Indie Musicians: Preparing for the Recording Studio
Recording a new album is always a momentous occasion for any musician. Today, recording technology is very affordable and many musicians have some sort of home studio for capturing new ideas, recording demos, or even making full-blown albums. However, nothing matches the experience and quality of recording at a professional recording studio.
There are many reasons to use a studio: You get an experienced engineer that knows how to set everything up and run the recording equipment, leaving you to focus on the music. Studios are acoustically designed for recording, so the tracking rooms will allow you to capture precisely the sound you want while the control room provides an accurate listening experience. The advantages of using a studio are almost all superior to recording at home, except for the cost.
That’s why it’s important to prepare for the times you do get to record in a studio. Recording your new album should be a fun, creative, rewarding experience, but it’s easy to get derailed if you’re worried about how much time is left in the day or how much money it costs every time your guitar player messes up and needs another shot at his solo. Rehearsing the band properly, having a clear idea of what you’re creating before you even step foot in the studio, and budgeting both your time and money will make a huge difference in the final product.
Rehearse as if you’re recording.
Recording music is a skill unto itself, with it’s own set of nuances that differ from a live performance. Before your recording session, make sure you schedule plenty of rehearsal specifically for the recording. Unless the plan is to capture the essence of a live show in the studio, I’ve found that it helps to practice as if microphones are picking up every bit of sound in the room. If you’re usually animated on stage, you might need to practice sitting or standing relatively still to prevent extra noises like squeaky chairs or floors from creeping onto your recording.
Also, use this time to finalize arrangements of your songs. Never been completely happy with the transition out of the bridge? Does the second verse need a texture change? Should you track the rhythm guitar part as three different guitars instead of one? Making these decisions before going into the studio will save you time an money.
Finally, rehearse the material in the order you’ll most likely record it. Pace your session by doing an easy song first and then getting into the difficult material early in the day when everyone is sharp, focused, and can deal with the potential frustration from messing up the hard parts a few times. End the day with another easy song so everyone goes home feeling good.
Finding the right studio.
Virtually any fully equipped recording studio will be able to get the job done, but each studio has it’s own unique characteristics. Some studios are filled with the newest gear and are designed for crystal clear digital recording. Others have vintage gear and unique acoustics that add a certain color to your sound. You might not know what is best for you until you’ve visited several studios.
Some studios charge by the hour, others by the day. To record the bulk of your music, I highly recommend finding a studio with a day rate, or negotiating a day rate if the studio only charges hourly. If you are doing vocals or overdubs that don’t involve much set up time on a different day, it might make sense to rent studio time by the hour.
Before you visit recording studios in your area and talk to studio managers or engineers (or the intern covering the front desk), prepare yourself with these three steps.
1. Assess your abilities and needs.
Ask yourself these questions. The answers will help you rule out studios that aren’t equipped for your project:
- How many songs do you want to record? This is the first question any producer or engineer will ask, because it directly effects the amount of time and money you’ll need to complete the project.
- How long can you realistically work in one day? Your singer’s voice, your drummer’s arms, and your guitarist’s hands, and your patience and focus will all tire out by the end of the day. Don’t try to push yourself beyond what you know you can do.
- Will your arrangements require a lot of overdubs? This not only affects the amount of time you’ll need, but also the number of tracks required for each song. Make sure the studio can accommodate the size of your arrangements.
- Do you want/need to record everyone at the same time or track each part separately? Recording at the same time usually produces tighter results and takes less time, but you might be difficult to completely isolate individual parts.
- How much isolation do you need between each part? Complete isolation gives you greater flexibility when fixing parts, doing overdubs, and mixing, but it will require either a large studio with multiple isolation booths or more time to track each part.
- Do you have the ability to do any recording at home? If you can load the project onto your external hard drive and take it home to add acoustic guitar and background vocals, you might save money. However, will you be sacrificing quality?
2. Find sonic examples.
Go through your CD collection and find recordings that have the kinds of sounds you want on your album. Use these as examples when interviewing engineers or studio managers. This is the best way to communicate the sounds in your head with somebody else, and they should know what it takes to record similar sounds. It’s especially helpful when you’re on a budget and looking for someone or somewhere that can produce that sound without a bunch of extra frills you won’t need (like a plasma screen in the lounge).
3. Do you need a producer, or just an engineer?
This question is kind of tricky. To say “just” an engineer might give the impression that he or she doesn’t have an important role. On the contrary, the engineer is responsible for the entire recording process–from setting up the right microphones in the right places to hitting Save after every take. If something isn’t working, the engineer has to be able to fix it. The better your engineer, the more smoothly your day will go.
When looking for an engineer, you’ll want somebody who that knows their way around the studio and is familiar with many different recording techniques. Most studios can provide an experienced engineer for your session, so if you find the right studio, you probably won’t have to look for an independent engineer.
