What's a Working Band to Do?
Part 5: Sound Decisions About Studio Recording
by Erik Jay
“What’s a Working Band to Do?” is a practical series of how-to articles. It is not about describing the unified field theory or exploring the outer reaches of human philosophy; it’s about working in the music business in the real world, so it’s not even about being a star, okay? It’s practical, do-able advice.
Now that you've had a general introduction to recording, specifically for tracking a live show, this article will give you an overview of studio recording, from the usual rent-a-pro approach to setting up your own project studio. (You have been reading these articles in order, right?)
First things first: You have to decide who's going to be the producer, even before deciding on the engineer. None of the later decisions about tracking instruments, recording vocals, doing overdubs, processing signals, or getting a final mix will mean Bo Diddley, to coin a phrase, if your band’s three or five or eight members are arguing all the time about who sounds the loudest and what so-and-so’s girlfriend is doing in the vocal booth. Someone has to run the show.
This is even true for a solo act, since in a studio leadership vacuum most seasoned (or semi-seasoned, or even just salty) engineers will step right up and make the decisions for you. If the band doesn’t present a united front behind its leader, the whole process will be at risk. So, before anything else, decide
- who will be the producer,
- what arrangements of what songs will be recorded,
- how much debate and democracy will be involved in the process,
- when the various deadlines are going to be set, and
- why things are going to be run they way they are.
Now is the time for clarity, group cohesion, and common goals. Larger-than-life egos and delusional daydreams have to be left at the door (better yet, down the street) so that a workable, affordable, efficient, and effective plan can be developed — and pursued to a successful conclusion. Everybody needs to get on the same page (or play the same tune, or whatever metaphor you prefer). Now you’re as ready as you’re going to be, so what’s next?
Well, as usual, it’s about money, mostly, and time, too. What’s the working budget? Can you afford (and do you want to afford) to go into a project-level studio at $30 an hour with engineer included? A pro studio at $50-100 an hour with engineer maybe included? To make these calculations, you need to have your songs down pat, know how you’re going to record them (rhythm section together or dubbed) and how long all of it will take. If you’re doing a three-song demo, that’s one thing; if you’re doing your debut CD with 11 tracks, that’s a whole other thing. For simplicity’s sake, and to keep consistent examples from here forward, let’s go with your demo for now.
The whole decision process can take a U-turn if one of the band members, or a good (really good) friend, has a decent project studio set up — meaning pro and semi-pro equipment, a decent recording room, good microphones (and cables!), and so on. So, tis is the second big decision, after choosing the producer, but it’s not one that the newly christened producer should make alone. Onec again, unanimity is vital.
Wherever you do the sonic deeds, if you’re recording your drummer and bassist (and maybe a guitar or keyboard too) as a unit, which imparts an organic feel to the tunes, then you will need baffles, sound deflectors, etc., to minimize bleed. You will have to have headphones for everyone, good mics that are properly placed, quality cabling to minimize hum and pops, and so forth. If this is all starting to sound awfully complicated, opt for the best mid-level project studio in town, the one with good equipment and a decent studio, if not state-of-the-art. We’re doing your demo, remember? Not your platinum-worthy debut.
Most likely, the studio will have a computer-based recording system, with a Mac or PC running one of the major Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software applications — Apple’s Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer (Mac only), Sonar (PC only), or some other. You probably don’t want to do your demo with entry-level programs like Apple’s Garageband or Cakewalk’s Home Studio unless you have to; they are competent in the tracking arena, but fall way short in terms of plug-ins and quality of effects (like reverb) that are essential to the project.
If you don’t see a number of different kinds of microphones, you will at least want to see the trusty Shure SM-57s and 58s for miking guitar amps (and using as drum overheads) and at least one good condenser mic for vocals. There should be a decent outboard mixer available, if not always used with the DAW, a sufficient number of “cans” (headphones) for everyone, Monster or other quality cables, perhaps a piece or two of vintage rack gear, and pro-level monitors (for Pete’s sake, no living room stereo speakers). If the producer isn’t a “gearhead” or audio pro, well, he or she will need to study up on the subject, or find a good (low-paid) consultant.
If you have your plan together; if your parts are practiced and tight; if your excitement level stays high despite the ups and downs of getting your demo project together — well, you’re in about the best shape you can be, considering the importance of what you’re doing. You will need the help of a good, flexible, communicative engineer, so don’t make a hasty decision about where to do your demo recording. Talk to different people, get referrals, interview studio owners, ask tough questions, and keep your priorities straight. If you get too off into the equipment and the process, well, maybe you should be in the recording business, and that’s okay, too. But never lose sight of what is really important, and the reason you got into all this in the first place: the music.
It’s about the music, folks. If you need reminding, put a big sign on the refrigerator.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.