Studio Recording 101 For the Musician – Concepts To Help Ensure Your Musical Success
Reprinted by permission from Mike Parkinson, KHS America Education Artist, XO Professional Brass Artist, and Nottelmann Music Clinician
Countless musicians have dreams of making an outstanding professional recording or becoming studio musicians. Unfortunately many musicians, including me, have often gone into the recording studio with a lack of knowledge, experience or understanding of how to prepare or deal with the studio environment. As basic audio recording equipment has become affordable, more home studios and smaller professional studios have opened in cities across the nation, providing wider access to musicians, Also, the portability of equipment has made remote site recording much more feasible.
I am providing this guide which is based upon my experience primarily in jazz combo, big band, and jingle recording sessions, generally learned on the job and sometimes under trying circumstances. I am not including information on recording gear, acoustics, microphone placement, studio fees, physical product production, copyright or licensing, marketing, and so forth. All of this is contained in texts on the music industry/recording available at the best book stores or on-line.
Please consult studio professionals in your area and search the internet for “how to” videos and articles on the recording process. There are music industry/recording forums on LinkedIn and excellent magazines on recording, though most of those are for engineers. Remember that when recording, it’s not about you; it is about the music and the ensemble! The elements you need to succeed include a positive attitude and aptitude, musical preparation and mastery, flexibility, patience, consistency, creativity, team spirit, spontaneity, and the ability to LISTEN and by the way, LISTEN! While there is no easy road to recording studio success, I hope that this guide will assist you.
YOUR PREFERRED SONIC ENVIRONMENT:
- What are your favorite STUDIO recordings sonically?
- What are your favorite STUDIO recordings of your primary instrument sonically?
- Where and what year were the recordings made, and who were the recording engineers?
- What appeals to you about the sound of these recordings?
- What is your listening format: headphones, computer speakers, sound bar, streaming, on-line source, or physical produce through a home stereo system with adequate to excellent speakers?
- When listening, consider the balance of the instruments, stereo separation, clarity, and overall tone quality (flat, dark, bright, full or hollow, close or remote).
- Do the instruments and the ensemble sound natural, even if they are amplified or electronic?
- How much reverberation is used and is the overall sound “wet” or “dry” to you?
- Does the music sound natural or overly electronic, distorted or clear, highly compressed or life-like?
- The most important question to answer is WHAT DO YOU WANT IT TO SOUND LIKE?
ADVANCE PREPARATION AND REALITY CHECKS:
- What is the purpose and desired outcome of the recording session?
- Are you the ensemble leader, featured performer, a group member, or contracted for a session?
- How much time and effort must you and/or the band have to prepare before the session takes place, or is this a “one and done” session?
- STUDIO FEES: if you are the leader, reach an understanding up front and in writing before the session. Is delivery of a final mix or physical product (CDs) included? Who is paying the bills?
- YOUR FEE: If you are hired as a sideman for a session, what should you be paid? Will there be a contract; is this a non-union or union session with set scale/rates? If you are not a member of the American Federation of Musicians and the local where you live, this may be a moot point.
- Investigate several studios, engineers, the sonic environment, lighting, parking, security, and the “hang” area.
- If possible, observe sessions in the style or ensemble format you will record. These will provide you with great opportunities to observe physical separation between instruments, who is standing or sitting (which may impact microphone types and placements), and what are the sight lines between performers.
- Contact individuals who play your instrument with recording experience for their insights and advice. If possible observe them in action during a session.
- If you are the leader, work with the engineer to select the best day and time for a 3 to 4-hour recording session. If this is the band’s first session. Less time is better than more, be conservative in your initial goals.
- How much lead time will your group need to fully prepare X number of pieces for recording?
- Select works to be recorded and determine the length per piece you plan to record.
- Determine the degree of musical difficulty and where to place each work in the allotted recording time.
- Before the session, perform the music in different locations in the order that you plan to record.
- Make a scratch recording (laptop, portable system, phone or video) to get an idea of how the music sounds away from the band stand. Plan to share this with an engineer.
