Are You Ready For the Studio?

by SaskMusic

August 5, 2009 in Recording & Production

Many artists don't really know what to expect when they first utter the phrase, "Let's record an album." It involves a lot more than playing ten songs a few times each and going home with a shiny new CD. Depending on the style of music you're recording, the sound you're after, and the budget you have to work with, it could take anywhere from a few days to several months to complete an album project. The first thing you need to do is to make sure your songs are REALLY ready. Although you may think your songs are sounding great and you're ready to rock, you may discover little problems once you get into the studio. For example, perhaps you will discover that your bass player drops to an E between the verse and chorus while your guitar player plays an F. Perhaps you've even noticed that it always sounded kinda funny at that spot, but not bad enough to stop playing. Once you start recording, these little things that tend to go unnoticed can jump out at you and cost a lot of extra time (and money). This is why pre-production is so important.

Pre-production takes place before you head into the studio. One good way to pre-produce your songs is to borrow, rent or buy a 4-track recorder. Record the drums, bass, guitars, and vocals on separate tracks. Then listen to the bass with the drums. Check to make sure they're together and that the bass player is playing "with" the drummer, and not just playing in the same band as the drummer. The drums and bass are the foundation of all popular music, whether it's country or metal. The drummer's tempo is paramount! Be absolutely sure the tempo is consistent throughout the tune. If there is a section that consistently speeds up or slows down (without it being planned that way), work on it! Practice to a click track. (This is a metronome that you hear through headphones while you play.) It is a strange experience at first, but after a while you will find your tempo improving. This is something that you want to do BEFORE you get into the studio. Learning to use a click track for the first time in the studio is a mistake! It takes time to get used to using a click track, and it isn't something you should be learning while the studio clock is running. It just leads to frustration, or accepting badly-played parts because you can't afford to wait for the drummer to get it right. Make sure the kick drum and bass guitar are accenting the same beat, and make sure they are tight on the beats that they play together. Nothing kills the groove more than the kick and bass guitar being out of time. If you have to (and here's the tough part), simplify your part. Don't keep an inappropriate part in just so you can demonstrate your awesome chops. Then listen to the bass and the guitars together. Make sure there aren't any of those spots where one instrument is going to an E, while another is going to F. Check the vocal with the guitar, bass and drums individually. Make sure that the vocal melody doesn't have a few stray notes that are dissonant with the guitars. They should all work with each other. Now you're ready to record.

While the recording studio can be a blast, it can also be an intimidating environment. When you're practicing in the basement, you can't always hear everything at once, so mistakes may be overlooked. And when you're playing live, the show runs more on adrenaline than concentration. In the studio, however, mistakes can take you by surprise. Most little mistakes can easily be fixed by "punching-in" the right note. The most important thing to remember is to relax and concentrate. You might be surprised by how well you can hear yourself. It can be a bit intimidating if you're used to hearing yourself with three other people at rehearsal volume. Singers are especially vulnerable in the studio (I know, I'm a singer). My first time recording in a studio was a humbling experience! I was in a band that was doing great as a live act and I began to consider myself a pretty good singer! When we went into the studio, all those flat notes and mumbled lyrics came back to haunt me. I remember thinking, "Jeez, that rocks when we play live, but this sounds terrible!" It took me a long time to be able to sing with confidence while being able to hear myself so well. Suddenly you can hear every little nuance and can start to second-guess yourself. Some people take to the studio like a duck to water, though, so you never know.

For the purpose of discussing the recording process, I'm going to use a rock band as an example. Many of my clients are rock groups and this same formula is used for most "pop" music, from metal to blues or folk to country.

Generally you start by recording the "beds" (drums and bass). As mentioned earlier, these instruments are the musical foundation of the song and the first instruments to be placed under the microscope. This usually involves the entire band playing in the studio and being recorded "live off the floor". However, the main instruments you need to concentrate on at this point are the drums and bass. Depending upon the band and the ability of the players, the other instruments may be recorded as "keeper" (permanent) or "scratch" (redo later) tracks. It may require quite a few takes before you get what you're after - especially since players often feel more relaxed after playing through the song a few times. Drums are almost always recorded in a single pass (no overdubs) because the cymbals ring out so long. Punch-ins seldom work on drum tracks because the sound is continuous from beginning to end. The only exception to this rule may happen if there is an audible break in the song, or if the drums cut out for a section. The drummer has a lot to concentrate on. He or she needs to be consistent in tempo, volume, and feel before you have a keeper. A lot of younger drummers have to be particularly aware of tempo. Sometimes a click track can be used as a guide for tempo (and since you worked on that at home, it won't be any trouble to use one in the studio, right?)

