These days, from the indie artists to the major labels, recording budgets are shrinking. This does not mean that we no longer need professionally recorded material, we as musicians, have to find ways to get the best sounding recordings, while trimming down the investment. Here is my list of tips for you and your band to hit the studio ready to rock. When I booked my first ever studio session with my high school band, the local engineer told us to be well rehearsed, so we played through our songs every single day leading up to the session, but we were far from ready. These tips are what I wish I would have known going in my first time.
10. Make Your Arrangement Interesting.
Chances are, your song has an intro, a verse, a chorus, a second verse and chorus, a bridge or solo section with a final chorus and ending. Almost every song has some variation of this format and for good reason… it works. However, while there needs to be a common thread for each section, you need to have subtle changes to keep your listeners engaged. This might be dropping a few instruments out in the first verse, bringing the dynamic down, adding a new instrument to the second verse, add a new element to each chorus so they get progressively bigger throughout the song. You might try changing time signature for the bridge or having a completely different chord structure. The idea is that the vocal melody is going to be the same from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, so change the other elements for some variety and to keep things interesting.
9. Frequency and Rhythmic Separation Sounds Bigger.
Far to often, a standard rock combo hits the studio, two guitars, bass and drums. They’ve got a killer main riff for the song, but that riff gets played on both guitars and the bass. This is a perfect way for your big and powerful guitar melody to sound extra small. I’m not saying never double, but when you do, know why you’re doubling and certainly don’t have it be your go-to if you’re only planning to track two guitars. Rather, try one guitar on your riff, the bass doing some staccato stabs right where the kick drum is and have the second guitar do some chord stabs opposite the bass and see how huge that riff gets.
For some rhythmic variance, if one part is based off 8th notes or 16th notes, have the next instrument play something based off hole notes or half notes. This can give a really nice pushing and pulling feel and keep your song interesting.
For some frequency separation, maybe your song is in C. Try having one guitarist play the open chords down the neck and have the second guitarist either do some bar chords up the neck, or even put a capo on the fifth fret and play G shape chords. This provides a constant stream of ear candy that makes people want to listen all the way through and then listen again.
8. Highlight the Focus.
the listener should never have to guess what they’re supposed to be listening for. When the vocalist is singing, everything else needs to back off to make room for that vocal to shine. Sometimes this means playing quieter, or less or some instruments dropping out altogether. When the guitar solo comes up, the rest of the band needs to make room for the soloist. This can be very tricky because usually, the solo comes at one of the loudest and dense parts of the song. Work out what might need to be changed to accommodate. Everyone in the band should always be mindful of where the focus is at any given time and take the spotlight when it’s there’s and relinquish it the rest of the time. Think of it this way, if you have a four piece band, and everyone is playing equally, you each take up 25% of the mix. However, that means nothing is the focus. If three players back off to 20% of the mix, you give the focus musician an extra 15% to work with. The entire band playing at 100% 100% of the time never works.
7. Make Friends with the Click Track.
I can’t stress this one enough. Nobody can dance to your song if the tempo speeds up every time the drummer plays a fill and slows down every time the dynamic drops. Before hitting the studio, put headphones on your drummer so he or she can have a click during rehearsal. I normally encourage the rest of the band not to have the click, but just to follow the drummer. Once it’s time to count in the song, the drummer should be the leader. You’ll find the first time you put your drummer on a click in rehearsal how much the drummer plays to the band rather than the other way around.
Drummers, you really need to take control. Put your headphones on, play to your click and don’t try and conform to the band. Only play tight to the click and make the band conform to you. Do not give an inch. You’ve always wanted to ignore you band mates anyway, here’s your chance. I give you full permission.
6. Drummers, Balance Your Kit.
Playing balanced drums is what separates the good drummers from the big boys club. The best drummers know exactly how hard they want to hit each part of their kit every time. This comes from back when drums were recorded with just one or two microphones and there was no really way to have control of each individual drum during the mix. Since you couldn’t turn the symbols down and the kick and snare up, drummers learned to play their symbols quieter and their kick and snare louder. Hit your drums and tap your symbols. This way the overheads can be used as more than ridiculous symbol wash. You’ll cut down on the bleed in your other microphones. Another helpful tip, as you’re going down your toms, don’t lose steam. You can hear a lot of records where a tom fill starts nice and loud, but by the time they get down to the floor tom, you can barely hear it. Remember, a 16In floor tom head takes more energy to excite than a 10In rack tom. Hitting your floor with the same intensity as your smallest rack will not produce the same result.
