As a general rule, you should plan on recording no more than 2 (maybe 3) songs in a single session, depending on the complexity of the arrangement and how well prepared you are.
You will hear things on a recording that you never heard in rehearsals or on stage. So be prepared for some re-takes on even your most familiar songs.
Most people are pretty tired after about 4 hours of recording. We can go longer, but set your expectations realistically so you don’t end up putting down tracks when you’re weary that you’ll just end up having to re-do anyway.
Be prepared to spend some time in the first session to experiment with the arrangement of players in the room, to try different microphones and mic positioning, to make test recordings and to engage in some critical listening. The quality of the end product is really determined more by these critical decisions than anything else in the recording process.
If you haven’t done a lot of recording, the following sections have some suggestions that might help make the experience and results better. They’re items that folks sometimes overlook in their excitement to get into the studio.
Know what you want to accomplish at each session…are you ready?
- What song(s) will you work on?
- What parts will you do for each song?
- Does everyone know their part?
- Have you rehearsed the song adequately?
Think about how you want to lay down the song…
- What order will you do the parts?
- Who needs to play together and what can be added later?
- Who will lead the song?
Generally, it’s easier to lay down the rhythm section, then add additional parts like vocals, horns, strings, etc. in one or more separate passes. This provides better isolation and control over the mix, and it allows for re-takes and punch-ins without involving the entire band. However, some styles benefit from full ensemble recording, and we can certainly take that approach if desired.
Make sure you know the following information for each song ahead of time: key, tempo, structure, chords, and lyrics. Unless you are touring or playing regular gigs with a well-established set list, you will need lead sheets, or at least chord charts, to keep everyone on the same page in a session. The desire for perfection when recording adds some tension that can make you temporarily forget things you thought you knew.
- Make sure everyone agrees on the right tempo for each song and practice at that specific tempo, determined by a metronome.
- If you’re not used to playing to a click track, practice this in your rehearsals. If you’re not completely comfortable with it, you’ll have trouble trying to use a click track in a recording session. Do you have to use a click track? No. But it makes it easier to overdub parts and punch in changes as you build your recording. Try playing solo to a metronome and see if you can stay on it. Have your band mates listen and tell you if you are consistent. If you can’t stay on the metronome consistently, it’s better to record without a click track until you become proficient.
- Make sure you know the shape of the song (i.e., how many bars for each section, where the turnarounds and repeats come, how many verses, choruses, etc.). Practice playing through the song without vocal queues until you can anticipate accurately where all the changes are. Counting bars helps.
- Check drum heads and replace ones that don’t sound good or that show signs of wear (tears, divots, etc.). Replacing and tuning heads a few days before the session will prevent them from drifting during the session. Also check that there are no worn or broken fittings that will result in rattles in the studio.
- Check your drums for excessive ringing and dampen as needed. Check the snares to make sure they don’t make excessive noise when the toms and kick drums are played.
- Consider the tonal relationships among your drums. Tuning drums to the most powerful intervals–3rds, 4ths, 5ths and octaves–will increase their musical impact.
- For a demonstration of drum tuning, search for “Bob Gatzen” on You Tube. Bob has put out an excellent series of “how to” videos on drum tuning techniques. He also offers an in-depth DVD called “Drum Tuning: Sound and Design,” which you can find on Amazon.com.
- Check your strings and replace them unless they are fairly new. You’ll want to change them at least a day before the recording session to give them a chance to settle in. Bring spares just in case.
- Bring the smallest amp that will provide the sound you want. Large amps/cabinets just make it harder to get isolation between instruments. If you can go direct after your pedal board, that’s even better.
- Decide on your amp and effect settings ahead for each song and write them down to save time in the session.
- Make sure you have all your cables, tuner and other miscellaneous equipment.
- Check the intonation of the guitar and have it adjusted by a pro if it is out. How can you check? Play a string at the 12th fret, then play a 12th fret harmonic. Are they perfectly in tune? Alternately, using an electronic tuner play the string open and then at the 12th fret. Does the tuner indicate the same note in perfect tune? Repeat for each string.
- Do you plan to double track any guitar parts (i.e., overlap the same part two or more times)? If so, do you have your riffs down cold, or do you play them slightly differently each time? In order to double track a part, you’ll need to know it very precisely, and be able to repeat it exactly.
- All the tips for guitar above also apply to electric bass.
- It’s easiest to record bass by going direct (that is, routing through a direct box rather than using an amplifier and mic). If you have pedals, processors or an amp head that you feel add character or tone control, by all means use them. However, unless your speaker cabinet adds something extra special, it’s easier to go direct and this will provide you with better isolation when multi-tracking. If you use an amp (and no cabinet), you’ll need one with a line level output in order to go direct.
- Have you finalized the key you will use for each song?
- Do the vocal ranges for lead and harmony singers fit the chosen key without excessive straining?
- Do the backup singers know the harmony parts cold?
- Practice to a metronome and have someone other than the singers listen to the vocal harmonies. Are the backup singers tight on timing and pitch? Do they sound like a single blended instrument?
- When checking vocal timing, pay attention to the ends of notes as well as the beginnings.
- Make sure all the singers know when to breathe, and make sure backup singers breath at the same time. For challenging phrases, note when to breathe on your lead sheets.