Recording studios can sometimes be intimidating, and there are usually unspoken rules that you may not be aware of. While there are widely varying expectations of recording artists nowadays, we've compiled a list of the most common faux pas. Avoid doing the five things listed below to ensure you'll be respected in professional recording environments, avoid unnecessary conflict, and get invited back for future projects.
1. Arrive late
In states like California where traffic can be hour-long standstills, plan ahead for every session. Bonus tip for LA's studios: always keep a roll of quarters on hand for parking meters. Ask locals about alternate methods of transportation and secret routes, and if anything dire ever happens, be a professional and call whoever is in charge to let him or her know the situation. Not doing this sends a terrible message to session musicians, writers, producers, engineers, or any potential bystanders present. Additionally, it can negatively alter the vibe of the session by shifting the moods of those you kept waiting. Especially in renowned studios, you never know who will be in the control room (e.g., big-label A&R agents, top-talent managers, A-list artists, etc.), so you want to make sure you're always at your best.
2. Touch or move equipment
If you're recording with a band of fellow musicians you feel comfortable with, it's easy to slip back into rehearsal mode, forgetting the expectations of the professionals around you. Remember that you're only borrowing the spaces you record in, and renting out equipment that you don't own. Moving equipment such as amps or mics without speaking with someone, preferably the engineer, can undoubtedly create tension. Something you may think is harmless could noticeably affect the sound or acoustic treatment that your team is working meticulously to sculpt. If they don't know what changed, it can be incredibly frustrating to solve, and time consuming to remediate the varied sound.
Lastly, if you're invited in the control room to listen back to material, never assume that the invitation is extended to turn knobs or raise faders. Engineering is a craft, and production is an acquired skill where science and art meet; don't step on the toes of those minds you hired to help you create music.
3. Not tune up regularly throughout the session (especially the drums)
Tuning is particularly important for songwriters using string instruments or live drum kits in their arrangements. String quartets and larger ensembles require time to synchronize pitch, so carve out time for this throughout the duration of the session.
Before you decide to record, make sure to invest in brand-new guitar strings and take the time to properly tune each string both to a tuner and in relation to fellow players so your music comes out clean and accurate. An insider tip to ensure proper intonation in recordings is to straighten the neck of your guitar out, as a bowed neck can lead to inaccurate tuning and an overall poor quality recording.
Some artists think of tuning as a one-and-done occurrence, but it's crucial to revisit tuning multiple times during a session as pitches naturally waver over time. A good producer will help guide you, but try to develop an ear for snare and kick pitch variations, along with timbres of toms and cymbal resonances. These factors can play a major role in shaping the overall impression of your music and preventing tonal overlap (e.g., the frequency of the kick drum competing with the bass).
4. Set unrealistic recording goals with no specific timeline
One of the worst things to do in the studio is be indecisive. This is your record, and you should have opinions about every aspect of each sound. You and your producer should be ready to buckle down and make difficult decisions that eventually culminate in your resulting album. Constantly changing your mind and not having direction will cause your productivity to be practically zero.
Before recording, you should be able to conceptualize an ideal of what your album is going to sound like. Before even arriving at the studio, make sure all players involved understand your artistic perspective. Creativity is hard to compartmentalize and structure, so you want to set out attainable goals for every session you’re involved in. Don't expect to record 15 songs in a single 12-hour lockout, and brainstorm each musician's needs, fitting them into a master timeline of events. Don't forget to include rest or break times, and factor in the potential for unexpected obstacles to appear, leaving time to restructure and troubleshoot.
5. Not speak up if you're uncomfortable
Pressure can mount in recording spaces, and the expectation to capture perfection may hinder your ability to focus. This is completely normal. However, don't be afraid to speak up about other external factors that add to the forces keeping you from creating the sounds you envision. These may include:
- the temperature of the live room
- humidity control for vocalists and wind instrument players
- the lighting and surrounding ambience
- imaginary or live audiences
- the time of day you're recording
Managing these elements is important in establishing a comfortable environment in which everyone is able to function at their peak. Also, having healthy, energy-boosting snacks on hand is key, along with staying hydrated.
The goal of studio recording is to create an atmosphere in which creativity can thrive and transparency can exist. Music is an outward expression of humanity, and it's important to take measures to ensure that you as the artist are able to access your emotions with focus and clarity, uninhibited by the studio environment.
Caleb Hsu is an independent vocal producer and freelance recording engineer based in Los Angeles. As a classically trained pianist and composer, he enjoys writing music technology features that combine his psychology background with current industry trends.