Prepare for the studio

PREPARE FOR THE STUDIO

 Musician's Map recording rules venn diagram music good fast cheap

A good recording can be cheap if you allow more time.

A good recording can be fast if you allow for more cost.

A recording can be fast and cheap if you sacrifice on quality.

It cannot be all three: good quality, quick to make and easy on the wallet 

You need to decide which two attributes from above will work for your situation. I’m going to assume that 100% of you do not want a poor quality recording, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. A bad representation of your songs will not benefit your music at this stage of your career.

These days, anyone has access to the tools required to make a quality recording; if your recording has any chance of being noticed, it must be comparable to the rest of the music on offer in your genre. You can’t expect people to buy or even listen to a sub-par recording.

To start, I want to talk a little about:

Home Studios.

I think it’s great that recording is more accessible than ever. I’ve had a home studio myself for 15 years now; I’m all for them. If you have the equipment and know how to use it, by all means make your album using your home studio. If you are 100% confident that the results you can achieve at home will be an acceptable standard, then go for it. If home recording is just a hobby or a way to create demos, if you don’t have all the gear you need and are a bit unsure of where to start: go to a professional studio.  

The last album I recorded was a created using a mixture of my home studio and professional studios. The choices I made when writing and demoing material dictated my needs for recording. I don’t have a ‘live’ room, or any appropriate space to record drums, so I paid to record in a studio that has a beautiful sounding drum room, a choice of microphones, a vintage console and classic outboard gear. I also used that studio for their grand piano. I paid for another, smaller studio to record vocals in a nice vocal booth with a vintage microphone and vintage pre-amps. Keyboards, bass, synths, percussion, claps and everything else was either ITB (in the box), or recorded at my home studio for free.

I had the experience and qualifications, but not the facilities needed to make a professional quality album in the style I was aiming for.  

Try to think about your home studio objectively, and decide if you really can produce the required results from it. Remember the basic rule of recording; whatever goes into the microphone (including the characteristics of the microphone itself) is eventually what comes out of the speakers.

Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s prepare to record.

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Choose your songs.

Your musical intention and the reaction from you fans should make it obvious which of your songs to record; if you’re an indie rock group, maybe leave the 15-minute doom opus for another project. You should also choose your songs based on the format by which you are releasing them. As a basic guide:

  • A single should be your best, most catchy, most popular song. Its purpose is to entice people to listen to more of your music.
  • An EP should be a handful of your strongest, most popular songs including your single. It should capture the essence of your sound and convert people into fans.
  • An album is where you can include all your best songs, but also show some diversity and depth to your sound. An album converts fans into super fans.

Whatever songs you’ve chosen, make sure you have done so before you record.

**Quick side note - It’s common to have more than one single on an album. If you just have one single people will prefer to download that instead of the full album. You need multiple catchy singles to garner interest, the more singles you have, the more enticing your album will appear.**

Be well-rehearsed.

We’ve talked about this a few times now for other situations, but it has never been more important as it is here. Before you step foot inside a recording studio, before you press record on your laptop, you need to be as tight as you can possibly be. If there is doubt in your mind that you can play your part correctly, it will translate to your recording. Be confident, be rehearsed, leave no room for doubt.  

Recording takes time and that time is worth money. If you are in a recording studio, you will be paying by the hour for the service. If you don’t know your part, if you can’t play in time or hit the required note then not only are you wasting your own time and money, but you are wasting the time and money of everyone else involved. Except the engineer. 

The best thing any band or artist can do to prepare for the studio is to know your parts and be well-rehearsed.

Pre-production.

This is just a fancy name for a simple process that everyone should take before recording, even if you are self-producing. Pre-production is like ironing an item of clothing before a job interview, you get rid of all the wrinkles and looking as best it can, to serve the intended purpose of making you look good.

Make rough recordings of your songs and listen to them objectively. Can they be refined or made more effective in any way? Can you add or remove some instrumentation to accentuate the feeling or meaning of the song? Can you use dynamics more effectively? Now is the time to listen to your songs as your audience might and make adjustments before you commit to them.

