I’ve been producing and recording songs for about 10 years now, and I still have issues when comparing tunes I’ve worked on with other songs out there, regardless of where they were recorded or who recorded them. I’ve come to the realization that other people’s music will probably always sound better to me, only because when I listen to stuff I’ve done, I notice all the little things - tiny mistakes, compromises, and sounds that I just couldn’t get exactly right. I just don’t notice that with other engineer’s stuff. They always sound better. Well… not always… there was that one Metallica album that was just Og awful (St. Anger I think). :smack:
That being said, there’s a lot of things you can do to get your mixes sounding more professional. Some of them require a little extra cashflow, but it may be worth it to you:
Have your mixes professionally mastered. This is huge. Find a good local mastering house with a good reputation and hire them. If that’s not an option, go online. There are a lot of online mastering houses that will get it done for you. Not only will they make your music sound more professional, they can give you constructive criticism on how to get your mixes up to snuff. Self-mastering is an option, but a dedicated mastering house will likely have much better equipment and a much better ear for it.
Have somebody else who you trust and is knowledgeable listen to your mixes before they are mastered. Your ears become fatigued from listening to the same stuff all the time and the might get used to hearing that little peak at 2.4kHz at 2:13 into your song that throws things off. A fresh pair of ears can help discover these things. I usually send some .WAV files out to local musicians I know and have them listen and critique my mixes. They sometimes find things that I have totally missed.
Listen to your mixes on several different sound systems. I’ve got my near-field monitors in my studio that I mix on. When I think I’ve got a mix close, I’ll go listen to it in my car, then on my cheap boom box, then on my main entertainment system in my family room. Listening on different systems in different environments can reveal a lot of things, from crappy equalization to errors in stereo field placement of certain elements.
Equipment doesn’t matter as much a one would think. There are guys out there that make incredible sounding stuff with very minimal equipment. I was always a firm believer in making do with what you have and exploring your rig’s possibilities. Learn as much as you can about what your rig can do and make it second nature. Once you’re at that point, then you can start looking into buying more stuff to expand your sound. I currently have a very small setup consisting of my Mac, some near-field monitors, a small two octave MIDI keyboard/audio interface, some software and my guitars. I’ve worked with this setup for years and I still learn knew tricks and things all the time.
There are other things that will help, too. A good, responsive room to record in, bass traps, good mics, sound proofing, good near-field monitors, etc. However, these can all cost a good deal of money. I was trying to keep my suggestions down to the procedural stuff.