Preparing to record in a home studio environment is one thing, but there are different considerations when entering a professional recording studio. Here are some tips to get you ready.
If you are like many indie artists, recording your music is a major goal — but successfully getting ideas and inspiration out of your head and into CD, WAV, or MP3 form can be easier said than done. Just as performing live often presents its own set of unique challenges, making music in a professional recording studio setting can bring up a host of unexpected concerns and problems.
That’s why, to get the most out of your recording session, preparation is key. Here are some tips from Virginia-based audio engineer and recording instructor Aaron J. Percy that can help you minimize pain and confusion — and maximize beautiful music-making — once the red light goes on.
“For the most part you have a finite amount of time while in the studio,” says Percy. “Given that, try to have a realistic idea of how long you want to spend on each song and then break that up depending on how long you want to spend on each part for each song.”
As you’re mapping out how your time in the studio will be spent, be sure to build in cushion time, as you never know when a broken bass string, emergency phone call, or hard disc error will unexpectedly delay things. After all, better to have an extra hour or two of found time at the end of the session to record an extra song than to find the clock ticking down with five parts yet to be recorded.
Not sure how long your session will take and how much time to budget in? Your engineer may be able to offer some insights, but it also never hurts to do a dry run beforehand. Get your band together at a rehearsal, have everyone take a go at playing his or her parts a number of times in a mock-recording-session vibe, time the whole thing, and plan accordingly.
Remember to add plenty of time to set up, and, again, check in with your engineer about this ahead of time. If the studio already has a drum kit miked, tuned, and ready to go, and you just need to set up a vocal mic and sing your heart out, your set-up time may well be an hour or less. If you’re bringing your own drum kit that needs to be assembled and miked, bass and guitar amps that need to be set up and miked as well, and a cello to boot, count on significantly longer to get the sounds you need. The same goes for vocals, if you plan on testing out a variety of different mics and preamps to get the vocal tone you want, that can eat up a lot of time on the clock.
Remember to build in time on the back end as well. If another band is getting in to record right when your session ends, make sure you have time to break down your equipment and bounce or backup whatever files need it.
Don’t take scheduling for granted, but don’t hesitate to delegate, Percy says. “If you are lucky enough to be working with a producer, then it is part of his or her job to keep the session on task. If you are in charge of the session schedule, than it’s up to you to keep moving forward and avoid getting bogged down.”
Rehearse the music inside and out
Needless to say, running things through ahead of time will give you far more than an idea of how much studio time to book — it will give you the flexibility and comfort to play and record the best that you possibly can.
“Really know the performance and practice, practice, practice,” says Percy. “Be able to play every song, every part, fast or slow, in any octave. Be ready if the producer asks you to transpose or adds a key change to a song.” Are you working with a vocalist? Be prepared in case the singer wants to drop the song a half-step.
Remember that every hour you invest in learning your material and getting yourself into top musical shape will make it that much easier for you to lose yourself in the music and create a performance, and recording, that you can be proud of.
Prepare to use a click
Though it doesn’t apply to all styles of music by a long shot, using a click track — a.k.a. a very simple percussion track that keeps a steady beat for reference and is later removed — can help you in a number of ways.
“If you track to a click, you will likely save time and, therefore, money, when you get into the studio,” says Percy. “Using a click allows the engineer to edit faster and to drop you in right where you want to be in the track.”
Want to record five guitar takes and piece together the best parts of each, or record your vocals and guitar in one session and then overdub your drums a week later? Using a click to keep your beat steady makes both scenarios immensely easier.
If you’re not used to playing to a click track and predict that you’ll want to use one in the studio, be sure to practice ahead of time, Percy advises. Again, you want to minimize the surprises and maximize the time spent delivering a great performance in the studio.
Keep the engineer in the loop
“Let the engineer know who and what is coming and what is expected,” says Percy. “Communication is key in all relationships, but especially between the artist and the engineer.”
Providing the engineer with a thorough rundown of the instruments and musicians coming, your miking and input/output needs, what sort of recording format you’re looking for, and other technical details is key. “If you are bringing a bagpipe player, the engineer should definitely know ahead of time,” Percy says with a laugh. “Be as specific as you can. If you need headphones for every member of a choir, for example, that’s also something that the engineer absolutely needs to know ahead of time.”
Being clear about timing with your engineer will also help a great deal once everyone enters the studio. Giving him or her a clear idea of when your string quartet will show up and warm up, and when the guitarist’s amps will be delivered, will go a long way towards ensuring a smooth and productive session.
Deal with money ahead of time
“A quality recording studio has some expensive equipment to maintain and some specialized staff, so it can cost you some money,” says Percy. “We all know that dealing with money can cause stress, so try to remove that stress from the session.”
Practically speaking, that means working out exactly how much each musician, engineer, studio manager, and producer will get paid before you step foot in the studio to make music. It also means agreeing, preferably in writing, on how and when that money will be delivered.
Make sure that everyone is aware of what happens financially if things don’t go as planned. “Know what it will cost if you run over your time,” says Percy. “Please make sure that you are as clear as you can be on the details about anything and everything concerning money.”
Know your gear
A big part of communicating effectively with your engineer ahead of time is knowing your own tech. That means being as intimately knowledgeable about your gear as possible.
“Know exactly how to get that guitar tone you might need and know how your drums are tuned,” Percy says. “Know how to edit your synth patches to turn off effects. The engineer will be the expert on all things engineering so you must be the expert on all things related to your instrument.”
This includes knowing what sort of setup will make you the most comfortable for a performance. Do you prefer to play guitar standing with a music stand waist-high in front of you, or do you want to lean on a stool? Do you like singing flat on your back and do you like to play the piano with the bench higher rather than lower? Anything you can do to help get in the studio, set up, lock in, and get ready to play as quickly and painlessly as possible will help you end up with the session, and recording, that you want.
Save your recorded sessions in multiple places
“When it comes to saving your recorded performance, studios do it in so many different ways,” says Percy. “As a client, I would advise you to bring a portable hard drive and copy the entire session to it as soon as the studio will let you. Many won’t let you do that until you pay, but I would always make sure you don’t leave until you have your materials.”
Back up your session again once you get home from the session with your hard drive — and also know what your studio’s policy on data storage is. Some studios wipe their hard drives clean at the end of each day, while others store and archive every single session they do. Regardless, do what you have to do make sure your data is safe and backed up in multiple places.
Do you have any tips on how to prep for a great studio session? Tell us in the comments below!
Image by Pavel L Photo and Video via ShutterStock.com.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.