Recording Your Music!
Part 1: Why Record?
Every performing musician is looking for effective ways to market themselves. If you are actively seeking gigging venues around town, you need a calling card. You have to sell yourself to club owners and show them how great you are. They’re going to want to meet you, but they’re not going to ask you for an on-the-spot live audition. They’re going to ask you for a demo CD. Yep, your best chance to land that gig is to have a killer sounding demo CD ready to give out the instant someone asks for it. And if you’ve recorded your demo at a professional recording studio you’ll have a huge competitive edge over 95% of the competition who bring in amateurish mixes created in their cousin’s bedroom. If you’re serious about selling yourself, you will need a professionally recorded demo.
If it wasn’t recorded, it never existed!
Even if you don’t plan to gig out there are other reasons why you should record your music. For one, your music and your sound is your legacy. Hey, you’re not going to live forever. A recording is a “record” of your talent. It’s a living and timeless document of who you are and what you were able to do. Consider if Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix hadn’t recorded their works when they were in their early twenties. Nobody except their family and a few friends would remember them today. What would a would-be-author be if he never bothered to write down his thoughts? What if a visually creative artist never purchased a camera, or a paint brush and easel? Recorded sound is the legacy of all musicians. Without a sound recording your musical existence is only hearsay. It’s as if it never existed. Don’t let the music die with you.
You owe it to yourself!
Recordings that are produced professionally can make you sound amazing, as good as you’ve ever sounded. Your professional recording is something to be proud of, something that you will want to show off and share with loved ones. And if you’re really good, your recordings can lead to financial gain. The only downsides to recording are the time and cost it takes to do it. But compared to all the time and treasure you expend during your lifetime perfecting your craft and buying your instruments, the cost of a professional recording is a very small investment, and one that can reap emotional – if not financial – rewards.
Part 2: Preparing for your session
Selecting a studio that’s right for you.
Now that you’ve decided to have a professional recording made you will need to decide where to go to get it done. Most musicians choose studios located close to their homes. Atlanta residents have a multitude of choices. A search for “Recording Studios” in the greater Atlanta area on www.kudzu.com delivers over 300 hits! You can enter your zip code on this site and then search “by Distance” from your home. Better yet, sort the list “by Rating”, find the highest rated studios close to your home, and go from there. Call a few studios and talk to their owner or chief engineer about your project and try to get a feel for whether you think there’s a fit. Ask what types of music the studio specializes in. The engineer should know and understand your music just as much as he knows and understands how his studio works.
These days 99% of all music is recorded digitally – gone are the days of the old and slow reel-to-reel analog tape decks,. You should ask the studio if they use the digital ProTools HD recording system, the industry standard, so your work will be transferable between studios all over the world. Avoid falling into the trap of asking about costs until after you have met with your prospective engineer and toured the facility in person. Different projects can have different rates. You should have an overall budget in mind but try to remain flexible on pricing as each situation is different. Your engineer should be able to provide an overall cost estimate after you’ve met with him. Be prepared to answer basic questions that your engineer may have to help him estimate the costs, including: What Genre Is Your Music, How Many Songs Will You Be Recording, How Many Band Members Are There, What Instruments Will Be Recorded, Approximately How Many Tracks per Song are Expected, How Many Vocals and Backup Vocals per Song, and Will You Need the Studio to Provide Any Session Musicians? Groove Tunes Studios is one of the studios that many musicians in the greater Atlanta area have come to know and trust. Find out more at www.groovetunes.com or call Eric Tunison at 770-842-5511.
Once you’ve selected your studio and have scheduled a recording date you will need to prepare for your session. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you get ready for your big day:
- If possible, record your songs during live gigs or at rehearsals, and then listen to them. Determine whether there are weak spots in the song or performance and fix those before your session date.
- Have all the instrumental and vocal parts already worked out, and know your guitar solos!
- Check with the studio in advance about guitar amps or other equipment you may be using.
- Practice to a click track or metronome during pre-production rehearsals! Each musician should practice alone to the click, and then together as a group. Most rock and pop music is recorded one track at a time, one instrument at a time, so know how to play your parts to the click track. Being able to do just this much will save you time and money on your project. You should be able to play all your parts exactly the same way, every time.
- Rehearse more songs than you plan to record. There might be a technical or performance problem with a particular song when you arrive at the studio, so it’s always a good idea to have a backup song or two.
- Change your guitar strings two or three days before the session. It’s best if they are just a few days old and not so new that they are still stretching out.
