What Bands Need to Know Before Going into the Recording Studio
As a musician, your first time recording in a professional studio can be totally exhilarating – and a little intimidating. Whether you’re working on a couple of songs, an EP or a full-length album, recording your work with a pro Recording Engineer or Record Producer is a significant step forward in your musical career, and it’s definitely something to celebrate. At the same time, if you’ve never gone through the process of laying down vocal and instrumental parts, adding effects, mixing and mastering, the whole situation can seem daunting.
To guide you through the process, we’re sharing our favorite tips to make your first time in the studio smooth, productive and creative. Once again, we’ll be getting advice from Tim G., the owner/operator of BigTone Studios in Manchester, UK, who spoke to us last month about how to open a professional recording studio. He knows what’s he talking about, having recorded everyone from indie heavyweights Peter Hook, Sonic Boom Six and British Sea Power to fledgling acts who are just getting started.
Advice from a Producer
Of course, with the rise of home studios, many artists can get away with skipping the time and expense of a professional recording studio. Then what kind of artist is the pro route right for? Tim G. says, “Really bands are going to benefit from studio recording more than Singers working to their own beats/backing tracks. Especially bands that warrant a more organic sound (i.e. less trigger samples from the drums).” So, if your band wants the extra know-how of a Producer, in terms of shaping the sound, using effects, and so forth, it makes sense to find a studio with a similar aesthetic to your work and book some time. Tim adds, “…some bands really don’t care if they sound like samples and presets and some bands love the opposite. [As a Producer it’s] worth making a note of and deciding for yourself what you think is important to the sound of each band and artist.”
From the Engineer/Producer standpoint, Tim says “dealing with full bands obviously involves more and you have to do more work ironing out problems. You’ve also got the stress of dealing with different personalities, which can create problems. Try and have a pep talk before you start on what to do and what not to do and why it’s important. Solo artists are much more simple and it’s really just about getting the best performance out of them and fixing any mistakes. [A good Engineer/Producer will] try and get people focused but relaxed as well.”
Once you’ve solidified which songs you’ll be recording and figured out who you’ll be working with, you’ll naturally have some questions about your chosen Engineer/Producer’s working methods and what to expect. Be sure to clarify any specific questions with the studio before you go in so there are no major surprises, and take a look at our tips for getting the most out of your first visit to the recording studio.
The Top Ten Tips for Artists Hitting the Recording Studio for the First Time
1. Be prepared.
“Practice!” Tim G. advises. “Practice a lot and do rough demos yourself (even if it’s a rubbish live recording) before you get into the studio.” Time is money, and you don’t want to waste it by hammering out a guitar solo you should’ve solidified weeks ago.
What types of mistakes does he see in terms of lack of preparation? “Too many to mention,” Tim says. “People won’t practice. They will bring broken instruments: drums with nineteen-year-old skins on. [They] don’t learn the song properly [and] demand all sorts of things from the Producer without understanding the craft of producing.”
“Some people are surprised they can’t record an album in a day! It’s often a time for a lot of realizations.” — Tim G., Owner/Operator of BigTone Studios
2. Figure out and agree on a budget that works for everyone.
Talk to your Producer or Engineer. Most are willing to work within your budget, although this might mean you’ll be recording a few songs rather than an entire full-length. After all, albums can be recorded over a few months; you don’t have to finish ten songs in one recording session if you can’t afford it. Also, make sure everyone in your band has money in hand before you show up at the studio together. Scrambling for cash or arguing about money in front of your Engineer: not a good look.
3. Add extra money to said budget.
One of the great joys of recording is you have to go out and spend money on food. As stereotypical starving artists, food is where many musicians cut corners in their budget, but not during recording! You go into the recording studio and voila—you’re required to spend money on tacos for lunch. And coffee. Copious amounts of coffee. And mastering. Mastering will probably take longer than you expected, meaning you’ll probably need more money than you had originally planned.
4. Take care of yourself.
We’ve all heard stories of Rock Stars in studio trashing the place and getting trashed themselves. Studio days are long days. Party if you want, but don’t party the whole time. You won’t get as much work done, and you’ll probably get on each other’s nerves. Make sure to get enough sleep and eat right so you’re not nodding off by the end of the day when you’re staying later than expected.
5. Take breaks.
It’s easy to get into the “time is money” mindset, and while the axiom is true, you don’t want to burn out. If you’re stuck in the same spot on a track, sit back, grab a snack and joke around with your bandmates and your Producer/Engineer. It’ll clear your head and build a better working relationship.
6. Discuss reference points with your Producer/Engineer.
Are you aiming in a certain musical direction? Talk to your Producer/Engineer about the bands you see as having a similar sound to your own. If there’s a famous song with a guitar tone you want to emulate, mention it. This is where any demo recordings you’ve made pre-studio will come in handy, too—especially if you’re using samples or effects your audio pro will have to work into the mix.
7. Be willing to experiment.
Obviously it’s essential to have your songs as close to finished as possible before you lay them down in the studio. However, be open to suggestions from your Producer, who could be hearing things you haven’t heard after playing the same song so many times, or who may have an idea of how to play something to get the sound or emotional response you want. The studio might have instruments you don’t have access to at your practice space; the Producer/Engineer will definitely have access to all kinds of sound effects and tricks you wouldn’t be able to get from just a straight recording.
“Try and have a pep talk before you start on what to do and what not to do and why it’s important.” — Tim G., Owner/Operator of BigTone Studios
8. Be aware of legal issues.
Do you have a sample that needs to be cleared before you use it? Planning to cover another artist’s song? Unless you’ve gotten the appropriate clearances, you could be wasting your time. If you cover a song you can’t afford the rights for, you’re basically paying to record a song you can’t legally release.
9. Keep a positive attitude.
Although going into the studio is fun and (if you do it right) fulfilling, you’ll be dealing with some very long days. Tensions can get heightened, especially when someone is nervous and someone is having a hard time nailing their part. You’ll get tired. You might not always agree. Keep the atmosphere light and upbeat; this is how you’ll get the most done in terms of productivity and creativity.
10. Have fun, but keep it professional.
Remember, you’re in the studio to work. You’re here to get a finished product. Don’t waste your time, or the time of your Engineer/Producer. Tim says, “Don’t bring friends to studio. Don’t chat loudly throughout. You’re making a record; it’s not a place to hang out and mess around. Just use a bit of common sense and behave as if you’re a team working towards making something important.”
What the Pros Want You to Know
What else does your Engineer or Producer wish you knew before going in to record? “Some people are surprised they can’t record an album in a day!” Tim says. “It’s often a time for a lot of realizations.” He adds that bands or solo acts going into the studio for the first time are often surprised by how “all the mistakes are highlighted for them. They can suddenly hear how they sound and their perspective of their own performance will suddenly change. All the noise they made in the practice room is suddenly replaced by a clear signal and they will have to work hard to satisfy themselves and you as a Producer/Engineer!”
If you’ve done the work, have your songs polished prior to recording and take our advice, you’ll already be ahead of the game. Not all bands who book studio time are quite as “together,” so if you act like professionals your finished product will sound professional. The final part of the equation? “Don’t make your Producer chase you for money,” Tim says.
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