Prepare Yourself for Studio Recording Sessions

The recording studio can be a very intimidating and expensive place.  Unless you have some experience doing sessions, you’re probably in the studio every year or two, which just isn’t enough time to make it feel like another day at the office for most people.  The pressure of the ticking clock and hourly rate piling up can really have a negative effect on your project, so I want to help you be ready to tackle the challenges of recording so that you don’t need to think about the clock and you’ll be much more likely to have a smooth session.

Hey, are my articles sounding a little redundant?  Maybe I think rehearsal is important or something.  In fact, I think rehearsal is the most important.  Remember, we’re talking about real rehearsal now, learning songs, identifying and correcting mistakes and drilling the proper parts.

During these rehearsals you’ll need to work the song from the ground up.  Make sure you like the basic beat that the drummer is playing and make sure you like the fills they’ve chosen for the transitional points.  Does your drummers feel and plan for the song re-enforce the soundscape you’re trying to create?

You’ll also need to write parts for the other instruments.  Who plays the instrumental melody?  Do you have little call and response licks between the lyrics in the verses?  What do you want them to sound like and what instrument should play them?

Choose the right studio for your project
It would be silly to record your alt country album in a studio that primarily does hip-hop.  At this point you’ll need some idea of your recording budget.  Find all of the local studios that fit your budget and visit each of them.  Take a listen to songs that have been recorded there, strike up a conversation with the engineer, you’re going to be working with him or her a ton over the next weeks, you had better make sure you get along.

Once you’ve visited the studios, found the one that’s the right price, the right sound and the right environment, make sure they have enough open time for your project and book the studio.  You’ll want to book the first two or three days in a row to take care of your drum tracks and make sure things don’t get changed around after you’ve dialed the drum sounds in.

Let the engineer know their role
Are they just placing mics and hitting record, are they helping produce?  Most times you’ll find that the engineer does have some production skills and can offer some helpful advice when asked.  If you picked the right person and the right studio, you’ll be able to use much of this advice, but make sure everyone knows their role before you get in to the studio.  There’s nothing worse than a band who knows exactly what they want having to pay an hourly rate to listen to ideas from the guy they’re hiring to press record, just as it’s tough for the engineer to be expected to come up with ideas on the spot.

Invite the engineer to a rehearsal
Whether you’re using the engineer as part producer or not, it’s important that he or she has an idea of your sound and what you’re going for.  This will help determine what kind of mics are used, what kind of compressors, just from the engineering side and from the production side if applicable, will help with things like song selection and arrangements.  Have a good idea of what songs you want to use, plus a few extras in case one doesn’t work and just play them once or twice for the person who you’re paying to get the best recording possible of your band.

Make your final song selection and arrangement before you go in to the studio
This is pretty self-explanatory, if you still haven’t decided how you’re going to arrange a song, you’re going to pay to figure it out in studio fees.  Finalize everything in the rehearsal room.  This includes which songs you want to record.  Remember, have an extra song or two up your sleeve, just in case, but have a solid idea of what you’re going to do, while keeping a back-up plan.  Again, the better you plan everything ahead of time, the easier your session will go.

Change guitar strings and drum heads
A quality recording starts at the sound source, which in this case is your instrument.  You’ll never get a professional sounding project with guitar strings and drum heads that are months old.  You’ll never be satisfied with your sound unless this is done.  While you’re at it, make sure to get the intonation on your guitars checked out and your drums tuned.  If you don’t know how to check your intonation, any music shop can do it for you for close to nothing.  If you have trouble tuning drums, ask the engineer if he has a session drummer who can come tune them for you.  This might cost a few bucks, but it will be more than worth it.

Use pro gear
This goes back to the last point, a recording is only as good as the sound source.  That $100 multi-effects processor with that little solid state amp is not going to sound like the tones you hear on any pro recordings.  You know why?  Nobody uses that kind of gear to record.  If you want your original music to be ready for the marketplace, it had better sound good and discount dollar gear is not going to get you there.  The studio may have equipment that you can use, if you aren’t sure about your gear, inquire about any guitars or drums that the studio might have in your selection process.  Otherwise, rent, borrow, or if you can, go out and purchase gear that sounds great.

Get a good night sleep
There’s a reason we have after parties, not pre-parties.  The night before your first session is not the night to stay out late with your friends.  Remember, you’re going to have the next few days filled with intense focus.  The best way to maximize your focus is to be well rested.  So, after you’ve changed your strings or heads, go to bed and get a good night sleep.

Keep communication easy with everyone
This means band mates, studio staff, anybody who’s involved with your project.  If something isn’t working, find a constructive way to deal with it.  It’s no fun to pay an hourly fee for the displeasure of having a band member melt-down.  Try to make sure everyone’s comfortable, getting what they need and having fun.  We all know what this business pays, so having fun should be the name of the game.

Budget for more time than you think you need
I’ve had enough studio experience to know that often times, the parts you think you’ll get in one take, can be the ones that you spend five hours on and the parts that you think will be the most difficult are the one take wonders.  For this reason, it’s important to always try to have more money than you think you’ll need.  You know your drummer is solid and you’re pretty sure they’ll be able to track the album in ten hours, budget for twelve or thirteen.  This way if a difficulty turns up, no big deal.  Then of course, if your drummer blows through it in nine hours, you’ve got a few hours of extra money in case someone else down the line runs in to trouble.  Too many people under estimate how long things can take.  They figure the song is four minutes long, so even if it’s three takes, we’re only talking about fifteen minutes tops.  They forget to factor in how much time it takes to dial in tone for each song, or how unprepared they really are when you can hear everything clearly on the play back.

Just like most things in music and in life, the more prepared you are going in, the better your chances of success.  The studio is no different.  If you follow these ten helpful hints, you’ll find yourself not having to watch the clock and able to relax and make the best recordings you can possibly make.  It’s a very good feeling to walk in to the tracking room knowing exactly what you want and exactly how to get it.  Good luck in your next session


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