If you plan on visiting the recording studio in the next few months, this article is for you.
Assuming that there probably won’t be unlimited studio time available, these few tips may make a huge difference if you want your studio time to be as productive as possible.
Another way to see it is that inspiration tends to visit more often in some situations, and there are ways to provoke them.
Of course, no miraculous shortcuts or remedies exist, but there are indeed some aspects that may help you to make the most out of your studio time.
One word of clarification: some of these points come under the tasks a producer usually takes care of. The right producer may make your music grow enormously. In fact, the first point in this article could have been ‘Work with a producer’. Bear this in mind!
Although it is true that some ideas may come only from pure inspiration, when entering a recording studio there are many things you can (and should) prepare and work on in advance.
As Picasso used to say, “Inspiration does exist, but when it visits, it is better that it surprises you when you have a pencil in your hand”.
1. Objectives and References
Before starting a journey, it is important to know where you want to go. How would you like the finished record to sound?
If you are not sure about it, it may help you to select several albums you particularly like, in a similar musical genre. A record could make it into the list because you like the sound of the drums, another one because of the energy in the vocals, great guitars, good general sound, ambiance, etc.
Of course, the intention is not to copy them, but to have them as a reference you can turn to in different moments of the process.
If you are in a band, it is useful that each member makes his own selection. It is very probable that there will be different ideas about how the finished work should sound.
This is a not a negative thing. On the contrary, it means that an interesting combination of styles and influences may be created.
However, it is important to talk about and agree on the direction the work should follow beforehand. This way, everyone will know what the destination is, and will push in the same direction.
Also, these musical references will be useful to other people involved in the process. For example, the recording engineer will probably choose different gear, mics, techniques, etc. depending on the sound that needs to be achieved.
The same is true for the mixing engineer. Information like “we are looking for a sound in the style of XX, with drums like YY, and guitars and vocals in the line of ZZ” will allow him to focus his work in the desired direction.
Whole books could be written about the importance of preproduction. Each producer addresses this subject in different ways, and there are all kinds of different opinions. I include myself in the group of those who think that the most important studio work is done before entering into the actual studio.
In this very interesting episode of Pensado’s Place, producer Adam Moseley (Beck, Nikka Costa/Lenny Kravitz, Wolfmother, Spike Jonze, U2) addresses this subject, and talks about the importance the preproduction phase has in his workflow.
There are many aspects that may be worked on at this stage (melodies, arrangements, instrumentation, structure, key, intention, spaces, etc.), and usually, the more polished a song is before entering into the studio, the better the recording is likely to go.
A common example is that many times an arrangement seems perfect while you are playing it, but if you later listen to it in context, it doesn’t work in the song, or maybe you discover you’d like to change some details. You want this to happen during preproduction, not when you’ve already recorded several instruments based on that arrangement.
Today’s technology greatly facilitates this process, so you should take advantage of it. A lot of things may be accomplished even with only a simple smart phone and free recording apps.
3. Practice, practice, practice
The less time used in having to record different takes, the more time may be invested in other tasks, like exploring special gear from the studio, or developing new ideas.
Again, there are thousands of books about how to practice each musical instrument, and this could be discussed at length. However, aside from the particularities and exercises recommended for each instrument, there’s a general technique that usually yields very good results:
When you want to practice a certain part, start by practicing it using a much slower tempo than the ‘real’ one (and I mean much slower, like 20-40 points below). Playing this way will force you into being more accurate in the timing of the notes, and will also allow you to pay more attention and improve the sound of each one.
When you are comfortable with it, change the tempo to one that is much faster (again, much faster), and start practicing the part again. Playing at a tempo that is ‘too fast’ will increase your dexterity, and when you play at the ‘normal’ speed you´ll be much more relaxed.
The combination of both exercises will improve your timing, precision and sound for a given arrangement. Besides, these exercises are useful not only for the individual practice, but also for the band playing the whole song together.
When practicing this kind of ‘repetition’ exercise, remember that repetition only achieves perfection if the exercise is being played correctly.
In the link above you´ll find a very interesting article about ‘Deliberate Practice’, or how important it is to practice paying active attention to what is being done, instead of repeating it in ‘auto mode’.
4. Look for the best studio, for you
Several things should be taken into account when deciding which is the best recording studio for a certain project.
One of them is obviously the economic side. Look for the best recording studio your budget allows, making sure the available equipment is right for the sound you’re after.
However, also take into account that in some situations it could be better to have a bit more time (at a more affordable studio), than having less time in a more expensive one.
Another aspect worth considering is that there are a lot of ways of working in a studio, and that each studio has its own vibe. When asking for quotes or visiting installations, pay attention to how you feel in the studio. In order to obtain the best results, it is vital to work in the right ambience.
5. Talk with the Engineer
Once you’ve decided on the studio, talk with the engineer about his/her usual recording methods, and the techniques that worked best for you in the past.
Even if you are an experienced studio citizen, you could find a new/different way of doing things that works better for you. And if you are not that experienced, knowing in advance the details of the process may help you a good deal.
For example, will all the musicians play live? Maybe some live recording and some overdubs? Overdubs all the way? Each recording method could be more appropriate for a certain band and production style.
This is also a good time to talk about your ‘sonic objectives’, and what’s the best way to obtain them.
6. Instruments and Backline
Always get the best possible instruments and backline. Period. Good instruments sound good.
If you don’t have quality equipment, seriously consider hiring it. It is not that expensive, and you should think about it as an investment. That money will considerably reduce the time needed to obtain a good sound in the studio.
In a similar way, if you want that ‘SG with Marshall sound’, well, as you might guess, the best way to obtain it is to bring an SG and a Marshall to the session.
Also, make sure that all the equipment works properly, and take the instruments to be adjusted by a professional Luthier. A badly adjusted guitar/bass can cause a terrible waste of time –and energy– in the studio, and this can be easily avoided.
Lastly, bring to the studio all the things capable of producing any kind of sound you own. It is no use to say “Hey, I have a great [whatever] that could work wonders in this part! Great, where is it? Mmm…”.
9. …and Explore
The recording studio is a highly creative place, with a lot of gear you may not have at your disposal every day.
The fact that you have thoroughly planned the arrangements for each song doesn´t mean other ideas shouldn’t be tried out. In fact, if there’s a relaxed ambience in the session, it is very probable that new ideas or sounds will come up.
The main point of all this preparation is that you’ll enter into the studio knowing that the songs, arrangements and instrumentation ‘are ready’, and that you have all the necessary equipment.
With this reassurance, you will make the most out of your studio time and, more importantly, you’ll enjoy it. In this kind of situation, inspiration usually comes to visit.
This article was written by Roger Montejano a freelance engineer of mixingAudioPros, you can find out more about Roger here, mixing Audio Pros profile of Roger Montejano.