committing to a sound with effects at recording time, or applying the effects in your DAW as part of mixing, is a struggle many home recording musicians are familiar with. Read on to discover several factors that can affect your choice, and to learn the best approach for you.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
How do you record with and without effects?
You record with effects by using some sort of effects hardware.
One of the most common examples is the electric guitar. Many electric guitarists have a pedalboard with several effects pedals on it. They may also have a multi-effects unit, which is a pedalboard in one physical unit containing many effects. You might DI the output of one of these units into your audio interface, or plug the unit into a guitar amp and record it using a microphone.
But you can do a similar thing with any audio source. Using a hardware compressor on vocals is another common example. The microphone would plug into the compressor, and the compressor into your audio interface.
Recording without effects is just what it suggests; you record the signal “clean”. Then if you want to apply effects later after recording, you can use effects plugins in your DAW software. There are many thousands of effects plugins available, both free and paid. Check out this website to see what I mean.
Even if you put an effect on in your DAW while recording, you can remove this effect after recording if you want to. You cannot do this with a hardware effect; the recorded sound is what you are stuck with.
This is the fundamental difference between the two approaches that this article discusses.
However you choose to record, a good audio interface will be essential. There are many good ones out there but I have found the Focusrite Scarlett series on Amazon sound great, are cost-effective and durable. You can buy the Focusrite Solo from Amazon (affiliate link) for a very reasonable price.
Advantages of recording without effects
Let’s take a look at the major benefits of recording without effects…
Can change your sound later, post-recording
The big advantage of recording without effects, is that you don’t have to commit to a sound at recording time. It allows you to change the sound later, by adding effects plugins in your DAW.
Contrast this with recording with effects, where you are stuck with the sound you recorded. If you later decide that the sound doesn’t work in your song, tough! Maybe the effect you recorded turns out to be too extreme when played with the other parts in your mix.
In this scenario, your only option would be to re-record that part. This could be a major pain! You may have to re-call musicians into your studio, and you may never quite capture the same vibe or atmosphere as the original performance again.
Compression is a great example of this. If you don’t know, compression is an effect that evens out the volumes of a sound, making the level more consistent. It is widely used on the vast majority of mixes, and is considered an essential tool in music production. Check out these articles for some more info on using compression…
Full control over your mix
Recording without effects allows you to keep your options open. It gives you full control at the mixing stage of your project to sculpt each sound to best fit the mix as your song develops.
There is no guarantee that a sound you get in the room on its own will sound good in a mix. It might have sounded great in isolation when you recorded it. But then when you put it together with your other recorded tracks, it just might not work.
If you have a “clean” recording, you have full control to process your track with whatever effects you need to make it fit your mix.
One of the most frequently used effects for controlling your mix is EQ (equalization). EQ gives you control over every single frequency in your mix, both for individual tracks and for the mix as a whole. It is a vital tool to learn how to use if you are doing anything in music production. These two articles are great for beginners just getting started in EQ and looking to learn quickly…
Performance issues are not hidden
Sometimes effects can hide problems with a performance. For example, an electric guitarist playing through overdrive and chorus effects could hide pitching or tuning issues. Or a delay effect could mask timing mistakes.
If you record without effects, these kinds of issues are usually much more obvious. You can re-record there and then if necessary, rather than think everything is ok only to find that you have un-fixable problems with the track when it comes to mixing.
Can use DAW plugins just for monitoring
You may well encounter a musician, maybe yourself, that does not like recording without hearing an effect on their performance. They may claim that they cannot give their best otherwise. A very common example is that singers tend to like hearing reverb on their voice. Same for electric guitarists. Compression can also help singers give a more dynamic performance.
This does not mean you have to record with effects though. In your DAW, you can put the effect on the channel you are recording on, and enable input monitoring. The signal with the effect applied can then be heard in the performer’s headphones, and they can record hearing the effect. Working with the musician and giving them what they need to give their best performance can only benefit your song.
Once you have finished recording, you can then remove the effect from the track. You then have a clean take without any effects, even though the musician heard the effect on their performance while recording.
A very common example of this is to add some reverb when recording a singer. In general, reverb is a very common effect used in almost all recorded songs to some degree. If you use Reaper as your DAW, I have written a whole beginner’s guide to reverb in Reaper. I highly recommend checking it out if are a relative Reaper novice and want to improve the sound of your tracks with some reverb.
Availability, ease of use and variety of effects plugins
There are literally thousands of effects plugins available. Some will be supplied with your DAW, commonly referred to as stock plugins. Many others are available for free on the internet. Others are paid commercial offerings, created by the big music software companies with many resources available to them.
Therefore it is very likely that you can find a plugin for the effect you want to use, probably without spending any money. This certainly cannot be said of hardware effects! To buy hardware versions of even just the stock plugins supplied with a DAW would cost an unrealistic amount of money.
This variety and availability of effects plugins also allows you to experiment in ways you just couldn’t with hardware effects. And since we haven’t recorded with the effects, if something doesn’t work you can simply remove the effect.
Combining multiple effects, and trying unconventional plugins can be incorporated into part of your creative songwriting process. You can also instantly hear the effect in your whole mix, which you could not do if you were applying effects to your track in isolation while recording.
You may be wondering about the different types of plugins available, particularly the difference between effects and instrument plugins. I have written an article on the difference between VST and VSTi plugins, which should help you understand.