The bass is the next instrument to go under the microscope. If the part that was played along with the drums isn't quite a keeper, you can still keep the drums, and either "punch-in" (fix) rough spots or re-record the entire bass track. This is common, and some players prefer to record their tracks in this way since it allows them to concentrate more on their own part. Once the bass and drums are done, and you are happy with how the two parts work together, you are ready to add rhythm guitars followed by keyboards. All these parts can be played along with their original "scratch" tracks for the sake of reference.

The vocals are one of the last things recorded. This can be a painstaking and lengthy process. Aside from the expected problems (pitch, enunciation, etc.), you need to be aware of what has already been recorded, and what will go down next. Did the guitar player come up with a brilliant new lick during the chorus? Will it fit with the vocal melody? If the singer comes up with a brilliant new idea, will it work with the harmonies that the bass player has to sing next? It is important to keep all of this in mind, otherwise, you could be backtracking later and wasting precious studio time trying to figure out different parts. A common studio trick for recording vocals is to double-track the vocals. (This means singing the same line again on a different track and playing them back together.) This can make a thin vocal sound THICK! For example, a lot of Led Zeppelin's vocal tracks are doubled. (Background vocal tracks are often doubled too.) So once you have your lead vocal tracks, followed by the background vocals and the guitar solo tracks recorded, your album is done...right?

WRONG! Once the tracks are all recorded, you begin the tedious process of editing and mixing. When you edit, you clean up all those count-ins and fade outs, and fix a few other things. A computer-based recording system allows you to "fix" a lot! I emphasize the work "fix" because different people have different ideas about what should be fixed and what shouldn't. With a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) (aka: computer), you can change words, move the placement of words or phrases, correct pitch and fix almost anything. But this all takes time, and time costs money. Too often, the editing phase can wind up taking a lot longer than you first thought, which is why it's so important that you're satisfied with the tracks you've recorded. Even though modern technology allows you to sing just the first chorus and paste it in to all the choruses, it may still be wiser (and less expensive) to simply sing it again. That's why you should always exercise caution when using the phrase, "We'll just fix it in the mix." It could end up costing more in the long run.

When you think of the word "mix", think of it as being the decision part of the process. Personally, I find (as do many other engineers) that it is often best to have only one or two band members in the room during mixdown. Otherwise, it could become a battle of opinions, and end up taking much longer than necessary. A lot of engineers listen to the mix on everything ranging from a large set of speakers to an itty-bitty mono speaker. This is because an important part of mixing is to ensure the songs will sound great on everything from a large house system to a mono am car radio. Mixing can take anywhere from one to ten hours per song. Again, it depends on what your budget is, and what your goals are. Do you want to have a CD that you can sell at shows and use to get into some new gigs? Or do you want to have a product that you can release to radio, do a video, and hope to sell it in stores next to the current crop of Top 10 albums? It is important to make this distinction early in the recording process. This will dictate how much time is put into the project. Often, before settling on a final mix, it is wise to take a few tapes home, listen to them on a variety of different stereo systems, then come back to make any changes.

Once the mixing process is complete, the album is ready to be mastered. This is the one aspect of recording that people seem know the least about. Mastering is the process in which you take all the songs, put them in the right order, ensure consistent audio levels, EQ and compression, ensure the right amount of silence between cuts, and have it all sound great on your ghetto blaster. It can be a tricky part of the job. With mastering, the end goal is to try and make the album as loud and as good as any thing else on the radio. After all, your CD is competing with thousands of other CDs made by major label artists. There are different schools of thought on mastering. Some people say you should always send it away to a mastering house. My personal opinion is that you need to keep the entire project in mind when making this decision. If you have spent $10,000 on your album, sending it to a professional mastering facility might be a good idea. If you've spent $2,000 on your album, spending $800 to have it mastered might be disproportionate. Spending the extra money on the recording will have a far greater effect on the overall results.

Now your recording experience is complete. You leave the studio with that shiny new master CD to take to the CD manufacturer...and the printer...then to the record stores...and the radio stations...but that's another story.

Neil Meckelborg is an engineer/producer/songwriter at Meckelborg Music Services based in Saskatoon, SK.


By Neil Meckelborg for SaskMusic. Originally published October/November 2001.

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