Things to Know BEFORE Recording

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Having spent the past few years recording albums back to back in many styles and all kinds of settings, I started to think about the common elements that ran through the sessions, and things that anyone about to undertake a recording should know, BEFORE going into the studio.

Preproduction

This is the most crucial step in making an album, and it all goes on before you set foot into a studio on the clock. After you've decided to make a recording, you need to sit down with a pad of paper and outline the project. List the overall objective you envision for the recording. A CD to distribute to radio, or to sell at gigs? Or song writing demos to showcase your work for a publishing deal? It's best to have a clear vision for what you are going to do with the CD when you START.

After that, decide on the songs you want to record. It helps to demo the songs first on a 4-track or a boom box, and analyze them after the heat of performance. Get outside opinions on which are the strongest, and which need more work. If your objective is airplay, the 11 minute "Space Jam" will probably need some trimming, whereas if you're doing an album to sell to your fanbase, 11 minutes can be cool. With that list of songs, start to figure out the instrumentation on each song. How many guitar parts do you plan to work in? Vocal harmonies on the chorus, the bridge, or not at all? Percussion on some or all of the tunes? This will serve a few purposes. One, is to get your mind organized as to what's going on in the songs. Second, it will help you figure out how many players you need to line up. And third, it will help you get an idea of how much studio time it will take.

It helps to put a stopwatch on the demos as well, and figure out the run time of the material. Recording can be very tedious and time consuming, and putting a strong eye towards the budget you have for a recording versus how much you're planning to record can save a lot of stress. Plus this is a great way to help an engineer manage the takes of a song in the studio, and to make the most efficient use of the materials. It always helps to know you're about to record a song that's 11:34 when you have ten an a half minutes of tape left - BEFORE you hit go!!!

With a list of songs, tracks, run times, and an objective, now it's time to start calling studios. When booking a studio, it helps to have as clear a vision as possible. Most studios are looking at projects in terms of time, as in, Band X will be in working for 10 days. What happens in those days is the responsibility of the band and its producer. So if ten days are up, and the album's not finished, and the studio is locked-out for another month, you're going to have to scramble to get the project done.

Additionally, most studios have a really good idea of the amount of time that goes into albums of varying quality. Giving the studio manager a rundown of what you're going to do, with all the specifics discussed above, can help determine a time frame, and very importantly, a budget.

Ahhh, the budget. Recording takes time, and studio time equals money. Most often, you get what you pay for, and if you want real quality, it won't be cheap. A way of thinking about this is to envision a triangle, and at the separate points you have HIGH QUALITY, FAST, and CHEAP. Pick two, any two, but ONLY two! That's a good rule of thumb to go by. Be realistic. Factor in materials as well. Recording a full album on two inch analog can get into hundreds and even thousands of dollars quickly. ADAT sessions can stay under $150 with back-ups. There are trade-offs with each medium.

Also in your budget you need to factor your expenses, eating while at the studio, any rentals you might need in the course of a session, repairs, setups, traveling, exotic dancers, and so on. These things add up, and can add up fast if you don't budget.

In addition to the budget considerations of picking a studio, you have to think about the "vibe" of the sessions. Definitely TOUR all prospective studios. Ask for REFERRALS, or better yet, LISTEN to a demo of recent material. Gauge the professionalism of the staff. Can they answer questions right away, do they have real world experience with the instruments and style of your music, and do they generally seem confident but not cocky? Look at the studio itself. Does it have the vibe you will feel comfortable in hour after hour? Some people need a sterile surrounding, some need cozy. That's why all types of studios exist, but it becomes your task to find the right one for your music!

All of the above issues are issues anyone can deal with on their own, but plan to make mistakes the first few times around. To better strengthen your chances of succeeding, hiring a experienced producer is always advisable. The right producer can remove all the burden of scheduling, planning and paperwork (except, of course, signing the checks!!!) so that you can focus on performance. And in most instances, a competent producer will reap benefits both financially and socially that easily offset the fee they charge. So it's always advisable to search out a few producers to see if they fit the vibe you're going for.

