19 Things to Know Before Your First Recording Session

Recording Studio - John Hult - Pyragraph

Photo by John Hult.

Guest Blogger Larry Crane is the founder and editor of Tape Op Magazine. This piece originally appeared at Watt and is reposted here via a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

I’m going to put myself into a time machine, and take myself back over 30 years, to the first time I found myself in a recording studio as a musician. Good, I made it back to 1985. Wow, look at my bad haircut. Now I’m going to try to give myself some tips that would have made these sessions run smoother, and improve the results of these early forays into professional recording. Wish me luck.

1. Don’t expect the engineer to have everything up and running in 15 minutes. Talk to them and find out how long they plan to spend setting up mics and getting sounds. Several hours is not unusual, and if they are good at their craft it’s time and money well spent.

2. Don’t rush. If a take of a song doesn’t feel right, just do it again. It only takes a few minutes to run a new version down once everyone is ready and the gear is in place.

People lose 25% of their abilities when they walk through the studio door. I invented that fact but it’s true.

3. Bring extra instruments and amplifiers. Sometimes the ones you use live are not the best for recording purposes. In fact, most of the time they suck. Swapping out a guitar or snare drum can be the “fix” that is needed in many cases.

4. Bring strings, drum heads, sticks, reeds, 9-volt batteries, tubes, rosin, picks and any other items you may need to change out or replace. If something could possibly break, it will now.

5. Bring food and drinks. I’m not saying call the catering company, but stock up on healthy snackable items like fruits, nuts and veggies. Also bring any drinks for hydrating, which leads us to…

6. Watch your alcohol and drug intake. A couple of beers can be nice near the end of the day. A little hit can help “de-nervous” some folks. But don’t let yourself go too far; it’s just not productive. Forget all those stories of rock ’n’ roll excess—you don’t have the time or money to play that part. Hopefully you never will see a need to act like that anyway.

7. Every sound you make might get recorded. Playing acoustic guitar? Is your arm sticking to the body and making a weird noise when you move it? Does your drum throne squeak? Is there change in your pocket as you are singing?

8. Turn off your cell phone. Put it away, or allot certain times for smartphone use.

9. Do you really need visitors? Some people can bring good vibes and be a surrogate audience. Others can eat up hours telling stories. Sometimes they might even make the players nervous.

10. Have a rough idea of tempos for each song. I never tell anyone they “have” to use a click track, but many artists could benefit from trying differing tempos in rehearsal and sorting out which feels best.

11. Know how the songs start and stop. I know this sounds obvious, but I see it every day. “When does this end?” or “Who starts this?” should never be uttered in a studio.

12. When a song does stop, hold still, let the note ring out (if needed), and don’t yell, “Heck yeah! We did it,” right after the last cymbal crash. That will end up getting recorded. The song isn’t done until the sounds are done.

Take the engineer out to lunch, or at least pick something up for them when you make a food run.

13. Bring something to back up your sessions onto, or bring reels of tape if that’s your bag. I don’t know how many times a session gets booked, the band shows up, we record all day and then no one has a hard drive to backup the sessions to.

14. If you are singing, print out the lyrics. Give a copy to the engineer and/or producer. Then they can punch in your vocal fixes faster, and maybe even suggest better words to use (if you allow it). I’ve even caught embarrassingly bad grammar and saved someone from ridicule.

15. Set firm start and end times. Even if the person recording you says they are flexible, everyone likes to know when to be at work and when they can leave. Believe me, this saves relationships and sanity.

16. Don’t try to work longer hours than you can really be productive during. I work 10-hour days. I’ve worked 14-hour days. Guess how much work we really got done in 14 hours? 10 hours’ worth.

17. Show up when you say you will be showing up. C’mon, you make it to your gigs and your day job (if you have one). You’re not gonna take music, the most important thing in your life, as serious? Hmmm…

18. Don’t expect miracles. If you and/or your band can’t get through a take of a song without messing up, why would it be any easier in the studio and under the recording microscope? People lose 25% of their abilities when they walk through the studio door. I invented that fact but it’s true.

19. Lastly, have fun! Book a little more time than you think you need. Tell jokes and laugh. Take the engineer out to lunch, or at least pick something up for them when you make a food run. Play other music that you all enjoy every once in a while, and discuss what you like about it. Guess what, your session will improve and your music will too.

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