The studio. Such a glamorous and misunderstood beast. You've googled the crap out of it: "recording an album," "what to bring to the studio," "how to prepare for the studio," "what Instagram filters take the best pretentious studio shots?" and "do craft beers clog up my vocal cords?"
Anticipation is building. You're taking one gigantic leap toward indie stardom just by booking the studio space. But hold up a second. There's a whole bunch of stuff nobody is telling you. Here's what you'll learn recording an album and how to deal with each situation prior to your studio time.
1. Who in your band isn't serious about the band
Let's be honest, everyone has a different level of buy-in to the band. Nothing brings this to the surface faster than dropping thousands of dollars on studio time and finding out one (or more) band members are MIA for the first day of recording. Here are signs that someone in your band isn't taking it seriously:
- They come unrehearsed
- They use language like, "That's good enough," and "I can't remember what I played before," and "I'm getting tired"
- They're the first one to head home ("Let's call it an early night")
- They don't participate in discussion, and when directly asked their opinion they respond with, "Um, whatever, it's fine"
- They're texting/snapchatting more than they're listening
Invested members of the band care what the final product will be and realize it's a reflection of themselves, their creativity. They care that other members of the band are laying down the tracks of their lives and if not, will support them until they do. It's less about the individual and more about the band.
2. You should have spent more time on your licks and fills
Any musician – no matter how good – will break down if their cuts sound terrible. How do you prevent this? Simple. Book rehearsal times as a band and strongly encourage individual practicing once the studio time is set in stone. In fact, make it a habit that whenever you book studio time, you immediately book rehearsal time and hold everyone accountable. If you can't find suitable rehearsal time, then push back your studio time. Don't waste money in the studio because you're unprepared.
3. Who can play with a metronome and who can't
A metronome is an acquired taste. Nothing is more frustrating than placing the click and having the musicians sway back and forth over it like a drunk walking a straight line. The purity of the metronome cannot be bent toward human fallibility. It's true, unwavering, and virtuous. You'll never love the click, but you better respect it.
Tips for getting your band ready for the click:
- Determine the tempo of each song you're recording and provide the BPM and time signatures to each band member
- Play with a metronome that everyone can hear during rehearsals. Not just the drummer and bassist – everyone needs to hear it, because everyone is responsible for staying on tempo
- Make sure everyone has a metronome for their individual practicing. There are good ones in the App Store and on Google Play for free (or almost free). I use Pro Metronome from the iOS App Store.
Recording it live off the floor (when the whole band, or a large part of it, is recorded at the same time)? You still need that single point of reference to keep everyone honest. Don't cheat on the metronome.
4. How to objectively talk to your bandmates about their parts
We all hold our parts dear. They're extensions of us and our ability. Our babies, if you will. Telling your bandmate they have an ugly baby is tough.
You'll be in the control room listening to a buddy put his heart on tape, and suddenly, it's an episode of Wipeout. All these obstacles are in front of people, and someone is bound to get hurt. I've seen guys walk out of sessions before because they were unfairly criticized and treated disrespectfully.
How do you prevent this?
- Call a band meeting
- Talk about how the studio will work and set everyone’s expectations
- Get touchy-feely. Talk about your communication styles and how each member likes to be communicated with
- Pump each others' tires. When someone knows you respect or admire them, they're less likely to get hurt by your criticism
5. How you sound to others
We all have what I call the "head bias." You've only been hearing what you're playing/singing inside your head as you've been playing it. In other words, you haven't recorded and listened back to yourself before.
This is a self-awareness piece. You might think you're Barry White until you hear playback from an answering machine. The concept is that it's much harder to be objective if you don't step back from your parts and listen.
What do you do? Record each individual part (or if you're on a time crunch, record the whole band at once) with simple software like GarageBand and listen to it. You might think your part is amazing, but when you step out and listen to it in context, you might find that it's not as good as you thought. That's alright – just come up with something new or adjust what you already have. Better you find out now than next month while you're paying for studio time.
6. How good your producer is (or isn't)
This is a sad one to find out when you've already paid your dues and the producer is sitting behind the console. Ultimately, you won't fully understand how good a producer is until you work with him or her, but you can still do your homework beforehand.
Treat it like you're getting a reference for a contractor to build a house. Research producers and choose the right one for you.
Who is the right one?
- She matches your style – has recorded in your genre before
- She has references and material for you to listen to – previous albums and other bands on speed-dial for you to talk to
- He is prepared – works with you before you get into the studio, making sure your arrangements are on the money
- He is respectful, yet honest – you want someone to tell you if it sucks, but in a tasteful way
What am I trying to say here? The studio deserves more respect than most bands give it. It can be a place that tears bands apart or catapults them to further success. Give it respect and you'll be the latter.
Brandon Waardenburg is the founder of Apparatus, an artist accelerator providing music advice and education to independent artists, as well as a musician, songwriter, musicpreneur, and consultant. After receiving his music degree back in 2011, he began working alongside independent artists, songwriters, producers, and engineers in their quest to retain creative control. Sign up for his free email newsletter here and get open-source ideas and actionable advice for your career.