Friday, December 09, 2005

Preparing For Your Recording Session

By: John McKay

Recording is a time-intensive experience, and problems that
arise often seem magnified. No one wants to wait for an hour
while the guitar player runs to Guitar Center for new strings.
So, to keep things going smoothly and efficiently, here are some
things to do in preparation:

1. Practice! You'd be surprised how many bands come into the
studio obviously unprepared. If you can't play through the song
without making mistakes, then you're not ready to record yet.
Take the time to practice the songs you want to track
thoroughly. This isn't to say that you can't be creative in the
studio, but it's a lot cheaper to be creative on your own time.

2. Make sure your songs are finished. Going into the studio
hoping to finish lyrics or parts on the spot is a recipe for
dissatisfaction. You may be inspired by the pressure, but you'll
inevitably listen back to it later on and think that you could
have sang it better, or that you don't especially like this line
or that phrase.

3. Record yourselves. It's very useful to record your practice
using a simple tape recorder. The finished product won't sound
very good, but you'll be able to hear if you're off time, or off
key. It may also make you aware that some parts of your song are
dragging, or that other parts could be extended or more

4. Get your gear in shape. Don't show up for a session that
you're paying for with gear that doesn't work, cables that cut
out, batteries that are going dead, or blown speakers. If you're
afraid that your gear is less than perfect, make some calls. You
engineer can point you to some people in town that rent gear on
a day-by-day basis, or to other musicians who might be willing
to loan an amp or cabinet for a day or two. It makes a

5. Tune your instrument. Drummers should put on new heads about
1 week before the session. The snare head should be replaced
immediately before the session, and if you're doing more than
one or two songs, consider bringing extra snare heads. Nothing
sounds as good on tape as a fresh snare head. Guitarists should
put a new set of strings on a few days before the session. Bring
extra strings, as you probably will break one or two. Bass
players can replace their strings, although new bass strings can
be a bit overly metallic. I recommend changing bass strings a
week or two before the session.

6. Let people know you're busy! You don't want to be called in
to work half-way through your session. Everyone involved needs
to clear their schedules. Nothing creates more tension in a
session than someone wanting to blow out early so they can hit
some party. Also, if you're recording at your home, make sure
your family knows about it. Take phones off the hook, recording
will require some degree of quiet. If you're working at your
practice space, make sure the neighbors know that you'll need
some quiet, if there are other bands at your facility, ask them
for their schedules, and work out a time when they won't be
playing in the next room.

7. Have a plan. It's always better to have fewer songs to
finish, and to know precisely which songs you're trying to get
done. Often, once a session gets rolling, it's easy to just go
ahead and track some of the other songs you have. While this
isn't terrible, in my experience these tracks are usually
discarded, as they haven't been thoroughly practiced, and may
not even be complete.

9. Develop a vision. I like to come see a band before I record
them, just to get a feel for their sound, and develop my vision
for the session. If you envision your record sounding like the
latest MTV hit, you may be frustrated and disappointed. Your
band is unique, and my goal as an engineer is to find what's
best about your band and accent that. Your record may not sound
like anything that's come before, and trying to cram it into a
pre-existing notion of a "good recording" doesn't do it justice.
The Pixies didn't sound like anything that came before them, nor
does Modest Mouse, or the Beatles, for that matter.

8. Relax! Recording is fun, and there's really no pressure. Just
be prepared, and you'll have a smooth, enjoyable session with a
great product at the end!

About the author:
John McKay is the owner of Suitcase Recording, in Phoenix, AZ.
He has over 15 years of experience recording bands, from punk to
surf to indie to hardcore. He does the majority of his work on
location, at the artist's home or rehearsal space. He has also
performed in several bands, and has toured the US extensively.

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