Recording in a Professional Studio

All sorts of shit goes wrong in the studio. Everything from equipment failures (yours and the studios) to not being able to get a good sound.

Be prepared. In fact, be over prepared.

Check out your gear the night before. Have extra strings, extra tubes, extra fuses (for anything that uses them including pedals, powerstrips) extra batteries, extra chords, picks, slides etc. Bring all the tools you use to change strings and adjust the guitar. Put all this shit in a suitcase and bring it with you to the session, then hope you don't need it.

Getting the drum sound is half the battle. And most drummers are cluless about recording their kits. I once had a drummer come to a session with a brand new Sonar kit. He was agast to find out that he had to remove the bottom heads completely, tune the top heads (he didn't know how). Put tape on the heads, a pillow in the kick drum. Change the beater on the kickdrum pedal from felt to wood. I don't know how many hours we wasted on this. In the end, I think we only used a small part of his kit cause we didn't have the time to spend getting all the drums sounding right.

I've seen a snare drum's snare break on a session. I've seen the chain break on the kick drum pedal. I've seen broken drum heads. It's Murphy's Law. And these things will grind things to a halt if your drummer doesn't have spares.

Have the drummer tune his drumkit beforehand (hopefully he knows how). If he doesn't, you or someone else should tune it for him. Bring a pillow for the kick drum. Extra tape for the heads. Extra heads, extra snares for the snare drum. All the wrenches. Extra sticks, brushes -- whatever.

Basically, try and be prepared for anything that might go wrong with the equipment. Plan on needing more time than you booked.

As for the rest, you just have to figure out when to stick to your guns and when to be open minded. Don't do anything you can't live with later.

From John:

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Another thing that concerns me is someone wanting to change things up with the songs. I'm the principal songwriter and I know how I want things to sound. I didn't write these songs for some button-pushing, knob pulling idiot to suggest changes. If that happens, I think I might go off.

Been there, done that (in my 20's) - hopefully I've grown out of it now. A good producer will let you do things your way but they might throw some ideas out that you hadn't thought of. My advice: listen to them, and even if you're not sure about it, give it a try anyway and see what happens. The worst thing is you're out a little time and you mute whatever you did when you mix.

What I always did when shopping for a studio was listen to a lot of their work and see if we were on the same page. I wouldn't go to a hip hop guy for metal, IOW. Don't be afraid to use more than one studio. Some guys are good at recording drums, say, but suck at recording vocals because they don't know how to work with singers (which is really an art in itself). Another guy across town is a good psychologist with singers but sucks at getting basic sounds. So use the first studio for the instrument tracks and then track the vocals with the guy who is good at that.

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So for those of you who have been pressed for time and budget, how did you get yourself in the right frame of mind to do it?

Also, were you happy with the results?

PRE PRODUCTION, and PREPARATION, are key to best use of your time. What we always did was to record everything ourselves on a 4 track, nail down the arrangements, and then rehearse the band until we knew exactly how the song went. If possible, we'd run the demos by the producer on the session and get their input, and incorporate anything that seemed like it was useful.

Like Dave said, MAKE SURE ALL YOUR GEAR WORKS. New strings plus spares. The drummer needs new heads and if there's anything rattling on his kit it will get picked up, so fix it. Often the engineer will be able to tell your drummer what kind of heads work best and any other tricks that he may need to know. Be open to using the studio's gear. They may have a drum kit there, or an old Marshall in the corner, that they want you to try. The reason is that they know that gear and can pull good sounds out of it. Be open to changing your EQ, using a different amp for an overdub, or a different guitar if you have time to experiment a little. Chances are, you won't if you're on a tight budget.

From Dave: I once brought my bass rig (which sounded unreal, live) into the studio once and I could NOT get a good sound on tape with it to save our lives. I ended up having to go direct (this was in the days before Bass PODs), and my own bass' sound -- for some reason -- sucked direct (it still does, btw). I wished I'd borrowed a P bass or something that would have worked, but I was a stubborn kid who wanted to use my own gear and have my own sound, and not sound like every other idiot going direct with a P bass. And my bass sound -- as good as it was live, was terrible on the recording. And it still bothers me 20 years later.

If it isn't happening with your gear, audition the studio gear --ESPECIALLY the drums. If what they have produces clearly better results than your stuff, use it.

KEEP THE BIG PICTURE IN MIND. 90% of the people who listen to your song WILL NOT CARE ABOUT THE GUITAR. THEY WILL LISTEN TO THE SINGER AND THE LYRICS. So make sure that you give your singer adequate time to do the best job they can do. This may mean that you have to leave off the 12 part guitar choir that you had planned for the fade out. Set your singer up for success. You are there primarily to support them and help them get the song over. As a lead guitarist, you're sort of like a back up singer who steps into the front for a bit to give the lead singer a break and do something else with it for a little bit. Too many of us (myself included) tend to think the other way - that we are the show and the singer is there to do something when the guitar isn't soloing. This is a recipe for a trip straight to the cut out bin. CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR.

BE PROFESSIONAL. Show up on time, ready to work, sober, in the right frame of mind. Save the party for later.

We did two different recording sessions over a 3 year period. I was happy with the results both times, but for different reasons. The first session was done with just myself and a drummer, and then Paula came in after the fact and had to make her stuff fit over what was already there, because we didn't have the money or time to redo it. The guys doing the first session were good at getting metal type sounds but were engineers - not producers. They were not good at getting the best out of Paula. The vocals suffered some on that demo. The second one had the opposite problem - the guy doing that one was great with singers but not so good at drums and guitars. The first demo came out heavier and more like what I envisioned the band to be; the second one was more commercial and a little easier on the ears, with shorter solos and more time on the vocals (although most of that was still one or two takes.)

As far as the last couple of things I've done, Fire Eyes and the Life of Riley album I played on, these were both home studio productions. Fire Eyes had a lot of technical issues with my recording rig that made mixing that CD a real chore. I had to do a lot of things that I would've preferred not to have done just to get it to work. Also, there are at least a couple of songs on there that shouldn't have made the cut. I think a producer would have helped me there by forcing me to go back and do a few more songs so we had more material. I was also really unhappy that I had to use drum samples instead of a real drummer on the CD.

The Life of Riley album was a step backwards. Two of the guys had never done any real studio work before and they did not particularly want to listen to my input; they had to learn everything themselves, the hard way. The drums sound awful on that CD. I'd also say there are only a couple of good songs out of the 10 that are on it.