OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  

The Recording Studio

If you or your band need a demo tape to shop around or you just want to catalog some of your songs, or you (heaven forbid!) want to make a record, you are bound for the recording studio. Working in the studio is, of course, different than playing live. But it doesn’t need to be a fraught with fear, anxiety-laden experience. It can (and should!) be a very rewarding experience and it really is the best way to make your songs sound just like you hear them in your head.

There are as many approaches to working in the studio as there are bands. Don’t feel like you have to be locked into one approach as that can stifle creativity. Just find the way that works best for you. Some people like to go into the studio without the material already prepared, and write in the studio. Others like to go in completely prepared with material that is well rehearsed. It doesn’t matter how you do it, only the results matter.

So lets examine, shall we, the differing approaches and the results they are likely to produce as well as aspects of pre-production, post production and last but not least the recording process itself.

Personally, I believe the best way to achieve good results in the studio is to go in fully prepared. This is the way that the bands I have been involved with have approached it. Preparation for recording is also known as pre-production. What pre-production is is nothing more than the work you have done on your material prior to entering the studio to do the actual recording. It’s all the writing and re-writing and arranging and tweaking you do to your songs. A lot of artists even make demos at home before going into the studio. Whenever you are going into the studio to record, this offers you the opportunity to re-evaluate your material.

So before you get to the studio, take the material you are planning to record and make sure it’s exactly how you want it to be. Is the arrangement fine, or does it need some changes? Are there any new parts to add or existing parts to remove? How about the vocals? Are the harmonies all worked out and rehearsed until they’re smooth? And the lyrics can almost always use a little punching up! Pre-production affords you the opportunity to really delve deep into the songs and get a little more out of them. It allows you to create something a little more nuanced and intricate. And you will understand better what you want to achieve when you record them.

When you work out all the details of a tune before recording begins, as soon as you start recording you can really go for that "perfect take". And that "perfect take" is easier to get when you know what you are shooting for. There is one downside to guard against when approaching recording in this way, however. Things can end up sounding a tad too contrived. Always remember that in ROCK there needs to be plenty of energy and passion in those tracks!

What usually results from this method is a nice tight ensemble feel with (hopefully!!) great sounding vocal arrangements. It should come out well produced, smooth and professional. But as I said before, if you don’t guard against it, it can also sound stale and contrived. That is not such a big sin on a demo, but it is certainly not what you want if you’re trying to make a record. It is for this reason that when some people go into the studio, they go in with nothing but a guitar and a grin.

There are plenty of great bands that have developed their music once they got to the recording studio with fantastic results. The Beatles, The Stones, Talking Heads and U2 have all produced awesome records this way. Familiarity with the material notwithstanding, there are some advantages to doing it this way. It may become much more democratic, with all the band members contributing more and the individuals can have more control over what they actually end up playing. Instead of " I wrote this song, you play this part and you play that part… and so on, it can be more like " Hey, that’s a cool chord progression! Check out this bass line with those chords, man!" This approach can involve everybody in the songwriting process.

Also, not knowing the material very well can produce an energy that can only come from spontaneity. A lot of people record this way just so they can get the right "feel", they’re not going for the perfect take. Even the little mistakes and flubs are left in as long as the feel is right.

This can be a great, creative way to record if you have a lot of time and money. But the bands I was in had plenty of time and no money! When you are on a budget, you have to be efficient. So, we always went in prepared and got the tracks done in a timely fashion so as to limit our studio costs. The other downside to recording this way is that the results are hit and miss. You can spend a lot of time in the studio and not produce anything worth a damn.

When you are in the studio make sure you spend plenty of time with the engineer getting all the individual sounds exactly as you want them. Go over each instrument thoroughly to make sure it sounds just right. You don’t want to have to re-record a perfectly played track because it doesn’t have the "killer tone". There are two ways of achieving the perfect tone on tape; you can either record dry (sans effects) and add the effects later, or you can get it live with your amp. If you record dry and add the effects in post - production, then you can treat your dry tone as a canvas and color it any way you want with the effects at hand in the studio. If you chose to go with your live sound, you have to make sure it’s exactly what you want when you lay it down on tape because you can’t do as much to it later. Recording with a dry tone affords you more options at mixdown time, but sometimes it’s hard to play that way because you don’t get any ambiance from the live sound.

After you have gotten everything down on tape you are ready for post-production and final mixdown. Now is the time to add the effects to the tracks if you so desire. Also, if you have a track that you want to keep but there is one little part of it that bothers you, you can "punch in" and fix it. This is one way to achieve that "perfect take". The other way is through editing. Many times that amazing guitar solo that you hear on a record is not just one pass. It’s parts of a few different solos edited together to form one awesome, seamless statement. When you have all the effects down and the parts fixed and/or the editing done, you are ready for final mixdown. The engineer will bring all the instruments into proper balance with each other so that all the parts can be heard. Of course, you will have to tell him what sounds good to you as your aesthetic may be different from his. And his job is to make you sound the way you want to, so don’t be shy about telling him what you want. Because when it’s all mixed down and you have your copy of your final mix, you better be happy with it. It’s not the end of the world if your not because as long as you have the master reel you can still change it. But it will cost you!

It’s a great feeling to get a few of your best songs down on tape the way you want them. If you have achieved your recording goals you will most likely be pleasantly surprised at what you hear. Happy recording!!

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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