Music -> Preparing for the Studio

So my band wants to record some songs where do we start?

Start by figuring out your budget, schedules and the number of tracks you want to record.

When you are working out your budget always remember to think ahead and make provision for cd duplication, cover design, packaging, marketing and promotions.

More often than not independent bands only plan for the cost of the recording and the party they are going to have to celebrate being able to listen to themselves on cd. Try to figure out how many cd's you will be giving away at gigs, or sending away to radio stations, management companies, record labels etc. Remember having a 100 friends and family members own a copy of your music is cool but apart from the occasional 'high 5' and maybe the odd free beer, you won't see doors start to open quite the same way having industry professionals listening to your music will.

When it comes to schedules most studios will try to accommodate your needs, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't be willing to try to alter your own schedule to accommodate the recording process though. Be aware that good recordings don't happen quickly, it takes hours and hours of preparation, adjusting, manipulation, editing and mixing! Do you honestly believe that you can lay down a song that will rival say Metallica's latest single in a few short hours when Metallica spent months working on theirs?

When choosing the number of tracks to record keep in mind the following tip – it's better to have 3 great sounding songs than 10 mediocre sounding songs. The amount of tracks you choose to record should be in line with your budget and the quality of your songs. Even the best artists write rubbish songs from time to time so select only those that really have something special about them – take into consideration which tracks seem to be crowd favourites and consult your producer, you really want an objective point of view from somebody who hasn't heard your songs a million times.

So how do I choose a studio?
Word of mouth is a big component of any business, including studios, so start by speaking to guys in other bands and try to get a copy of their recordings.

Keep in mind that while one band might get an awesome recording from a certain studio, it's not guaranteed that you will walk away with a cd of the same calibre – why you ask? Because each band is different! - different members, different styles, different equipment, different strengths, different weaknesses, different attitudes etc. etc.

Look for a studio that will approach your project with professionalism! If it looks like you are going to have to sit on the guys bed to record your guitar and you gotta turn your amp down really low because the "producers" mom is watching her soapies in the room next door then you probably aren't going to walk away with a useful demo!

Don't necessarily choose the cheapest studio, but then again don’t necessarily choose the most expensive! Like many industries there will always be "fly by night" companies who are looking to make a fast buck! So don't be suckered in by empty promises, be realistic about what you want to receive with the budget you have – from Metallica to Beyonce, these guys pay millions of dollars to have the quality recordings they have, they would be kicking themselves if it was possible to record albums of the same calibre for a few thousand rands!

How do I select which tracks should be recorded?
First of, time all of your songs - you really don't want tracks that are longer than 4 minutes long, basically most radio stations won't play your 15 minute anthems!

Secondly, identify the songs with the biggest hooks, give people a reason to not press skip and to listen to your track over and over again!

Thirdly, try to find songs that don't have long intricate intros, songs that bring in the vocals early on and songs that you know backwards!

Here is what not to do:
Don't just pick the latest song that you wrote, your opinion is biased! Just because you have been playing some of the songs for a couple of years it doesn't mean that they are old, to the average listener they are brand spankin' new!

Don't pick songs where you have a sneaky suspicion that your guitarist might have hi-jacked a Foo Fighters riff and changed one chord... you will only end up with a poor mans version of a good track and you don't need to give critics a reason to give their two cents worth!

Don't pick songs where you have big plans to add a full orchestra, Mariah Carey backing vocals and extreme sub sonic fx... its a demo you are recording, time is of the essence, you won't achieve your goal!

The rule of thumb for a demo is if "I can't do it live then it doesn't go onto the recording"... so save your harp solo for when you do full production and have time to experiment!

What exactly does a Producer do?
It varies from producer to producer (and even project to project). I can't speak for every producer out there; I can only lay out my role in the studio.

For me a good producer represents your core audience, we are there to voice opinions that your fans and critics will make either publicly or privately. My job is to identify your songs’ (and each individual members) strengths and weaknesses. I then have the responsibility of putting your strengths in the best light and improving your weaknesses.

This means working close enough with each individual member by offering advice, direction and resources such as quality equipment, tutors etc – but not so close that the track sounds like a Dylan Ford track and not YOUR track! Every song/recording has two basic elements that need to be addressed – the music fundamentals and the creative side.

The Music Fundamentals cover the following areas:

Timing – drums should be as close to being as perfectly in time as humanely possible! Not necessarily as close as technologically possible!

Tuning – guitars, drums, bass etc. "be in tune!"

Instrumentation – are the guitar(s), vocals etc. in the right key and in a nut shell is every instrument making musical sense?

The Creative Side covers the following areas:

Song structure: the number of bars in each section of the song and the position of these sections (for example how long the chorus’ should be and where in the song it should be placed etc.)

Arrangements: deciding which instrument plays where and the role of the instrument in the song.

Equipment: with so many products on the market it is important to play with equipment that suits your bands style and desired effect!

Persona: every song has a personality, tone, mood etc – it’s a producer's job to ensure that every band member is doing what is needed to communicate that persona to the listener.

When it comes to the Music Fundamentals a good producer will be unwavering and anal! But when it comes to the Creative Side a good producer should be a guiding force that doesn't necessarily adopt a “my way or no way” attitude!

