When you’re in the studio, everyone is there to work, not to act like rock stars. “Time = Money” has never been more true. As an artist, you are expected to come prepared and arrive on time. As a producer/engineer, equipment and session should be setup beforehand and should be ready for the artist to walk in and essentially start tracking. Sometimes things take time in the studio, but this should never be an excuse to let things go longer than needed. Studio time isn’t an excuse to hang out and party – we are all here to do work, so be timely and get at it!
One basic way to curb any scheduling issues is to have a plan well in advance. This will keep all band members, recording personnel, or other team members on the same page. Everyone should know exactly what is available at the studio, as well as what they are expected to bring for the session to run smoothly. There is nothing worse than finally arriving to the studio and setting up, only to realize that you don’t have extra packs of strings! A proper studio plan should have: time, date, address, equipment, what is scheduled for each day, etc.
Really, etiquette comes down to common sense: keep it clean and tidy in the studio, if you break it you buy it, professional communication, put your phone away, be a nice person, be open to criticism and suggestions. This isn’t rocket science, always be and act professional.
Now, it’s not really “etiquette”, but it should be your mission to make the session as comfortable as you can (whether you’re an artist or an engineer). The more relaxed and at ease everyone is, the more we can all focus on the music. If you’re wasting all your time fiddling around with equipment, or feel out-of-your-element, you might miss the magic.
Recording Your Music
It all starts with a well-written song! An argument can be made on the opinion that even if the song doesn’t sonically sound like a million dollars, that’s okay! As long as the feeling and emotions of a song can reach out and touch your audience, you’re doing just fine. The only evidence I need is already out there; the majority of songs DO sound good don’t get me wrong. However, you might be surprised when you critically listen to time-tested classics and discover that aside from being an amazingly written song, the instruments don’t always sound perfect!
Spend a great deal of time writing your song, and have patience. A high-level of focus and genuine effort will pay off ten-fold, than what you would achieve by simply rushing to the recording stage.
Alright, you’ve got a full fledge song on your hands. Now what? Time to get the pencil to paper (so to speak) and start to record “scratch tracks”. Scratch tracks are essentially audition takes that will make up the foundation of your song and provide context to your idea. They will act as placeholders until the final recording will take place. Let your idea flourish and use this stage to mess with the arrangement of each instrument, what elements to add, extra vocal lines, etc. Let your song breath and create a masterpiece. Like I said, these scratch tracks are placeholders so don’t worry TOO much if it doesn’t sound perfect, you’re just working to get your idea across.
Let’s dive a little deeper for a second: Don’t just record the basics and call it a day. When I say let the song flourish, I mean it! Experiment with rhythm guitar layers in the chorus, create a lush backdrop of lead guitars, forge a wall of vocals with layers of harmonies, shape beautiful strings and synths for depth and space. Do whatever you have to do to make a good song GREAT!
Setting up for Recording
Once your song is 100% ready to go, it’s time to commit to a tone or a sound. You don’t want to have this beefy bass on one song, and this weird thin mess of a bass on another. You don’t want to have two totally different rhythm guitar tones between two songs. Consistency and dedicating tones will help to record a series of great songs, without having to “fix it in the mix”.
Be sure to set the levels on your interface and preamps so that there is a lot of headroom. Digital converters have come a long way in the last decade, however, clipping is still clipping. Once you’ve clipped a signal, there is no coming back from it. You can try to hide it or edit it out, but why go through the effort when you could have just done things right the first time? In case it isn’t clear, DON’T CLIP THE SIGNAL! And leave ample amounts of headroom on each track. As a general rule of thumb, aim for about 6dB of headroom, or just before the meter starts to show yellow.
In each instance, be careful to monitor the instrument tuning and make adjustments every few takes to ensure everything sounds the same. This is so simple yet so important, and a detail that can be easy to forget about. Set those mental queues and check that the tuning is correct throughout the recording process.
When you begin recording the final version of your song, you’ll retrack each instrument one-by-one. The order of execution is flexible and you can choose which instrument to record first. I recommend starting with drums and working up from there. Take baby steps and be patient when recording. It can be a frustrating process, but it’s far better to get the right takes than to rush and settle on something you know just won’t do.
Recording bass, guitars, and even synths is fairly straightforward in the way that when you get it right, you know it’s right. There aren’t a lot of moving parts and any inconsistencies can be picked out pretty easily. However, when it comes to recording drums, things become a little difficult. There are a lot of moving parts to account for and lots of hardware that can create a noise you don’t want. One technique we can use to piece together a great performance, and curb any issues, is by comping takes. This will allow you to take the best parts of any performance and combine them into one. While recording vocals doesn’t come with as many moving parts, vocal performances can differ wildly from one to the next so having a selection of takes to choose from can prove valuable.
Finally, while it’s not directly attached to recording, I highly suggest editing each take as you go. This includes tasks like removing background noise, hissing/feedback, breaths and plain old dead noise. Take it a step further and edit each signal tight to the grid. This means slicing and editing the drums to be a solid back-beat, the bass and guitars to hit their notes at the same time, clean-up any sloppy playing, and to ensure the vocal lines flow with the song. When you make each edit, take extra care to create transparency between edits. Nothing sounds goofier than a bad (and noticeable) edit.
While these are all the basics of recording, it goes much farther. Capturing and processing audio is an artform that is always evolving, especially with the introduction of realistic digital instruments. Take time to choose your recording methods wisely, and have fun creating a mess of noise for others to enjoy. Hopefully, this article will provide a solid starting point for you to work off of in creating your own music.
Basics of Recording Checklist
Act right in the studio; Don’t hold the session hostage
It all starts with a well-crafted song
Record Scratch Tracks
Arrangement of instruments
Plan out Harmonies, and Extra Elements
Sign-off and continue with final recording
Based on the scratch tracks, determine final tone for each instrument, and commit
In each instance, ensure the signal NEVER CLIPS
Check the tuning of each instrument, readjust the tuning every few takes
Replace each scratch track, on-by-one, patiently and deliberately
Comping drum, and vocal takes for selection and editing
Final playback and sign-off