In my previous post ‘How to set up your recording studio environment for creativity’, I went over some really simple techniques to getting great sounds from your home recordings. While the technical side is always the most exciting, it can also be the most frustrating if you haven’t established really clear goals for what you’re looking to achieve in the studio.
So in this post, I’ll outline a few really basic things to consider that can help keep your home recording sessions on track.
Clearly define your session goals
Every session is different - it’s not always about putting down tracks. It’s about making the sounds work together, and serving the song you’re recording.
Whatever they are, don’t keep these goals to yourself - write them down, email them to the musicians you’re working with, and be sure that these goals are clear to everyone involved. Setting realistic goals for your session can go a long way to providing a sense of achievement, and keeping things positive.
A good exercise to start is to create a playlist of albums or tracks from other artists as ‘reference’ tracks. A reference track is a recorded song from another artist that you would use to compare style and mix against what you’re recording. They’re a great way to ‘pre-visualize’ ideas on how your tracks and record will sound, and get you thinking about how to achieve a similar sound before you press record.
Use song charts
A song chart is basically a graph with your ‘songs’ along the top, and all the elements in the song that need to be completed down the side (like vocals, drums etc.).
You can have a lot of fun with these! They’re something everyone can participate in as a quick restful distraction. Plus, they provide a sense of accomplishment, and set clear objectives for the band or artist.
Just get a piece of bristol board, large markers and tape (hello dollar store!). For every recording, draw your graph and hang it right where you do most of your work.
You can use stickers to mark each completed item for songs, or use humorous printouts of each band member from Facebook, internet memes, or even craft beer labels - keep it light and creative, and you can save it for nostalgia when it’s completed, or even offer them as rewards for fans if you’re crowdfunding your album.
Plan for everything in advance as much as possible. Put everything you’d like to achieve for each session in iCalendar, Google Calendar, or a good old fashioned day planner. A lot of digital calendars can sync to devices and be shared, so it’s a good way to keep everyone on the same page (and eliminate excuses the lead singer may have for being late!).
Be realistic about time - lots of little things often come up that can’t be anticipated, so always plan in some extra time, even an hour, just in case. It’s often hard to project an exact time for everything in your session - so planning more time is always better than coming up short.
If you’re not a good judge of time, a solid formula to try is: take the time you think it’s going to take to complete a session, double it, then add 10%. So if you think it’ll take 3 hours, schedule for about 6 hours and 15 minutes.
The ultimate time saver: practice
At the risk of sounding like a stale smelling band teacher in high school, the number one time saving secret for any recording, either at a home or professional recording studio is: PRACTICE.
Session time is not practice time. In fact the two should never, ever meet. A recording - no matter where you track it - is putting your best foot forward to your fans or clients, and it doesn’t just ‘magically’ record itself from a wellspring of creativity bursting out from your inner unicorn (if only it were so easy).
The more you make a habit out of good practice, the more pro you’ll sound, and the better equipped you’ll be to get a session completed efficiently. And if available, don’t forget to make quick recordings on your phone, laptop or portable pocket recorder so you can listen back, and help plan for sessions later.
If you’re just the home studio owner, go to a few practices with the artist or group you’re working with and get the lay of the band - it will help you to define where they’re strongest (maybe with songwriting), where they’ll need some work (like in performance), and ultimately, if they should practice more. Be honest with them, its their time as well as yours.
Time saving tools
If you have it, keep an ipad or laptop on hand to make album and track notes. No funds for the digital joy? Just go analog and get a $2 notebook and some pens, highlighters, etc. so you can jot down notes, amp settings, mics and guitars used, changes to lyrics, arrangements etc.
Every recording and track should have it’s own little scrapbook or folder on your device with note files. You never know if you may need to go back to it some day. Being reasonably organized with notes will save you piles of time looking for things later on.
Keep a pocket metronome and tuner on hand (hint, there are also free Apps out there for your smart phones that do this too) so you can get the tempo right and make sure everything is in tune before you track. Think of these as your swiss army kit for your sessions.
If you’ve got the bass tone ‘just right’, and want to remember what you did to get it that way for later, use your smartphone or a digital camera to photograph amp settings, synth patches, or even positioning in the room. It doesn’t need to be a photographic masterpiece, you just need to be able to see the settings for easy recall later.
When in session, painters tape and sharpies to write on tape strips are good for marking position in a room, settings on a mix board, or notes on different settings for amps, keys, etc. Green painters tape doesn’t have a lot of ‘stick’, so it won’t leave a nasty glue gum on your gear.
Breaks and session length
Exhaustion is the enemy of a good session, so arrange pre-agreed times on when to take a couple 15-30 minute breaks. With a break, don’t lounge by the water cooler, go outside! Stretch your legs, go for a walk, get some fresh air in a reasonably calm and quiet place.
For session length, try to keep these under 10 hours - 12 at the most. We’ve heard the war stories about marathon 3 day recording sessions, but most of the time, these yield really poor results. Sessions, even home recording sessions, can be hard (albeit fun) work, so keep reasonable working hours.
Don’t forget to eat at regular times, and stay hydrated often with water - get everyone their own water bottle (with lids to avoid accidental spills on pricey gear!), and put your names on it so the engineer won’t steal it ;)
Try to avoid alcohol - it will change your perspective when recording, and contribute to exhaustion later on, so save the imbibing for after studio in a local bar to talk recording progress with your group, or the celebratory bash when the album you’re making is complete.
This does actually happen, and when it does, you can quickly lose perspective on your tracking and mixing. Many musicians have left the studio at night joyous about their new creation only to come back in the morning, listen to playback... and hate everything. This is almost always because of:
Loss of perspective because of ear fatigue the night before.
Listening back to tracks with rested ears, minds, and bodies the next day.
A good way to check if your ears are getting tired is to use your ‘reference’ tracks that I mentioned before. If you think you’re getting fatigue, throw on one of the reference tracks and listen - if it sounds totally different than how you remember, then you may need to step away from the desk for 10-15 minutes.
When to tell the drummer he's fired
A guy walks into a shop and says, "Hi there; I'd like to know how much studio time is per hour, what kind of backline gear you offer, and what other bands have recorded here."
The shopkeeper says, "Hey! you must be a drummer!"
The guy says, "Yes! Yes I am! How did you know?"
The shopkeeper says, "Because this is a butcher shop."
My friend (and professional session drummer) Tim van de Ven told me that one. Jokes aside, sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that one person in session just isn’t cutting it. This can be a tricky and sensitive thing to deal with in a session, so ideally this should be dealt with before recording.
Remember that usually someone not cutting it in a session isn’t for want of them trying - they could very likely sit and play for days and still not get the recording right. While the intentions are good, it’s still a time waster, and to keep with your schedule, sometimes the line needs to be changed.
When this happens, it doesn’t always mean totally firing the band member, it could simply mean bringing a different player in, or letting another band member put down their version of a take for just that part of the recording.
If it ever comes to this it should be a consensus with everyone involved - including the player having trouble. Keep the conversation to the point (no pointing fingers), acknowledge all the effort of the player, be 100% honest about why the change needs to happen, and stay professional.
Recording is collaborative, and ultimately all about the songs, so everyone should be committed to that, even if one member won’t be contributing in the end. No one ever wants to be in that position, but the sooner the right people for the song are recording, the smoother the session will go in the long run.
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