Producers must also be well versed in classic and newer recording and mixing techniques and generally form a game plan to achieve maximum results. I strive for "no excuses" when it comes to recording demos – by this I mean the artist should be able to play their songs for managers, record label exec’s, fans, friends, family etc without having to make any excuses why it isn't as good as it's expected to be!

It's up to you as a musician to work with the producer and not against him, it would be silly not to take advantage of any producers experience and know how, but if you really feel that he’s going to take your music in the wrong direction then change producers!

In the studio I feel that my ultimate responsibility is to the song and not necessarily an individual member of the band. Almost every band will have members that are more vocal with their opinions than others and rarely do bands spend enough time forming a unified collective opinion - communicate with your band members, sometimes the quiet guy who seems to just go with the flow has the best ideas!

The studio is booked what do I need to do to prepare?
Pre-production is so so so important! I can not express this enough! This is where you should be doing the real analysing and tweaking of your song(s).

Practice rooms are noisy places with lots of distractions but learning how to prepare to enter the studio will save you time, money and aggravation. Here are some tips on how to really hear the subtleties within your music:

*You gotta split the band up and practice the tracks with just two members at a time i.e. just have the drummer and one guitarist play, then just the drummer and bassist, then just the guitarist and vocalist etc. etc.

*The members not playing while the other two are should be taking notes – physically writing them down, because you will forget! Take notes on what you like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t work.

*Pay attention to the subtleties within the song. For example is the bassist playing a single note when the drummer is doubling on his kick drum or is the vocalist following a guitar phrase properly?

*Pay special attention to backing vocals – often glossed over in rock bands, you need to be honest with yourselves and decide if the guitarist for example will do the backing vocals in the studio just as he does live or if it would sound better if the lead vocalist did them in the studio.

*After everybody has had a chance to play with everybody else then sit down and share your notes. Generally if the same opinion pops up in multiple notes then it’s a clear sign that changes need to be made.

*Map out your song on paper: for e.g. Intro - 4 bars, verse - 16 bars, pre-chorus - 8 bars, chorus - 8 bars etc… this will help in the studio when the producer says "ok I’m gonna drop you in 3 bars into the second chorus", you should know exactly where that is, and it's a real time saver in the studio!

*If possible work out the timing of your song before you come into the studio and have your drummer play to a click track at the practice room. It’s one of those skills that just need to be learnt by a drummer and once again will save a lot of time in the studio if he is used to it.

*Get your EQ and FX settings right! (I’ve posted a couple of notes on basic guitar and bass EQ) While producers will almost always tweak your settings, giving us a good starting off point saves time!

*In most cases producers will be willing to drop by your practice room to take a listen to your progress prior to coming into the studio, you just need to ask!

*With all this being said, don't attempt to completely revamp a song the day before you enter the studio! It won't work! Once you have made changes give yourselves a grace period where you road test the new changes at gigs in the practice room etc!

What equipment should I take to the studio?
All depends on your equipment! Most studios will have various pieces of equipment available to you; this will range from drum kits, to guitars, amps etc. The bonus of working with studio instruments is that the producer will be very aware of its strong points and pitfalls, plus good studios have the budgets to purchase really good gear, maintain it and in the case of drums ensure that they are perfectly in tune... once again saving time.

On the down side, there is nothing worse than playing with somebody else's instrument that just isn’t as comfortable as your own. So find out what they have on offer and if need be drop by before hand and ask to jam with it for a bit.

Bassists almost always go D.I. in the studio and don’t need to bring their amps unless they have a killer Ampeg, Messa Boogie, etc setup (But check with your producer beforehand because he might have his own way of recording that requires you to have an amp)

Guitarists and bassists need to replace their strings! I hear all the time “but I replaced them two weeks ago?”…sorry you gotta get your wallet out because strings don’t have a long life span; they loose their “sparkle” within days… (put your strings on 24 hours before entering the studio so they have time to stretch otherwise you will be continuously checking the tuning). Plus always have a spare set in the studio, you never know when you are gonna snap a string!

Drummers should have spare sticks, and should make sure all their gear is in working order! This includes squeaky kick pedals, cracked cymbals, warped shells, broken stands and worn out skins!

Vocalists need to bring their voices... (well duh?!?!) By this I mean they need to rest their voices before they come into the studio. Don’t go drinking, play gigs or do anything that might have a negative effect on your vocal chords the day before recording. (... and eat your vegetables so you don’t get sick hahaha...) This is especially important if you haven’t had professional vocal training because the good money is on you putting strain on your vocal chords when you sing anyway, never mind the after effects of a gig or busy club environment.

My final piece of advice is to treat the studio as an ego-free zone! Don't let your ego or the producer's ego get in the way of a good recording! Producers are human too, mistakes will be made and they are definitely not mind readers so work at creating an open, frank relationship with your producer so you are able have all your band members needs addressed! Put the song(s) first and your own desire to be in the spotlight second

(torches are relatively cheap; return visits to studios can become very expensive)

And lastly enjoy yourself and learn as much as possible, the track you record may be the one that changes your life!

- Dylan Ford producer at:

Serotonin Sound Studio

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