Musicians new to
the studio experience sometimes feel a tad bewildered. You have plenty
of musical ideas, but are unsure of
what to do or how to do it. Maybe these tips will help a bit......
THE BASIC PROCESS
The first part is called tracking, where we lay down the individual parts of the music. This is when we capture as best we can the actual playing and singing, and the result is from 2 to many individual recorded tracks. Drums might be on 4 or 5 tracks, 2 or 3 of guitars, a bass, maybe a couple of keyboards, a lead vocal and maybe a couple of harmonies all add up to a lot of individual tracks. Once we have these tracks done to everyone's satisfaction we have to mixdown the multiple tracks into the usual 2 stereo tracks that everyone else listens to. In this process we can position individual instruments across the stereo field (left or right), add reverb for the third dimension of depth, change instrument timbres to blend better with the other tracks, add wild effects like flanging or ping-pongs, etc. After everything is mixed and sounding good, the resulting stereo tracks need to be mastered into a final product. This is an important step that some people go to a specialist for (a 'mastering house'), but we can do basic mastering in the studio. Mastering is the process of ordering the tunes, cleaning up intros and fadeouts, tweaking the levels and tone balance so all the songs sound equivalent, and generally making everything sound the best it can. You want a listener to put on your CD and not want to reach for the volume or tone controls between each song - mastering does this. A dedicated mastering specialist may be your best bet if you have the budget for it - particularly if you want the 'loudest CD on the block'. They have the very expensive, dedicated facilities to produce the finest finished product, but that level of perfection comes at a price. We have also seen great mixes leave the studio and be totally ruined at a 'professional'
mastering facility. The final step is duplication, which again can either be done at Red House or sent out for commercial duplication. This is basically an economic decision we can discuss during pre-production meetings.
OVERDUBBED or LIVE?
There are no musical rules in a studio, but it helps to have at least some minimal "vision" of what you want the finished product to sound like. Do you hear a raw, live, unprocessed sound, or a highly polished, perfectionists dream? You may be doing original music, but what existing works are similar?
Having an idea of what you want to hear helps decide what the best approach might be to setting up and recording. One extreme is to record instrument or vocal parts one at a time, slowly layering up the sound to a finished product. The other extreme is to setup 'live' and go for it all in one take. Both methods are perfectly valid and can give wonderful recordings, but each has its advantages and limitations. Layering overdubs is slow (and therefore expensive), and not every musician can give an inspired emotional performance sitting alone in a studio with a pair of headphones on. But layering can give the most pristine, 'perfect' sound. There is no bleed between microphones, and each part can be done over and over to achieve perfection. Going 'live' goes quicker (and cheaper), but you can't generally fix much if something goes wrong. Some musicians get uptight trying to play perfectly for that one great studio take and just can't seem to ever get it right. So the band plays the song over and over trying to get one perfect take until everyone is totally frustrated.
These represent the extremes, and a middle road approach is often best. This would essentially be setting up 'live' to get down the basic rhythm tracks (like drums and bass), and then layering vocals, leads, percussion, etc. This way tries to capture the energy of the live performance while still allowing for repeated tries at solos and vocals.
This is stuff to discuss during pre-production meetings, but give it some thought.
WE'LL FIX IT IN
THE MIX or ON THE WORKSTATION....
We have the capability of editing tracks down to the most minute detail. We can retune notes, copy good choruses over bad, move off time drum beats, even re-arrange entire tunes to another form. All this after everyone has left the studio! The power of modern digital audio workstations is truly awesome. In the search for ultimate perfection we can record multiple takes of a vocal or solo and 'comp' together a final version choosing the best from each take. All this is common in the recordings heard on radio and we have the tools and knowlege to do all of this. But, and it's a big but, there are
several drawbacks to relying on this... First, it gets expensive because it takes time, and the more tweaking the more time it takes. Second, over-editing
tends to rob tracks of the human imperpections that frequently make a track more powerful and emotional. Third, some of the 'magic' fixes rely on a
stable beat. You can't move a chorus from the end of a tune to the front if the beat has sped up 15% over the course of the tune! So unless you
are rock solid in your timing, it may be neccesary to track to a 'click track' - and some musicians just can't do this well. It does take some practice.
So if you are on
a tighter budget than the big guys it pays to have your chops together,
the tune already arranged and rehearsed, and not rely on
fixing it in the mix or workstation magic to make up for a lack of preparation. We can still do a lot of 'magic' without digging into tracks too deep.
Only experience with the tools allows you to know what is easy and what takes a lot of time.
The studio has an assortment of various instruments available for your use and the easiest answer is to use what sounds best. It can be a little more complicated than that though. It's understandable that people want to use their own gear - it's what you are used to and you know the sounds you can get. On the other hand, many drum kits that sound great on stage sound like wet cardboard boxes when mic'ed up in a studio environment. Many guitar amps that work fine on stage are discovered to be exceptionally noisy in the very quiet rooms of a studio. Some great bass parts can be recorded directly to tape without going through an amp at all. Then there is that annoying budget question that pops up. The house instruments are well known, and getting good sounds is matter of repeating things that have worked in the past. Personal instruments are unknown and take more time to properly mic up and get the desired sounds. The best thing to do is be very flexible and let your ears figure it out - use what sounds best. This is also stuff to discuss in pre-production.
AND THEN WE'LL
JUST ADD HARMONIES?
Typically, in an part 'live'/part 'overdub' situation, you will get 80% of the music recorded in 20% of the time you spend! You might get rhythm tracks for five tunes recorded in a couple of hours, then spend a couple hours getting the solo perfect for one of them. It is amazing how much time can be spent getting 30 seconds of vocal harmony just right. Of course this depends greatly on the musicians and their areas of strength, but don't be too surprised if someone gets stuck on a seemingly simple part and things take longer than you might have hoped. This is one reason great session players are in demand - they can come in and do what is required very quickly and with great results.
Another common tendency when first exposed to the power of the studio is to add everything (including the sink) to every song. Adding four part harmonies, multiple percussion toys, extra keyboards and that one extra guitar part can be great, but can also lead to over-produced, muddy sounding arrangements that have just too, too much going on for enjoyable listening. Don't succumb to the kitchen sink syndrome - keep things simple, add new parts sparingly, and only if they add in a truly musical way.....
Be prepared physically, not hung over or over tired. Be prepared musically - well rehearsed but not burnt out on the tunes. Have your equipment ready. Put new strings or heads on at least day early for stretch time. Have everything tightened up and pre-tuned in the ballpark anyway. Bring lyric sheets, extra strings and batteries and drum sticks and whatever else you might need. We may have some of this stuff around the studio and you are welcome to use it, but forgeting something might mean a delayed session and a trip into town.
Be on time so other band members aren't sitting around waiting. Wear comfortable clothing that doesn't rustle or jingle (unless that's part of your sound...!) Let us know of any special or favorite beverage (non-alcoholic) and we'll be stocked up for you.
Working in a studio can be an immensely fun and rewarding experience. You literally make something beautiful and/or meaningful out of thin air - it's like magic! But it's a lot of work! Sometimes it can get a little boring watching someone do the 10th take of a boring harmony. Try to be patient, maybe take a walk or play with the dogs or catch up on some reading.