Recording your music is exhilarating, challenging, expensive, and exhausting. But, it's my favorite part of being a serious musician. When you record your song, you'll always have something to point to and say "I made this, and I'm proud of it."
Deciding to record prompts a number of questions. What studio should you use? How do you prepare? How does it work once you're in the studio? How much money will you need? Who do you need to hire? This could easily overwhelm someone who is new to the experience.
I've gone through the process of recording several times now, so I'll walk you through how it's worked for me. Other musicians may have vastly different experiences, so as with any of my posts, feel free to take what works for you, and leave what doesn't.
This is the first of a series on the recording process. Part 1 will go over studio preparations. Part 2 will cover what happens once you're in the studio and tracking. Part 3 will deal with post-production (mixing and mastering), and Part 4 will deal with the various personnel involved in the recording process.
To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, I'll tell you that my band has just finished recording our fifth full-length album, so this is all very fresh in my mind. Most of what we cover will apply to studios of any size, whether it's a "big deal" studio that records major acts, or your buddy's basement.
For the purposes of this series, we're going to assume you have a polished collection of songs, whether it's an EP or a full-length, that you think is ready to be recorded.
When I say "polished," I mean the songs should be pretty much complete. You've rehearsed them, you've worked out the bugs, you know what you're playing, and it sounds good. You don't want to walk into a studio with half-baked structures and random parts that haven't come together yet. Why? Well, because...
...Renting a good studio is expensive. Depending on a number of factors, including your location, how many songs you're recording, the demand for the studio's services, what time of year it is, who will be staffing the studio, and what services you're getting, the rate can vary widely. It can also be negotiated if you're patient and have done your homework.
No matter what studio you choose, you're going to burn through a lot of money, and faster than you think.
No matter what studio you choose, if you're putting money out for recording time, it's probably going to be a lot, and you're going to burn through it faster than you think. For the album we just tracked, I saved 40% more than the budget called for. I'm going to spend it all and then some.
If you're booking the studio for a solid block of time - whether a weekend, or a month, you may get a lower price than if you schedule piece-meal sessions... like 8 hours on a Saturday, 2 hours on a Thursday, etc. Studios prefer these "lockout" sessions because it's less scheduling work on their part, and it means they're getting consistent income for whatever period of time you've booked, something that is a relative rarity in the music world.
Some bands record themselves in order to cut costs or maybe because they figure "how hard can it be?" Trust me, it's harder than it looks. I've recorded my own bands many times, and I wouldn't recommend it. If you're playing an instrument, writing the songs, singing, or doing all of the above, you should be focused on those things, and not worrying about EQ settings, compression, signal chains, etc.
Recording is a lot easier with a dedicated engineer turning the knobs, and a producer watching over the whole project.
It's a lot easier on everyone involved if there's a dedicated engineer who is focused on capturing good takes, and a producer who is keeping an eye on the overall project. The majority of studios have engineers and producers "in-house," or at least have people they can recommend, but in rare instances, studios may just have the space and/or the gear, and leave it up to you to staff the place.
We're going to go into more detail about roles in a future post, but let's briefly break these roles down into who does what:
An engineer does the nitty-gritty stuff. He's in charge of mic-ing the instruments, setting up monitoring systems, adding effects, and editing the recorded tracks. You may also have this guy mix your album, or you may have one engineer do the recording (also called tracking), and have someone else with fresh ears do the mixing.
Depending on the size of the studio, this role could be broken out into different sub-types, for example, recording engineer, mix engineer, assistant engineer, mastering engineer, etc., however with the music industry shrinkage that started in the late 90's and early 2000's, it seems that most of these roles are often covered by one guy.
Some studios have relationships with multiple engineers, and you can save money by going with guys who have less experience. In doing my research for where I wanted to record over the years, I've found that most studio managers will suggest their bench players if you balk at the rate they offer for working with their best guy.
Go with your ears. Some guys just out of school are very skilled and willing to work their ass off to prove themselves. If that's all your budget can handle, it might not be a bad thing. My band has gone this route before, and it worked out pretty well, all things considered.
By contrast, some experienced guys seemed to think my little projects were beneath them, and didn't work as hard as they should have. It's up to you and your budget to decide who is good enough for your project.
It seems like everyone is a "producer" in the music world.
Producer seems to be the most common job title I hear in the music world. Everyone's a producer it seems. But what does that mean exactly? This job description can vary greatly depending on the size of your budget, what type of project you're doing, and the guy's personality, among other things.
