Before you book your band some studio time, you will want to make sure your project is ready for the studio. The faster you can record your music, the cheaper it will be. This is the only metric. It is important to realize that your budget is usually finite, so unless you have a wealthy and generous benefactor, you will want to tune in for these ten tips to saving you money and sounding great in the studio.
Nearly every song will have some minor to major rewrites during the recording process. Try to do as much as you can before you get to the studio and are paying by the hour. You want to be flexible in the studio, because a good engineer will have good ideas. Hold fast to your artistic choices, but be willing to objectively accept the ideas of the others in the recording process. In the studio, I accept and reject the spur of the moment ideas about 50/50. Be ready to create, which eats time and costs money. Try to do the bulk of it at home where no one is on the clock.
Once you have written your masterpiece, you will need to practice it until you can play it flawlessly several times in a row. In the studio, you may play the same part a hundred times, and each one will need to be not only flawless, but almost identical to the other 99. You will need to be certain of every note, or when you overdub or edit, you will come across inconsistencies and other errors that delay the process and cost you money. There is another option for the digitally savvy engineer with a lot of time on his hands. Cut and paste for rock bands is possible but not ideal, and the life of a rock song can be lost easily with too much cut/paste. The best advice I was given about the studio was to bring a great song and a great performance to the recording and let the engineer make it incredible. Don’t rely on the engineer to fix your mistakes, or he won’t be able to focus on making it incredible. He will be too busy making it passable.
3. Finding a studio.
There are many studios everywhere ranging in price and quality all across the board, from inexpensive home studios to multi-million dollar facilities. Depending on your budget, it may be worth it to travel to better studios if you do not have any in your area. Larger acts will fly where the sound is to get the sound they are after. Smaller acts must find something close enough to work with. You will want a studio that is capable of meeting your genre’s needs. Find out what other acts in your genre have recorded there and try to find some samples of the work. A studio’s sound is based largely on the gear they have, so finding a studio with the gear that works best for your sound can be a bit of grunt work. You may want to record in digital or on analog tape. Digital is easier to edit and mix, but analog has a warmth to the sound that digital just does not have. Digital is non-destructive media and comes with no added expenses (aside from a few CD-Rs), but analog tape has no undo button (and a tape reel could run you $100 each, may need 2-3 for your album). At the very least, you will want to find a studio with a good sounding vocal booth, drum room and a capable engineer. If the studio is friendly, this helps a lot. This brings me to my next point.
4. Know your engineer.
The engineer makes as much of an impact on the final product as the musicians. You want to be sure you have an engineer that mixes rock bands for your rock band, or one that mixes jazz for your jazz trio. The dynamics of recording and microphone techniques will be very different, and you want the best guy you can find to set you up right. This will come from listening to other bands the engineer has recorded and determining if they have a style that matches your sound. Be cool with the engineer and he can do wonders for you. Sometimes they will do or say things that can drastically improve the work you are doing. They’re on your team, but they are outsourced, so they don’t work for you as much as they work with you.
5. Decide before you go the order in which the songs will be recorded, and the method you plan to use recording it.
This can eat up tons of time in the studio making these kinds of decisions. Have a game plan before you are on the clock. Also, you need to determine if you are recording the whole band as scratch tracks, tracking drums with the band, tracking drums with just a metronome, tracking guitar first? We typically recorded the whole band live and tracked the drums off that take, then went in and re-recorded the bass, guitars and vocals. This gave the drummer the chance to play and feel the energy of the live performance, and also gave us scratch tracks to play along with when we record our parts.
6. Two weeks before you go in:
Replace drum heads, arrange to borrow equipment. You may have a friend with a piece of gear that you need to borrow for the session. Now is a good time to make those arrangements. You don’t want to be running around looking for gear when you are late to the session. Also, this is a good opportunity to put new heads on the drums. This gives you a couple weeks to break them in and have the best possible sound your drums can have.
7. One week before you go in:
Replace guitar and bass strings. Tubes if needed. Like heads, strings will need to stretch and be broken in. Tubes for tube amps also should be addressed a week ahead to allow for break in. Don’t find out your tubes are blown in the studio on a Sunday night. You won’t be able to get replacements and you will be scrambling to salvage the day. Preparation is key in saving headaches and money.
8. Day before:
Tune all guitars and drums. Double check tubes, cables, picks, guitars, and drum hardware. Do this early enough to allow a trip to the music store in case something is not functioning. Pick up borrowed equipment from your friend that you talked to two weeks ago. Be so ready that it hurts. Run through all the songs you will be recording. Get the whole band together if you can and just set up your gameplay for the day.
9. Try to be realistic about how much you can do in a day.
An eight hour session sounds like a long time to record 50-60 minutes of music. It’s not. It isn’t even enough time to do that. A full length LP will likely take you at least three full eight-hour days. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble managed to bang out Texas Flood in 3 days and that was amazingly fast. It can be done, but don’t count on it. Metallica spent well over $1,000,000 on production for the black album. You want to find yourself somewhere between going too fast (and settling) and going too slow (and going broke). You have X hours to record and Y songs to record. X divided by Y is how much time you can dedicate to a song. A quick recording of a tune would be two hours and that is pushing it for speed. I like to spend no less than 4 hours on a song, however the last session we did was two 4 hour sessions for one song. 4 hours to record and 4 hours to mix and overdub. We were comfortable because we were never in a hurry. It was easy to stay on task and keep spirits high with the pressure on low.
10. General health.
Eat before you go. Sleep well the night before. Wash yourself before you go. You will all stink by the end of the day, so start off on a high note. Bring some snacks and have a plan for feeding yourselves. If there is no place nearby to eat, then pack lunches. Being tired and hungry while your ears are pounded with volume for eight hours can ruin the experience for everyone. Bring breath mints. Nothing is worse than trying to record a group vocal with halitosis Hal blowing right up your nose. Pass out the mints a couple minutes before, so there is time to get all the minty freshness and dispose of the mints. You don’t want the mint in your mouth while singing, but you will be thankful it was there when everyone is huddled around a microphone. I’ve been in a session where we didn’t have mints… It was almost impossible to sing. Go in with a good mood, a full belly, some bottles of water, minty fresh breath and a clear idea of what you plan to achieve.
This is how you save money, time, and aggravation in the studio.