This is meant as a guide for anyone thinking of getting some recording done and how to properly prepare for it. Making a great record is much more than just turning up on the day and there are a few things that are worth considering before even setting foot in a studio.
So, you’ve got some tunes written and you want to get them out of your brain and into the general public’s ears – recording your music is clearly the best way of doing this. Before you rush out and book some studio time, there are a number of points to consider to ensure you get the best possible outcome from your music. (Bare in mind that these articles will be written with bands and musicians in mind as opposed to pop or electronic productions.)
Purpose of the Recording
This should be your initial consideration before any other thoughts cross your mind. If you are making a purely promotional demo to try and get your first few gigs, you will want to spend as little as possible without sacrificing quality. However, if you are making an EP or album with a view to pressing and selling records, CDs, downloads etc you will want to approach the recording process from a far more business minded angle (i.e promoting the release, perhaps working with a higher profile engineer/producer etc). The following topics will all be heavily influenced by the purpose of your recording.
This is a very general term with a few key subjective angles to it:
Composition quality: This is very often overlooked by artists looking to go into the recording studio for the first time and yet is such an essential element of the process. We have worked with so many less experienced artists that have brought new material to the studio before it was fully realised and complete. Make sure that your songs are finished and, most importantly, great. You will simply be throwing your money away if you spend half a day working on finishing lyrics that you should have written at home (where your time is FREE!). Make demos of your tracks and play them to friends who’s music tastes you trust. Garage band/audacity/fruity loops are all great software options for this and are extremely easy to get to grips with. There is no point in recording substandard material!
Performance quality: If you are in a band and are planning on going into the recording studio, the importance of being fully rehearsed cannot be over emphasised. Even if it’s only a budget EP recording, you want your performance to represent the best of your abilities. The only way to achieve this is to rehearse the material you will be recording. Regardless of complexity or style of music, a truly well practiced and prepared musician will always sound better. Being prepared in terms of equipment is also so regularly overlooked. Having spare sticks, picks, strings, heads, fuses, valves, having had enough sleep the night before etc are really important for the smooth running of a session. All of these elements factor into an overall better quality performance – being thoroughly prepared is also a great way of battling nerves.
Audio fidelity/Production style: This is arguably the most variable and debatable consideration here but so essential to have considered long before you book into a recording studio as it will dictate the whole sonic aesthetic of the project. If you’re planning on recording as a live band, you must rehearse with this in mind. Try to balance your levels amongst yourselves (we’re looking at you guitarists!). If you sound good in the practice room, you’ll be a lot easier to make sound good in front of microphones. You’ll also want to consider the type of studio/producer/engineer based on the type of sound or production style you’re hoping to achieve (more on that later).
Creative Ownership: Often people can fall into the trap of thinking that a ‘producer’ is there to help you write your songs for you by not considering those finishing touches that make a record stand out with personality. This ties in with the importance of preparation as mentioned above. Back in the Good Ol’ Days, a band or artist might book into a studio for months on the trot to write and record their latest piece of work with their producer in tow. Times have changed considerably since then and really, if you’re still writing things in the studio then you probably shouldn’t be in the studio yet at all. But, more over, it’s really important for you to understand where your creative goals are and to offer your producer/studio team a clear and understood vision for your music. There is far more to modern song writing than just chords and a melody and you need to really consider that before even entertaining the studio environment. You are the artist at the end of it all and you should know, more than anyone, how you want to communicate your creative ideas to your audience. A producer/engineer that’s worth their salt will faithfully translate that into a record you can be proud of.
Choosing the right studio for your project is always a challenge. You will always be restricted by budget, regardless of what level you are at as an artist (the financial constraints and struggles of the music industry are well documented). Assuming you are not a millionaire and haven’t just signed an extremely lucrative deal with a major label, trying to choose the most reasonably priced studio that can accommodate your production requirements is paramount. In our experience, any recording studio is only as good as your recording engineer. Going on personal recommendation or having heard previous output from your engineer is a very good way to go. Ideally, you want to work with someone who understands what you’re trying to achieve, has a strong idea of how to achieve it and ultimately actually likes the tunes you’re recording. A studio with a great mic selection and a good sounding* and appropriately sized** live room are also two big factors when choosing a studio, but don’t be won over by gear – get your personnel sorted first! The reputation of the recording studio you choose can help in terms of marketing and promotion (going back to the purpose of your recording). If you advertise that your latest album will be recorded at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini, you can guarantee to stir up more interest straight away as that studio and engineer are synonymous with a certain style of music that is already very popular.
