It may sound obvious but make sure your song is finished. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had clients come into the studio only to start rewriting a part of the lyric or melody. It is significantly less stressful (and quite a bit less expensive) to write a song when you’re not paying the studio an hourly fee.
You can also benefit from trying a few rough recordings at home before you get to the studio. The simple act of listening back to a song instead of performing it will reveal any weaknesses or issues that need to be dealt with before the studio clock is running. The last of these rough home recordings will become the definitive work tape.
The Rough Recording
This is any simple, inexpensive recording that you do on a hand-held tape recorder, mini disc player, mp3 recorder, etc. Generally a piano or guitar plus a scratch vocal will do the trick. The key here is not a perfect recording but rather an accurate representation of the song structure. In other words, it doesn’t have to sound great as long as the chords, melody and lyrics are correct. The purpose of this work tape is to provide the demo vocalist and session musicians with a final version of your song from which they can learn.
Let’s start with the demo vocalist: It’s always a good policy to get a copy of the work tape and the lyrics to the singer a week or so before the session. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the singer can let you know what key the song should be in to best suit their voice. This way, if you end up recording instrument parts before the singer does their part, you’ll know the correct key. Secondly, the more time the singer has to learn the song, the less time he or she will take to sing the song when the studio clock is running.
When you get to the session, it’s wise to have printed lyric sheets for the engineer, musicians and vocalist. The lyrics should be typewritten and have each chorus written out in full. The reason for this is that you’ll be using these lyric sheets to mark spots that need fixing (or spots on certain takes that you like) and having “Repeat Chorus” written for the second and third choruses won’t allow you to take good notes. The better the notes you take on the lyric sheet while the vocalist is recording, the easier it will be to tell the vocalist what works and what needs to be fixed.
The session musicians do not need a work tape in advance. They will be learning the song from your work tape when they get to the session. You can save a little time by writing a chord chart of the song if it’s something you’re comfortable doing. If not, the session musicians should have no trouble doing it for you quickly using the work tape you bring to the session.
After that, it’s up to the singers and musicians to bring your song to the next level. There’s nothing more fun than listening to world-class musicians and vocalists record a song you’ve written. The more you prepare in advance, the more you’ll enjoy your studio experience.