5 Things Every Musician Should Know Before Stepping Into a Recording Studio
30 Jan 2017
Interview kind: text
· Reading time: 11 minutes
Stepping into a REAL recording studio with some REAL big-fancy-old-school-custom-super-high-end gear is a dream come true for any musician.
It’s the moment when you’re finally “behind the glass”, and there’s nothing stopping you from feeling like the rock star you’ve always wanted to be. Because that’s how most of the records piled up in your basement were made.
But let’s make it clear, none of those big names were fully prepared when they stepped into the control room for the first time: the smell, the sparkling lights, thousands (maybe millions) of fancy knobs and that weird bearded guy telling you how to hit the snare in the way he thinks is “right”.
So don’t panic, if they made it maybe it’s not as impossible as it seems. Here are a few helpful tips every musician should consider before he starts recording his own songs.
1. Planning is the key
Doesn’t it feel so good when things just go the way they should? Ok, 9 times out of 10 this doesn’t happen after your foot has crossed the front door of the studio. Planning could be the most boring part of a musician’s day but it’s still part of the job. It’s basically getting ready for whatever life is going to throw at you.
No matter if you’re headlining Coachella or if you’ve just stepped out of your garage-rehearsal-room, deciding to spend time (and money) in recording your music means committing to something that needs focus and preparation. So get your gear packed and ready: change your old guitar strings, replace your loose drum heads and bring enough picks and sticks as you may need. It sounds stupid, but it’s easy to get itchy in the studio environment and these are some of the first causes you can easily avoid.
Further planning involves, especially in smaller productions, the recording of so-called “guide tracks”. It basically means getting together, way before the session, with a cheap audio interface and recording to click a very simple version of the song: maybe just the guitar part and the vocals. The first of the band chosen to step “behind the glass” will feel less alone and will have something to play along with (I’m afraid it’s always drums first!).
Last but not least part of the planning is dealing with the infamous “click track” [dramatic background music]. Musicians either love it or hate it: even though no one has actually ever loved it, it’s still an essential part of the modern recording workflow. So you'd better practice on your own, get used to it and figure out a way of seeing it as a “friend” who’s there to give a rock solid structure to your song.
2. Yes, every knob does something
The first person who’s going to welcome you to this magic world is this weird bearded guy we talked about before. He’s probably going to speak in a strange technical language using words like “ribbon microphone”, “phase”, “compression”, “overdubs” or things like that. You simply have to smile and nod, pretending you perfectly understand what he’s talking about. Never (NEVER) get into deep philosophical conversations about the shiny boxes around you, unless you’re a bit of an audio nerd too.
Just make him understand you’ve got all of your gear set and ready to go (see point 1), you know what you’re doing and don’t ask too many questions each time he presses a button. Wouldn’t it be annoying if each time you played a chord someone asked you why you did it? Engineering is a creative job too, just like playing: many choices are technical yet artistic, so give this person the time to try different things, maybe slightly change your guitar tone or move a microphone an inch away from your cabinet.
Sometimes you’ll think he’s just a crazy bearded guy, but he can really surprise you if you leave him the right “creative space”. Sit back and focus on playing your instrument, he’ll figure the rest out. And if he keeps asking for another take, maybe you should ask yourself who’s doing something wrong.
It’s always useful to bring with you some reference songs or demos that might have something in common with your music. Yes, of course: the sound you’re looking for is unique and it has never been heard before in the history of recorded music, so the only reference is your own infinite and mind-blowing musical inspiration. That’s for sure, but don’t forget there are always some technical choices (even the most casual ones) behind certain results: even the slightest reference can help the sound-guy figure out what you have in mind.
3. Recording studios ain’t no party house (or are they?)
In your garage-rehearsal-room you can hang around whenever you like, invite as many friends as you want and take as many beer-and-cigarette breaks as you desire. But remember you’re now in a professional recording environment and you’re buying someone else’s time to get the best out of it.
I know, it’s hard to imagine someone like Keith Richards without a bottle of whiskey next to him, quietly strumming his guitar in a corner of the studio. A lot of the greatest musicians are extravagant artists who don’t easily settle with the studio “etiquette”. It’s just a matter of finding the right balance: being in a highly creative moment, it’s important for you to make yourself comfortable and confident with what’s happening around you. If this means inviting over a couple of friends and opening a couple of beers, that’s fine! (I’m sure the weird bearded guy won’t mind). But don’t lose your focus: delivering your best performance.
Studio sessions can get very long and there are a couple of crucial moments in which you just need to get your head (and ears) out of there for a few minutes. Not every guitar riff is good at first take and you have to be prepared do things over and over again. Don’t worry, you’ll have time to take long coffee breaks while the engineer is doing “engineer’s stuff”. Creating a relaxed and positive-minded environment in the studio can make you play notes you didn’t even know how to play (see point 5) and give a real boost to your creativity.
4. Budget matters but isn’t the key
Money is always a delicate subject, especially when you’re talking about music. That’s why every artist should keep in mind that YES, recording is a business but NO, that weird bearded guy isn’t like any other office worker. He won’t automatically understand all of your needs, just like you won’t understand all of his.
If you can plan beforehand the workflow with someone who really knows what you’re looking for, you’ll realize that your pocket money has been well spent. There’s no use in hiring the top hip-hop producer on the planet if you’re a jazz band. Maybe the person you really need lives just down the street and you never knew it. But how can you be sure that your commitment is worth the budget?
We’ve been asking ourselves the same thing, and this is why Bantamu was born. It’s a useful free online matchmaking platform that connects artists with the perfect professionals they’re looking for, whether it’s a producer, a recording, a mixing or a mastering engineer. No matter where you are and what you do, we’ll find the perfect bearded guy that suits you best. Why don’t you start a project yourself? It could be up and running in a blink of an eye.
Things can work out differently from what you’ve scheduled: this requires a certain flexibility in terms of artistry and time. If you find the right pro sitting behind the desk, not only he’ll add his personal “boost” to your sound, but, if it’s needed, he’ll maybe also stop for a few extra hours after the sessions. Recording to tape (or ProTools) the sound you’ve got in mind is the key, so choose wisely the guy who’s going to be in charge of doing it.
5. And, yes. You actually have to know how to play an instrument!
Don’t forget the most important part of all: your performance. There’s no need for a rockstar sex-drugs-and-rocknroll attitude if you’re not good at playing your instrument. Don’t get me wrong, extreme technical abilities don’t necessarily lead to good performances. It’s more about having clear ideas of what needs to be played in a certain part of the song. All those shiny boxes in the control room can make your snare drum sound just like that record you’ve always listened to; but that’s pretty useless if the drummer can’t play it in time with the rest.
Trust me, an engineer can instantly tell if a band has rehearsed a song well enough or if one of the musicians is playing it for the first time. Modern recordings are usually built through overdubs, so every instrument has to be recorded on its own. At first sight this could sound more challenging, but it’s actually easier than recording the whole band playing live.
It’s easy to play together when you’re in your packed garage-rehearsal-room, with drums covering everything and giant amps blowing your ears off. But you’re now in an acoustic treated room and your instrument can be heard loud and clear the way it should. It’s just a matter of confidence with your sound, and the easiest way to overcome so is to arrive in the studio with enough preparation. Practice, practice, practice! Forget about all the tech stuff, someone else will take care of that. Make sure you know the song and play it like you were in front of the biggest crowd ever.
I’m a young musician and sound engineer based in Italy.
I’m also the Artists & Professionals Assistant at Bantamu and I’m here to get the best music out there, whether it’s playing, engineering or simply writing about it.
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