*are you after a tight controlled drum sound or an epic reverberant sound?
**i.e big enough to fit all your musicians and their instruments in.
Pre-Production: In our experience, the best results have often come after a bit of pre-production. Once you’ve picked your engineer/producer, invite them round to a practice and let them hear your music and your performance in full. This will give them (and you) a much clearer idea of what to expect from the session. It gives them the ability to think about how they might approach recording your music from a technical perspective and also makes sure that your aren’t just gong to get a ‘one size fits all’ recording; they can make stylistic choices that will be appropriate to your music right from the word go. On top of this, it also gives them an opportunity to assess your readiness to record; be open minded to constructive criticism at this point because it can have a huge impact on the quality of the finished product but likewise, if you feel really strongly about something, don’t be afraid to tell them how you feel. It’s very important to get that balance right as it forms the basis of trust between the artist and engineer. It’s also very useful at this point to make some rough recordings of those performances because it gives you a great opportunity to make a better assessment about the quality of your songs and performance.
Time Management: Always allow enough time to make the right decisions in the recording studio. Very few of the best recordings have ever been done in a rush and if your engineer wants to take their time setting a drum kit up, you need to let them do it because the results WILL be better. In our experience, it’s always best to have a no-clock watching policy in the studio. Let the session unfold in the natural order and let your producer/engineer dictate the flow because a disruption to their work flow can unnecessarily waste time. Every producer/engineer will have their own processes and by choosing to work with them, you accept that they need to work in a specific way. There will be occasions when things get rushed; the studio can feel like a bit of a time vacuum but it is always best to remain relaxed and calm because 95% of the time, you will get through everything.
Availability: Make sure you can all be there for all of the session. It is no good to anyone if your drummer can only arrive at 4 in the afternoon on the last day of the session or your guitarist is flying back from Mumbai so won’t be there until 7pm. If all of your band members can’t be there for the duration of the session then you need to find a set of dates where you all can. If everyone in your band is equally committed and passionate about making a record, they should all be there all the time and if they aren’t, they negate the right to be critical about work that was done when they weren’t present. An absent band member can drastically mess up the flow of a session and can even have a negative impact on the creative outcome if the image of a track comes together in an unnatural way.
Budget: Money is always a massive factor when making a record and it’s easy to think (like most things in life) the more you spend on it the better the outcome will be. Of course, this theory only holds water if the personnel you have working on it are worth the money you’re spending. There are plenty of mediocre producers/engineers out there charging over the odds for recordings which is why it’s critically important to understand the work an engineer does and to know whether they are the right choice for you as an artist. If you trust your engineer then you should trust their judgement on how much time you’ll need and ultimately how much you’ll need to spend. It is always better to allow for more time than less, especially if you are hoping to produce something of a really high quality. Before booking a studio, make sure you know you have the necessary funds available to pay for it because most studios will not release a recording until the bill is settled. It is also worth noting that, if you are on a tight budget, you will likely get better results spending your money on TIME rather than GEAR; £400 might get you a day in a dead swanky place but it’ll get you four days in a less equipped studio that you can take your time in. The results will be better if you spend more time; it makes absolutely no difference if you’re using a £4000 microphone if you’re having to rush everything to get it finished, it is an entirely false economy so always work within your budget and don’t allow yourself to get carried away by flashy gear lists if you’re compromising on the time you can spend.
Breaks: Allow yourself and your engineers time to take breaks. Mistakes are made when fatigue starts to set in, things are missed, bad decisions are made. Respect the fact that your production team are human beings and need to eat and chill and go to the toilet just like everyone else. Being in the studio may feel like a bit of a holiday for you if you work full time but it is your engineer/producers job and insisting on working for 12 hours straight without a break really isn’t cool.
Overall, recording should always be an enjoyable process and be the culmination of a great deal of creative time you have spent that fills you with joy when you look back upon what you have created. You should always be striving to produce recordings that reflect the pride you take in your work. Whether you’re knocking out some awesome cover versions for your own enjoyment or setting out to record your double disc magnum opus epic that will take you a decade to complete, enjoy it!
Dan and Tom