Traditionally, the role of the producer is to oversee the creative process of recording. In general, a producer will provide objective feedback on your songs and help your band reach it’s full potential in the studio. Their experience working with other bands will make you sound better. Many times a producer can also fill the role of the engineer. In fact many producers have their own studio.
A producer will probably work with a project budget. Instead of paying to work with them a day at a time, they might agree on a flat fee for the entire project. If they really believe in your project, the session fees could be much lower in exchange for a piece of future revenue (usually be a percentage of sales or publishing rights to the songs they recorded for you).
If you decide you want a producer, find somebody that shares your vision of the album. This starts before you go into the studio. You’ll want to make sure everybody in the band likes the producer and trusts his or her opinion. Get together as a group, play some music live for the producer and see what he or she has to say about your songs. Not only are you auditioning for the producer, but they are auditioning for you.
Once you’re in the studio, budget your time.
Allow enough time for setting up.
I’ve seen my fair share of documentaries about the making of an album, but what I’ve never seen is the laborious process of micing the guitar amp or finding the best placement for the overhead drum mics. A good engineer will know where to start, but every musician has their own preference as to how they want their part to sound and will need to make many small adjustments to capture exactly the sound they want.
There are a few ways to speed up this process, such as giving the engineer sonic examples from albums you like, but ultimately you need to do a lot of recording, listening back and making adjustments over and over again until you’re happy. It’s much better to do this before you start tracking, otherwise you risk an inconsistent sound throughout the album or worse, you won’t be happy with the end result.
The amount of time this takes depends on the size of your band and the number of instruments you’re recording. Talk to your engineer ahead of time to get a realistic idea of how long it will take, then add another hour to the estimate. Setting up can be taxing, give yourself a little break before you start recording.
Allow enough time for listening back.
No matter how much practicing you do or how much time you spend setting up and getting the right sounds, there are certain nuances that only come from the musician. To make those adjustments, you need to listen back to what you’ve recorded.
For example, I once heard jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton talk about how he had to really exaggerate how hard or soft he hit the vibes in order for the dynamics to sound right when recording. Similarly, you might find that sounds barely noticeable in a live setting (such as finger noises on the guitar, or mouth and breath noises on a vocal track), really stick out on a recording. These are things you might not know are happening without listening to playbacks every two or three takes.
Playback has to be done in real time (obviously), so however much time you spend recording, you’ll probably spend in the control room listening.
Don’t rush decisions.
Take your time each step of the way to make sure you can live with the results after the album is done. This is why I recommend getting a day rate for your studio time. If you’re looking at the clock between every take, you’re much more likely to rush your decisions.
When in doubt, save the effects for later.
If you use various effects on your guitars, keyboards, vocals, or other instruments, remember that once it’s recorded, the only way to get rid of the effect is to record it over again. This is especially important for effects like delay, which can send a wrong note spiraling through several bars of music! If you record the part dry, you can always send it back out through the effects later. There’s no need to spoil a good take if you’re not positive you want to use an effect.
Schedule your recording sessions for consecutive days.
When you have several days in a row to work with, you can make sure plenty of time is allowed for setting things up and getting the right sounds. When you come back the next day, everything is set up and ready to go. You also get to go home and sleep between sessions, which makes listening back for problem areas much easier. Consecutive recording days are also great for consistency, for both the way the band plays and the way the recording sounds. It’s a lot easier to mix an album with the levels for each part are consistent track to track.
Budget for mixing and mastering.
Many musicians focus so much on the actual recording session that they forget to save money for mixing and mastering. These stages can be just as time intensive as the recording. Figure out how much this will cost before you schedule your studio time. Don’t sabotage your high quality studio recordings by rushing your mixing session or being cheap with mastering. This is where the brilliant music you recorded really comes to life!
Use social networking to your advantage.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, musician forums, and many other resources online can help you connect with recording studios, freelance engineers, independent producers, and numerous musicians that could give you tips and recommendations along the way. Not to mention, blogging about the making of your album is also a great way to get your fans excited about the final result.
Don’t be afraid to use several different studios.
If you need to be very budget conscious, you can record different stages of your album in different studios. Perhaps the best way to start is to record scratch tracks at home. Get your click track set up, put a mic in front of you and your guitar, and play the song. Then find the best place you can afford to track the rest of the parts. This might mean carrying your project around on an external drive (be sure to have a backup) but I’ve been hired to play guitar on a few albums recorded in this nature, and the end result was amazing.
Finally, just be sure to trust your ears and enjoy the recording process. Take advantage of all a studio has to offer, but don’t go overboard and try to use everything sitting around the studio just because it’s there. If you properly prepare for your recording session, it will be a fun, productive and rewarding experience.
Article written by Cameron Mizell, a freelance guitarist, producer, and consultant in Brooklyn, NY. He co-founded and writes regularly for MusicianWages.com . He performs regularly throughout New York City with his jazz trio and several other groups. Learn more at his website (where you can pick up some free downloads), and check out his latest album, Tributary!