- Prepare lead sheets for the songs you plan to record. Lead sheets are helpful to the engineer and musicians and they make your sessions go smoother. Lead sheets are typed pages containing all the song lyrics with the chords typed or written above the words where each chord changes. Lead sheets should also notate the number of measures and chords for intros, instrumental solos, and other instrumental portions. The lead sheet is the road map for the recording session.
- Take care of your body before your recording sessions. Eat well, get enough sleep, and keep your ears rested.
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Part 3: Your day at the studio
Get off to a good start!
Now that you’ve done your homework as outlined in the previous article, here is your checklist for the day of your session:
- Take to your session whatever snacks or drinks you may want. Vocalists should bring their own tea or throat lozenges. Have some cash on hand in case someone wants to run out to buy food.
- Arrive at the studio on time. The recording studio clock starts at the time of the booking, not when the musicians arrive.
- Do not bring guests to your session. Guests will distract you and the engineer, disrupt and delay the recording process, and they may interfere with your opinion of how the music should sound.
- Bring your own instruments (the portable ones), the ones you are most used to playing. Unfamiliar instruments can cause surprises, and surprises can cause problems.
- Bring your own guitar amp if it has the sound you want. Some studios may have their own studio amps that you can use. (Ask beforehand about them.) Also, most studios record the bass guitar “direct” into their console, so a bass amp is usually not required.
- Bring your own guitar pedals and effects, and extra guitar strings and picks. If your electric guitar uses a battery for an active pickup, bring an extra new battery.
- Bring a guitar tuner. Make sure all guitarists and the bass guitarist use the same tuner during the session. Check tuning often, and between takes.
- The drummer may want to bring parts of his kit (snare, cymbals, kick pedal) but it is not always necessary. Check with your studio beforehand. All drum kit change-outs are usually “on the clock”, so it’s best to keep these to a minimum. The drummer should always bring his own sticks.
- Bring several copies of the lead sheets (!), two for the studio engineers, plus extra copies for the musicians and vocalists. Everyone will want to make their own marks on their own copies.
A recording project is a process consisting of three main steps: recording, editing, and mixing. Mastering is an optional fourth step that we’ll discuss in Part 5. On the day of your recording session your engineer will review the recording plan with you before you start. A typical recording sequence for a full-band song is: Determine the proper tempo and assign that to a click track (engineer does this), record a “guide” rhythm guitar track, record a “guide” vocal track, then record: drums, bass guitar, guitars, other instruments, lead vocal, backup vocals, miscellaneous “fills” and “pads”, and additional percussion. Note: The “guide” tracks are thrown away at the end, or at least not used in the final mix.
If you are planning to record more than one song start with the song that’s the least complicated – the one that’s the easiest to play or sing, and/or the shortest song. Once you have recorded your first song you’ll be more familiar with the process, and the rest of your songs will go more smoothly.
You will be playing and singing your parts several times while the engineer records you. It is common for there to be multiple “takes” of each part. If you make a mistake while recording don’t stop unless the engineer stops you. The engineer can piece together portions of different takes during the editing process. He will be listening to all the takes as they are being performed and recorded, and he will decide if he has enough material to work with. Your engineer should be trained in music and sound reproduction, so be open to his gentle coaching during your sessions.
Keep in mind what the main focus of your music is. If it’s the vocals, plan to spend more time on them. If it’s the lead guitar, plan to spend time perfecting them, etc.
Make the studio a comfortable and relaxing place. Stay loose and have fun! If you wish to drink alcoholic beverages during your session keep the number to a reasonable level (usually just one drink!) Alcohol makes you think you are playing better, but the reality is often different. The recording never lies.
Know when to quit for the day. If you’re tired, it will show in the recording.
Part 4: Editing and Mixing
We’ve Only Just Begun.
Let’s say you’ve been in the studio for a day of recording and you’re packing up your gear. You’ve laid down tracks for guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion, and/or vocals for your songs. You ask the engineer to play back a rough mix of what you’ve done. You’re proud of your work and you go home exhausted but exhilarated. Congratulations, you have completed the recording portion of the process. But it’s not over yet; the engineer’s work is far from finished. He’ll be spending many more hours refining your tracks and making them special.
The next step in the process is editing. Remember all those “takes” you recorded? Your engineer will be listening carefully to all those takes again and he’ll locate and assemble all the best parts. He will cut, copy, and paste, make timing alignments, edit out unwanted noises, and perform pitch corrections if necessary. This process can be likened to the editing process of movie production, where much of the filmed (recorded) action is left “on the cutting room floor”. In the final song edits, a high percentage of what was recorded is not used, and much of what is used is edited and cleaned up prior to final mixing. The editing process often takes as long as all the time spent on recording, and sometimes more.
