Your Next Recording Session! How To!

recording board
Written by Benny Grotto of Mad Oak Studios

So your band's recording session is almost here. Ever the consummate professionals, you've gotten your instruments set up and intonated, put on new strings, packed your tuners and power supplies, and replaced your drumheads (you have done those things...right?), and you're all set to go. This ain't your first rodeo.

Not so fast, muchacho.

There are a host of other considerations that are routinely overlooked or downright ignored by even the most experienced recording musicians. The following is a list of those I see most often and find most detrimental to the flow of the session, along with my thoughts on how things can be kept going most smoothly for all parties.

I. Making Sure You Know Your Parts

Duh. I almost don't need to include this, but there a few specific issues that seem to come up regularly enough that I think it's worth mentioning. I'm going to be picking primarily on guitar players with this one, though the concepts are valid across a wide variety of instruments, so feel free to mentally substitute the words "guitar" or "guitarist" with the instrument or musician of your choice.

If you play in a band with a second guitar player, be sure that the two of you have matching picking patterns when playing unison riffs. If one of you is alternate-picking a tight, palm-muted riff, while the other is doing all down-picks, nine outta ten times, it's gonna sound muddy and, worse yet, wimpy. When the two of you are articulating a part differently, try to find the better-sounding approach, and practice it together until you lock it in.

I find that in scenarios where each of the two guitar players is articulating something differently, it's because one player has trouble executing a particular technique (oftentimes, it's sustained down-picking or some similarly physically-demanding technique). This is where the practice comes in handy. It's also worth mentioning that the stronger player can always punch that section in for both guitar parts; there's no shame in that. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters (and the only thing the audience will ever hear), is a tight, well-played musical part.

If your music features a lot of solos, come in with those solos prepared. That doesn't necessarily mean write them out, note-for-note (although that is a really great way to approach it!), but at the very least, try to create a skeleton or framework, anchored around a few key riffs or licks, to build upon. Having a few of those riffs or licks to "land on" at predetermined moments helps to fill in some of the musical gaps, and it helps prevent against all the solos on your record sounding too "same-y".recording

For those of you who'd like to keep a convenient and informative checklist of the information in this article, I'll be providing one at the end of each section. Here's the first:


- be sure that any two (or more) instrumentalists that are articulating the same part are using the same picking patterns, articulations, or whatever-have-you
- if they're not, spend some time to determine the more musical approach, and practice it in the context of the full band to make sure it all locks in
- if one player is having a hard time nailing a part, consider having the stronger player cut it in the studio; it can both save time and yield a better final product
- don't come into the studio with the idea that you'll whip off 10 or 12 improvised solos for your record; that approach rarely works


II. Click Track Preparation

First and foremost, if your drummer has limited experience playing to a click, forget the idea of trying to get him to record to one. Unless you have the budget to pay for enough time to do some heavy-duty drum editing, it's incredibly unlikely you'll get the best out of your drum tracks if the drummer isn't 100% comfortable and well-rehearsed with playing to a click.

If your drummer is having serious tempo issues, you might, as an alternative approach, practice to the click as a full band in the months leading up to your session, but not necessarily use the click while recording. Just remember: a drum track with a great feel, regardless of tempo fluctuations, is infinitely more musical than a stiff, uncomfortable drum track with a perfect tempo, which is what you'll get if your drummer is chasing the click instead of locking into it for the duration of your session.

OK, now, if you, your drummer, and the producer all agree (and believe me, everyone MUST agree on this point if you want the recording to go smoothly) to cut your drum tracks to a click, it is absolutely vital that you determine the exact tempos for each song long before hitting the studio, and rehearse the living crap out of them, to the click tracks, set at the tempos you've chosen. That means ALL of you, not just the drummer. Please note that when I say everyone must play to the click, I don't necessarily mean that everyone must hear the click. If only the drummer is hearing it, and the rest of you are playing off of him, that's totally cool.

The object here is twofold: first, you want to ensure that everyone feels comfortable with the chosen tempos for each song and/or section. With everyone playing to the click, you'll quickly suss out any issues with incorrectly-set tempos. All too often, one member of the band comes up with tempos, with minimal input from the rest of the band, only to learn upon hitting the studio that those tempos don't quite feel right. Don't let this happen to you. The downtime this incurs as the producer and band try to figure out the correct tempo, combined with the time it takes for the engineer to reprogram the song's tempo map on the DAW (digital audio workstation; in other words, the recording software), can be enormous, particularly when dealing with songs that feature changes in tempo and meter.