During pre-production, once you’ve settled on the final arrangement, it can be helpful to create click tracks in the correct time signature and tempo, with any changes during the song included.

Click tracks.

Not everyone needs one, but musicians who don’t are very rare. Unless you want your recording to fluctuate in tempo, you need to record to a click. Set them to your pre-production songs and practice to them every day. Get really good at practicing with a click track, especially if you’re a drummer. Take your click tracks to the studio and give them to the engineer to use or reference to create their own. 

Recording to a click track also makes it easier to correct any tempo fluctuations or performance mistakes later on if necessary. Post-production techniques such as edits, sound replacing and delay effects are much more effective if a song has a steady, ‘mapped’ tempo. 

Equipment.

I’ve mentioned this aspect before but it deserves repeating. Your gear should be in the best working order it can be. If you’re a drummer, have new drum heads on your kit that you’ve tuned, played and tuned again. Just to be clear; tune your drums before you get to the studio! I can’t count how many sessions I’ve been in where the drummer arrives, sets up, then spends the next hour tuning and re-tuning their kit. I’ve also been that drummer. That hour you spent tuning just cost everyone involved an hour of studio time, when you could have done it at home. 

Get your instrument serviced by a professional before you take it to the studio. A service will minimise the risk of fault, and will ensure it sounds the best it can.

Budget. 

Decide how much you are willing to spend on your recording. Take it seriously; look at a few local studios for their rates and estimate how much time you will need to record the amount of music you want (see below about booking time). This is where many people decide they aren’t ready financially to make an album and make an EP instead, or delay recording while they save more money. If you’re in a group, discuss how much everyone involved is willing to contribute to recording; a $5000 album is much more realistic when five people are paying for it. 

Studio essentials.

There are many different types and levels of recording studios. From paying a friend $200 to record you in their home studio, to paying $20,000 to record at a world class facility, you need to know you are getting value for money. You need to research the studios in your area and make sure you’re paying the going rate for the type of studio you need. At a very basic level, a professional recording studio should have: 

  • A dedicated, sound treated recording space (no outside noise)
  • A selection of microphones suitable to your project requirements
  • A professional audio interface or mixing console with 8-channels at the absolute minimum (quiet, all you 4-track geeks)
  • Professional, high quality monitors (speakers)
  • An experienced, professional recording engineer 

With the requirements listed above you could get a huge range of studios of different quality. Use your own discretion when choosing a studio. Read reviews, ask around, do your research and most importantly: listen to previous recordings made there. 

Finding the right studio. 

The atmosphere and people you work with can affect your recording as much as an expensive mixing desk. Make a list of all the studios in your area, visit their websites and look at pictures, gear lists, previous clients and rates. Narrow your list down to your favourite studios within your budget and call them on the phone to discuss your project, how they would approach recording it, and what they expect from you.

Sometimes it can be useful to meet at the studio to discuss the project in person and make sure you are on the same page. If you do decide to make a booking, you might need to make a deposit to secure it.

Again, listen to their previous recordings. Will they suit your sound? Can they adapt if need be? If you’re a math-core band it might not be a great idea to go to a studio/engineer that has only ever recorded soloists. Then again...

Book more time than you think.

Does it take you 40 minutes to play all the songs for your potential album from start to finish? Then one hour’s studio-time should do it, right? WRONG! Studio time includes set-up for every instrument and the set-up to capture that instrument correctly. A good engineer will have an idea of what you are recording and might have some microphones and a signal-chain ready to go, but they will always need to position, listen and adjust many aspects of that signal-chain before they can press record.

That’s before we even start on the multiple takes and layering required to get everything just right. This is where your rehearsal and preparation becomes apparent.

As a general guideline, unless you’re a wizard, book enough studio time to record one song per day. That’s recording only. Mixing and mastering are entirely different parts of the process. Discuss your project with the engineer and they can advise you further on how much time you might need.

And there we have it, good luck! If you've got any questions or would like any more info, please get in touch.

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