August 2018

A word on studio prep..

Today I wanted to talk about studio preparation and generally how to make the recording process as smooth as possible. I’ve narrowed this down into four categories: pre-production/demonstration recordings, sonic direction, budget and a tracking plan. This information isn’t just for younger bands or artists that are looking to get into hifi recording, but also seasoned bands that have routinely had problems with budget among other obstacles in the process.

Ever since the accessibility of home recording became viable, almost all musicians have at least a 2 channel interface. If you don’t have one, it would be no sweat to find someone that does. Even just a couple mics in a jam room can inform on a plethora of decision-making in terms of sonics, song arrangement and recording ideas. If you are in a band that is hugely reliant on the idiosyncrasies of the instrumentation, such as the specificity of guitar tones, then it is probably more helpful to have more inputs and a relatively treated room with some isolation. This can provide a clearer representation on the direct sound of instruments before you are dialling it in on day one at a studio.

When you are practicing at a rehearsal space you are often focused on what you are playing, oftentimes more than how your own instrumentation is correlating with everyone else. This is especially true with dense and complicated music. A huge time killer is disorganisation with the arrangement or parts of a song. If the bassist is playing a small section sharp, this will throw a spanner in the works and eat up time. Sometimes its not as simple as moving something on the next take, it may actually take time to rewrite parts on the spot. Another thing is the dynamics within a song. Be aware of parts that are for example quiet guitar picking, yet have drums raging on an open hi hat. This can not only ruin the vibe of that part, but also smother the guitar parts. If you are multi tracking this may not be noticed until the end of the tracking process. That is unless you do the right pre-production.

Unless there are some abnormal or synthetic elements in your sound, its astute to remember that a record will sound like what it does in the rehearsal room. If you are tracking at a proper studio it will obviously sound better because the space is acoustically treated and isolated with seasoned engineers etc. But the bottom line is that you shouldn’t expect a Spielbergian result just from entering a recording facility. You should have the sound of the record as close to possible before deciding to put money into it. If there is a strange interaction with a vocal and strings section, or a weirdness with a bass part that is finger picked, don’t expect for it to magically disappear because the sound of the record is great. All issues need to be ironed out prior to your session.

It is most definitely prudent to meet with your engineer at least once prior to tracking, or allow some time on the day of your session to resolve some thoughts on the direction of your sound. This can sometimes be as straightforward as showing them your demonstration recordings and having a brief discussion about equipment and the general vibe. Other times, it can be denser. In these cases if there is not much time it can be helpful to reference other records and elements within them, for example, the drum sound of a dinosaur jr record except not the bass drum.. and the vocal delay from a die kreuzen record. Another great thing about conversing with an engineer prior is that it can be ascertained how possible these are, rather than during the session. You can figure out that the bass drum you have isn’t suitable and so either the band or studio can source one prior to the session. Something as simple as this can save an hour messing around on the first morning, and then eventually being slightly dissatisfied with the sound of it in the end. The same goes with guitars, pedals, cymbals. Cymbals are a bit of a snake in the grass, poor quality or cracked cymbals with someone who is a basher can really ruin a record.

Be aware of how honest the direction is that you want to go with the production. Many an aesthetic is rooted in time, such as lack of dynamics, distorting literally everything, tuning vocals, sample replacing drums, radio lo-fi effects et al. There is nothing objectively wrong with any of these, but you have to question if they are what your band is about, or if they are reflections of current trends. Its primarily healthier to think of your bands record as an artefact that isn’t specifically time-bound, but a reflection of the direction that best suits you as an artist.

Tracking plan
Once a pre-determined sound is established, a good run sheet needs to be in place. Meaning, the events of the week or weekend scheduled realistically. To multi track or live record? To multi track is to typically set up and record drums first in a routine band ensemble. Normally to a scratch track of the guitar, sometimes with the final guitar takes being done at the same time. Everything else would then get overdubbed on top of these parts. This can be helpful in some aspects, you are able to spend more time on each instrument and in every case utilise more ambient spaces. You also have the ability to scrutinise each player and how they are interacting in the song. This is the case as they are often playing in the control room without headphones and an engineer by their side. There is a certain comfort for some people in this arrangement.

The problem with multi tracking is it never really captures the sense memory of a live performance, you never really feel the energy of the room being put down. From an engineering standpoint it often creates much more work which will greatly affect the budget. As the record isn’t being experienced from day one, you are listening to components of a larger picture. This doesn’t really allow heavy handed decisions to be made and in fact, many decisions actually become delayed until the mixing process. Rather than verify how a tremolo on a guitar part sounds against the delay of the snare drum and other guitar (that isn’t there yet), you may end up tracking a dry version, a less dry version and also a completely wet version of this effect. Again, piling up more decisions to be made at the end of the process and ultimately leaving you at the end of tracking with a whole bunch of transitory audio. This way of working has almost become the norm due to the accessibility of home recording, but its sometimes not the most ideal way to record.

Most engineers prefer to track live because its easier to determine a mix from the get go, as the whole record is painted right in front of you upon first take. Decisions can be made instantly. No one can tell themselves “maybe after more layers of guitars are done this tone will be better” as the evidence is right there and can instantly inform the player of what settings to change and how to play differently to achieve the sound they envision.
At Underground we have one large drum room and 3 other recording rooms so tracking live with isolation is entirely possible and in fact, the norm. There is no right or wrong way to make a record though, and I have made great records both ways.
Once you have figured out how you want to record, you can have a dialogue with the engineer or studio about how much time is required. Multi tracking a full length record can take from 3 – 7 days, live tracking can be shorter generally. I have heard of small independent bands taking 6 months to track a record, I can’t really come to grips with how this is possible but I feel like someone’s dropping the ball.

Budgeting a record can be stressful, I say this as someone that principally works with bands and artists without label support. The best advice I can give is to not be too confident with how quickly you can tear through a recording. If you have one song that you are wanting to record, I would suggest waiting until more exist. It can take a day to set up a full band with mics, just for a song. It would be more financially sensible to give it a few months and then spend two days getting at least 6 songs done. Have a dialogue with the studio or engineer. If you are a mask wearing power electronics industrial solo artist, explain that you just need two high quality inputs and no mixing done. Most engineers would be able to tailor a quote for you that would be significantly less than a normal band experience. If you are in a band, make certain the experience is comfortable. Make sure you can comfortably eat and pay rent that week, otherwise you will be in a shitty mood in the studio. If you don’t budget properly it can really turn the experience a bit sour. However the result turns out, you will be less satisfied if you went way over budget. It all comes down to organisation and planning.

Ultimately, making records has transitioned from large facilities with archival functionality, to bedrooms with laptops. If you are lucky enough to be able to experience entering a commercial recording studio and tracking something you have been working on for a good year, you should be enjoying it! Making records is supposed to be enjoyable, it is hard work and it isn’t always fun.. but it is supposed to be satisfying. If you find yourself within the process of making a record and are faced with dissatisfaction in the resulting efforts, pause and think about what the problems are and if they aren’t solvable on the spot then think about how to resolve them in the future. And thank the engineer. Most engineers work 10 hours a day in pretty unhealthy conditions devoid of sunlight and nutrition in order to get something on tape that doesn’t belong to them. But it goes both ways. Engineers are respect bands greatly when they are down to track something properly in a genuine acoustic environment. With the right studio prep this is a symbiotic relationship that will only improve the sound and most importantly, the experience of record making.