Interview with Chris Badami of Portrait Recording: Check Your Levels

Every now and again, a re-education in recording techniques is helpful, particularly ever since the bottleneck of getting into a good studio has been eliminated by fancy computers and even fancier computer programs. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, trying to record your demo on some early 2000s Windows machine that’s sputtering on an old version of Cakewalk or Logic with a couple of mics that you burrowed out of a closet and a $30 interface.

Yeah, maybe it’ll sound good, but it probably won’t.

So we called up Chris Badami, longtime Jersey recording engineer, mixer and producer, of Portrait Recording to outline some simple do’s and don’ts of self-recording, should you be so brave. Badami’s run his own studio for over 15 years and is perhaps best known locally for recording bands such as Midtown and The Early November. He still records bands of all levels within the music industry, and like many recording studio owners who have lasted, has a genuine interest in the success of local bands and the endless effort to get the best possible sound. And for maximum recording mojo, he expanded and moved his studios recently to an (now completely refurbished) old barn in Pompton Plains (from its original location in Lincoln Park). Check out more photos at

There seems like there has been an increase in recording studios in North Jersey in general but at the same time, some precocious kids record everything themselves. Are there people who are coming to you who have tried doing it alone?

A lot of people now are buying these laptops and you can go to Guitar Center and buy some recording software and people try and do it themselves and then they realize how difficult it is to make something sound real good. We do get in a lot of things where people have recorded a whole song or album themselves. Some have just recorded some instruments and just want to do drums in the great live room. On the local level, we’ve seen that a little bit more popular.

Especially people [who] have recorded stuff themselves and brought it in for us to mix. It’s challenging because sometimes we get stuff that is just not repairable. Some stuff is just not recorded well or there could be problems with and it’s tough and I’m always honest with everyone on how things sound and what we can really do. People come to me because of the stuff that they’ve heard over the years and I want to definitely give them the best product possible and it’s challenging to do that sometimes when you are not involved in the whole thing and you just get into it on the mixing end of it. [Mixing] is one of my favorite things to do but if things aren’t recorded well you can only do so much.

Are there any recommendations you can make?

A band will call me and say, ‘Look, we’re tracking this ourselves but we’re on a budget and stuff but we want you to definitely mix it, what should we do?’ One thing I always say to everybody is to definitely ask questions. Try and talk to who’s gonna be mixing it before you even start getting involved. Know if there’s certain things that the mixer wants, like certain ways to do things that way you know going into it before you actually get stuff recorded and put in a whole bunch of time and effort and everything. Get the drums recorded correctly because the drum sound is one of the most important sounds especially on a rock recording. You can get around guitars and stuff.

We’ve had some people come in and I tell them to just record drums here if anything. That’s also one of the reasons why I set up the B room to have a bit more cost effective option for bands that are on a budget. ‘C’mon in, record the drums here. You get to record in the great live room, great microphones, great engineers and stuff, and then take it back to your house and then you can do you guitar tracks if you’ve got a decent guitar set up.’ Vocals, I normally say, try and record with very little to no effects or compression or any of that stuff, let us do that in the end if you’re not sure about the proper way to compress a track.

That’s another thing that we’ll get a lot are tracks that are just smashed with compression and there’s nothing you can do; there’s no dynamic range and nowhere to go. If you get a good mic and a good instrument and you just lay it down and you’re not clipping or peaking and you’re not clipping or peaking on your mic [preamp] into your computer then, chances are, we can work with that. Will it be the best? I guess that depends on the room you’re recording in and all that stuff but it’s a lot easier to work with that than a guitar track that already has a ton of reverb on and is smacked with compression and likewise with the vocals. Some people, when they record, they wanna hear it, they wanna try and experiment and hear what it would sound like with all these effects and they can’t get the vibe of it unless they have that going already and they may not know how to just monitor with that so they just record with it. And that can create a ton of problems.

Are you talking about recording with their pedal effects or adding effects onto their tracks after they have recorded it?

Adding effects onto their tracks. Some do while they’re recording or after. In a lot of these software programs, ProTools or Logic, you can process reverb or compression right to a track and some people will just do that right after they’ve recorded it instead of just leaving it raw or dry for the mixer to take care of that.

Also, no matter what, hold onto the original tracks before they start doing their own processing. I could see how that could be a problem.

Yeah, because then you can’t really go anywhere and sometimes that happens. A lot of it, also, is just taking care of your instruments and stuff like that. If you’re gonna record anything make sure new strings are on guitars, new heads on drums. That way you can ensure that you’re going to get the best sound possible.

You’ve been doing this a long time so you’ve probably experienced a couple times where there has been a huge fallout or a mixing or song issue midway through a project. I don’t think I’m reaching here, am I?

[Laughs] No, I’ve definitely experienced it.

Can you outline a couple of things that you do with your projects as you start them or just some general things as to how to make sure that those things, if and when they do occur that they are minimal?

The first thing I do is preproduction and I think that is the most important part of the project. That is where all of the ideas get hashed out. That’s where any questions or suggestions, all that stuff all come out. Pretty much, by the end of preproduction we have a solid picture of what these songs are going to look like before we hit record and start getting sounds and doing tracking.

It all starts with the band being prepared. Before I even start preproduction I always ask for demos from a band before I even agree to work with them. I just want to hear where they’re coming from to see what they’re listening to what, what their goals are for the record and what the overall picture is looking like. Then we start the creative process with preproduction. If that goes well, that’s the time when we hash it all out and talk about everything and overall, in the end, its really what’s best for the song and what’s best for the band.

Where were you before you got the barn?

Before the barn I was in Lincoln Park. I started the studio in 1995 actually in my parent’s garage. It started originally as a studio for myself and my band just for me to mess around. I started going to college for recording and stuff like that. I wound up just getting bitten by the bug. I had a friend who recommended me to get an internship at a professional commercial studio and I wound up, right out of high school, getting an internship there and starting from the ground up.

Within a year there I was hired as an assistant and I just got into it that way. I never really had the intention of opening my own place it just went that way just with bands that I had met with playing and stuff like that who couldn’t afford to go to the studio that I was working at. I would say, ‘Yeah, just come down to my house we’ll get a quick demo done and whatever.’

From that time it just grew until the late ‘90s when I started doing a lot of punk rock stuff. New Jersey, at that time, for punk rock music was really starting to blow up and I did a lot of work for Pinball Records, a big NJ indie label at the time. Then they signed a band, one of the last bands that I did work for them, called Midtown and that band got signed to Drive-Thru records. Drive-Thru really liked my stuff and my producing so word of mouth just started happening and then in 2000, I decided to take it a step further and I opened up this studio in a commercial space in Lincoln Park and I was there for about eight and a half years and then we moved into the barn. I will have been here two years in July. From there it has pretty much been a bunch of labels, major and indie, and locals and we’re just staying alive in this industry and that’s all that matters.