YOUR FIRST RECORDING SESSION
You’re feeling pretty good about your playing…you’ve got a bunch of tunes you want to record, and the band is lined up. Or maybe you are a side musician on someone else’s record date, but you're nervous because you've never actually been in a recording studio before. Though applicable to side musicians, much of the following advice is directed to bandleaders.
You might not have a record deal, but that’s okay, so few do these days. You must, however, begin documenting your music. That’s why we call ‘em “records”!
Your choice of recording studio is very important. Check out the studio's equipment ahead of time. Piano, keyboards, drum kit, mics, board–get the equipment list and make sure it meets your needs. Also note the dimensions of their space, including the main room and the iso booth. If you have a nine piece band, you're not going to fit in some studios.
Studio time is expensive. Be organized. Rehearse ahead of time. Have all the charts ready. Have a list of the tunes in the order you'd like to record them. Do the hardest one first. If a tune train-wrecks, or someone plays a clam, don’t start over at the beginning. Rather, you’ll “punch in” from before that point in the song. Usually you will play along with the track a few bars prior to the punch, and the engineer will press the Record button at the proper moment.
Recording studios are never an ideal temperature. Pro studios tend to be too cold due to the air conditioning, and home studios tend to be too warm, because the equipment heats up the room and home AC systems are too noisy to have running while recording. Bring a sweater to layer over your tank top. Also be aware that there may be photographers and videographers present, so do you really want to wear the bunny slippers?
Wear pants with pockets. Why? Because the wire from the cans (studio parlance for headphones) will probably be in your way while you're playing, and you need to tuck the slack into a pocket so it doesn't interfere with your instrument, or your sightline to the music.
The studio will not always have separate headphone mixes. Even when they do, you may not hear every single thing to your liking. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. But if there's an extreme condition–like, you can't hear the bass–then it needs to be fixed before the engineer says “Rolling.”
Don't forget a little reverb in the cans, it's the aural equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate.
Take breaks. When faced with something challenging, like a difficult written part or a solo with weird changes, ask for a couple minutes to look it over. On one session, I even went to the piano for five minutes so I could check out the harmonic sequence of a tune I was asked to solo on.
Bring food. A sandwich, some energy bars. Most pro studios have coffee machines, but that doesn't mean the coffee will be good.
Be nice to the engineer. He or she often (but not always) knows as much about the equipment and the recording process as you know about music. Many are musicians themselves, which is ideal. The best engineers are really cool people, because they know how to deal with fragile musician egos. There's nothing like being put on the spot in the studio to make a musician have a meltdown.
Microphones: An expensive mic, such as my favorite–-a Neumann U-87–-will only be found in the best studios. Engineers are as picky as musicians about which mics to use. But you can sometimes override their opinion, or ask for a different mic placement. You need to get your sound–-this is critical.
The first hour or so will be spent "getting sounds.”
Allow one hour for each tune you want to record. I can hear you now: “An hour to record a three-minute song?”
Yes. If not more.
It’s not necessary to listen back after every take. But ALWAYS listen back after the first take of the session.
These days the process is almost always computerized. Disasters can happen. Don't freak out. If something really bad happens that is the studio’s fault, they will make up for the lost time.
Lastly, have fun! As I told the band at one session after they were complaining about doing a lot of takes on one tune: Hey guys, when you’re ninety years old sitting in the day room watching Jeopardy and eating applesauce, you’ll remember when you were making records in the studio and you’ll say, “Those were the good old days!”
© Su Terry