First Steps To Recording
posted on May 17th, 2015

Over the weekend I gave a short, dense talk (no slides), for CMU’s DIY strand at The Great Escape Convention. I looked at first steps to recording for new music artists. This isn’t a transcript but here are the key points, from my notes. By necessity it’s a bit topline for the target audience but I hope it’s useful…

First, two quick points about understanding yourself as an artist.

1) Are you at heart a live artist or a studio artist? If you’re primarily a ‘live’ artist then a core task of recording is to capture the energy and personality of your live show. If you’re primarily a ‘studio’ artist then a core task of playing live is to capture the sonic richness, complexity and perfectionism of your recorded work.

2) Are you an ‘enigmatic’ or a ‘social’ artist? The ‘social’ artist shares music as soon as it’s done, showing the ‘workings out’; for example throwing up live videos of brand new songs onto YouTube. But the ‘enigmatic’ artist makes initial recordings solely for behind-the-scenes and industry use. They’ll tend to only share work with their audience as the final mixed, mastered and packaged product. At the moment we’re all pushed towards the ‘social’ artist model. But either model has strengths and weaknesses.

It doesn’t matter what you are, none are better per se and in truth we all have a bit of all of them in us. But it’s well worth considering both 1) and 2) before you start recording.

Home recording.

• The software you pick is much less important than microphones and the musical equipment you use.

• Buy two kick-arse mics. Prioritise this above all other home recording gizmo purchases.

• If your instruments, amps or whatever are budget or ropey, plan ahead for your home recording sessions and borrow good gear. Using decent gear makes the single biggest difference in the sound quality.

• Treat home recording like studio recording, set aside enough time to get lost in what you’re doing.

• Find, make and collect your own samples. Don’t rely on sample libraries. Give your output its own sound.

• Be into music. Listen beyond your taste and especially beyond mainstream high-budget recordings.

Before you record.

• Work as much as you can BEFORE you go in the studio, honing your songs, parts, arrangements, performance. A rehearsal room is vastly cheaper than having to fix parts in the studio because you weren’t prepared.

• Rehearse differently for recording than gigging. Take your songs apart. Know exactly who is doing what and think about how it could be better.

• Recording exposes you. Stuff that sounds great onstage with the audience buzz can be completely different when you suddenly hear it clearly.

• Listen especially to the kick drum and the lead vocals.

• Are you using click tracks? You should know firmly (and fix your tempos) before going in.

• Get fresh ears on your tracks before you go in. Bring in someone you trust (not family or uber-fans) to listen to a rehearsal and honestly critique the performance.

• You can save money by blending home and studio recordings. A lot of acts now just go into a studio to tape the loud bits (mainly live drums) then do the rest at home. Sometimes everything is done at home and then just vocals are added in a studio. Though obviously make sure the outputted files will be made compatible with your home set-up. (!)

Picking a studio.

Comparing studios, one trick is look at the studio’s gear list on its website, pick a piece of gear you’re familiar with and when you phone, ask about that specific item of gear. You’ll glean a lot from how the person on the phone speaks about their gear.

• On the other hand, in fact a comfortable atmosphere and a team you like are far more important than the gear list.

• I forgot to mention this in the talk: studios ought to welcome you to look around, if you want to get a feel for them and meet the engineer.

• Watch out for the Curse Of The Ancient Engineer. The Ancient Engineer has been in the business a million years – he (always a ‘he’) was tape op on a recording by The Police or Oasis or someone – and knows everything. He usually does a great job getting sounds down (and knows his set-up inside out) but crucially don’t let him run roughshod over your creative aims for your session. He has very strong, very old-fashioned opinions, which can subsume your band’s essence very fast indeed, if you let him pooh pooh what to him may be weird sonic choices – but to you are the core of your sound.

• Recording is three separate jobs: tracking (recording the parts), mixing (making the parts sound as great as possible together and outputting the result) and mastering (final tweaks to balance volume, compression, EQ and polish). I’ll ignore mastering – it’s the final step before a commercial release, so you don’t need to worry about it yet. You don’t need masters for anyone behind-the-scenes in the industry, only to manufacture /upload your final commercial product, so think about mastering as a separate process.

• Beware studios selling that you’ll walk away with a finished product. This is aimed at newcomers. Experienced artists know you normally track, then do mixing at a later date, often in a different studio. If the studio knows you’re just ‘tracking’ and don’t require a complete product in one go, they’ll likely treat you more professionally.

In the studio.

• Don’t be a snob about auto-tune, tidying up parts or even quantizing (in the right circumstances). Any singer with a decent catalogue of studio work who claims never to have used autotune is lying, or doesn’t know what the engineer was doing. Judge solely on how it sounds, not your preconceptions.

• Leave a gap between finishing your tracking and starting to mix. Best of all: take away reference mixes (unmixed stereo outputs of the recording as it stands) and live with them for a while, then make notes on how you want the final tracks to sound.

• Never mix by committee. People can have opinions but someone should have final say. Get out of the studio when it’s time to mix – leave the engineer alone to put together mixes.

• Assume you’ll need at least couple of passes at each mix. A first mix, then more time and another round of note taking about what you want, then a final pass (and maybe more).

• Don’t mix high, even if you did everything else high.

Last thoughts.

• Don’t hire a producer, create one. Pick someone in your circle who has great ears, understands music and might want to be a producer. They don’t necessarily need technical savvy at the start – you can still rely on a ‘house engineer’ in a studio but you give your producer some authority (maybe all authority if there’s good trust). If it works you can build a long-term relationship of great value.

• College studios are a precious commodity. If you have access, use it as much as you can. If you’re at a college with student engineers, see if they’ll record you. It may be the only period of your life you’ll ever be able to spend a luxurious amount of time recording music, since the moment you leave college, studios cost money.

• At the ‘up-and-coming’ level, recording to two-inch tape is a red herring. For whatever it gains in subtle sound, it drastically loses in time efficiency and your ability to manipulate performance. Yes, there are great benefits (and joy) in recording to tape but it’ll only benefit experienced artists familiar with the studio environment.

• If you’re desperate for analogue sound and can afford it, you could run your finished mixes through a two-inch reel, to capture some of that warmth.

• Don’t forget to take home an instrumental mix of each song for possible sync.

• Don’t forget to take home the ‘stems’ (the individual tracks) for possible remixing.

I hope this is useful and not patronising. Feel free to share with anyone who might benefit – and if you have other ideas / tips for people starting out in recording, please feel free to add them in the comments below.

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© Chris T-T 2008–2013
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