Drums/Basics

In most modern music, especially music geared towards radio formats, a solid rhythm foundation is essential. Without it, people won't groove, and the song will feel stagnant. In my mind, the rhythm section starts with the drums, and it's the drums that usually get recorded first. Good drum takes are comprised of two main elements, the tones, and the performance. Lets look at the tones first.

The essential ingredients in good drum tones are: a good player, good drums, good drum maintenance, a solid hit, and good signal path to tape. While most look to the engineer to get the best tones onto tape, the sound really starts in the player. Consistency is everything in drum takes, especially a solid hit, and that's all up to the player. Very little can happen to improve the tone of a kick drum being played like a six year old in a drum shop. If you really want the drums to hit hard, you have to hit the drums hard. Seems simple, but it startles me how few players truly understand that. Learn the power of bringing the stick down flat on the snare head and rim in choruses for extra beef. Experiment with technique before the mics go up. If the drums sound good in the room, evenly balanced and with presence and power, you're almost all the way home!!!

The drums themselves are important. The various brands of drums all have different effects, so take the time to audition different drums, or get advice from a session pro or producer/engineer. Size is an important issue. If you want a big drum sound, carry big drums. A 18" kick, while nice and punchy, is not going to have the bottom a 24" kick is going to have. Think about the style of music you're playing, and match the drums accordingly. Try to have a few snares for recording if possible, because some drums just don't work in certain songs.

Heads are the next element in the chain. For harder styles, I prefer hydraulic Pinstripe heads or clear Emperor weight heads on toms. They seem to give a consistent "thud" with a manageable sustain that works good in the mix with little processing. Coated heads with help give a little more stick attack, and coated Ambassadors are great for a nice open tom sound. On snares, I usually go with a coated Ambassador batter for the first choice, or an Emperor if the style is more aggressive. Sometimes a Black Dot head will give more attack and focus on the snare, and will certainly improve durability. Also, Ambassador bottoms across the drums seem to give great results, or Diplomat weights for more response in quieter styles. Kick heads really run the gamut. I personally prefer a coated Emperor with a Falam Slam pad on it, and a hard felt or wood beater. This will give good low end, and enough attack. Sometimes a thinner head will give some more responsiveness and play, so gauge your style. For various effects, wood beaters with half dollars taped to the heads will give a sound that punches through walls of guitars.

Maintenance is a factor. Locate all the buzzes and rattles and squeaks on your set before you leave the practice space. Lube and replace any parts that need it. Rubber tubing on the cymbal posts will help keep rattles down, and be prepared to tape up ringing drums. Keep heads fresh but broken in. Learn to tune drums!!! It's tricky, but once you get it, you'll have a better overall sound.

With good drums, a good player, and a nice sounding room, it's hard as an engineer not to get great drum tones. For processing, I often level the kick drum with some sort of limiting/compression for those moments of "excitement" where the drummer really stomps to get a nice consistent performance, and I might use an expander on the toms, but for the most part I like to go natural on drums, unless it's a heavily processed style being aimed for.

Getting things right in the beginning will make everything else down the line easier. Something to consider in getting drum takes is whether or not to use a click. Using a click is something I usually advise, because it gives more options, such as flying song sections around. This is something that a drummer must PRACTICE before attempting in the studio. Find what works in terms of sounds and loops, and request those in the headphones.

As far as performance, be very aware of timing, song structure, and how the drum part works with those elements. A stray crash cymbal might seem minor during basics, but when it obscures a vocal line later on, it becomes a problem. Listen to how the drums outline the structure of the song, do the parts build in the choruses? Do all the down beats come in solid after fills? Are the fills working with the rest of the tracks? Be aware of what the song is trying to convey, and make sure the drum part conveys the same emotions before you call it a keeper. Arrangement applies to all the instruments! And make sure the right emotions are conveyed in the playing itself. A "flat" drum take is a pain to liven up in a mix. It helps if the drummer is always hearing a good mix, and enough scratch (or even keeper) parts in the headphones to relate to the vibe of the song.

