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Twelve Things Your Band Should Know Before Going into the Studio

As most of you who visit the blog are probably aware, I record bands sometimes.  I like doing that kind of thing.  I record my OWN stuff all the time, but I particularly enjoy recording someone else.  It forces me to think differently and to try things I never would have done with my own music—mostly just because I’m pretty much dialed in to my “sound” and I don’t need to experiment to find it.  I love the recording process.

Most of the time.

Sometimes bands can make the engineering/mastering process, which I LOVE, a real pain in the ass.  The enjoyment of everyone in the project hinges on some very basic issues between the band and the engineer, and as a service to musicians (and as a hopefully fun read for anyone who wonders what a recording session looks like) I thought I’d offer a few suggestions that a band can take to make their project an easier effort for all involved.  I came up with 12 off the top of my head.  Thought about editing it down…and some of them are kind of similar…but whatever.  This works.  So here we go…

(Side-issue — For the sake of thinking of MYSELF as the engineer, I’m using male-specific gender pronouns.  This is in no way a slight to the fine female engineers at work in the field.  In their pretty, pretty dresses.)

12 Things Bands Should Know Before Going into the Studio:

  1. Do your homework.
    • The time to decide on an arrangement and/or to write a new song is NOT when you’re paying an engineer to be there.  Your material should be well rehearsed, polished, and clear in the heads of each band member.  (Or, you better be REAL good at improvising and have some GREAT chops.)  Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  Get it to the point that you’re almost bored with the songs.  You should be able to play them in your sleep by the time you’re taking up the time of others—especially those of us who work full-time jobs outside of our musical work.  The quicker you can get the thing recorded, the quicker it can be mixed, mastered, and in your hands.  On average, you should be budgeting 1-2 hours per song from your first take to your final take (for the whole band).
    • Keep in mind, though, that sometimes you’ll hear a playback and realize that what you’re doing doesn’t work.  I’ve been in more than one situation where I’ve heard a take back and said, “Wow.  That’s WAY too busy.”  Recording reveals your weaknesses as well as your strengths.  Sometimes you end up re-writing a little in the studio…but in all, you should at least know the notes and structure, even if the specifics fluctuate a little bit out of necessity.
  2. There are things that you will NEVER hear on the record.
    • String pops.  Breath inhales/exhales.  “Oops, I burped during the guitar solo.”  These little incidental things are something your engineer should be able to deal with (unless your burp measures on the Richter Scale).  If the engineer feels that it will be a problem, he’ll let you know.  Don’t tell him that you need to redo it because there’s something on there that he knows to delete in the first place.
    • “I think I can hear birds outside your window.”  “Is the air conditioner going to be a problem?”  “I think there’s a cricket in here.”  “I hear some hiss in my headphones.”  Look…the engineer knows the room and more importantly knows his GEAR.  If he says you’re not going to hear the birds, crickets, and Taco Bell the bass player had for dinner—you WON’T.  There are a couple of dozen tricks I know to eliminate those sounds, if they show up in the first place (which they DON’T most of the time).  Trust him when he says, “You’ll never know it’s there.”
    • You also may not hear “that really cool note that makes the song!”  Sorry.  You’ve got a full band and if that one note’s that important to you, tell your engineer IN ADVANCE and he’ll probably have you play it on a single channel, so he can pop it in as needed.  But you’re in a full band, and when it’s properly mixed, you’re amazing (if wanky) guitar solo might not be as loud as it was in your basement.  We do our best, but sometimes the little “noises” that you think are cool just fade into the mix.  Some of it can be addressed.  Some of it can’t.  If you’re that worried about it, then do a record of just guitar solos.