Speaking of tempo and meter changes, be sure to draw up a chart of the those changes and bring it to your session. The chart should include both the tempos and meters, along with the number of bars for each section. For example:

bpm = 100, 16-bar bridge / bpm = 102, 32-bar verse / bpm = 105, 16-bar chorus

And so forth. This will allow the engineer to more quickly and accurately execute any tempo changes that might need to be programmed into the song's DAW session. Without the bar counts, this can become a very tedious and laborious process that eats up a LOT of time.

One last thought regarding tempo changes: don't be afraid of them! If you start a song at a given tempo and it feels great, up until the chorus, which seems like it's dragging, experiment with bumping the tempo up a couple BPM. It's a very common approach and generally sounds (and feels!) much more natural than a "steady-state" tempo.

Depending on the drummer's preference, you may also want to determine the sound and type of click he'll be hearing as he's recording. This is particularly important for music with meter changes or complex rhythmic subdivisions. Some folks like to program the click with an accent on the "1" of each bar, others like a straight, unaccented count, still others might require eighth-note counts or other subdivisions. If the drummer needs something extremely specific, speak with your engineer before the session to see how the required clicks can be best provided.

Occasionally, a band will program their own click at home, along with a scratch track of some kind (often a guitar, perhaps with a guide vocal), and bring that to the studio as an audio file to be loaded into the studio's DAW. This can be a fine idea, however I'd encourage you to include a click track that does not have the instruments, as they can sometimes create headaches for the engineer if he needs to make any adjustments to the tempo map.

So, here's that quick recap/checklist for you organization freaks:

- make sure everyone agrees to cut the tracks to a click, and what tempos to use
- make sure your drummer is comfortable doing so
- rehearse the crap out of the material, and take that as your opportunity to fine-tune the exact tempos and tempo changes
- bring in a complete tempo map for each song, including bar counts for each section
- determine what kind of sound your drummer would like to hear as his click, and discuss how to best generate that sound with your engineer prior to the session


III. Setting Up Sounds

It seems almost too obvious to even have to say, but it's something I come across all the time: bring to the studio the instruments that make the sounds you want to have on your record.

The discussions of these matters are best done with the producer before the sessions, so that everyone is on the same page with what the goal is sonically. Remember that the sound starts at the source, and little can be done to change the timbre of a recorded sound in any significant way (outside of completely mangling it for effect).

If you want the sound of a Les Paul through a cranked Marshall, you'll need to bring a Les Paul and a good-sounding, crankable Marshall. Either that, or you'll need to talk to the studio to see if they have instruments or amps you can use. If you want big, roomy Bonham drums, you need a large recording space and some room mics (also, having Bonham at the kit wouldn't hurt). Again, the sound starts at the source, and all the EQ in the world won't turn a Strat into an SG, or a 28" Vistalite rock n' roll kick drum into an 18" maple bebop bass drum.

And to that end, we get into our next point. I'm asking you all this from the bottom of my heart, from a struggling producer/engineer to the musicians he so deeply wants to please: do NOT start recording takes until you're happy with the sounds! Let's say you're not digging the bass tone. Voice your opinion! If (or, perhaps more accurately, when, as is all-too-often the case these days) the engineer tells you he'll fix it down the line by reamping or some other technique, tell him that no, you'd rather take a few minutes to get it right now. This isn't being picky, whiny, or bitchy in any way. In fact, it's very practical, for the following reasons:

First and foremost, it's your fucking sound, your fucking record, and your fucking name and reputation at stake. After your (fucking) record is made, the engineer will have dozens upon dozens more. You, on the other hand, are probably only managing a few releases a year, and that's if you're lucky. And independently wealthy (or funded by someone who is). So get it right.

Second, as you're playing your instrument, you're reacting to the sound you hear. If the sound isn't right, it will affect the way you play; the dynamics will be different, certain parts might erroneously appear to work or not work, and, as a worst-case scenario, you'll be uninspired by your sound and play everything half-heartedly.

Third, as a tie-in to the last point, every sound of an arrangement is built on those before it. If you leave a sonic loose-end, you may find yourself or the engineer making subsequent sonic choices on other instruments or overdubs that ultimately won't work once that original, unsatisfactory sound has been "fixed in the mix", er, I mean, addressed.

Last, but not least, more often than not, an extra ten or fifteen minutes making tweaks on a tracking session saves HOURS come mix time. Not only will you be mixing faster and with greater ease (which, at least in my experience, is the circumstance that typically yields the best mixes), but you'll be focusing less on fixing bad sounds and more on the musicality of the mix. You'll be working to create an engaging, exciting mix with momentum and energy, instead of polishing turds.

