How to Maximize the Studio Recording Process
This, the final article in the demo recording series, offers up a methodology for how to maximize the demo recording process should you decide to enter the studio rather than working at home. Be sure to check out the other articles in this series that talk about the benefits of home recording, offers home recording tips and how to choose the best home-based system for your needs.
A Schedule for Making the Most of Your Studio Experience
The largest issue at professional studios will be the cost. Booking studio time can become real expensive real fast. There are ways in which to maximize your dollars and leave the studio with a very effective demo. Below, I outline what I believe to be a good template for recording an effective demo.
This schedule doesn't cover all types of music. If you are a singer-songwriter hoping to get a good recording of your vocals and guitar, it will be overkill. Conversely, if your recording requires many outside session players, with complex orchestral passages that require rehearsal before the session, the method below will most likely not provide you with enough time. However, there are certain aspects that are typical of all demo sessions. Following this six-day schedule will greatly increase your chances of leaving the studio with a three- or four-song demo suitable for submission to a record company.
Before you come in to the studio, rehearse with a click track (drum machine for tempo). A drummer who can't play with a click can't play. It means that they're not listening and who wants to play with a musician who only listens to himself. This doesn't mean you have to record with the click but at least hear what your song sounds like with a steady groove. You might have been slowing the chorus down and never known it. Rehearse at low volumes so you can hear your pitch, chords, and arrangements. It's always great hearing two guitar players hitting major and minor chords at the same time. Or record the songs on a handheld cassette or camcorder. They don't lie.
Day 1. Setting Up
Setting up instruments and microphones usually takes a full day. This first day of the recording session is the most regimented, as there is a clear progression in which things should happen. The timing on the other days will be more flexible, from hour to hour, but on the first day, everything should be carefully planned out, in order to make the best use of everybody's time. Here's a schedule that will help you make sure that you get set up and achieve good sound levels in a single day.
A note on who exactly needs to be present at the studio: as you will see, there is a lot of time in the studio spent sitting around waiting to play. Because of this, a certain studio fatigue can set in, which can really affect the performance. I understand that most artists want to be there the whole time, whether they are recording or not, but try to pace yourself. For instance, it’s a good idea, if you are a band, for everyone to visit the studio and meet the engineer prior to the recording session beginning. This way, everyone knows what the place is like, and won’t feel the need to necessarily hang around while drum sounds are being gotten. Really, for a large part of this time, only the drummer needs to be there. Every band and artist are different, and some will perform better when the entire band is there—even during bass overdubs. But frequently, it’s helpful to the overall project not to have the entire band hanging around the studio when they’re not working.
Getting away from it can give you perspective so that when you return you will have a clearer viewpoint.
Load In: 12 P.M. to 1 P.M.
Try to start your session as early as possible, though your studio may be reluctant to start much before noon. It’s a late-night type of existence, after all. So, assuming you are able to either take off work or get the studio for a weekend (weekend and day rates are almost always more expensive than weekday and night rates), you will probably begin loading your gear into the studio at around noon. So, you pull up the van and start setting up your drums, amps, guitars, and so on in the studio. Of course, this is not a cardinal rule, and different artists (and studios) prefer to work differently. My advice would be to start no later than noon if possible.
Setup—Not Lunch: 1 P.M. to 2 P.M.
If you are starting your session around lunchtime (or dinnertime), eat beforehand, rather than at the studio. Remember, you are being billed for all of the time that you have reserved the studio, whether you use it or not. While a seven-layer burrito is truly something to savor and not rush through, enjoy it before you get to the studio. Trust me, eating breaks can eat up a ton of studio time.
Instead, take this time to begin organizing yourself. Make sure all of your gear is in proper working order. Chords and batteries for effects boxes are notorious for crapping out at exactly the wrong time. Now is the time to do yet another test on things like this (the first test should have occurred the night before the session). It’s not a bad idea to get your guitars and basses in tune at this point. Certainly, you will need to do this prior to every performance you record, but this is also a time when strings seem to break. Better to have them break now, while you still have time to change them and stretch them out a bit before you must perform, than to be dealing with it while recording.
