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General Studio Tips

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Session Tips

The following is really directed at people entering the studio for the first time, or indeed to studio owners who can pass on the information to respective newcomers.

(Copyright 1999 A.P.Ronaldson)

Due to popular demand, the following is an overview of important things to consider before you start recording your demo / CD.
Newcomers to studio recording are often amazed at the difference between playing live and playing in the studio. Hopefully, this will help you spend more time recording and less time sorting out problems!

Drummers
Guitarists & Bass Players
Vocalists
Other Areas

Drummers normally take longer to set up their equipment than the rest of the band. It is true that all instruments are important in any recording - however, remember that any good drum sound makes a song rock! So what should we think about, and what should we look at before we enter the studio session?

1.    It is always a good thing to make sure that the heads of your drums are either new, or at least not worn out. Nothing is worse than getting to the studio and finding out that you have to spend 2 hours changing skins! The same applies to cymbals. Check for chips and splits in the metal ware.  Take a quick look over your stands and any moving parts. Make sure that all felt rings for cymbals are in good condition. Any harsh rings or squeaks will go to tape. "We'll fix that in the mix..." is a fallacy. You cannot hide such sounds in any studio. Once you are happy with that, it's time to pack and head for the studio....

2.    Once in the studio, try and set up your kit as you feel comfortable with. Good, clear communication between the studio staff and yourself will create a nice relaxed atmosphere for everyone. You might think its great to play your kit with everything ringing out like mad - but the engineer knows the room he puts you in. If you are asked to tape down your skins, then oblige without fuss - most engineers require this for microphone placements. A ringing kit will often cause unwanted and possibly unnecessary boomy low frequencies. If you are worried about a certain sound that you like to hear, talk to the engineers. They won't bite, well maybe... They are as willing to help you as you should be to help them.

3.    Depending on the size of the studio area, once your kit is set up, then the studio staff will need to set up stands and microphones. This is a very important part of the studio setup, and normally this is the time for you to take a break. In a studio area, drums are normally very loud and it can be a little off-putting setting up microphones when the drummer is knocking out 240dB of kit in your face....

4.    As soon as the microphones are in place, you will be required to sit at your kit and go through an obligatory sound check. This will normally consist of playing each separate drum and cymbal until the engineer is happy with the signal levels going to the recording machine. It is quite normal that you will not hear any sound in your headphones until the engineer has gone through the whole kit check. Once this has been achieved, the engineer will then add equalisation, dynamics and effects such as reverb, letting you hear this as a complete sound. What I tend to do is record the drummer for 3 minutes, let him hear the sound, discuss any particular desires the drummer may have, and then if everyone is happy at this stage, we go onto the next section of the session setup procedure.
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Guitarists & Bass Players are up next. In most cases, the bass will not go through an amp, but through a direct-box straight into the recording desk. However, a combination of the two is preferred. This is a matter of taste, and  can be decided upon in relation to the type of music played, or indeed, the musicians themselves. Not a big problem, just a matter of deciding what's best and doing it.

1.    Generally it is a very good precaution to put basses and guitars through a guitar technician prior to entering a studio. This is a common problem that we experience a lot at TRAM. It's incredible to think that musicians want to buy the best in quality instruments, but hardly ever consider keeping them up to scratch... Remember that an instrument is much like a car. It needs servicing at least once a year. Main points here to note are intonation and bowed necks. These are by far the most common problem found at the recording stage. Why? Because in a studio session you hear everything! Don't kid yourself. Studios are not similar to playing live. If a demo has to sound good, then it must at least sound in tune!

2.    Next we look at the most obvious problem that occurs - earth loops or noisy instruments. It's no good saying in amazement "It's never done that before.." or "That doesn't happen on stage...". It probably doesn't, but then in the studio environment, the cabling and wiring is far better and more secure than most stages around. In other words, even slight soldering problems will cause earth loops, buzzing high frequency signals that, as always, cannot be fixed in the mix. A good guitar technician will check for these problems, but ask him to do so anyway. Just to be on the safe side. Guitarists should also check their amplifiers. Once again, electrical buzzes or interferences will arise if earth loops are not checked. The same applies to cables. 

3.    It is assumed that all musicians have practiced their parts? This is also a typical weak point in the course of recording. It should go without saying that everyone should be well oiled with the run-throughs and makeup of each song. One point to note here is solo parts and backing vocals. These should be tried and tested before you start tracking. Solo tracks can take a lot of time to lay down - especially if musicians are not quite decided on what it is they actually want to play. 
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Vocalists are next in line. At the beginning stages of the recording, it can be a good thing to have the vocalist sing a rough guide track as the musicians are recording their songs. This gives everyone a better "live-feel" for the basic tracks, and prevents the multi-tracked songs from becoming sterile in their feel at a later stage. If the musicians are well versed in their songs, then there should be no problem for everyone to lay down their tracks quickly and effortlessly. Time is saved, as well as money!

1.    Normally, the vocalist is the last link in the chain as far as recording is concerned - at least as far as the solo instrument tracks are concerned. These are normally laid down after the final vocal tracks for obvious reasons: Solo parts tend to be played better against songs that sound good and offer inspiration. If the vocalist is well acquainted with the vocal sections of the songs, it is a good idea for him/her to train the voice prior to recording. This can take place after the engineers are satisfied with their recording levels. The voice is without doubt the greatest instrument in the world - and for it to work best, it is highly recommended to ease the vocal chords in as it were. Walking straight into a recording can prove disastrous - at minimum, stretching important muscles, leaving the vocalist no other choice than to go home and rest....

2.    Vocalists should never be afraid of making demands upon the studio staff when recording. All vocals must sit right in the mix, and for that to happen, you need to feel comfortable during the recording process. Make sure that the headphone balance between the backing tracks and your vocals is set at the right volume. Too loud backing tracks will cause you to sing off key! Too loud vocals we tend to put you out of time with the main tracks. Don't be content until you feel that everything is right for you. Remember that you are paying for your recording, and to that end, you SHOULD be able to make demands.
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Other areas to consider are of course keyboard players, backing vocalist, solo instruments, special effects etc. Once again, these points should be taken into consideration long before entering the studio. Keyboard players tend to record with the rest of the band during basic tracking. They will normally be recorded through a D.I. Box, affording them the cleanliness of balanced lines to the recording desk.

Organs are another matter, and should you happen to own a Leslie B-3 (lucky you!), then this would normally be recorded later in the session.

Solo instruments tend to be recorded after the songs are "finished". This is quite typical, and affords the band the chance to listen to, and check if, things are working out as planned. Special effects, or sampled audio parts are normally added prior to the final mix. How this is done differs from studio to studio, but the idea is basically the same.

Once all tracks are recorded, it's time for the mixing session! Here your songs, with everything previously recorded over multi-tracks, are mixed-down to two tracks for stereo mastering. These tracks will then be placed in your order of preference, and burnt onto a CD-R or other similar medium for you to take home.
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