This same concept goes to performance concerns. If you're unhappy with the way you or another band member played a part, speak up. Nine out of ten times, it will take longer for the engineer to sit around at the Professional Tools™ trying to edit out a mistake than it would have to simply have taken a second pass. There are occasions, however, when a quick nip-n-tuck on the Pro Tools will keep things moving more smoothly, so ask your producer or engineer what they feel would work best.

To summarize, there really isn't such a thing as "sorting and fixing it in the mix". Or, if there is, it's a flawed approach that often uses more time than if you'd have gotten those details sorted and fixed from the get-go. Ten extra minutes at the beginning of a session can save hours at the end, so be critical, be patient, and most of all, be cool.

- bring the instruments that make the sounds you want to hear
- if those sounds aren't being captured and reproduced in the control room to your satisfaction, do not press "record"
- if there's a performance issue or two that are bugging you, address them as early as possible, either by retaking the song, punching the part, or asking the engineer to work some Pro Tools magic



IV. Ear Goggles

Most studios nowadays have the ability to provide each musician with a totally customized headphone mix. Many even give the musicians themselves a small mixer to adjust their own balances. Take as much time as you need making those adjustments to ensure that you're hearing exactly what you need to be hearing. If you're not totally happy with what you're hearing in the cans, don't start cutting takes. The balance you hear should provide you with everything you need to perform your best; if you're unable to correctly hear the music, you'll be unable to correctly perform it.

If you're having an especially hard time getting a workable headphone balance, consider the previous section (III. Setting Up Sounds), and revisit the sounds themselves. There may be an issue with the tonality of an instrument in your mix that is causing you the difficulty.

Studios tend to see a LOT of headphone breakage, so they don't typically stock themselves with very good-sounding (and thus, high-cost) models. It can often be a good idea to bring your own set of headphones, particularly if you have a pair you're especially comfortable in. This goes double for bass players, as I often find that they have a harder time translating the dynamics of their performances when monitoring through bass-light, tinny-sounding cans.

In a pinch, you might ask the engineer if you can play in the control room and eliminate the issue of headphones altogether.

- take as much time as needed to get the headphones sounding right; don't try to work around a half-assed monitor mix
- if you find it impossible to get a workable headphone mix, revisit the sounds of the instruments themselves; there may be a tonal issue that needs to be addressed before you can proceed
- if you're the picky type, bring your own cans, especially if you play a bass-heavy instrument
- consider recording in the control room, listening through the speakers



V. Mastering, Loudness, and Letting Go

There's an unbelievable amount of misinformation these days regarding the process (both creatively and technically) of mastering. It's an all-too-often-misunderstood aspect of record-making, and thanks to the enormous increase in recent years of under-qualified, inexperienced, and poorly-equipped individuals offering discount mastering (and I'm using that word lightly) in less-than-stellar facilities (again, I might be being generous here), that misunderstanding seems to be growing.

Put simply: mastering can't make a bad mix good. If you're unhappy with the mix, it's better (budget allowing, of course) to remix, as opposed to shipping it off to the mastering lab and hoping for the best. It is commonly stated that mastering can improve a mix by one letter grade (eg - from a "C" to a "B"), however I would contend that that depends on the mix. Sometimes -- though rarely -- you can wring out a bit more improvement, but more often the improvement looks more like a "C" to a "C+". And in the wrong hands, a mix can suffer considerably by many letter grades. In other words, it's possible for a mastering engineer to do far more harm than good.

And to that end, it's very important that you find a reputable mastering engineer and develop a good working relationship with him. Most every producer, mixer, and tracking engineer I know have a preferred mastering engineer or three, and they would be more than happy to make a referral.

Assuming a competent, experienced professional mastering engineer (in other words, we're ignoring for now the "bedroom guys" and other amateurs), the usual cause for an unhappy client is lack of communication. Be sure to give very clear, very explicit instructions to your mastering engineer as to what you're looking for. A reference CD from a commercial artist probably wouldn't hurt.

But you also have to take into consideration what the mastering engineer has to say. All too often, clients want the final loudness of their album such that it causes audible degradation to the audio, which can range from quite subtle to very, very extreme. If the mastering engineer has warned against such things, heed his words, and keep your expectations realistic.

If "loud" is what you're after, you should have discussed that with the producer and engineer at the beginning of the project (those italics really drive the point home, huh?). The loudest records are conceived of that way from the very beginning. I often come across artists who want their album to sound a certain way, and we spend a great deal of time and energy accomplishing that sound only for them to get to the end and make demands of the mastering engineer that are completely at odds with the aesthetic we worked so hard to achieve.