Drum Sounds: 2 P.M. to 6 P.M.
In my experience, it is impossible to get drums set up and sounding decent in less than three hours, and it usually takes longer. One way to expedite the process is to make sure that your drums are tuned before you go into the studio. And while you will probably need to make minor tuning adjustments, due to the jostling or temperature changes during the load in, the drums should be pretty close to the way you want them before you arrive. Why pay for the studio time when you could have done it at home for free? Of course, drums sounds are not something to rush through, being that they are the foundation. Getting good drum sounds is essential to a good recording. There are infinite variables to getting drum sounds. It’s an art. At a certain point, you will realize that you have found a decent sound, though it might not be the exact kick sound that Lars got on Metallica’s black album. You should, however, work with the engineer to get it where you want. This may take longer than you think.
Bass Sounds: 7 P.M. to 8 P.M.
The bass setup will move much more quickly. However, it does take time. It can become complicated if you decide that the studio gear is superior to your own bass rig. You may be tempted to try for a good tone by experimenting with the studio's different heads and cabinets, and so on. All of this takes time. Avoid this temptation. You know your gear, and while different gear (especially of a good quality) will often sound great at first, you will often find that it loses it’s luster on repeated listening, and you will regret not having stuck with what you knew. That said, one time-saving trick I’ve used repeatedly for recording an electric bass is to run it through a device called a SansAmp (which most studios have) and plug directly into the mixing board. This will get you a great sound, and you won’t have to worry about miking a bass cabinet.
Guitar Sounds: 8 P.M. to 10 P.M.
Guitarists with options are very dangerous. Unfortunately, most demo studios have guitars and amps in abundance. I say "unfortunately" not because it’s a bad thing that they have them, but because they are impossible for guitarists to resist. No rock guitar player can refrain from at least trying out the Flying V through the Vox AC 30. Now, there are few better sounds than this combination, for certain types of music, but like all gear, they really only start to perform for you once you know their idiosyncrasies. This takes time—far more time than you have in the demo studio. Also, as with the case of the bass gear, just because it’s new to your ears, it will necessarily sound cool while in the studio, but this does not mean it will hold up after you are out of the studio.
My advice is to record with your own gear: the gear you know and use to practice with.
Whatever gear you choose to use, it will take some time for you to get your tone right and the amps properly mic-ed.
Dinner: 10 P.M. to 11 P.M.
Again, be very careful with your meal breaks. Sometimes, they are just what you need to clear you heads, and will let you return to recording to get a great performance. More often they are time sucks. Of course, you need to eat. But stage your meals and breaks so that once the drummer's sounds are together, he can eat; then the guitar player, etc. This may mean that you do not eat at exactly the time above. Do buy dinner for the engineer and any assistants.
Miscellaneous Other Instrument Setup: 11 P.M. to 12 P.M.
This could be a keyboard, harmonica, autoharp or whatever. It will take you an hour. Remember the cardinal rule when recording a demo: It’s just a demonstration, so don’t go overboard with the “colorings.” A well-placed coloring instrument will go a long way to making your demo stand out, but given your time limitations, you need to really prepare in advance—prior to going into the studio—to make sure you know just how you will accomplish this. Studios frequently have many cool and exotic instruments kicking around. Don't be seduced by them. If you don’t know how to play a dulcimer, the demo studio is the wrong place to learn.
Scratch Vocals/Headphone Mix: 12 A.M. to 1 A.M.