Some producers are very big-picture-oriented, and limit themselves to scheduling musicians, hiring crew, and making sure the record is finished on time and within the budget. More hands-on guys may dive into the song arrangements, instrumentation, and the way parts are played. Generally speaking, most producers are responsible for shaping the album into a finished, cohesive whole.
It's my understanding that if you're working with a record label, the label has a large say, if not the entire say, about who produces your album. However, for us truly independent musicians, finding a producer means networking with other musicians, asking who they worked with and what their experience was like.
Another possibility is going online and searching for who produced an album you like and seeing if he's available and interested in working with you. (This could also apply to engineers and session guys.) Dream big if you want to, and email that guy who you doubt would ever stoop down to walk amongst common people. The worst he can say is no and that you're a talentless hack who isn't worth his time. Oh well. Cry your tears and move on to the next guy.
Be wary, and do your homework. Many guys call themselves producers without actually knowing how to manage a project, how to arrange a song, or how to guide the sound of an album. Research thoroughly before you put out any money.
A "session" musician is someone who is hired to fill in a particular role during a recording ...session... but is not a regular member of your band. Ideally, this person is a master of his chosen instrument, but there are other skills unique to this role.
A session guy should be able to walk in the live room, listen to the song a couple times, look over a chord chart, and give you a couple takes that make it sound like he's been playing the song for years.
He should know how to play in multiple genres, and be able to handle complex arrangements and parts. He absolutely needs to be able to take constructive criticism. He's got to know where to sit in the song, which means, depending on what you're looking for, he can either solo out in front of the arrangement, or find a rhythmic pocket that doesn't call attention to itself at the expense of other instruments or parts.
If you don't know someone who can fill the role you're looking for, talk to the producer or engineer, or go to open mics and do some networking.
The studio may have interns that help out with mic placement, running cable, organizing equipment, tuning up instruments, or even engineering some of the more straightforward tracking sessions. They're not really necessary for the studio session to run smoothly, but it's nice to have the extra help if available. It's the studio's job to bring in interns, you shouldn't have to worry about that.
No matter who you're hiring, always ask for references.
No matter what position you're hiring for, ask for a list of their past clients, and see if you can get in touch with those clients. That last part is important. Just because someone claims they worked with an artist doesn't mean that they worked well. The artist may have hated the experience, or hated how the album turned out. You're going to be cramped in a tiny room with these guys for days at a time, and the days tend to be long. You want to hire talented people, sure, but you should also be able to get along with them.
For my projects, finding a good studio was as simple as googling, sending emails, and making calls. For whatever reason, there seems to be a lot of companies that started up, then closed their doors, but left their websites up, so don't be surprised if you don't hear back from everyone you reach out to.
Once you hear back from someone at the studio, you want to find out the following pieces of information:
Ask as many questions as you can before you put out cash. It's your money, and it's going to be a lot of it by the time you're done, so put these people through the ringer (politely) and make sure you really want to work with them.
As I've said a number of times by now, studio time is expensive. Artists with unlimited budgets can block out months of time at their favorite recording house and work out their arrangements while simultaneously recording. Artists who have day jobs likely have no such luxury.
We working schmucks have to work out the arrangements, lyrics, and every possible aspect of the songs before we ever step foot in a studio. When you plug in your instruments and the engineer presses record, you should know your parts cold and be able to play them near-perfect every time.
Think of it this way: if you're paying $500 for 8 hours of recording, you're spending a buck and change (not including tax) for each minute you sit there trying to remember how the bridge goes.
Keep in mind, no matter how much you rehearse, there will probably always be ideas that you'll come up with while recording that you decide to throw in. Knowing the songs backward and forward allows for those spontaneous creative moments. However, if you're focused on the fundamental elements of a track, like remembering the lyrics, the bass line, or figuring out guitar parts, you will have less time and freedom to come up with these ideas.
As part of the rehearsal process, I have found it extremely beneficial to create your own recordings of the songs before you get to the real studio. This will let you hear parts that aren't working in a way that just doesn't happen during a live rehearsal.
Do the most fully-fleshed-out recordings you are able to manage. I liken this to the way they used to build bikes on the TV show "American Chopper." They would build the bike from start to finish, see what was out of whack, then take the thing completely apart, make adjustments, and rebuild it all over again. It's time-consuming to be sure, but there's no better way to find out what works and what doesn't.