5. Creating Musical Drum Fills.
It might seem like I’m picking on drummers, but the track starts with you guys. Without amazing drums, no matter what the rest of the song sounds like, the whole will never be as good as it could have been. Before you start tracking, take some time to think through your fills. Don’t fall back on the chug chug chug, chug, around the drums. This fill can be the perfect one for building intensity in certain spots, but isn’t always your best choice. Think about your fills as part of the music. Is there a strong melody line played on a keyboard or guitar that leads in to the chorus? You might want to try similar subdivisions for your transition fill. You might even want to choose the drums you hit in the transition based on the direction of the melody. If the guitar is going down, try going for your rack toms to your floor. If it’s going up, try floor to rack. Then try the opposite and see if contrary motion works better. There’s no, “This works every time,” here, but keep these ideas in mind when writing your drum part. This is where you can really influence the song musically rather than just rhythmically.
4. New Strings and Heads Required.
This should be a no-brainer, but I was never told to have new strings on my guitars the first time I went in to track. You might say you don’t want your guitar to have that new string sound, but that brightness is something that can be taken away in the mix if you still feel that way at that point in the process, but it can’t be put back in if you track with old strings and change your mind and want the bright sound at mix down. You can make new sound a little older, but you can’t make old sound new. This even goes for bass players. No, the strings that came on your bass from the music store when you bought it three years ago are not going to cut it on a professional recording. Same for drummers. There’s considerable debate on whether you need to change out all of your bottom heads each session, but get some new top heads on, especially the snare and just use judgement for the bottoms.
3. Intonation and Tuning.
It doesn’t take much effort or money to get your guitars in to the shop a couple of days before your big session and have the intonation checked. Nothing is more disappointing than having your perfectly tuned guitar and you go to hit that blazing solo up the neck and everything sounds out of tune. Just bring your guitars and basses in, have a tech do a once-over, you’ll probably get out for between $20 and $50. When you’re about to drop a couple grand on your record, it’s not very smart to have every solo are bar chord out of tune to save $20.
Drummers, since you’re putting on those new heads anyway, take the time to tune up. A well tuned kit can really stand out in a track. If you’re not the best at drum tuning, find someone in your local scene who always has a great sounding kit and offer them a few bones and a case of beer to tune yours up the night before you track. It’ll be worth it.
2. Take a Few Chances.
Here’s where I make the engineers really mad, but hey, I don’t only pick on drummers. Leave room for some creativity in the studio. The common wisdom is before tracking day, know every note, every beat, every solo and vocal line perfectly. I say don’t do that. Get your songs most of the way there, but leave yourself some room to be in the moment. If the Beatles would have written every note before they started rolling tape, we’d never have the backwards guitar solos. John would have never tried singing a lead vocal while holding his nose just to see what it sounded like. The Rolling Stones never would have put a mic on an unplayed piano in the live room just to pick up some of the resonance of the piano strings while the band played. These are little pieces of magic that are getting left out of the process in these days of throw-and-go low budget recording. If you really have the rest of your stuff together, you’ll have time to try a few different things and make your own form of magic.
1. Don’t Fix-In-The-Mix.
That’s not quite the guitar tone we wanted, but we can fix it in the mix right? Never utter that last sentence… just never. Have a vision for your songs and take the time to uncover the tones before you hit record. What takes you a few minutes to dial in on tracking day saves you hours of trying to create a sound that you didn’t track that you knew you wanted all along. Here’s another place where some engineers will disagree with me, but if you know you like a specific delay that you’re getting from your pedal track it with your delay pedal. If your engineer refuses and it’s too late in the process to find another studio, offer to do a dry pass or have him take a DI from your guitar along with the pass that has your pedals. Here’s the catch, make sure your pedals sound good. Some engineers don’t like you tracking with them because they are afraid to commit, but most might hear something that sounds less than great in your rig and they only want to make sure that you have a great sounding record. If you take care of things on your end and really have your stuff dialed in, it shouldn’t be a problem. If your engineer still hears something unpleasing, ask them to help you dial it in based off your idea, but take the time to find the sound you want and print it that way.
I know somebody who has a large collection of guitars. He’ll have them all out for a session while he’s tracking. Then at mix down he’ll come out with something like, “Can you make this track I recorded with my Les Paul sound like my 335?” That is an extreme example, but always have your final sound in mind and do whatever you need to do to track as close to it as you can. You’ll be surprised at how much faster and easier mixing time is.
I hope these tips help you have nothing but incredible recording sessions in the future. I spent a lot of time and money learning how to create amazing sounding records. Hopefully you can skip some of that. If you follow these simple tips, I can guarantee that your first professional recordings will sound much better than mine.