Recording an album is a time-consuming and money-draining process. There’s nothing worse than coming out of the studio with a record you’re not happy with. Cut corners and compromises can often lead to an underwhelming product you’re not excited to share with the world.
Beams, a Toronto-based indie-folk band, has recorded one acclaimed full-length record and an EP. Now the band is in the midst of recording their follow-up album. For Beams, recording isn’t a light undertaking. With seven members, a lot of planning is necessary to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. So when the band’s lead vocalist and banjo player, Anna Mērnieks, talks about getting ready for the studio, it’s a good idea to pay attention.
"Unless you've got special circumstances, recording in a studio is usually either constrained by time, money, or both. Usually both," says Mērnieks. "So the first reason why it's important to prepare before going into the studio is to make sure that you record all or most of the tracks that you wanted to record, and don't spend all of your time trying to figure out how fast a song should be or what the bass line should be."
For Mērnieks, getting things together in advance just means her band has more time to perfect their record. When you do away with discussions and second guessing, she says it can free you up to work on the fun parts of making a record. "If you've already prepared for the studio, you can focus on experimenting with fun things like tone and effects rather than on pre-production things like tempo and arrangement," she explains.
So, with that in mind, we sat down with Mērnieks to talk about how her band saves valuable time and dollars before you even enter the studio.
1. Do it live
Recording a song has the potential of sucking the life out of a composition. If you’re not careful, that beautifully crafted song you wrote can end up sounding flat and lifeless. Sometimes it’s because you chose the wrong tempo to record to. Sometimes it’s because you haven’t rehearsed the song as much as you should have. One of the easiest ways to remedy this is by making sure the song stands on its own in a live environment.
"If there are any new songs, I like to get the arrangements to a point where we can test the songs out live for a few shows to let the songs find their groove when the room is full of energy," says Mērnieks. "Then we spend a long time ironing out parts of the newer songs as well as the older songs, making sure that no sections are muddled, no parts are redundant, that the dynamics are there."
Getting to know the songs in a live setting will ensure you know how you want them to sound when it comes time to hit record. Capturing the essence of the song is no easy feat, but the more intimately you know it, the easier it will be.
2. Schedule a plan for each musician
"Beams is a large band, so we have to make sure that we have a plan before we go into the studio," says Mērnieks. She says her band makes charts for each track they want to record. They’ll have a spot for each member and the instrument they want to put on the song. "Then we make a schedule for each person who will be involved in the session and try to plan out what to work on with who we have on each day in the studio."
It’s important that everyone knows what their role in the project is ahead of time. It’s equally important for people to know when they have to show up. "It might sound obvious, but preparing by booking off work is very important, and in the chaos of things, it can be missed."
3. Get out the microscope
As Mērnieks likes to point out, pre-production is like taking a microscope to the individual parts of each song. Doing the work ahead of time ensures the instruments aren’t clashing with one another and are each playing an important part in the song. "If an instrument's part is not really adding to the sound, it is usually edited out or adjusted in some way so that it is. In the end, the ideas that each player communicates are just a lot clearer," she says.
Creating simple demos ahead of the recording session will help everyone remember the parts they came up with. But going the extra step and multi-tracking the songs can really help you realize the full potential of your song. This is a step Beams decided to take with their second album, and Mērnieks believes it really made it difference.
"We weren't as affected by energy levels when it came to tracking beds in the studio, and we were also able to use a few of the tracks from our demos in the final recording, where it made sense to," she says.
4. Get your timing right
This attention to detail is crucial. It will show you where the holes in your song are and give you time to fix them. One of the added benefits of this phase is that it helps you work out the timing of your song. "Pre-production also irons out places where we are slowing down or speeding up unnecessarily," says Mērnieks. "A little bit of time stretching is important in order for the songs to be human, but it's important to play the songs to a click during pre-production and decide whether or not each slowdown/speed-up is actually adding to the song or taking away part of its energy."
Of course, not every band will want to record to a click. Depending on the type of music you play, it can be restrictive. In the worst cases, it can actually suck the life right out of a song. But with today’s digital recording techniques, it’s an option that should at least be explored.
"I think that one of the most important things that people aren't prepared for is that they will have to play to a click," she adds. "It really is important, unless you are doing the whole recording in one take, live off the floor. Playing to a click track is frustrating at first, but it enables you to multi-track and record consistent takes that can be swapped around if a certain part of one take went better than it did in another."
5. Make your health a priority
Just being in a band seems to dictate that you’re going to have an unhealthy diet. This is most commonly associated with being on the road. But it can just as easily become a problem in the studio. It’s hard to resist the urge to just head out to McDonald’s when hunger strikes. But Mērnieks says it always pays to eat healthy. "We also try to prepare food ahead of time so that we don't have to buy takeout every day, and make sure that we have tea, honey, and green apples for vocals," she says.
6. Find the right people
As we said, there’s nothing worse than walking out of the studio with an album you’re not proud of. One of the best ways to make sure this doesn’t happen is by working with the right engineer. The pre-production you’ve already done will help you realize what you want your songs to sound like. Then you can start looking for someone to help you capture that sound.
"Think about what you want your songs to sound like," Mērnieks recommends. "What artists were you inspired by while you were writing them? Try to find an engineer that has made recordings that sound a bit like that. It's important to be on the same page artistically with your engineer. I've scrapped a finished album before because the engineer's ideas were so different from our own that the product was totally underwhelming."
For Mērnieks, the recording studio is very much an individual experience. Bands should do their best to make themselves feel comfortable and know what they want. "Just know what you want [it] to sound like. Cinematic and polished? Better arrange those songs well and practice to a click! Live off the floor and garage-y? Get really tight with your band and find your settings!"
7. Don’t be too precious
Recording can be an exhausting experience. It will drain your money and take up a lot of your time, so the instinct to scrutinize every detail is understandable. But at some point, you need to let go and see what happens. "In the end, have fun, and know that it will never be perfect," Mērnieks says,"but the imperfections will give it character, so it's okay. Don't be so precious that it takes you eight years to make it."
The product of Beams’ hard work, their new album, will be released sometime this coming fall or next spring. In the meantime, they continue to hone their songs around Canada and the United States. Mērnieks is excited to share her band’s creation with the world and fully believes the work they put in ahead of time will make all the difference.
"I feel like all of our hard work in pre-production paid off. And it really was hard to get everyone together and work out the arrangements – it's not easy! I'm supercharged right now. I can't wait until it's done so that I can listen to it," she says.
Ty Trumbull is a Canadian musician and writer living in Mexico City. He's played banjo and guitar with a bunch of bands you've probably never heard of.