At the very least, you should do smartphone recordings of each song so that you, your band, and/or your session musicians can be as familiar with the songs as possible.
It's very helpful to create a roadmap that will guide your recording process. I've included an image of the one I used for the album we just tracked. It is a way for everyone to know what songs need to be done, what will be the guide track (the instrument you build the rest of the track around - usually the first thing to be recorded), and what instruments will be featured on which songs. This is especially helpful if you're using studio musicians.
Having this information mapped out will save you time and frustration. For example, when it's time to record an acoustic guitar, you can just go right down the list and record all the songs that have acoustic on them. If you're doing it from memory, you might forget which songs you wanted acoustic on, and spend valuable studio time trying to jog your memory.
GET THE BEST
When recording, you should always record with the best instruments you can get your hands on. The tones you get from these instruments are going to live on forever in your recordings, so it's wise to make sure you get the best possible sound you can. If you own quality instruments that you're totally happy with, great. But, if your acoustic can't stay in tune, you will spend the rest of your life kicking yourself for not using something better.
If you don't have the best instruments, keep in mind that many studios have great instruments in-house. You need a Telecaster? Here you go. A Les Paul? Right this way, sir. Broke through a drum head? Here's a replacement. The benefit of this kind of thing can't be underestimated when you're under the financial and time pressure of a recording schedule.
Get your hands on the best gear and instruments you can find.
If the studio doesn't have the gear you need, you should beg, borrow, and rent from friends and acquaintances. I'd also recommend that you ask the engineer what types of instruments he's had the best luck with. Some engineers have a real disdain for certain brands and models. I want the guy who's tracking and mixing my songs to be perfectly happy and comfortable with whatever he's mic-ing... if possible and practical.
There is no universal list of perfect instruments to use. Everybody has their preferences, but there are no right answers. Some guys swear by their boutique basses, other guys think it's a Fender P-bass or nothing. It largely depends on the type of music you're making. Talk to your engineer beforehand to get ideas and to make sure you're covered.
I'd highly recommend taking your stringed instruments to a technician before you go into the studio to get them a sort of tuneup called a "setup." If you go to almost any music store and ask for a setup, they'll either offer to do it themselves, or recommend someone who can.
This isn't a very expensive service, and it basically just means that they're going to adjust your intonation, action, and hardware to make sure you're getting the best sound possible. If you use any kind of unusual tuning, make sure to tell the technician so he can make the appropriate adjustments.
If you have a particular tone on your guitar, amp, synth, or any other instrument that you're happy with, take a picture of the knobs and switches, or write down the settings, and label them by song. You want to be able to call on these settings on the fly when recording, instead of getting frustrated and wasting time trying to remember the recipe.
Do keep in mind, however, that instruments are likely to sound very different in an acoustically-treated studio, or when played back through expensive monitors. As such, you may have to be flexible if the tone you prefer doesn't end up working when the record light flips on.
This is an old military quote that means if you send a soldier on a mission and he is incapacitated, the mission fails, and you're screwed. Sending two soldiers on the mission means you have someone to step in when the other guy is taken out. I apply this philosophy in many aspects of my life, and it especially applies to recording.
Every instrument and musician should have a backup if at all possible.
Every element of your recording should have a redundancy if at all possible. Bring lots of extra strings, drumheads, batteries, and sticks. Get in touch with someone who can fill in on as many instruments as possible in case one of your band members falls ill. Studios are not in the habit of refunding deposits, so if your guitarist wipes out on his motorcycle and breaks his arm on his way to the session, you might be out of a serious amount of money if you don't have someone who can sub for him.
To be clear, this is not a theoretical scenario. I've had vocalists bail on me the week of recording. I've had a hungover organist sleep through his alarm clock and cost me four hours of recording time. My favorite example: we had a backing vocalist show up who had never listened to the songs we sent her, was hungover, had a cold, and confessed that she could really only sing lead. She also couldn't mimic parts that we sang for her.
The time spent scrambling to replace these people could have been used to do more tracking or add in parts or ideas that we came up with in the studio.
There's a lot to do before you go into a studio, and granted, I've probably missed some things. If you have experiences you'd like to add, send me an email or a comment. The way I see it, there is no such thing as too much preparation when it comes to recording. Read up on other people's stories. Talk to as many musicians as possible to get an idea of what to expect. Doing the work before you show up to record means you have more time to play once you get in front of a microphone. But that's for next time.
Make sure to check out Part II: Going in the Studio.