Published in Canadian Musician, Nov/Dec1998
If you’re lucky enough to be a musician with a lot of recording experience, this article is not necessarily for you. However, there are a lot of musicians out there who don’t have any recording experience or have any idea how to prepare for the recording studio. Hopefully, if you’re inexperienced in recording, you’ll be open to finding the budget to work with a producer who can help you prepare.
Pre-production: This is the single most money-saving factor in a recording project. Some people do not do enough pre-production and some do not even know what it is. Without pre-production, valuable studio time is wasted on things that could have been worked out ahead of time. For a self-contained group where no studio musicians are hired, pre-production is simply a matter of in-depth rehearsals. This could happen in 3 or 10 rehearsals, depending on group dynamics. Tempo, key of songs and arrangements are looked at very carefully. Often, all that ‘s required are small changes like, shortening the intro or cutting out a chorus or making it a fade ending, etc. However, a lot of times, the actual parts that each musician is playing needs to be altered considerably. If you start changing parts in the studio, wave good-bye to your budget!
Pre-production for a project which involves a solo artist hiring studio musicians is much more time consuming. Here’s one very common way: the first step is to decide the instrumentation for each song. Chord charts and a rough demo of the songs are then made. The appropriate musicians are hired and sent charts and a tape so they can get a feel for the songs before the first rehearsal. Since the musicians are studio players and not an established group, the arrangements are more open to different, individual styles, so several rehearsals will be needed to sort things out.
Whether you’re a group or a solo artist, if you’ve hired a producer, he or she will be very involved in the pre-production process. If you cannot afford a producer, consider carefully someone you know and respect musically to listen to your pre-production ideas.
These days, with so many tracks available at most studios, another expensive tendency is to overproduce songs when they don’t need it. If your gut feeling is that a song should be more simple, go with that gut feeling and don’t be swayed into the belief that filling all the space is a good thing.
A bit of advice after pre-production: expect the unexpected. In pre-production, you can plan for what you THINK you want to happen but once you’re in the studio, plans can (and will) change. Stay open to the possibilities and be flexible.
Research: Researching producers, engineers and studios is a very complex, time consuming process but an extremely crucial one. It can make or break your project. There’s nothing worse then hiring people who you THOUGHT were on the same wavelength as yourself…and then, finding out (most likely too late), that they were not suited to your project. Unfortunately, when it comes to producers and engineers, it’s hard to know for certain until you’re far into it, if it’s working out. Even if they’ve worked on other successful albums, that doesn’t mean that the personalities or work ethic style will jive. However, doing research will increase the likelihood of success. One thing to be cautious about is hiring friends as producers and/or engineers who are inexperienced and new to the business. Get to know who the professionals are.
Another potential problem can occur when you hire musicians who are great live performers but not experienced in the studio. You would be amazed at how many times I’ve seen great live players without enough studio experience, fall apart in a recording session.
In terms of choosing a studio-be careful. While there are a lot of decent home studios around today, some people don’t realize that almost anyone can afford to get a multi-track system and call themselves a studio. Get advice. Overall, no matter what kind of studio you use, try not to be over ambitious by under budgeting time and money.
Condition of instruments: Want to make studio life difficult?? Try recording a drum kit with worn heads or try to tune a cheap guitar that’s not well intonated…you’ll be tearing your hair out. If you’re bothering to make a recording, get good quality guitars and basses that tune well and sound good.. Brand new strings are important for tone quality BUT don’t put them on just before the session, they will continue to stretch and constantly go out of tune. To avoid this, put new strings on 2-4 days before the studio and play a lot to stretch them.
Expectations: if you ‘re an amateur musician, thinking a good studio will make you sound better is absolutely WRONG. Be prepared–in actuality good studios act like a microscope and are very unforgiving and show all the flaws. And on the flip side of that, a good studio will give you a clear, defined sound that you’ve never heard so good.