    • Some of the extra “layers” you’re recording won’t be noticeable.  IE – Recording three tracks of the exact same part—though cool on the (pre-murderer) Phil Spector level—might not be too apparent when you hear the final mix.  In fact, if the engineer’s doing his job right, it SHOULDN’T be noticeable.  It’s a nice effect, but keep in mind that if you’ve got it twice, the third time might not be the charm.  I’ve wasted a LOT of hours watching a guy nail it on the first take, nail it on the second take, and botch it on the third through hundredth.  Maybe two was enough.  And while we’re at it…sometimes you’re not going to do it the “best” you’ve ever done it…and sometimes “good enough” really IS good enough.
  3. “No…I don’t need to mic that.”
    • We’re professionals (or thereabout).  We know how our mics work and what placement will give us the best sound.  It’s very cute that you read an article on the Disc Makers website…but that means nothing to us.  You called US to record your band.  We’ll get it on tape.  Don’t worry about where the mic “should be.”  We know what we’re doing.
    • Also, sometimes “going direct” really IS the best option.  (For the laymen, that means the instrument is plugged into the board with no external amplification, or that the amplifier is plugged into the mixer through a wire/output jack not totally dissimilar from a headphone jack with no microphone used.  Guitarists especially hate that for some reason.)  Maybe your “awesome amp” is going to end up creating too much rattle in the track, and a cleaner signal is needed.  Don’t fight it.  Again…we know what we’re doing.  (And if it sucks, your engineer should have taken the precaution of recording a “clean” signal alongside your effect rig so you won’t have to redo it, and it can just be run right through your amp—yes—with a microphone in front of it.  An old trick of the trade.)
  4. Background means background.
    • Vocals are the place where you will waste a TON of time, especially background vocals.  It is KEY to remember that your LEAD vocal track is what most people will be noticing.  The background vocal should compliment and reinforce it, but it should (and hopefully WILL) not be mixed at the same volume as the lead.  It’s a BACKGROUND vocal.  Don’t over-think it.  There’s no need to do more than a couple of passes, as long as you’re singing it right.  (And don’t worry too much about things like, “we didn’t all finish that word on the same beat!” and so on…a good engineer should be able to work with that—and sometimes it sounds cooler if you don’t anyway!)
  5. Do everything you can to make it easy on the engineer.
    • Money isn’t enough.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s great.  It can buy you a LOT.  But if you make the engineer miserable (mostly by doing the stuff you shouldn’t do that I’m writing out here), no one’s going to be happy.  The engineer can be a great “extra set of ears” offering advice, encouragement, and a fun experience.  Or, he can just be another body in the room who has absolutely nothing to say and just counts the hours that are passing, watching his price rise with every tick of the clock.  It’s really your call.  If you WANT the latter, that’s cool.  We can stay out of your way.  But if you want the former, you should really treat the engineer as though they’re a member of your band for the time you’re in their studio.  You’ll all be happier for it.
    • Remember — This is the guy who has your music in his hands, and you DO NOT want to piss him off.  An engineer, no matter how well paid, can only do so much with something he feels bad about putting his name on.  If he doesn’t feel motivated to do a good job, or if he feels like he’s been treated with hostility, he may still do a professional job…but it won’t be as good as it would have been if he were happy and felt like, “those were nice guys—I want to do right by them.”  As I’ve always said, 99% of your success comes because there were people who you didn’t piss off.
  6. Know the scale of your release, and play to THAT. (If it’s a demo, don’t treat it like a full-length.)
    • There’s no simple way to say this…but if you’re going to do a full release (complete with packaging, shrink-wrap, etc, etc) that’s VERY different from doing a demo that you’re only going to hand to club owners.  Is this a release you are going to want to hang on your wall five years from now, or is it just something to throw on your MySpace page to get a gig?  If it’s a full release, spend more time, make greater efforts, and put your whole soul into it.  If it’s a demo to get gigs…frankly, you can let a few things slide.  And do it in MONO for God’s sake…
  7. Respect your engineer’s time—especially if you’re in his home.