- A typical recording session is 3 to 4 hours, with at least 30-45 minutes for the musicians to arrive, set up drums, amps, keyboards, etc., get comfortable, mics placed in proper location, headphone mix and balance, warm up (some), and then do mic level checks/balance before recording begins. Add time for playbacks, breaks, gear issues, mic adjustments, musical modifications, and so forth. The engineer works BEFORE you arrive and continues AFTER you leave…..
- If you are hired for a session, request the music well in advance if it is available to be fully prepared. Any questions, ask to speak to the arranger/composer or band leader.
- Album or band demo recordings may require several sessions, depending on the music’s format, amount, and difficulty. Time and budget constraints mean you must record what is essential, emphasize quality over quantity.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FOR AND FROM MY FRIENDS – advice primarily for ensemble leaders:
- Provide CUE sheets, with the title/composer, timed/bullet points for each piece, with solo order, featured musician(s), dynamic levels, endings, and so forth for the performers, the engineer, and an assistant (a friend who knows the music or can read a score) to count down events for the engineer during the session.
- Well in advance, give the engineer a scratch recording or links to groups playing the music you will record.
- You may/may not have time for multiple takes or be able to play along and “punch in” to repair mistakes. This depends on the engineer and studio’s sophistication.
- For commercial dates and various musical styles, you may play with a click-track through headphones. This is generally not done for straight ahead acoustic based jazz recording sessions.
- Agree in advance to the order of selections, for example: 1) something comfortable, 2) something more challenging, 3) the most challenging piece, 4) finish with something comfortable.
- If you have two hours for actual recording, four works is a good number with an approximate length of five to nine minutes per piece. Be happy if you get three pieces recorded to everyone’s satisfaction.
- WOOPS FACTOR: You will need time for false starts, flubbed entrances, obvious mistakes, pitch issues, missed cues, the “and then I said…” solo, and so forth.
- ATTITUDE: maintain positivity, patience and purpose, give and take, forgiveness, respect and celebration. It’s not about you; it is about the music and the ensemble!
TIPS FOR BEFORE AND IN THE STUDIO:
- Reminders: (1) What is the purpose of this session? This is not a concert or a club date. (2) Select works to be recorded with the exact length per piece for the amount of time you have. (3) Determine the degree of difficulty and where to place each work in the allotted time. (4) Determine solo orders and durations per piece. (5) Create accurate cue sheets per piece for the performers and the engineer.
- If this is your ensemble or one in which you perform, MASTERY of the music is expected for all performers.
- Set a consistent tempo for each piece, MM = __, practice with a metronome, check the tempo span (plus-minus) in rehearsals. Remember, you will generally not use a click track in a jazz recording session.
- Practice the hand-off from one soloist to the next; make sure no musical seams are showing.
- Musical cues can and should often come from the drummer to set up what is coming next in the music.
- ENSEMBLE UNITY: style, technique and purpose for each piece. Is it musically convincing?
- Rehearse in a recording studio setup, employ sonic separation, and maintain visual contact.
- MUSIC STANDS: Will you need your own stand with a piece of carpet or felt on the rack to remove clatter? Drummers/Percussionists: prepare carpeted or felt covered racks for sticks, mallets and brushes.
- I-PAD FOR MUSIC DISPLAY: if you are not using printed music, bring your tablet, foot switch if you use one, you power cable and a strip. Be prepared to adjust the screen’s lighting.
- Depending on your instrument, stand and/or sit when you record. Practice this several times, whether you are either reading out to the music stand or looking down at the music, playing over the top of the rack.
- LIGHTING: Can you see the music perfectly on the stand? If you need a stand light, bring your own with an extension cord and a power strip.
- The engineer will adjust the closeness and angle of the microphone for your instrument, not you.
- Amplified instruments may use a direct box or a microphone on the amplifier.
- Anticipate the amount of physical and visual closeness, or isolation among musicians in the studio.
- IN THE STUDIO: make no unnecessary sounds on your instrument, stay focused, and do what the engineer asks you to do. Brass: know when to empty water from your instruments; woodwinds: know when to use swabs.
- PLAY WHAT? Prepare to play the softest, loudest, busiest, most difficult and simplest music for the engineer.