Advantages of recording with effects
Although in most cases recording without effects is probably the best choice, recording with effects can be a good option in some situations. Certain ways of working lend themselves to recording with effects, and it does have some advantages…
Committing to a sound prevents option paralysis
Leaving all your effects to apply later is all well and good, but this does risk so-called “option paralysis” at mixing time. You have so many effects plugins available in your DAW, so many parameters you can set, that you risk being overwhelmed by all the options available.
There is something to be said for committing to a sound at recording time. This means when it comes to mixing, your sound is already fully-formed and you don’t need to worry about applying effects and experimenting with them to get a good sound. This can speed up the mixing process immensely.
When working with a musician, they will have a good knowledge of what it takes to get a particular sound. Using our electric guitarist example again, they will probably know their amp and effects pedal board very well and be able to get a variety of sounds very quickly. Recording this sound can greatly increase the speed of working, and stops you having to search for appropriate plugins at mixing time.
Simplifies the mixing process
If you have recorded without effects, you are leaving applying your effects until mixing time. This adds yet another thing to worry about at that stage. Mixing can be complex and involved as it is, without adding yet more tasks to the process.
Recording with effects eliminates this issue. By the time you get round to mixing, your sound is already fully formed with the effects committed to disk. This should help shorten the mixing time and simplify the process as much as possible.
To accurately develop your mixes, a quality pair of headphones or studio monitor speakers are essential. I highly recommend the AKG K-702 Reference Headphones (affiliate link), which you can get at Amazon for a very reasonable price. These are the headphones that I have been mixing on for years, with great results.
Builds atmosphere and improves performance
Some sounds can sound dull or dry when recording without effects. This can lead to a rather sterile sound, not conducive to getting the best performance out of the musician. Recording with effects can help build atmosphere when recording, and this, in turn, can help get the best performance out of them.
Going back to our good old electric guitarist, they just may not feel happy or comfortable playing without their usual reverb and delay on the sound. Playing with a “dry” sound could lead them to play rather awkwardly, leading to a recording lacking in dynamics and emotion.
Recording with effects to capture that atmosphere during recording can work well, especially with common and less drastic effects e.g. overdrive on an electric guitar.
Use sounds that plugins simply cannot give you
There may be a hardware sound that a plugin just cannot give you! Plugins might come close, but they just don’t sound exactly the same, and you want that sound on your recording. In this case, your only option is to record using the hardware effect.
Similarly, the sound of the room might play an important part in the overall sound you want to capture. Think of ambient reverb. If you have a particularly nice sounding room, you may want to capture that on your recording rather than use reverb plugins later.
Can add more effects later
Even if you have recorded with effects, that does not prevent you from adding more effects later. You could have recorded an electric guitar with some overdrive and reverb for example. During mixing, you could add a chorus plugin to give the sound a little more depth.
You have to be careful with this approach, as it is easy to overdo it. You can end up with a muddy mess and lose all the definition of the original performance by swamping everything in too many effects.
But if you are careful and err on the side of subtlety, it can be a very effective approach. More on this in the next section…
Using a hybrid effects recording approach
This “hybrid” approach i.e. recording with some effects and applying some more later using plugins in your DAW is quite common in a number of different situations.
For example, when recording an electric guitar you could record both a signal with effects using a microphone in front of the amp, and a clean DI’d track at the same time. This gives you a fallback if when you get to mixing, you find that your recording with effects doesn’t sound great or fit in the mix well. You can then use the “clean” track, and experiment with applying effects until it works for your song.
You may have an idea what effects you definitely want on a particular track. But others you may not be sure about, and might like to experiment with a few different ideas. You can record with the effects you’re sure of, but leave the others till mixing time to experiment with. Maybe you are not quite sure of the type of reverb or delay you want to use, so try various different ones post-recording until you find one that works.
You may even choose to apply the same type of effect while recording and after recording. A common example of this is recording using a hardware compressor. Then later during mixing, you use a compressor plugin on that same track to even out the volumes even more. I find this technique works particularly well on vocals.
The choice of plugins available can be overwhelming. If you’re wondering whether stock plugins are good enough or you need to shell out some cash for commercial ones, my article comparing stock to third-party plugins is recommended reading to help you decide.
Spend time getting a good sound with or without effects
Just because you choose to record without effects, does not mean you should not take the time to get a good sound at recording time. Just the opposite in fact!
Time taken to get a good sound is never wasted. It is much easier to apply effects to a well-recorded sound, rather than to use them to try and make-up for a poor sound. One of my most hated phrases in music production is “fix it in the mix”. You can’t! You can only try to cover-up and mask poor sounds, which in the end rarely results in a good mix.
Effects are improvements, they are the frosting on the cake. Forgive the crudity, but if the cake is a turd, no amount of frosting on top will help!
Develop your own approach to recording and effects
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article, and have learned something from it.
You may have deduced that it is important to develop your own personal ways of working over time. There are no absolute right or wrong answers here. Some things you may like to record with effects, others you may prefer recording dry.
There is only your way. If you develop a way of getting great mixes, then by definition that method is right for you! That method may not be right for someone else, but if it works for you then go for it.
If you are a beginner in creating your own music, I would probably err on the side of recording everything without effects. This gives you more flexibility at mixing time. Hardware effects are also expensive, and you really don’t need them to create a great-sounding song.
If you have more experience, you will have started to know how to record things to make them sound good. Develop your own individual way of working, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!