    • You are a guest in your engineer’s home, even if you are not in his home.  This is a guy who, if he’s getting paid or not, has given up his time (and probably more of his MONEY than you realize) and has made the decision to do something FOR YOU instead of for himself.  If he makes the trip to your band-room, be grateful and welcome him.  If he invites you to his home or studio space, be a polite guest that he wouldn’t mind having back.  Don’t treat him like hired help.  Treat him like a friend—or at the very LEAST a colleague.
  8. You are NOT Led Zeppelin/The Who/Justin Beiber/Whoever.
    • And more importantly, you’re not going to SOUND like them.  Don’t hand your engineer a copy of “Houses of the Holy” and say, “We want it to sound like THIS!”  Well…  Maybe he’s got the ability to get CLOSE to the aesthetic/ambient sounds (and maybe NOT)…but are you really Robert Plant?  No.  Sound like YOU.  That’s all we’re going to get on tape anyway.
  9. If your engineer doubts a take, LISTEN TO HIM.
    • He’s the one that’s got to mix it.  If he hears something and thinks it will stick out like a sore thumb, he might just know what he’s talking about.  For the most part, the engineer will not be familiar enough with your material to know that you’ve played something wrong…but on the occasion that he does say, “Are you sure you want that?  Let’s listen to it again…” shut up, listen to it, and make an informed decision.  He may be hearing something that WILL bother you down the line.  And as I’ve always maintained, it’s easier to re-do it in that moment that to regret it for the rest of your life.
  10. If the engineer says, “It won’t be a problem,” then it won’t be a problem.
    • This thought is a pretty good summary of all the stuff I’ve said about stuff you won’t hear, mic-placement issues, etc…  The engineer has a whole bag of tricks he is able to employ to “fix” a given issue.  Most engineers know their skill-set really well—it comes after MUCH practice—and know if they can make an edit you think it “impossible” or if they can fix something you think you need to re-do.  If the engineer can look you in the eye and say, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.” you can pretty much take that to the bank.  You don’t need to say, “Are you sure?”  Yes.  We are.
  11. It will never sound “as good as it did in the room.”
    • This is the most frustrating thing you can possibly say to an engineer who has just spent hours or DAYS mixing your project.  “Well, on the day we recorded it, the bass was just so much louder!” or “The snare drum stuck out more!” or “You could REALLY hear the xylophone!”  Yeah.  Know why?  Because it wasn’t mixed yet.
    • Also, you’re probably living in a little bit of a rock and roll fantasy land when it comes to your own sound.  It’s not going to sound how you remembered it sounding because—sorry—it never actually sounded that way.  You’re hearing nuance and depth that only exists/existed in your own mind.  The proof is in the pudding—or in the file-render, as the case may be.  Super-sorry, Not-Robert Plant…but what you hear is what you DID.
  12. It’s a boring job for the engineer.
    • The day of your recording session should be a BLAST for you.  You should be on top of the world.  You’re doing something really cool and producing something you’ll get to hold on to FOREVER.  You should have a great time and love every moment of it.  But keep in mind that for the engineer, it’s just pressing a button and saying, “We’re rolling” about 100 times a night.  So many engineers (myself often included) press “record” and their eyes glass over.  We’re just staring at a computer screen.  (In fact, I know a guy who doesn’t even do THAT…he sits and reads a magazine.  I at least show the respect of pretending to be interested, ha ha.)  We’ll have our fun during the session, too…but it’s probably not while you’re laying down the tracks.  If you’re treating us right, it’s in-between takes, when we’re chatting and joking around.  And we’ll have a LOT of fun mixing the thing after you’ve left.  We WANT you to have a project you can be proud of.  WE want to be proud of it, too.  I think of every project I do as a business card…and I want it to be a good looking (or sounding, as it were) card that sticks in the memory of people who hear it…  But on the day-of…I’m just pushing buttons.  :)

And that’s it.  Sorry it’s so long and maybe a little boring…but I hope that was helpful and/or informative to SOMEBODY anyway.

————

Lost Rewatch Update — I’m up through the second episode of disc 2 in Season 5.  Almost there!  :)

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