Proper Preparation

January 16, 2014

Efficiency Is Everything.

Know Your Parts.

As obvious as it may sound, one of the main drains on studio time and causes of unnecessary stress and conflict during studio sessions is caused by band members individually or collectively not being certain of the arrangement of the song, or what exactly it is that they should be playing.

Before entering the recording studio, every member of the band should be able to play every song from start to finish without the need for relying on other members of the band. A drummer may want to hear a guitar or bass part whilst recording their takes to help them get into the vibe of the song. However, of all the members of the band, the drummer should be the one who is the most sure of the arrangement and be able to lead the band through the song and not be reliant upon the lead vocals to know their place.

All it takes to make sure that everyone is sure of this, is just a little bit of time at your practice sessions. If it’s a song that’s quite new and you’re still figuring out, write the arrangement down, on a whiteboard or piece of paper so everyone can see it.

By preparing in this manner, when you come into the studio, you are no longer focussed on the technicality of what it is exactly you are playing, but instead on how to perform a great take of that part.

Click It Out.

One of the greatest tools for helping to keep the recording solid is the use of a metronome or click track. Not only does it help to keep the song consistent and solid, but it also can be a creative enabler, by allowing for the greatest flexibility with overdubs, and also with the re-arranging of parts and ideas.

Band members (especially drummers!) should be able to follow a click throughout the whole song whilst rehearsing their parts. This can initially seem a hugely daunting and uncomfortable task, but truly, is worth it. Just a little practice to a click track before hitting the studio will not only help you acclimatise to the recording/studio environment; but make you feel more comfortable on the day of recording, and thus focus on performing takes to the best of your ability.

A common factor that can cause discomfort when playing to a click is the feeling that some parts now seem too slow and others too fast, and that’s perfectly natural! It’s invariably very common in some styles of music for the tempo to increase, even if only slightly for louder more exciting parts of the song, typically the chorus, and conversely slow down in parts where the song needs to have more groove, or feel ‘heavier’. So how do you get the best of both worlds? With a tempo map. A tempo map is a map of the song from start to finish with all the sections marked out (Intro, Verse , Chorus .etc) with the slight variations in tempo for each section worked out so that the click track now follows what the artist feels is a natural groove, whilst still reaping the benefits of the consistency of following a click track.

Some songs can have huge changes in tempo and/or meter; this is not a problem at all! Just as we can change the tempo for minor variations, the tempo map can also be changed to accommodate this.

Working the tempo map out can take a tiny bit of time and the fine detail may be best left until the studio. However, if you can at least work out what the tempo is for the majority of the song, (or tempos if there is a huge tempo and meter change) it’s pretty easy to work from there onwards. As a means of working out the tempo at a rehearsal without the need for computers and expensive DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software, there are all manners of tap tempo applications for smart phones and tablets. A quick search for “Tap Tempo” will give you a whole host of useful little apps for this purpose.

Tools Of The Trade

So now you have all your parts nailed, and can play them all start to finish with a click, we’ll look at the next link in the chain; your instrument.

Old strings, old drum heads, guitars left in the boot of the car or garage and so on, unless utilised deliberately as a special effect are going to substantially inhibit the potential of your tone as an individual, not to mention the knock on effect on the recording as a whole. Good producers and engineers are normally looking to capture the best sound at the source, meaning if your snare and cymbals sound like dust bin lids in the room, then putting a microphone on them is not going to magically improve or change that sound. With that in mind, here are some hints to help maximise the potential of your instrument.

Drummers, if you’re in for a session and would prefer to use your own drum kit as opposed to one provided by the studio, new heads on the drums are a must. Unless at some point in the past you’ve accidentally played your drums upside down for an extended period of time, bottom skins are not essential, although advised.

Whilst this might sound a touch excessive and costly, the time saved through not having to constantly re-tune, or attempt to tweak and manipulate the sound in some fashion after recording will easily recoup your cost. Research what your favourite drummers/artists use and what sound you would like and purchase accordingly. Ideally reskin the kit just before coming to record, and don’t play on them until you come to the studio. This way, you’re saving yourself time spent doing the same thing whilst in the studio.

Cheap trashy cymbals unless used as an effect are possibly one of the quickest ways to spoil the potential of a decent drum sound, so beg, borrow, buy or rent something of quality. Zildjian K’s are great for recording, as they tend to be a touch darker and quieter and so don’t dominate the sound of the drum kit as a whole.

Bassists, please ensure that your instrument is properly set-up by a reputable guitar technician or repairer. Untold hours can be lost dropping in just to fix odd notes here and there where the instruments intonation is out. New strings for most styles are also a must, as the bass will lose a lot of its brightness and definition, which can be an immense struggle to try and rectify once already recorded.

Make sure that any amplifier or pedals you plan on bringing to the session are in good working order, there’s nothing like an amp cutting out to ruin an otherwise perfectly good take!

Guitarists, also make sure that your instrument has been professionally set up and that it has been freshly re-strung just for the recording session. Intonation is of the utmost importance especially if the song has a dense arrangement.

Check out our tutorial on setting your own intonation if you’re unable to have a professional look at it.

Also make sure all pedals, amplifiers, leads and such are in good working order to avoid any issues mid session. Keep an open mind as to the guitar, amp, pedals and settings you actually end up using on the session, sometimes, something available at the studio may sound better and/or be more suitable for the song.

Singers, your instrument rather uniquely requires you to take good care of yourself physically above all else. Try to avoid alcohol, milk, fizzy drinks, caffeine and cigarettes as these can have an adverse affect on the voice. Make sure to drink a good amount of water, make yourself feel relaxed and comfortable and warm up before doing your takes, we will have a  vocal warm up tutorial video coming next month so keep an eye out for that.

These hints and tips have been collected from years of experience in the studio both as an artist and as a producer and engineer. We, like you want to get the best possible end result every time, and following this guide will help to eliminate any interruption to the creative process and help you as artist to achieve your maximum potential.

Guy Davies