So your band has written some legendary songs and you’re ready to head into the studio so you can unleash them upon the world! You ready? Whether you’re a studio newbie or a battle hardened engineer, here’s a couple tips to keeping your recording session productive, creative, and (most importantly) fun.
WHERE TO RECORD: CHOOSING A STUDIO
With modern recording technology being as good as it is there are a seemingly infinite number of studios (and “studios”) for you to record your multi-platinum masterpiece, so how do you choose? There are a couple ways to approach this but they all come back to the old adage: you get what you pay for. If your buddy who has a Garage Band project studio in the corner of his bedroom tells you that they’re happy to record and mix your project for free, you’re going to end up with hot sonic garbage. On the flip side, if you shell out the $1,500 /day to record your drums at Abbey Road, you’re going to end up with the legendary drum room sound of countless hit records.
Advice: Find the middle ground, the studio that fits your budget and musical needs, and preferably one that has the right engineer for your genre. Some engineers and mixers do better with certain genres. Check out album liner notes from records you love of bands that are close to your level or just above, or simply ask bands directly. Most artists are happy to give you that info and you’d be surprised how affordable some studios and engineers can be regardless of their artist roster.
EXTRA ADVICE: To slightly contradict the above advice, technology also means there is an abundance of knowledgeable, skilled, and professional home recorders. You don’t necessarily need to go to a fancy Hollywood studio to get fancy Hollywood sounds. Talk with your friends and peers, be open to what may seem unconventional, and let your ears guide you!
ENGINEER, PRODUCER, WHAT”S THE DIFFERENCE?
This confused me for a long time as a young artist so allow me to save you an embarrassing moment. A studio (audio) engineer is the ‘driver’ of the studio. They’re the ones behind the console (or keyboard), setting up the mics, and getting the sounds the artist or producer is requesting. They are there to capture your best performance onto ‘tape,’ as it were. A producer is someone who is with you for the whole project. They are the extra ‘band member’ who typically will work with you in the pre-production; sometimes writing phases then later go into the studio to help capture the best version of you and/or the band. They tend to make creative decisions with the artist and guide studio sessions, making sure they have all of the audio parts needed for the mixing process. Some producers mix, some have mixers, some do neither, some do both. The producer works within the capacity they were hired, and YOU determine that before a single note is played. Some are hired to simply manage time and budget while others are there to help compose, write, record, mix, enhance, and everything in between. Ultimately the decision to hire a producer is yours, but I can’t stress how important it can be, especially early in an artists career.
BE PREPARED… AND WHAT THAT MEANS
Okay, so studio booked and requested days off at local place of business approved, time to practice our songs 400 times so we’re ready, right!? Well, sort of. Yes, it’s generally good to know what you are recording before you go into the studio, but I would argue it’s even MORE important to be ready for anything. In other words, practice your instrument. A lot. Recording reveals a lot about your songs and your playing that the rehearsal space does not. There might be a guitar lead that’s clashing with the vocal melody, or full voiced piano chords that are stepping on the bass guitar making the low end too muddy. You didn’t catch that in rehearsal, but your producer or engineer hopefully did in the studio, and they may ask you to play something different, something you haven’t practiced 400 times in rehearsal. If you’re comfortable with your instrument, no big deal. If you’re not, that’s when frustration sets in. The number one reason musicians get frustrated in the studio is because they CAN’T play something. In those cases, rehearse less, practice more.
HAVE YOUR EQUIPMENT READY
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had guitar players come in with old strings, guitars that weren’t set up or intonated, guitars with dirty electronics, or some amp or piece of equipment you have to punch three or four times to get it to work right. Below is a check list that MUST BE ADHERED TO FROM NOW UNTIL THE END OF AUDIO RECORDINGS.
1) Drum heads: All new batter heads (its okay to use old reso heads, change once/year).
2) All drum hardware in working order (from snare wires to drum throne).
3) All guitars (including bass) to be properly set up by professional and intonated to proper tunings. If the project requires multiple tunings, be sure someone knows how to properly intonate a guitar, bring different guitars, or ask your engineer if they know how (many do).
Important: don’t assume the studio’s instruments are set up for your project. If you plan on using studio instruments, tell the producer/engineer ahead of time what tunings the guitars need to be intonated for, they will take care of the rest.
