Thursday, May 13, 2010

How I get ready to record

The most important thing I can relate to you regarding the right and wrong ways of recording music is that there is no right or wrong way to record music. When I talk about this stuff, I'm only referring to the way that I go about doing it, which might be completely wrong for someone else. The first thing to keep in mind is that who are are, musically, affects the process dramatically. A band that plays live all the time might go about it one way; a person who does solo compositions in front of his or her computer might have a polar opposite approach.

So, let's talk about how I do it.

1. Make sure your compositions are totally ready.
I write and perform my songs as a solo artist. That means I create the song (and perform it live) just using my acoustic guitar and my voice. But when I record, I need to arrange the songs for a pop/rock band format, meaning there will likely be drums, bass, keyboards, multiple tracks of acoustic and electric guitars, and layers of harmony and backing vocals.

First and foremost, you want to be sure your songs are good, but I can't give you advice on that... I barely know how to define a "good song" any more than anyone out there. But I do know that once you've settled into your song -- the format of the song is good, your lyrics are solid, etc. -- make sure you give a lot of thought to the arrangement of the song well in advance of going to the studio. You should think through each aspect of the song. What's your plan for backing vocals? Do you know what the bass part is going to sound like? What type of keyboard sounds will be used? My advice in this regard is to listen to your demo (you did record a demo, right?) and focus completely on the part you're going to create. Hear that bass part in your head, and make some notes so you can refer back to them once you're in the studio. Then listen again and make plans/notes for your vocals. And again for the drums. And so on.

2. Make sure your gear is ready to rock.
I can't tell you how many times, as an audio engineer or producer, I've seen sessions derailed for completely avoidable reasons. The drummer forgot to bring an extra head for his snare drum. The guitarist breaks a string and didn't bother picking up some extras just in case. The bass player left his strap at home and can't play sitting down. Make a checklist, and then think through all the contingencies that might happen when you play. It's always better to go overboard with gear and backup equipment than to not have something you need at a crucial moment.

Ooh, shiny new strings on my Martin.

Side note: I'm really lucky in that I record at Sound Sanctuary, which has damn near everything I need for recording even if I were to show up there with nothing at all. Still, I do have personal stuff that's required, and I'm careful about making sure everything is in tip-top condition before hitting the road. Speaking of personal stuff, think beyond the music gear. I keep some nail clippers in my gig bag... you can't play guitar with long nails on your fretting hand. And make sure that the studio is stocked with snacks and refreshments, or bring your own. You don't want to do a crappy performance on record just because you're tired and burned out and there wasn't a Snickers bar handy. Think through everything you need to make yourself comfortable and in a good position to do your best stuff.

Double-check that you have everything ready, even the small stuff.

3. Make sure you are ready to rock.
Here's an area where some people will disagree with me, perhaps for good reason. Some musicians consider "ready to rock" as being in a state where they've been up all night on God knows what kind of drugs, then roll into the studio half blasted out of their minds with a half bottle of Jack Daniels in hand and eight groupies tagging along. Hey look, I can't argue with the results of some records made under those conditions. But I do know that for most folks who really want to take advantage of their limited time in the studio (and don't have the financial backing of a huge label), being a rock star in the studio is a really, really bad idea.

That's why I give the following recommendations:

• Get lots of sleep the night before the session.
• Do everything you can in the days before the session to not get sick or injured.
• Wipe everything else from your mind. You can't be thinking about work or relationships or doing your taxes and make a great record at the same time.
• Hopefully, the place you record is one where you can feel comfortable and relaxed. Stress will not help you record well.
• Feel confident about your songs.
• Stay focused. This isn't a practice, or a jam, or a gig. Have a checklist of what you want to accomplish, track by track, and get the job done.
• Think about how great it will feel when the session is done, the song is mixed, and you're proud of what you've accomplished.
• Ask questions before the session. Don't wait until you're there at the studio, or make assumptions that something you need will be provided. Any reputable studio will be happy to address your concerns so you can be really prepared to record good stuff when you get there.
• If the recording involves more people than you, then you need to be sure that the others -- bandmates, session musicians, producers, whoever -- are all on the same page. It could be something as simple as going over the bridge of the song with the bass player one last time, to being sure the drummer has the schedule right and took the day off work accordingly. I've seen dozens and dozens of sessions get ruined from lack of communication.
• Be prepared, but don't over-prepare. I've known singers who were so concerned about doing a great studio performance that they blew out their voice by warming up too much before the session.
• At the same time, as you should every time you sing or play, take yourself through some standard warmup and stretching exercises for your voice and fingers before they hit the 'record' button. It only takes a few minutes and will end up being crucial toward getting a good performance. You'll actually save time, since you won't have to throw away your first ten "warm up" takes.
• Bring your patience. There are inevitable times where stuff will happen that involves you waiting while someone else records a part, or the engineer preps the board, and so on. Bring a book, a magazine, a laptop, or other things to keep you from caving in to the tedium during the herky-jerky process of recording.

4. And have fun!
I mean this from the bottom of my heart: if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong. You may look at all this stuff and feel overwhelmed, or you might be intimidated by the environment of the studio, or worried that your stuff isn't going to be as good as you want it. DROP ALL THOSE THOUGHTS like a hot potato, and have a great time. Your vibe will be reflected in your recordings, and you want your memories of the session to be positive. Chances are, you're doing something you always dreamed of, so relax and enjoy it!

Speaking of fun, one final note: as you may already know, I'm inviting the world to come check out my session on Saturday May 15. We're setting up a live streaming webcam in the studio, so from 12:30PM PDT on, you can watch as I do my thing in the studio. Just go to and you'll be able to watch. See you then!

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