10 Rules for Running a Successful Recording Session

Recording guest musicians in your home studio requires a combination of diplomacy, technical proficiency and business savvy. Here are some tips for making it happen.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on July 18, 2011 by

There’s no better way to test your mettle as an audio engineer than to open up your studio to visiting musicians for fun or profit (preferably the latter). Setting microphone levels and sorting out other technical detail is one thing; however, home-studio producers must also be prepared to deal with frayed nerves and large egos, and, above all, know when it’s time to say “good enough, let’s move on.” Here are a few basic ideas for maintaining as productive an atmosphere as possible while running a recording session.

1. Insist on preparedness. To avoid needless delays, start by ensuring that all band members arrive on time for the session (several studio owners I know begin charging once the first car arrives in the driveway). While some re-tooling of material is to be expected on the job, try to discourage major structural revamps (such as writing an entirely new set of lyrics from scratch) during session time. Remind them, the clock’s ticking — get it done now and save the money for the warm beer at the lousy bar up the street.

2. Plan ahead. Since you expect your guests to be prepared, make sure you follow the same rules of readiness. The night before a session, wire up all microphones, headphones and other recording apparatus, using the configuration of the visiting group as a blueprint. Set preliminary levels on your recorder, which you can fine-tune once the group is warming up. Most of all, be sure that everything is in proper working order — check all cables, mics and instruments for buzzes and other extraneous noises that can create unwanted interruptions in the middle of a session.

3. State your terms. Whether you charge by the hour or by the session, clearly state your terms ahead of time so the artist is able to budget accordingly (and therefore knows when to call it quits). While it’s true that the longer they take the more you’ll make, your reputation will be enhanced if they can walk out of there with a decent product at a good price.

4. Make use of native equipment. Many studios keep an inventory of “in-house” gear such as drums, piano, guitars and instrument amplifiers, which serves two purposes: The engineer knows the equipment and can prepare everything in advance; and it allows the visiting act to spend less time unloading and more time recording. It can be exceedingly difficult to get a productive vibe going when the drummer is taking over an hour to set up (plus you’ll have to wait until everything is arranged and in tune before you can start hanging mics and getting levels). If you already have a kit on the premises, why not just use it? If the band insists on bringing along some of their own equipment out of preference, that’s fine, so long as you refer them to the “clock’s ticking” rule above.

5. Make it comfortable. To most people, a “professional” studio conjures images of big sterile rooms with players sequestered behind sound-isolating baffles. In fact, a studio room that looks more like a living room is often much more conducive to recording. To that end, try setting up the group as if they were rehearsing or performing on stage, even using live vocal mics when possible. Many engineers prefer to arrange the players in a tight semi-circle, which allows them to make eye contact while tracking (and also eliminates the need for headphones).

6. Don’t tell them when the red light’s on. As the best engineers know, recording is often more about psychology than technology. Musicians tend to tense up when they know they’re being recorded, so don’t tell them! For instance, when you’re just getting started, hit the record button while telling the band to “just try a few rehearsal takes.” Or, later on, go out into the room while they’re playing so they think you’re not actually in record mode (when in fact you are). A little sleight of hand can go a long way.

7. Record everything. Back in the days when you had 30 minutes of record time per roll of tape, hitting “pause” was understandable, but not any longer. Having virtually unlimited storage space and editing tools at your disposal means you should keep everything — false starts, partial takes, rhythm mistakes, portions of which could be used as part of the finished master. As veteran producer/engineer Niko Bolas once noted, “you never know when you might accidentally capture some vague sound of a genius idea that might turn out to be a hook for the future. If a trashcan falls over in the right key, it could be amazing.”

8. Take control. Perfectionism can easily derail an otherwise smooth and spontaneous recorded performance, so be prepared to deal with overly obsessive types who continually call out for “just one more try” a half-hour into a 30-second guitar fill. Using a combination of editing (see above) and cajoling (“you nailed it on Take Two, dude”), you can prevent these recording nuts from gumming up the works. Or as one veteran mixer put it, “It’s better to punch in a solo then punch out the artist.”

9. Mix emotions. If there’s a perfectionist in the room, there’s a good chance you’ll be subjected to even more nitpicking once it comes time to mix. To avoid potential control-room conflict, insist on performing the final mixes once everyone has left the building. Make several different mixes per song, using various shades of EQ and processing, altering the tone and attack of the guitar on some versions, boosting the lead vocal on others, etc. You could even cut a finished master using sections of the different mixes as a way of keeping all the customers satisfied.

10. Save, save, save. In the analog era, studios would typically run a “safety” machine in the event the main tape recorder ran amuck. While it is no longer necessary to keep an auxiliary recorder on the premises, you do need to ensure that everything is properly preserved and subsequently backed-up to a dedicated storage unit. Unlike tape machines that printed everything on the spot, with digital you’re just a lightning strike away from losing everything unless you’ve hit “save” beforehand. Or if your hard drive suddenly decides to crash in the middle of a project, having a back-up drive will at least allow you to return to the foundation tracks, rather than painstakingly re-record everything you cut the week before.

Songwriter101 exclusive by Dave Simons

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