4) All musicians: If it can break, bring a back up.
5) All fx pedals, processors, synthesizers, amps, cabinets, and anything that can be plugged into a wall are to be tested before the session date.
6) Guitar players, don’t forget picks.
LEAVE YOUR DUMB FRIENDS AT HOME
The BEST way to throw your money down the toilet is to bring your dumb friends to your recording session. To them, this is just the happy fun party time they watched on ‘Empire’ and whatever musician bio-doc is trending at the moment. They will tell dumb stories, ask dumb questions (do you know what all those buttons and knobs do), and do every dumb thing in their power to destroy your work flow. Unless you were looking forward to making your engineer an extra car payment, keep your dumb friends, and even that one cool one, at home.
RECORDING WITH A METRONOME
Do it. If you don’t know how, learn. If you can’t, practice until you can. This isn’t just for drummers, this is for everyone… including YOU, lead singer. You should be expected to sing on time just like you expect your drummer to play on time. Advice: Start slow. No, sloooowwer than that.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Sometimes things just take awhile in recording sessions. Getting drums sounds, moving microphones, the song you thought was the easiest took a ton of time, the engineer had to troubleshoot some equipment… there are a million patience-testing things that could happen on any given session, but losing your cool won’t help any of that go any quicker. Take a deep breath, do yoga, drink coffee, go out for a smoke, whatever it is you do to keep your cool, do it, and save the energy for your performance.
CHECK YOUR PRIDE AT THE DOOR
You’re not the best or even close to the most impressive musician your engineer has ever worked with, so don’t act like it! Simply put, give and get respect… and that goes for engineers as well! Engineers, this is YOUR area of expertise, not your client’s, so don’t act like they should know everything about it or the process and don’t scoff at beginner questions or comments. What is obvious to you might not be to your client. Again, mutual respect. We’re all here to make the best music we possibly can. Make the music king and everyone in the room its stewards.
At the opposite end, don’t get too down on yourself! You’re probably performing better than you think you are! And if you find yourself doing a lot of takes on the same part (lead singers especially), don’t get discouraged! Each performance might be technically correct, but it might not fit emotionally. The producer/engineer is asking you to do multiple takes not because you did it wrong, but because they want to find the best of the best, that California 10 performance that’s hanging out with a bunch of 9s. Sometimes requests might seem downright silly, but just smile, laugh and go along with the idea even if you don’t understand why. Often times a producer is thinking ahead to the finished production, not just the principle instruments, so indulge them if they ask for something that you think sounds a little wacky… you never know what they have in store!
DO’S, DON’T’S, AND CHEAT CODES
– DON’T over indulge on controlling substances before your performance. Know your limits.
– PAY YOUR BILLS. You don’t take a gallon of milk from the grocery or get your car fixed and tell them you’ll pay them in a week, why would that be appropriate in this case?
– The microphones are SPECIFICALLY PUT THERE for a reason, don’t move them even a quarter of an inch. If you accidentally do, SPEAK UP!! Not one engineer on the planet will be upset with you for telling them you accidentally moved a mic. They’ll instead be overjoyed you spoke up rather than discovering an entire session’s worth of audio is ruined for that microphone. Hope it wasn’t important!
– Cheapest times to record are when studios aren’t busy! Studios and engineers are typically looking for work in December and January and are more likely to drop rates.
– EVERY, I repeat, EVERY engineer on the planet drinks too much coffee and loves doing it. Bringing an engineer a $1 coffee in the morning goes A LONG way toward buying affection.
– Because it can never be said enough, NO BEER ON ELECTRICAL EQUIPMENT OF ANY KIND.
– Missing a piece of gear for a session? Tried and tested: Guitar Center rental. With their six weeks no questions asked return policy, if you need a Gibson Custom to record, go get one for the week. Hooray capitalism.
– Set reasonable goals: six songs fully recorded in two days – not reasonable. Two songs fully recorded in two days – barely, but reasonable.
– Explore the studio, dare to be different and have fun! Great records weren’t made by artists trying to sound like everyone else. They were made by experimentation and trying new, different things in the studio! Explore the environment and the creative tools at your disposal to help make some truly inspiring music!