What To Expect During A Recording Session
Minimizing your cost and maximizing creativity
The most frequent question I hear is “how much will it cost”!!! My answer is “that depends upon you”. If you were planning to put on a Christmas play for your church would you wait until the audience was gathered and seated to start deciding who would play each part or what their lines would be? I already know the answer to that question so here is another one. If you are planning on having your group come over and record an original song would you wait until you get to the studio to practice and arrange all the parts. You would think the answer to that one would be as obvious as the Christmas play question but for most people it is not. I find that most groups waste most of their studio time by being unprepared when they come. Make sure that you can play every song you are going to record from beginning to end without mistake before you even think about going to a studio. That means all songs should have the intros, verses, chorus, bridges, endings, lead parts, or any other part you plan to record all worked out and well rehearsed. Engineers don’t mind listening to you practice but you are wasting your money and shortchanging yourself if you come un-prepared.
If you write original lyrics but do not have the musical ability to write an arrangement and direct the studio musicians I suggest get some outside help, even if you have to pay them. That does not mean you have to have everything written in sheet music. It does mean that you or the person helping you needs to be able to direct a group of musicians who have never heard your song and help them understand exactly what it is that you want. An arranger is a person who works out the details of key changes, tempo, intro’s, bridges and endings and helps you develop the song and set it to music. If you come into a studio with only words and a tune you can hum the musicians can eventually figure out something to play that will work but that is very time consuming and may not produce the results you had in mind and the song may turn out totally different than you intended. The bad part is that you already spent the money for the studio time and musicians. Songs brought in at this stage usually require 4 to 6 hours of studio time to develop and record at minimum. That is because we are writing the song for you.
Do as much of this work up front as possible before you come to the studio. It will save you money and get you the results you are after.
Other stuff on original songs: Back To The Top
Once you have a song developed and you have the intro, verse, chorus, bridge, endings, etc and all the parts worked out there is still more work to do. If you are doing the song with a solo guitar and vocal you need to decide what feel you want your song to have and how should each person perform their part to achieve it? Knowing how to decide this part is very critical for your recording. It can mean the difference between a song that fails to catch the listener’s interest or one that grabs the interest with complexity and character and sways emotions like the rising and falling of waves of the ocean. The skillful use creating a mood with an instrument or combinations of instruments and directing the flow of that mood throughout the duration of the song is as important as the song itself. One instrument can change the whole feel of a song from sad to serious or from plain to romantic. Start studying the music you listen to every day very closely and you will begin to understand that the choice of instruments and how they are played greatly effect the feel and character of a song. That means that your uncles banjo playing may not be suitable for every song you write even though he is the best around. Listen closely to different types of music and see how instruments are used and what effect they create for the song. Listen to soundtracks for movies and how they are intended to sway the emotion to match the scene you are viewing in the movie. Your composition may not need to be as complex as a movie score but the same idea applies.
Have you ever read the credits on an album and came across a person called “the producer”? A producer will decide things like:
Ok, in the intro we want to start with a solo piano and play the into part for 8 measures. The bass guitar will join in on the 8th measure and play very minimally until we get through the 1st verse. We need for the drums to come in with a swell on the ride cymbal at that point. We also want to rhythm guitar to come in at the same point. The playing should be very simple and un-obstructive until we reach the chorus then everyone should play more aggressively and build until we start on the 2nd verse. We need to bring in the strings on the 16th measure of the 2nd verse and they should play until the lead part begins. The flute will play the solo lead part for 16 measures and we will then drop back to the piano and bass guitar playing the next verse solo with a laid back feel. They should play until we reach the last chorus. Everyone should start playing there and we should gradually play more aggressively to create a feeling of reaching a peak on the last 16 measures. I would like to add some tympanis to join the build on the last 8 measures on the end.
What he is directing is the mood and flow of how the song will be presented to the listener and what the character of the song will be. I cannot stress enough how important this part is. If you do not have the skill to do this and do not wish to hire a producer you should ask for help from the musicians playing on the recording. They may not volunteer unless you ask; they are waiting to be directed by you. If you cant give them full direction then at least know how you want the flow of the song to go. For instance: I would like the intro of this song to be very full and forceful then gradually fade into the 1st verse with a some simple guitar until I finish singing the verse.
If you go this route just be aware that it takes time to create what you are wanting just as it took time for you to write the song. That is why it is important to have as much of the song developed as you can before you attempt to record it in any studio.
Remember this thought: Creating a feeling and expression is what you are after, not complication. Many popular recordings have been created using only two or three instruments. It does not mean a song will be liked or pleasant to listen to just because it is hard to play or because it uses a lot of instruments in the recording. Especially when the instruments do not fit the character of the song.
