Planning Your Recording Session
by Ron London
If you are making a live recording, be sure the band is very well rehearsed. Plan the arrangements of each song to be recorded before you get to the studio. There's nothing worse than a band getting into the studio and arguing whether there is a chorus or a double chorus after the solo. The more rehearsal time you put in before the recording, the easier the recording will go. There will already be enough pressure at the session at a hundred bucks an hour, so it's best to have the song's technical aspects together so the band can have fun with the tunes. If the band is uptight and concentrating on chord changes, it will show in the performance.
Prior to your session, setup tempos for all songs and try to get accustom to playing with a click track. If there are tempo changes within a song, program those either through a computer or drum machine. The basic tracks you lay down the first day will be the foundation of your album. They should be solid but not sterile. If the band falls off the click track here and there, don't worry. As long as the performance is solid, the track will work. A live band should convey energy and excitement. If there a couple of mistakes, they can be fixed. The overall feel of the track is what is most important. Without the feel, the listener has no attachment or hook into the song.
If your band is creating midi tracks, pre-production is a must. Most of the basic tracks can be created before you get to the studio. No matter what type of sequencer you use during pre-production, you can dump the sequences into the computer the tracking studio uses and separate the sounds using their sound modules. In other words, no matter how primitive (within reason) your home studio may be, much of the pre-production completed at home may be used for the final tape. Generally, a well equipped studio will have the capability of importing your sequences, via midi, and separating out each part (bass, keys, kick, snare etc.) using their sound sources. Presumably, they will have modules superior to yours which you will use for your production.
Several points you should keep in mind. Like the live tracking session, you want the songs to have a feel, or a groove. Some sequencers will quantize every note and take away much of the human feel. Quantizing is basically fixing the timing of rhythms to the nearest note. That note is usually assignable (1/8th note, 1/16th note etc.) I'm not saying the tracks should be loose, they should be tight (rhythmically), but maintain a feel. This means either loosen up on your quantize setting, or try to play without quantize at all. Many sequencers allow you to set a swing or human feel in your quantize setting. This often helps add some life back to your tracks. The beauty of using a sequencer in the tracking studio, is you can change a sound at any time. If you hate the sound of the snare drum that you've been listening to, you can switch it at virtually any time. If you don't like the sounds in the modules, bring in a sample of something that works. Switching sounds is a great advantage and is usually painless.
Another point I would like to stress is the importance of live instruments in a track that has been mostly sequenced. Small details like live cymbal crashes, tom tom fills and even percussion parts can make a world of difference in the overall feel of the song. These parts can take what a listener would brand a computer generated track and make it seem to be a live performance. Laying down live bass and live guitar tracks will also help immensely. Even if you have to pay a session musician to come in and lay down these parts, its well worth the outcome.
Individual musician preparations
If you are a drummer, you can prepare yourself for the studio well in advance. The most important aspect of getting a good drum sound in your recording, is having a good sounding set of drums. You can have the most elaborate mic setup, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of recording gear, but if the drums sound like crap when you hit them, they'll sound like crap in the control room. Several steps a drummer can take before he or she gets into the studio include; making sure all drums have new heads. If the heads have been beaten on during live shows, they are going to have very little life left for the recording. The bottom heads also play a crucial roll in the resonance of the drum, so make sure they are fresh as well. Try and suppress any rattles or unwanted noise your set makes when you play. Of course some of this will change when you get to the studio, but it sure is a lot less expensive to try to work some of this out in advance. When you go to the studio, bring plenty of sticks, extra heads, and if possible, a variety of snare drums and cymbals. As I have stated, the quality of the drum sound relys heavily on the sound of the actual drums. Once you are in the studio, spend time tuning the drums, and triple check for squeaks and noises. Some of this may require some experimenting... just be prepared to work.
Okay, bass players. Does your bass have a big ground hum coming from your pickups? If so, leave it home. Borrow, rent, or get one from the studio. Nothing is worse than an engineer chasing a bass hum for a half an hour, than the bass player says "yeah, this bass always hums". If you use a bass amp that's cool. Try to isolate it so there isn't any bleed into the other live mics. Sometimes, it's more convenient to use a direct box during a tracking session, then run that signal through your bass rig at a later date. You and the drummer are the focus of the tracking day(s), so be at your best. The drums and bass are the foundation for the tunes. Once you're done tracking, there is virtually no going back. This means, fix any mistakes now. If something bothers you a little bit, chances are it's going to bother you a lot down the road. This is your time to work, once your tracks are laid, you can kick back and enjoy the recording experience.
Guitars... New strings, plenty of different size picks, and work on your sound before you get into the studio. Whether its a vintage amp, a combination of stomp boxes or just a direct box, try to work it out before the studio clock is running. Again, there will be some experimenting here, but preparation will pay off. During the tracking sessions your job is to keep the sound glued together. Hopefully, you'll have a chance to replace the rough tracks you laid down. At this point, you can fine tune your sound, and work on the performance.
Keys... Keys are the easiest thing to prepare ahead of time. You should be able to walk into the studio, turn on your keyboard(s) and say "this is my sound". If you have an arsenal of modules, use a mixer so you can feed the engineer a stereo output. This will assure you of having the sound you intended, and relieves the responsibility of communicating your sound verbally to the engineer. This will save a lot of time in the end.
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen in the studio is the band underestimating the time necessary to cut basic tracks. If you are cutting multiple songs, try to work out a lock-out rate with the studio for several days. This way, when you get tired, you can go home and get some rest. You can leave your gear set up and return the next day refreshed. If you try to push yourself too far, you most certainly will get diminishing returns. People naturally get tired and your ears will get burned out if you are listening for twelve hours at a time. Also be sure to eat some food, you need energy.
Remember, when you are in the studio, everything is viewed under a microscope. It may seems as though the production team is nit picking at every mistake, but they are just trying to help create the best possible product. Don't take offense, be thankful somebody cares. Whether you are recording a tape to shop to labels or clubs, they expect high quality. Demos that are being handed in these days are "record" quality. Listeners are use to hearing strict timing generated from computers and sequences. As live musicians, you have to compete with this. Again, I'm not saying the timing should be rigid, but large fluctuations in tempo won't do. If your engineer is brave, and has a steady hand, he may edit several takes together. This involves slicing the multi-track tape with a razor blade, and precisely splicing in the good take. Years ago this was common practice. Some now consider it to be ancient art. Many times it's the logical solution, but can be time consuming and dangerous.
Lastly, bring a still camera and/or a video camera. This will be a time you will want to remember. You may be able to use some footage for the music video! You can also prove to your friends and family just how complex recording music really is.
If these postings have been of interest to you, I would be interested to hear your thoughts and comments. I plan to continue to post items on recording. Anything of particular interest?
Ron London engineer/owner