Working in an Outside Recording Studio
In the past 20 years, recording technology that was once only available in professional recording studios has trickled down to the rest of us. Anyone who owns a computer can put together a decent recording system for a modest amount of money. This has lead to an explosion of home studios. However, as I’ve said in the past, having access to recording tools does not necessarily equate to making good recordings. With all the tools in the world, you still need to develop a critical ear, and learn how to translate the tools at your disposal to the result you’re looking for. Also, as I explored in my post on self-recording, it can be difficult to juggle engineering and performing, so some people with the tools and the skills might still choose to hire someone else so they can concentrate on performing. For these reasons (and others), musicians still sometimes choose to record at someone else’s studio, whether it be a friend’s home studio, a fully commercial facility, or something in-between. In this post, I’d like to share my ideas on some things a musician working in an outside studio might keep in mind.
Choosing a an engineer/studio
What’s Your Type?
Recording an album can be rewarding, fun and exciting. It can also be tedious, hard work, and emotionally draining. Believe it or not, these things are not mutually exclusive. If you choose to hire someone to help you create an album, you will almost certainly be spending a lot of time working closely with her. Before choosing an engineer, think about whether your personalities are compatible, whether you trust her, and finally whether she has the technical skill to get a result you’ll be happy with. No matter how much skill an engineer may have, if you don’t trust her, or her personality clashes with yours, then you are not likely to be happy with the experience.
Style Sometimes Equals Substance
Try to find an engineer who understands and appreciates the style of music you play. If you play bluegrass, and your engineer has only worked with heavy metal bands, he may not be the best choice for your project. Conversely, if the prospective engineer sticks his fingers in his ears and grimaces every time he hears an electric guitar, you probably don’t want him for your punk rock album. That’s not to say people can’t cross styles, but there are techniques for recording different instruments and genres of music, and different conventions about how instruments should sound from genre to genre, and it really helps if the engineer is conversant with, and likes the style you play.
Once you’ve decided you’re personally and aesthetically compatible with a potential engineer, make sure he has the technical skill to make you sound the way you want to. Of course, you have to be realistic about your own musical skill – no one is going to make you sound like your favorite performer if your own abilities are limited. Listen to some recordings the engineer has made, preferably of music that’s plausibly similar to your own. Does the music sound cohesive and the mix balanced? Can you tell immediately that it was home-recorded, or does it sound like it could be played side-by-side with other professionally recorded music in the same style? In some cases, your expectations will have to be tempered by your budget, but try to find someone who has created recordings that you would enjoy listening to.
Preparation is Key
Making a Production of it
Think about what you want your project to sound like. As a recording engineer/producer, I find it very helpful when a client has some idea of what sort of production she’d like. For each song, think about what instrumentation you want, what sort of sound each instrument should have, and so on. Since, as Laurie Anderson once famously said “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”, so it’s really helpful when a client can point me toward existing recordings that have a similar sound to what he wants.
Have a clear understanding with the engineer about what roles he/she will play. For example, in many projects (in fact most of them), I act as engineer and producer, and sometimes as arranger. The engineering job is setting up mics, setting levels and capturing tracks. In the music industry, the producer is responsible for the overall sound of the album, usually with input into the performance, arrangements, final mix and mastering. This confuses some people, who have an understanding of the producer’s role in the film industry, which is more financial and logistical. On many major label projects, the producer does not act as the engineer, but rather directs the engineer, as well as the overall recording sessions. If I am asked to act as engineer/producer on a project, one of the primary jobs is to help the artist decide when a take is right, when to do another, and so on. You as an artist should have a clear idea of what extent you want the engineer to direct the sessions. If you have a firm grasp of what you’re after, you may not want the engineer to do anything more than set up the mics, and record the tracks. Whatever arrangement you come to, it should be clearly articulated and understood by both the artists and engineer.
In cases where there is a group of musicians involved, I strongly recommend that an upfront understanding be reached on how disagreements should be resolved. When I am hired by a group, I always ask about this. My default position is always that in cases where there is disagreement within the group, I will wait until the issue is resolved before taking action, unless one member has been designated in advance as a decision maker.