Bass

The first step in recording bass would be to have the instrument set-up by a professional. Get the intonation checked, the electronics checked, and the strings replaced if necessary. There is no excuse for not knowing your instrument is out of intonation. There is no excuse for crappy, noisy pots and active electronics that add more noise than gain.

A lot of the times, I end up taking bass guitars direct. Mostly for ease, but also for the fact that usually, unless the amp is really good, I don't find any extra "beef" gained. There are a few amps, like an older SVT or especially an older Ampeg B-15 flip top that get me really excited to work with, they just have such a unique character. But usually, I'll record the bass direct. Tube DI's, the Evil Twin DI, and high quality pre-amps seem to make the bass plenty powerful for me. If I get into the project and find that it needs some "more," then I might reamplify the signal at that point. But a good quality DI sound is the starting point for most sessions I've worked.

It is important to assess if your instrument matches your style, as all instruments sound unique. If not, get some advice on where to rent or borrow different instruments, but check them out BEFORE the sessions, and ALWAYS have them set up!

Another important variable in the sound is the string selection. Round wounds, flat wound, brights, mediums, and so on... which to choose? Get some advice from people whose sound you enjoy. I like to suggest the heaviest gauge possible in the studio because the low end seems to hold up more, and to my ear it feels more focused. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the specific situation will always dictate.

I often try to get bass tracks at the same time as drum tracks are laid down, or at least as the next step after the drums. As bass tracks are cut, it's important to pay close attention to the "lock" between the bass and drums, specifically with the kick drum. Flamming between parts is a drag, and editing can get time consuming. And another issue is to decide who's carrying the bottom end for the song. Both the bass and the kick are fighting for a similar range of frequencies, and you can only have so much bass, so it's a good idea to establish which instrument is going to take the low end. A lot of this depends on the style of music, so listen closely to albums that have a similar feel to the music you're recording. Select what bass (and amp) is used to work around the kick in a track.

These are the issues a good arrangement will alleviate. Paying close attention to how the bass part moves relative to the kick drum is a big part of how the bottom end punches through a mix. It's also important to keep in mind how the guitars are going to be moving on top, so that if the guitar is filling in around the ends of vocal phrases, it's probably a good idea to keep the bass part straight ahead, or vice versa.

Guitars

As with bass, the first step in getting great guitar sounds is to have the instrument and amp setup by a professional. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to work with shoddy guitar intonation. The key to guitar sounds is in understanding the differences in instruments and amps, and knowing beforehand what you want. To really get a wide variety of sounds, try to have several types of guitars, such as a Strat, Tele, Les Paul, Music Man, Ibanez, and PRS. Be aware of the tonal differences from semi-hollow bodies. With amps, you should try to get a Marshall and a Fender to cover most bases, and fill in the gaps with Vox, Mesa Boogie and others, including ampless distortion such as Zoom equipment. Inside of that, there are the differences in strings, pickups, picking styles, and player interpretation that is just too exhaustive a topic for the scope of this article. This is something where experienced production/engineering teams are invaluable, and the difference between "OK" and "astounding" becomes very apparent. It's just important not to walk into the studio with a Gorilla and a Squire Strat and expect to sound like Korn.

After the basics of matching the guitar and amp to the style being recorded, you have to look at the nature of what you want the guitars to achieve. With guitars, the key to a excellent recording is arrangement. How to layer guitars is another area where pro ears have the edge. If you want power, a single rhythm guitar track won't typically cut it. How you pick the sounds of the rhythms that you layer, and how you place the parts, i.e. doubling every rhythm and hard panning them, will be the critical factor in your recordings.

Presenting a strong stereo image is a big part as well. Panning slightly different parts out will help create a sense of space, and smaller lines and more doublings can be pushed back with reverb to create even more depth. Having contrapuntal lines in opposite speakers will give some excitement to the ear. But be careful of giving everything away too fast. Special lines that come in to accent certain phrases, or to bridge spaces in the vocal phrases helps make recordings more memorable, and you want to have a sense of a building up going throughout the song as well. Again, these are all issues that a great arrangement will help with.

