A great way optimize your time in the studio is to do some pre-production before you begin the actual recording process. This can include planning where and when you will record, setting a budget, deciding the number of songs you will put on your CD, and what producer and engineer you want to work with among other things. It is all about planning and preparation. Remember no one plans to fail, but a lot of people fail to plan! For this article I am going to focus on the recording aspect of pre-production. Think of it as the recording you do before you record. I would recommend that you keep it simple, and as inexpensive as possible. The idea is to discover what you need to do (change, improve) before you start racking up studio time. Remember that your CD project will be under tremendous scrutiny. You want your performance in the studio to be as confident as possible. This is a great opportunity to rehearse what you will do in the studio. It will also save you time and money in the long run.
There are basically three ways that you can approach pre-production. You can rent a digital recorder; purchase a DAW (Desktop Audio Workstation), or find someone in your town with a small project studio. I think that there is tremendous value in having your own set up. So if you have the time to learn how to work the equipment, and the financial resources, putting together your own project studio around a DAW or digital recorder is the way to go. If you aren’t in a position to put together your own project studio this really isn’t a problem. Project studios seem to be popping up all over the place these days. There is probably some one in your home town with a small “basement” studio. There are some advantages to hiring out too. In addition to the financial savings, you can spend more time concentrating on the music and less time on figuring out the equipment, and by working with someone else you gain an additional “set of ears” …an outside perspective on your music, sound and performance that can really be invaluable.
Once you have either put together your own set up or you have found a really cool dude (or chick) with sweet basement set up, it’s time to get to work. For the purposes of this article I am only going to discuss aspects of recording (only VERY basic principles) that I feel directly relate to pre-production. There are many great websites, books and magazines that can help you understand the process in great detail. Knowledge is power so learn all you can. In any case, it’s time to get to work. The quickest way to hear what you sound like is to record as many instruments live (all playing together at once) as possible. You will probably have a channel limit of about eight tracks that you can record at once. For the purposes of pre-production it isn’t really necessary to mic every drum. Consider using a couple over head mics , a mic for snare and one for the bass drum. Now you have channels left for bass, rhythm guitar, basic keyboard parts, and a scratch or guide vocal. You can then add vocals, lead guitars, and whatever else you have, by overdubbing.
You now have the song recorded on about 8 tracks. What do you hear? Is the band in time? This is important. I know that there are bands that don’t use a click, and that is their choice but most quality music is in time. I know that some will argue this point….write your own article.
The next thing you want to address is pitch. This is usually an issue concerning vocals, but not exclusively. There are some guitar players who will play out of tune by squeezing the strings too hard. It is important that you correct everybody’s pitch issues. An out of tune performance can totally kill a great song.
Some other questions to ask are:
How does the arrangement sound, and is it consistent with what a listener would expect for the type of music you are doing?
While it’s cool to take chances and surprise your audience, you want the over all arrangement to make sense. Don’t bog the song down, with annoying repetition, that doesn’t enhance the song. Use long intros sparingly if at all. Listen to similar artists to get ideas. You want the song to flow. Remember, your songs have a beginning middle and end, like a story or movie. Move the story along nicely. Keep the action swift, and keep your audience interested.
Are the length of solo sections (if you have any) appropriate for the type of music you are playing?
Long jams are cool but probably not appropriate for more mainstream pop and rock…just a little food for thought. On the other hand, if you are a “jam band” it may be completely appropriate to have extended solo sections. If you do have some short solo section it is probably best that the soloist “works out” his/her solo during the preproduction phase. This is a matter of debate among many players, but if you are recording something in a pop genre a prepared solo is totally fine. You can always mix things up live. Remember preparation is the point of preproduction.
Have you considered things like back up vocals, or vocal harmonies?
Well arranged backing vocals can make your song’s hook really come alive. Listen to how artists similar to your self approach back up vocals. Don’t worry about reproducing them live at this point. Right now your concern is to make the recorded version of this song sound the best that it can.
Take a little time to experiment.
One of the cool things about the pre-production phase is that you have the opportunity to explore different techniques. Who knows? Maybe some wacky arrangement is just what your song needs or you may discover some cool effect that really enhances a section of the song. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Obviously you have more freedom to experiment at $15/hour in a project studio than at $60 in a big studio! This is also an excellent learning environment. Take time to ask your engineer questions about the gear he/she is using. Ask questions like: What does a compressor do? What is panning? Why did you choose that mic, and anything else that comes to mind related to the recording proccess? If you are working with your own gear read everything that you can, and consult the many internet forums that are available on the subject. Having a general understanding of how everything works will be an asset to you when you get to the “real” studio.
If you have a little extra time, have your vocalist try cutting the vocals with different mics. If you find one that just seems to make the vocals sit perfectly in the mix, you can save your self a lot of time later. Keep in mind that when you get to “the big” studio that you probably have additional choices for mics, effects, and tracking, than a small project studio can offer. Someone once pointed out to me that there was literally a million dollars in equipment between the vocalist and recorded signal in a particular studio. If you can get a great sound with only a decent mic and your computer than all that other stuff will only make you sound more professional.
Technology aside, the most important thing is your performance. A great sound means little, if your performance lacks energy and passion. Ask yourself, “Am I really conveying the meaning of the song?” You may want to have your singer work with a vocal coach who can help him/her produce the vocals. Bring your coach to the studio when it is time to lay down the vocals. A coach can help your singer find places in the vocal to accent, help resolve any pitch, and vocal tone issues, and make suggestions for taking breaths, etc…
Once you have your song recorded listen to it. How does it sound? If you are going for a mainstream sound is it something that you could hear on the radio? Try putting it on a mix CD with songs by your favorite artists. How does it hold up? It’s a good idea to actually set it aside for a week or two then come back to it. You’ll be surprised at the perspective this will give you. Also play your pre-produced songs for other people out side of the band whose opinion you trust. Get input. If some one makes a suggestion that you really like, jot it down and try to implement it when you start the actual recording phase. Make sure that you send your pre-produced tracks to your producer or engineer. A good producer will listen to them and make notes to use for the actual recording. This is also the time to discover if some of your songs just aren’t record worthy. Yes, it happens to even the best artists. You write and record something only to discover that it just isn’t going to work either because thematically it doesn’t work with the other songs or maybe the song it self just needs to be completely reworked. Don’t let it get you down. If nothing else you have some raw material for the next CD.
This is your discovery time. Make the most of it. Having your pitch, timing, arrangements, and over performance together before you walk through those studio doors is going to save you time, money, and a lot of headaches!
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