If you are a recording studio virgin, don’t be
ashamed. Take heart, for you are not alone. Every
musician or band sooner or later, bites the bullet,
takes the plunge, and books time in a (gasp) professional
studio (like SouthWest Sound!)
Just remember the golden rule of recording which is
a two parter: Time is money and everything takes more time than you expect.
Plan accordingly. Make sure your budget can accommodate extra sessions
for overdubs, re-recording, mixing, re-mixing, and mastering time, and
read the following article to avoid the most common pitfalls that bands
can easily fall into.
The Studio Is Not A Live Performance
The first thing to keep in mind is that the studio
is not a live performance. By it’s very nature, the studio is a
special environment designed for precision audio
work to enhance and capture the very best permanent
record of your music and this is an important distinction. Live performance
is not permanent, a studio recording is. In the case of live music on
a concert or nightclub stage, the excitement level is high, adrenaline
is flowing, fans are hyped up and nobody cares or notices a dropped note
or an out of tune vocal. But, what works for live just doesn't’t
cut it in the studio. Don’t make the mistake
of thinking that you will just be playing live
in the studio and everything will somehow take
care of itself. It’s
not going to happen. So, what’s a neophyte recording artist to
do? In a word: prepare.
How To Prepare
How exactly do you prepare? Well, for starters, practice
the material you will be recording. Although this
seems obvious, you’d
be surprised at how many bands end up in the studio
unprepared to play their parts (or not even sure which songs they will
be recording). In fact, many musicians fail to really work out a part
to record. They get by with “live energy”, but when it comes
to the studio, they neglect to prepare a part suitable for recording.
The simple solution? Do your homework and really work out the exact part
that you will be playing for the recording session.
What's That Noise?
Often musicians encounter a disturbing dose of reality when
they hear for the first time what their instrument
sounds like under scrutiny. Suddenly that exciting
slap bass technique that worked so well in concert
is now producing an annoying click as a result of a misaligned pickup
or calibration error. What worked well live is now a disaster in the studio.
Other example of this include noisy stomp boxes, ungrounded pickups, squeaky
pedals, loose snares, etc.
Aside from preparing your gear, what can you do to prepare yourself?
Be well rested. This is especially important for
singers as your voice really gives away your mental and physical state.
If you are tired, you will sound tired on the recording and who wants
that? What about stress and pressure? When the red light comes on (the
recording light that is) there is a tendency to panic. Resist this urge.
Remember an individual part or section can usually be punched in if necessary.
When you are playing live there is no second chance, but this is the studio
so take advantage of the ability to get it right. It is not the end of
the world if you flub a note here or there. The best performances have
a natural, relaxed, spontaneous quality. This can happen on a second take
after an acceptable “safety” is
made. The pressure is off after a good usable take
is “in the can”.
This is why it is a good reason to record more than
one take of each song. Once you are set up, recording a second or third
take is just a matter of a few extra minutes and well worth it. And while
you listen back to each take, have the engineer record a reference cassette
at the same time. Even if the mix is still very rough, you can study this
at home (at your leisure) and determine which take is the best for finishing
up (recording overdubs, and mixing).
Working with the Engineer
It’s a good idea to get the engineer on your side.
Don’t pester him or her with questions like, “Are we the best
band you’ve ever recorded?” or “Do you think this is
a hit song?” Also, remember that the engineer is a human being and
thus needs to eat and occasionally use the restroom.
If you are asked to play your instrument or sing, do
the best you can even if you can’t hear yourself or other band members
very well. Play at the normal level that you will be playing when you
are recording. Don’t surprise the engineer by suddenly playing ten
times louder than you did during the sound check. The engineer needs time
to set levels and create a proper monitor mix. It doesn’t happen
instantly, so have a bit of patience. Conversely, if you are asked to
stop playing, then remain quiet until you are asked to play again. Sometimes
not doing or saying anything is the best course of action in the studio.
Talking has its place, but excessive talking can be a distraction and
a major time waster especially if the conversation turns into a band discussion
Have that important band discussions before you enter
the studio and are on the clock. Agree on a plan
of action and stick to it. This plan should include what songs you are
recording, the arrangements, the song tempos, keys, soloist order, the
number of overdubs or tracks that will be required, whether or not you
will play to a click track, and who exactly is acting as the leader and/or
producer. If all these concerns are addressed prior to recording, you
should have a smooth session.