Be very clear on costs, time to be allotted and how the costs and payments will be structured. Properly done, it takes a lot of time and work to record even a simple album. Even if the engineer you are working with is not charging for his time, I recommend having a conversation about how much time is expected to be spent tracking, mixing etc. If, as is most often the case, you will be paying for the work, then it’s crucial for both parties to have clear understanding of the cost, structure, and payment schedule for the project. There are lots of ways that this can be handled. The traditional method is to charge by the hour. You might also agree to a set fee per song, a blanket fee for the whole project, or a hybrid of several methods. I often split my fees in to three phases for a project – a lump sum to for all pre-production and arrangement, an hourly fee for tracking the artists, and then a per song fee for mixing. Other studios would likely structure this differently. Whatever the ultimate decision is, it’s a good idea to have it clearly laid out in writing.
Scratch an Itch
If you want the engineer to help with the arrangement, provide some scratch tracks in advance for him to work with. Scratch tracks are quick recordings meant to be a demo of a song. The recording quality is not important, as long as the melody and song structure can be heard. The engineer can then use it to create whatever support tracks (such as drums and percussion) you’ve mutually agreed are needed, for you to record to later.
I Have to Say This
This may seem obvious, but have your material well rehearsed before you go to the studio. Enough said.
Put Yourself in the Picture
If you haven’t done much recording, practice recording at home. When you do this, don’t worry too much about the recording quality you capture, but get used to hearing yourself in headphones as you record. It can really take a while to get used to performing to a recorder, and any time spent doing it at home will be less time wasted in your sessions. You’ll probably immediately notice that lots of little inconsistencies in your performance that are inconsequential when you play live, are huge throbbing blemishes on a recorded track. You may also want to practice performing to a metronome. Being able to play naturally to a click is a learned skill, so practicing at home will save time later. I find that I perform somewhat differently when I record myself, especially if a metronome is involved, and only experience will teach you what you need to change from live to studio to get a good track. The process of recording scratch tracks for the engineer is good practice for this.
Have Good Timing
Be on time for your scheduled sessions. In fact (unless it’s a problem for the engineer), be a little early, to allow time to set up and prepare. This will give you time to warm up before you start recording.
Familiarity Breeds Success
Start the project with some songs you’re really familiar with. On most albums, the song list will be a combination of recently written material, and songs you’ve been playing for a long time. If you’re like most of us, you’ll be most excited about the newer songs. The natural impulse is to want to start with the exciting new stuff. I suggest instead starting with songs you’re used to playing. That way, you can get acclimated to working in the studio with something you’re familiar with. It makes for less to worry about initially. Once you have your studio legs under you, you’ll be ready to tackle the less familiar recent material.
Be in the Moment
Try to be relaxed, and don’t hurry. The engineer may need to try out several mics and mic positions before you even start seriously tracking. Once that’s done, getting good tracks takes time. For example, I find it usually takes at least an hour to get a good vocal or guitar track for a 5 minute song. The adrenaline rush of finally getting yourself recorded, or the worry about racking up clock time if you’re paying by the hour may tempt you to rush, but avoid that temptation. The hardest part in all this is finding the balance between settling for performances that are less than they could be, and being overly picky looking for that elusive “perfect take”. This may be where the engineer can act as an objective ear to help you decide when a performance is as good as you can make it. If you’re tired, let the engineer know you need a break. Sometimes, getting away from a problematic track for a few minutes is all you need to nail it later.
Communication Makes for Healthy Relationships
When you’re tracking, communicate clearly with the engineer about the headphone mix. Obviously, if you can’t hear yourself above the the other parts, you won’t be able to perform effectively. Conversely, if your own performance is too loud in the headphone mix, you may have trouble locking in rhythmically with the other instruments and or/ the metronome. When you’re tracking vocals, you may have trouble finding the pitch if the backing tracks are too soft. Let the engineer know what you want, and he should be able to adjust the mix to suit your needs. Also, watch the overall headphone level. Tell the engineer if it’s too loud.
Channel Your Inner Vulcan
Keep your emotions in check. Emotion is an important part of musical performance. However, like most everything else in the world, balance is essential. You’re going to make mistakes, sometimes trying to perform parts you can normally play without even thinking about them. Don’t let frustration affect your performance, or the way you treat your bandmates and the engineer. If you are recording with other people, be supportive of a bandmate who is having trouble with a part. Showing impatience will likely make him even more tense, and will not make it more likely he’ll get a good take. Also, at some point you will be the one struggling, and you’ll want good karma with your musical partners when that time comes.