Hearing vocals while you play helps everyone to get the right feel for the songs. Also, you will all want to hear and see each other. This requires a headphone mix and a scratch-vocal mic setup. The headphone mix is different than the final mix. Everyone will want to hear the bass, drums, and themselves most prominently. Achieving this can be a pain, and it often takes longer than you would think to get a mix that will please all band members. Even when everyone is happy, it is very unnatural to play with headphones, at first. Most musicians need time to get used to playing with headphones so that they can give a good performance. But you must really work to get a good headphone mix.
At 1 A.M., my advice is to stop and start fresh the next day. However, most artists will not want to work this long and hard and not record something. Most likely, everyone will be tired, and you won’t get much of a performance, but if you must, bang through a song. Better to start the next day.
Recording should be thorough but not laborious. Otherwise, everybody gets tired, frustrated, and bored. It's hard to get a drummer to give you a fresh exciting track if you made them pound on the snare for three hours while the engineer tries out fifteen different compression ratios. You should find an engineer/producer who works quickly and keeps the sessions fun. If the band is having a great time in the studio, the tracks will sound that way. You should have a song finished in a day or day and a half. Usually, if it takes much longer than that, then you weren't ready to come in.
Day 2. Basic Tracks
Recording the basic tracks is a really fun time. Try to get basics (drums, bass, rhythm guitar, and scratch vocal, but no overdubs) done for four songs during this session. Remember, three or four songs are all you need for your demo. Prior to entering the studio, you will, of course, have rehearsed and re-rehearsed these four songs. I advise having a well-rehearsed fifth song too, so that if you can’t quite get one to sound right, you will be prepared with a backup.
As you record the basics, take breaks, listen to playback, and try and keep the energy up. Avoid a prolonged dinner break, but some sort of break is a good idea.
On day 2, you will actually be recording. Before you arrived at the studio, you will have decided which recording medium you will use. Most likely, you will have three options: tape (expensive), ADATs (cheaper, but often unreliable), or—best—Pro Tools. If you’re using Pro Tools, you won’t have to worry about tape costs (though the studio might make you buy a hard drive for a couple of hundred bucks). I recommend that you avoid tape. Each reel only holds about twenty minutes of music. That’s three or four takes of any given song. You will run up a huge bill if you insist on tape, or if the studio provides no other option. ADATs are digital media that look like VHS tapes. They hold more music, but are limited to eight tracks, unless they are synched together. Unfortunately, they don’t always play nicely with each other, and you can spend a lot of time trying to get the buggers to sync up. Go with Pro Tools, if you can.
You should aspire to finish the night with at least two—if not all—of the basic tracks done. Then you will go home, and no matter how late it is, you will try to wake up your significant other and listen obsessively to the rough tracks. You will not be able to sleep because a thirty second snippet from one of the songs will be lodged so deeply in your cranium that it will stick out the back of your head and not allow you to lay flat against the pillow.
Day 3. Basic Tracks, Overdubs
Count on half of this day spent re-recording some of the basic tracks—the ones you thought were perfect yesterday but drove you crazy last night. You will also most likely struggle mightily with one particular song and not be able to get it quite right. Know when to cut bait, in these situations. After struggling for a while, you should either scrap it completely and just focus on the songs that went well, or try recording your backup song. If you keep working on a song that just won’t come together, you risk jeopardizing the whole session.
The second half of this day should be spent beginning the overdub process, cleaning up the bass and rhythm guitar parts. Complete these overdubs on day 3, and you will be doing great.
Day 4. Overdubs
You should now start overdubbing the lead guitar tracks, and other instruments that bring dynamic to the songs, be they organs, strings, percussion, or whatever. Don’t go overboard here. Use this time to really accentuate the strong points of the song. Remember that there will be setup involved for each of these instruments, which takes time.
Day 5. Vocals, Vocals, Vocals.