Mixing is the next step, and in many cases, the final step in the process. Once the engineer has finished editing all the tracks, getting everything cleaned up and on the beat (thanks to that click track), it’s time to decide how the final two-track stereo mix will sound. The mixing process is where art-meets-science, and it’s an activity that the engineer performs on his own. Starting with perhaps dozens of tracks of recorded and edited material, the engineer’s challenge now is to decide how to blend all these sounds into a pleasant stereo image that flows properly throughout the entire song. The engineer (or producer) decides the relative volume of each track through the entire song, where each instrument will sit across the stereo left-right panorama, how to equalize (EQ) the treble and bass of each track, whether compression or limiting are applied and if so how much, and when to add sonic sweeteners such as delays, reverb, and other special effects. Mixing can take anywhere from two to six hours or more per song, depending on the complexity of the music and the overall project budget. A good engineer will typically work on a mix for a few hours in order to get a decent mix, then leave the project alone for a day, then come back later with fresh ears and take the mix to the next level of perfection. (With the Pro Tools digital recording system all mix settings can be saved and called back up automatically at a later date.) This procedure can be repeated until the engineer feels good about his mixes and is ready to present his creations for you.
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Part 5: The Final Steps
Critiquing and Tweaking.
When your engineer is finished with your mixes he will invite you back to the studio to listen to his creations. This is one of the most exciting parts of the entire process. You will not believe how great you sound! Your engineer will then give you a CD of your mixes to take home to listen to. It’s a good idea to live with your mixes for several days and to listen to them on various playback systems, including your car stereo and home stereo. Listen through good quality headphones if you can as this is an excellent way to hear all the intricacies and detail inside of the mixes. For best quality listening be sure to listen to the mixes on CD players rather than on inferior sounding mp3 devices.
In a few days you will have formed some opinions about the mixes. Make a list of the items that bother you. Typical items might be “I want the vocals a bit louder on the last line of the first chorus”, or, “I want less reverb on the electric guitar”, etc. These sorts of comments are common. Then call your engineer and schedule a day and time for a mix “tweaking” session. While you are physically present at the studio, the engineer will make the changes you are requesting to your satisfaction. Once the tweaking is finished, you will have “final mixes”!
Once the final mixes are done, your work with the recording studio is complete, with one possible exception. You may want to get your songs mastered. Mastering is a process of adding more compression and fine-tuning the equalization (EQ) on the final mix. Mastering does not change the mix; it merely refines the overall sound. If you are just recording a demo and do not expect to market your music for sale then mastering may not be necessary. However, if you do plan to duplicate your songs for wide distribution or sale, or if you ever plan to have your music played on the radio, you should get your songs mastered. Mastering is best performed by a mastering engineer who is separate from and not affiliated with the studio that recorded and mixed your songs. The main benefit of having someone other than your recording engineer perform the mastering is that it allows for a second set of fresh and unbiased ears to listen to and fine tune the overall sound. Mastering is likened to adding polish to a piece of furniture that you have just constructed. It’s a fairly quick and inexpensive process, but it’s a step you wouldn’t skip if you’re thinking about selling your product. The mastering process is highly specialized, so you want somebody who’s been doing it a long time. One of the most reputable mastering engineers in Atlanta is Rodney Mills at Rodney Mills Masterhouse, www.rodneymills.com. Your recording studio engineer will first prepare a data CD of your final mixes, which is used by the mastering engineer to master your songs. The mastering engineer’s deliverable to you will be a “master” audio CD of your music, suitable for duplication. Also, if you plan to market your songs for Online sales primarily, such as on iTunes, your mastering engineer needs to know this so he can prepare your master accordingly.
If you’re planning to make several copies of your CD then you will need to find a duplication house such as Discmakers www.discmakers.com. Large, established duplicators like Discmakers are highly dependable. They can also help you create the graphic art design for your CD package. Keep in mind that the more copies you order the cheaper the cost per CD. (One cautionary note to add here: More and more artists are marketing their music on the Internet these days, and fewer and fewer are getting large numbers of CDs made. Be careful not to order too many CDs.) Send the duplicating house a copy of your master CD along with any other info you want to appear on the jacket: photos, artist names, song list, lyrics, writer’s and musician’s credits, recording studio and mastering studio credits, and special thanks or acknowledgements. They will assign a project manager to your job who will take good care of you throughout the duplication process clear up until you receive your shipment of boxes filled with all your glorious CDs. Welcome to one of the happiest days of your life!
Congratulations! The journey has ended. You are now a Recording Artist!