If your project involves any sort of production, then it may take a while for the songs to take shape. If you’ve chosen the right engineer/producer, she will have a handle on sculpting the songs towards your desired result, but in the interim, the mix may not be perfect, some instruments may not sound exactly as they will in the final mix, and so on. I’ve seen many studio novices stress themselves over things that just weren’t finished yet. The first few studio sessions I did, I tied myself in knots over silly details. Trust the engineer to have a plan to get from where you are, to where you want to be. If you truly feel things are not moving in the right direction, have a calm, but honest conversation to clear it up.
Keep it Intimate
Don’t treat recording sessions as social occasions. Bringing a bunch friends to hang out and watch you record is a good way to insure you won’t get much done. Recording is hard work, and you need to be focused. The distraction of a group of people will not help you, especially if you have difficulty with a part. Also, if you’re not involved in the process, it’s pretty boring to watch most recording sessions.
Studio After Hours
Mix and Match
After the tracking is done, it will be time to create a mix for each song. Mixing is the process of balancing all the tracks you’ve recorded into a single stereo file. There are any number of valid ways the same set of tracks can be mixed, so mixing is a collection of aesthetic choices as much as a question of engineering in the technical sense. As part of the mix process I generally:
- Clean up any noises in between phrases on each track, and use EQ and compression to fix any problems (hopefully few) with any tracks that need it.
- Decide which tracks to use at all.
- Use EQ compression, reverb, and other processors to shape the sound of the tracks to create the ambience and sonic signature I feel the music calls for.
- Use panning to help define the sound stage.
- Set the relative levels of the tracks to achieve the balance I’m looking for.
It should be agreed on up front who will be involved in mixing the songs. In sessions where there is a band, mixing can be a source of friction. For one thing, people will naturally want to hear their own parts as loud as possible in the mix, and this can lead to serious arguments. Also, building a mix takes time, and it often starts out sounding nothing like it will in the end, as the engineer shapes the tracks. On most of the projects I produce, I do the mixes alone, and send reference files to the clients for feedback, making refinements and changes based on their comments. If you really want to be hands-on with the mixing, be especially patient. If you expect instant gratification, you’re in for a load of frustration. Also, if you sit in on the mixing sessions, try to keep your eye on the big picture. Think of the sound and level of each part in terms of how it serves the song as a whole, not how impressive it may be on its own terms.
Mastering Your Domain
After the final mixes have been completed, there’s one more step before you album is ready to be sent to the duplicators to be turned into spinning plastic disks, and/or digital files to be downloaded by your adoring fans. This process is called mastering. As with mixing, there are several parts to the process:
- Correct any EQ problems with individual songs.
- Apply EQ and compression to put a final polish on the tracks.
- Trim off any silence at the beginnings and ends of tracks.
- Adjust the songs so that they are all the same apparent volume, so your listeners don’t have to grab the volume control on their listening device from track to track.
- Set the gaps between songs to create a good flow from track to track on the CD.
- Create a CD master, either in the form of a physical disk, or a DDP file. In either case, this is what is sent to the duplicator to manufacture the disks.
Although your engineer is probably capable of mastering the album, I strongly recommend you hire a separate mastering engineer. There are several good reasons for this:
- The mastering engineer brings a fresh, unbiased ear to the party.
- If there are EQ balance problems with the final mixes, they are likely due to uneven response in the recording studio, meaning neither you nor your engineer likely ever heard the problems. All studios, even the most well designed have some acoustic anomalies, so this is not a sign of incompetence on your engineer’s part. If you can’t hear a problem, you can’t correct it, and so it will be unfixed in the final release.
- A well equipped mastering studio is typically setup differently than a recording studio.
- It’s possible to find really good mastering engineers who charge a modest amount for their work. The engineer I’ve been working with recently does great work and charges $35 per song. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bargain.
Wrapping Up (Finally)
Recording an album can be incredibly fun. If you want to record, but you’re not inclined to do it yourself, then I hope something I’ve said here helps you find and work with someone else who can help you make it happen.