People who have never recorded in a studio sometimes have ideas like this: studios and the high tech equipment found there can make anyone and anything sound good. The real truth is more like this: if you can’t sing or play it will be captured in very high fidelity for all to hear. A studio cannot make you sound great if you sound terrible or play poorly. The recordings engineers job is to capture your performance as realistically and with the highest fidelity possible. In short, the engineer is responsible for the quality of the recording; the performer is responsible for the quality of the content on the recording.
Musicians: Back To The Top
Playing for a recording is much different than playing for a live performance. Studio musicians learn that less is more. It is very commonplace to see musicians who have not spent a lot of time in the studio try to overplay and create clutter or compete with the vocal in the recording. Just because a person is a great solo pianist does not mean they will make a good studio musician for your recording.
The best example I know is this;
A few pieces of nice furniture well placed in a plain room looks much better than the clutter of extravagant wall to wall pictures and over crowed furniture. For no matter how nice the pieces are, the over crowding and clutter ruins the real value of their individual beauty. It is the same for over crowded recordings: LESS IS MORE ! A recording with a few cleanly played parts that are well placed sounds much better than a whole room full of complicated parts that are all competing to be heard.
Setting up and doing the recording Back To The Top
So the big day is finally here, you have got all your music down and your headed for the studio today to put down some tracks. You plan on arriving there at 10 am and spending at least 2 hours there and finishing up an album with 10 songs on it. It stands to reason that there is only 30 minutes worth of music on it so that should be plenty of time, right?
This is a bit more realistic on how it will go:
You arrive at the studio at 10:00 and begin to get your gear out and take it into the studio. At 10:20 it’s all in the studio but nothings in place. You discuss what players you have and the engineer starts directing each where to set up their amps and keyboards.
You finally get things situated by 10:40 so its time for the engineer to start mic the drums and instruments and getting everyone headphones set up. He places mics on the amps and also runs direct outputs from the amp straight into the board; it’s about 10:55. He starts placing mikes on drums and finds he needs to remove the bottom heads and change out the soft kick drum beater to a wooden one. He has 5 mics and stands to place and cables to run as well as pack the kick drum, it is now 11:12.
The guitar players are standing around watching and wondering what to do while all this happens and one decided it’s time to go out and take a smoke break while they wait. The engineer gets all the mics placed and goes to the board to work on the sound of the drums an has the drummer to start playing each drum until he gets it sounding right, it is now 11:20. The engineer decides after a good bit of tweaking that the snare will require a gate to be patched in to help kill the noise from the high hat that is bleeding over, it is now 11:27. The snare problem is solved and the drums sound right so the engineer proceeds to set up the keyboard and the guitars. There is a problem with hum coming from the bass amp, we need to reverse the plug or maybe it’s the cable, it is now 11:33. That is solved, now to set up the headphone levels and to make sure everyone can hear, it is now 11:38. The guitars are all out of tune so they must all tune up. That is complete; it is now 11:50. The engineer instructs all the musicians to play a little of their first song so he can set the recording levels and get the overall headphone level set. The drummer says he cant hear the bass so the engineer puts him on a different headphone mix and routes more bass to the mix, it is now 12:00. You try the song all the way through this time and the engineer changes the levels and gets a more satisfactory mix. Everyone says they can hear their parts fine except for the bass player so the engineer puts him on the same headphone queue that the drummer is on; it is now 12:08. They try a little more of the song and the bass player says everything is fine. The engineer ask for the name of the first song and records it along with the start location number on the tape and tell everyone “we are ready to record”. It is now 12:13. The players get about half through the song and stop and decide to start over because it just didn’t feel right. Got it from start to finish the next time. Came in and listened to it and decided they didn’t do their best so wanted to do it over, it is 12:22.
Came in and listened to it and everyone nailed it perfect except the bass player hit a bad note. Bass player goes back out and puts on his phones. We punch in that line and fix the mistake. We need to add a harmony vocal part on another track and the lead singer will be doing it. He goes out and we record the part, he gets it all right except the last lines. We back up and fix that. He comes back in and everyone wants to listen to the whole thing one more time. It is 12:54. Everyone says that they are happy and the song is a keeper. Time to start on song number 2. It is 1:05. The smokers want to go outside and take a 5-minute break. After we got started back each song after that took anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to get down right. All according on how many times we messed up and how may times we had to go back and add extra singing parts and that kind of thing. We did not finish up all the tracks because we got too tired so we stopped at 6 songs. We had 10 hours of studio time so far. We had to come back the next week and set back up again and finish the other 4. The set-up went a little faster last time and we got underway in about one hour and fifteen minutes. In all we had 6 hours studio time that day. We waited until the next week to mix down. That took 5 hours; we had to play some of the songs 3 or 4 times to get all the fader moves right.
We ended up with 21 hours of studio time in the recording.