- ASK WHAT? At some point before or after the session, or on a break, ask the engineer what microphone(s) are being used for your instrument by brand and type, and why – because you want to learn!
- HEADPHONES: Decide if you will be on a double or single muff, impacted by the degree of separation and/or isolation in the studio. I have done it both ways – the mix in the headphones should assist you.
- HEADPHONE MIX: What do you want to hear while recording? You may be able to adjust the mix you get in the headphones through the outputs on the box. However, if there is no box and you need something in the mix, ask the engineer for help.
- TUNING/INTONATION: (1) if you are using the studio’s acoustic piano, request that it be tuned; you may have to pay for this or it may be provided. (2) Bass and guitar should tune before the session begins. (3) Revisit individual pitch and band intonation before each piece via tuners and/or the piano which may change depending on studio temperature. Pitch differential is constant, be prepared to adjust.
- COUNT OFFS 1: Who is doing the count-off for each piece? Rehearse with the last two counts said very softly or not at all. On some pieces the drummer may do a simple setup for a full measure or one or two beats in tempo. The verbal count goes in front of this and ends on the last two counts or very quietly before the setup.
- COUNT OFFS 2: Consider the impact on breathing for singers, woodwind and brass instrumentalists. Breathe in time for your entrances (a breath crescendo), not late or on impulse at your entrances.
- ENDINGS 1: Avoid long fermatas unless EVEYRONE can see the giver of the release. Determine how long an ending will be: use drum seal offs, short endings, vamps with fades, etc. to remove guess work in endings.
- ENDINGS 2: do not move or make any sound after the last note is released for at least five seconds. This allows the “sound cloud” to clear, especially if there is a loud cymbal crash or a piano “walk up” on a soft chord to a fermata, and so forth.
- TIMING: Per piece, know when enough is enough and when to move on to the next piece.
- BREAKS 1: Get up, stretch and move after each piece, even for a few minutes; stay hydrated, avoid caffeine and sugar. Bottled water is your friend, keep it handy.
- BREAKS 2: Give the horn players a break; possibly have the rhythm section record without them.
- REMAIN POSITIVE: T.T. (Things Take Time) and PIAST (Progress: it’s a scary thing!)
THE DAY OF THE SESSION – especially if you are the leader or a key performer in the band:
- Get a good night’s rest.
- FEED THE ENGINE – no junk food and limit the caffeine. No smoking, no alcohol, and no drugs.
- Find your personal focus point and return to it repeatedly.
- Dress comfortably and appropriately for the studio temperature. Bring a light weight jacket as some studios are very cold, which will impact you and your instrument.
- MENTAL AND PHYSICAL WARMUP: I advise doing this at home as once you are in the studio, an effective warm up may not be possible.
- LARGE GEAR: you may be able to deliver your gear the evening or day before the session – it depends on how busy the studio is and if there would be an extra cost for storage. Make sure you are insured!
- BRASS: bring an old towel for the floor to catch water from your instrument. Don’t forget your mutes!
- INSURANCE: double check your instruments, bring pads, swabs, fuses, patch cords, valve oil, reeds, strings, extra sticks/mallets, tools for simple repairs, and anything you might need.
- Use your personal amps, keyboards, drums, and percussion instruments if at all possible.
- Give yourself plenty of time to arrive before the session is to begin to unload, park and setup. Ask for help from your colleagues if needed to set up, tear down, and repack.
- DON’T BE LATE or UNPREPARED, and DON’T MAKE EXCUSES: The music will suffer and the engineer’s work will not be done successfully without your commitment to the highest musical and personal standards.
FINALLY – Be grateful for the recording experience and thank everyone, especially the engineer whose work continues when yours is finished. While basic recording gear, software, and how-to-guides are readily available at a reasonable price, many musicians may never have the opportunity to record in a professional studio. When it is your turn, be more than prepared, and give as much as you humbly can to the session so that you and everyone else will get as much out of your time together as possible. Experience will be your best teacher!
STUDIO RECORDING 101 FOR THE MUSICIAN
© 2022 by Mike Parkinson – All rights reserved.
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