Vocals

Vocals are, for many styles, the focus of the recording. They tell the story, and they have to be right out in front, in the groove and in tune to work. With other instruments, maintenance and repairs are a tangible thing, something a nut driver and an experienced hand can make short work of. But it always suprises me just how little most vocalists understand their instrument. In an article like this, it's impossible to outline all that goes into having a strong vocal technique that will allow the vocal performances to really smoke, so we have to focus on the studio aspects alone. However, go in the studio prepared. Pick up a copy of Mark Baxter's Rock-N-Roll Singer's Survival Manual, and read his columns in this magazine. Take some lessons with a vocal coach, and get a handle on the mechanics of your instrument.

Aside from that BIG issue, before you go into the studio for vocals, get plenty of rest, and try to remain as healthy as you can. Practice your parts, work out phrasings in rehearsals, and practice harmony parts before you get into the booth. In the studio itself, it's important first to establish a vibe. Turn off the lights, light candles, hang up Britney Spears posters, or throw darts at Britney Spears posters - WHATEVER you need to get into the vibe of the lyric you are singing. A sincere delivery overrides almost all technical aspects in the studio.

Keep yourself well hydrated, and sing a few runs through the song without interruptions, to get a feel for what's going on in the music, and to determine what you need to hear in the headphones. Typically, I record about 4-5 takes of a song, and then "comp" (short for composite track) the best phrases from each into a finished vocal take, listening through for continuity, and punching problem spots. By comping, I can usually avoid beating on a vocalist too hard with punches, and that really saves the singer. It's important also to pace yourself in the studio, to not sing too much and lose your voice.

With background vocals, or BGVs, the big issue is tuning. Every part has to be on pitch 100%, or they won't stack properly. This is where pitch correction usually gets employed for speed of takes. Be careful of phrasing, make sure consonants hit at the same points, and the phrases end at the same time. In a DAW (digital audio workstation) environment, this is easy to edit, again a time saver on big projects.

Aside from the terribly abbreviated points above, other big factors in vocal production would be the layering, the use of special effects vocals such as talking tracks, whisper tracks, and shouting tracks. How you layer vocals can depend on your preferred style. If you dig the Mutt Lange style (Def Leppard, Shania Twain) you might chew up 16 tracks (or more) of BGVs alone. YIKES!!! Experiment with vocal doublings (Having the singer sing the same part in unison) in choruses for added strength, and try doubling harmonies and panning them opposite each other for a natural chorusing feel. Vocals take time, harmonies take time, and doublings take time. If there is one thing you cannot rush, it's vocal takes. Did I mention that vocals take time? If lines are out of tune, they will kill a mix. If BGV stacks are out of tune, they either get muted or chorused into oblivion. Trying to obscure pitch in a mix is a real drag, and can be avoided by spending the time on the tracks themselves.

Everything Else

Well, so far we've concentrated on drums, bass, guitars, and vocals, which are pretty common to a lot of music styles. If I covered all the instruments I've recorded in the past two months alone I could write a novel. With Synth equipment, learn your patches, learn how your unit interfaces with MIDI and MTC (Midi Time Code) for sync purposes, and make sure your unit is free of grounding problems. With Percussion, make sure you have what you need, a good selection of instruments, and keep focused on the track. You can layer Cabasas on top of Dumbeks on top of agogo bells until your arm falls off, just spend your time on what enhances the track. Strings, keep the instruments maintained, use good players, and WATCH THE INTONATION!!! Brass and Woodwinds, again, a good player and a good instrument make all the difference in the world. With sections, have them play as a section for the tightness only physical feedback can provide, and also this seems to help everyone get their intonation tighter. There are so many possibilities in sessions, it's impossible to get to them all.

Now What?

The purpose of this article was to help you get an idea of what to expect, and how to prepare for tracking your next album. Hopefully, the quick overviews will help you focus your approach to your instrument when you step into the studio again. Making an album can be expensive, and stressful, but you can help minimize both of those concerns with proper preproduction and remaining focused.

The next stage in most projects would be to mix the record, but that's a whole topic within itself!!!

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