Take the time necessary to nail the vocals—lead, harmony, and background. If you were able to record some on day 4, you should be in good shape. Try to set the mood—whatever that may be—to allow the vocalist to give a great performance. It’s a tough and awkward thing to sing in a studio environment, and there’s a lot of pressure. Do what you can to alleviate this. This may mean staying out of the control room while the vocalist is tracking. Of course, it may also mean sitting in the iso booth with a vocalist. It’s different for every situation. Try to figure out what will work best for you and your vocalist(s), and then keep doing it until all the vocals are done. If you get on a roll, keep moving. Don’t even listen to playback. Just keep rolling.
After day 5, you should have completed the vocals and rough mixes for three or four songs.
Day 6. Mixing
Try to take a couple days off before you start mixing, if this is possible. Most studios don’t want to divide the time up, but if you can, do this. This time will help you to get a little space from the songs and approach them with a fresher set of ears when you come back. Of course, taking too much time (more than a couple of days) can be a very bad move, as you will start wanting to re-track (or rewrite) songs. Can’t do that in a studio setting.
The way it will most likely work is that the engineer will get a good rough mix together on his own. Often, they will mix without the artist in the studio so that they don’t have to listen to all the annoying comments. Once they’ve gotten a “rough” mix together, you will be invited back in to listen and make comments. It is very reasonable to mix three or four songs in one day. Take your time, try making subtle changes for different mixes. One trick I’ve learned is that if you’re really struggling with a mix, have the engineer start taking things away (mute the rhythm guitar, for example), and try to get to the essence of the song. Then start adding stuff back in.
Once you have a mix, listen to it in the studio, but also bring a boom box or Walkman. A good place to listen is on a car stereo. Studio monitors should not be the only thing you listen to your mixes on.
You should leave this session with your songs mixed and burned onto a CD. Take your tapes or ADATs or Pro Tools disk. Tip the engineer. Then sleep for a week.
Having produced many records and overseen a ton of demo sessions, I’ve lived variations of this schedule many times. You may be able to do it in four days, or it could take you two weeks to accomplish what I’ve outlined, but expect six days. The key to making it work is to not be over ambitious, either with the number of songs you try to record or the amount of sounds you try to put on those sings. Just remember that what you’re recording is only a demonstration. It is geared to get you a deal that will allow you the time and resources to really show your stuff.
Costs Associated with Studios
The cost of this type of session would be around $4,000. That’s figuring six days of studio time at $500 a day, and then tacking on $500 for a drive or tape (add $500 to $1,000 more if you use reel-to-reel tape as opposed to Pro Tools or ADATs), and some miscellaneous stuff like food and beer, hiring your friend to play cello, busting the studio's mandolin, and so on.
As I said before, this scenario applies to a fairly traditional band. If you’re a singer-songwriter who is just recording vocals and guitar, it will be very different (and faster and cheaper) for you. If you are a rapper using samples that you’ve already programmed at home, you too will have a far different experience. But if you are a “band,” in any sense of the word, be it a jazz combo or a salsa band, your experience will be similar to the one outlined above.
The real challenge of recording in a studio is largely time management. Much of the time you spend in the studio will be spent sitting around, waiting. It is during these times that you should eat. For example, while the drummer is getting his sounds together, the vocalist can grab lunch. Also, when you're sitting idle in the studio, schedule things out. Maybe just the guitarist and the engineer can show up at the beginning of the first overdub day. They can set up (miking the amps, getting the tones, locating the parts of the songs for the overdubs, etc.) while the other band members get some needed rest. Then, when the rest of the band arrives, they will be refreshed and able to contribute their opinions and be productive, rather than sitting idly by, waiting. Time management is the key to a successful recording session.
The real danger in recording at a professional studio is that there is very little room for error. If something doesn’t go right—be it a bad engineer, a band member getting sick or being unable to get a part right, just general malaise, or whatever—you’re out of luck. It's common for things to go wrong because the band isn’t familiar with the studio dynamic. Bands that are new to the studio environment will not have the experience or ability to communicate in order to get things right.
This article was excerpted from George Howard’s book, Getting Signed: An Insider’s Guide to the Music Industry, and used with permission from the