The Goof Offs vs. The Smarty Pants
Now, in the tradition of “Goofus and Gallent” from
Highlights (don’t ask) let’s enter a fictional world of two
parallel recording bands. In Studio A are the clueless “Goof-offs” and
in Studio B are “The Smarty Pants”. Let’s observe each
band’s progress, of lack of, (as the case may be) as they set out
to record a three-song demo.
The Goof-offs show up 45 minutes late for their session
with a photographer, the guitarist’s cousin, and the drummer’s
girlfriend in tow. The guitarist starts disassembling his guitar to change
strings that he bought on the way over. The photographer starts snapping
photos and asks the engineer to pose with the band. The drummer’s
girlfriend complains that she’s hungry and asks if this is going
to take long. The keyboardist and singer begin a discussion as to what
songs they will be recording and in what order. Soon, they are in a heated
debate and ask the other band members to voice their opinions. The bass
player asks the guitarist if he brought any spare batteries just as the
guitarist snaps one of his brand new E strings.
Meanwhile across town, The Smarty Pants are set up and
getting levels. The guitarist has new strings already worked in from the
night before and the singer hands the engineer a neatly printed lyric
sheet for each song that they will be recording. The lyrics sheet will
prove to be invaluable in assisting the engineer later on when the singer
decides to punch in some vocal corrections. The drummer connects a small
drum machine into the board and announces, “The first song is 126
beats per minute and we would like the click for the first 12 bars or
so, you can then turn it off at the chorus.”
Back in Studio A, the Goof-offs are still setting up.
The girlfriend is ordering a pizza on her cell phone
and keeps interrupting the engineer to ask directions
and then a band discussion begins as to what toppings to include. The
bass player leaves to buy a nine-volt battery for his bass and the guitar
player leaves to go buy another set of strings for his guitar. As the
engineer sets up mics on the drums, the drummer pounds out a loud beat. “Sorry,
says, “I didn't
get a chance to practice. Hey do you have a spare
snare lying around? This drum head is kind of shot.”
How to rehearse for the studio
The most critical factor for succcessful recording sessions
is rehearsal. But not just any old type of rehearsal. You need to rehearse
for the studio which is different than rehearsing for a live show. Don’t
just run through your material, break it down. Play just the drums and
bass together and have everyone listen carefully. Is the rhythm tight?
Is it really locked in? Are there conflicts in the bass and kick drum
that aren’t obvious when everyone is playing? These are the kinds
of thing that show up later in the studio. Can you play the song without
hearing vocals? Can you play without singing your part? Don’t just
say yes, actually rehearse it that way. You might be surprised at what
weakness you will discover. Often bands members are not really aware of
what the other members are playing or singing during a song as they are
so wrapped up in their own part. By listening to others, you may be able
to come up with a better part for recording and as a bonus, it will help
your live playing as well!
What to bring:
List of songs including tempos, keys, and instrumentation
Charts & Lyric Sheets
Day Planner for future bookings
Visa, checkbook or other payment plan
Bottled water (room temperature for singers)
Guitar, bass strings, picks?
1/4 inch cables
Batteries for active electronics
Drum hardware including throne
Spare drum heads
“O” ring for snare
Metronome (if available)
List of song tempos
Hard drive / back up disks
Reeds & mouthpieces, rosin, slide oil, etc.
Extra patch & audio cables
Microwave to heat up food or beverage
Mini fridge for beverages
Pod for guitar input
Demiter tube direct for bass input
Yamaha digital piano
Ivory / Pianoteq software
BFD drum software
Various loops and samples
Tambourine, misc. percussion
Dos and Don’ts
Have a clear objective
Practice without vocals or solos
Take direction and suggestions
Bring examples of target sound
Plan the sessions
Allow sufficient time
Have a leader or producer
Have an adequate budget
Bring friends or distractions
Try to do too much at once
Rehearse in the studio
Burn yourself out (or the engineer)
Sweat the little things