For example, you cannot chase after a dynamic, spacious "classic rock" sound over the course of tracking and mixing, only to ask the mastering engineer to crush your album into Death Magnetic square-waved loudness territory. The mix balances will be destroyed, the low end will change dramatically (typically, you'll end up with much thinner-sounding audio), the high end will be harsh and brittle, and you'll often even introduce audible distortion. If you want a loud record with minimal negative side-effects, you need a loud arrangement, loud production, loud tracks, and a loud mix.

If, after the initial round of mastering, you're unhappy with what you hear, don't begrudgingly send the disc off to replication and tell all your peers how much the mastering engineer sucks. CALL HIM!! Tell him your concerns. Most of these guys and gals are happy to do revisions; it's a client-driven, service industry gig. We're here to make you happy.
With that said, consider the actual, real-world impact some of the more minute changes may have on a master (or a mix, for that matter). At the end of the day, you need to be able to take a hard look at what changes will actually matter. Yes, you need to be happy with your record, but I would warn against piling on revisions for revisions' sake. It can be hard (another understatement) to let go of a recording project, and the temptation to hang on for just a few more tweaks to avoid having to release the thing to a scrupulous and critical public is strong, but you absolutely must, at some point, let go of the damn thing.
Don't let your artistic insecurity get in the way! And certainly don't let it undo some of the good you've done over the course of making your record. All too often I've seen folks with the best of intentions tweak the minutiae until they've sucked all the life, interest, and excitement out of what was a once-great record. Don't do that!

- keep realistic expectations for what mastering can do to improve the sonics, and be aware of the kind of damage it can do
- talk to your recording team about who might make the best mastering engineer for your project
- don't cheap out!!!
- communicate clearly with the mastering engineer; he can't know what you want if you don't tell him
- remember that at a certain point (which is dependent on the source material), "louder" will have an increasingly-adverse effect on the sound quality
- if you don't like the master you hear, let the mastering engineer know, and request a revision
- be wary of getting hung-up on unimportant details, and don't fall victim to revisions for revisions' sake
- if you love something, set it free!


Because I love you all very, very much, I've wrangled together all those sentient check-list points into one convenient location, to ensure maximum smoothness on your next sesh:

- be sure that any two (or more) instrumentalists that are articulating the same part are using the same picking patterns, articulations, or whatever-have-you
- if they're not, spend some time to determine the more musical approach, and practice it in the context of the full band to make sure it all locks in
- if one player is having a hard time nailing a part, consider having the stronger player cut it in the studio; it can both save time and yield a better final product
- don't come into the studio with the idea that you'll whip off 10 or 12 improvised solos for your record; that approach rarely works

- make sure everyone agrees to cut the tracks to a click, and what tempos to use
- make sure your drummer is comfortable doing so
- rehearse the crap out of the material, and take that as your opportunity to fine-tune the exact tempos and tempo changes
- bring in a complete tempo map for each song, including bar counts for each section
- determine what kind of sound your drummer would like to hear as his click, and discuss how to best generate that sound with your engineer prior to the session

- bring the instruments that make the sounds you want to hear
- if those sounds aren't being captured and reproduced in the control room to your satisfaction, do not press "record"
- if there's a performance issue or two that are bugging you, address them as early as possible, either by retaking the song, punching the part, or asking the engineer to work some Pro Tools magic

- take as much time as needed to get the headphones sounding right; don't try to work around a half-assed monitor mix
- if you find it impossible to get a workable headphone mix, revisit the sounds of the instruments themselves; there may be a tonal issue that needs to be addressed before you can proceed
- bring your own cans, especially if you play a bass-heavy instrument
- consider recording in the control room, listening through the speakers

- keep realistic expectations for what mastering can do to improve the sonics, and be aware of the kind of damage it can do
- talk to your recording team about who might make the best mastering engineer
- don't cheap out!!!
- communicate clearly with the mastering engineer; he can't know what you want if you don't tell him
- remember that at a certain point (which is dependent on the source material), "louder" will have an increasingly-adverse effect on the sound quality
- if you don't like the master you hear, let the mastering engineer know, and request a revision
- be wary of getting hung-up on unimportant details, and don't fall victim to revisions for revisions' sake
- if you love something, set it free!

If you liked this article try:
Answers to The Top Three Music Questions You Were Afraid To Ask
Top 5 Things Bands Should Know About Relations With The House.
How to Get More Fans and Likes on Your Band's Facebook Page
Your Next Recording Session! How To!

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