Recording the Beast: Being Prepared for the Studio
Every original band dreams of making a recording. After you’ve rehearsed together, written new songs and played a bunch of shows, it’s the question most often asked: “Hey, do you guys have a CD I can buy?”
Going into the studio can be a fun and amazing time for any band, but it is work. It isn’t like what we read about- an endless parade of press and groupies with everyone slowly nodding their head as they listen to your superhuman solo. I mean, that is what we might want it to be, but it pretty much never is.
Recording, whether it is in a friend’s spare bedroom or those big commercial facilities we see in microphone ads, is real work. Preparing ourselves to perform the songs correctly and making sure our personal guitar equipment is working are just two of the preparations. Make sure you can endure a lot of waiting too, because in my experience, most time in the studio is spent waiting for something to happen. Patience is a trait that is coveted in any studio environment.
Let’s start with the most important thing in the studio: the song. No matter how good your guitar sounds are, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a great bunch of songs to work on. Ideally they would’ve been played live before, but that isn’t always the case. Live playing does help solidify an arrangement and give you time to tweak your parts. However, many times there is no actual band to play live, and the musicians are just friends to help out on a session, and/or hired guns.
If this is the case, the arrangement of the songs is another important thing to consider. Playing live is very different than a recording, and even studio recordings of the band playing together usually have multiple overdubs. Usually this is the role of a producer.
The producer may ask a guitarist for a multitude of tones, so know your gear well and either have one or two guitars that can get many sounds, or many different guitars. Bring lots of pedals, but only plug in the ones you are using for that particular part. If you’re using any kind of digital equipment, know how it works inside and out. Know how to program it quickly. This isn’t a time to be a technophobe. Test your gear regularly, but my experience says that when things break, it’s usually at a live show or in the studio. Don’t get flustered, and be able to find workarounds quickly.
The guitarist that knows more about his or her gear (not to mention the studio as a whole) is a more valuable one in the big picture. If you’re easy to work with, can find your tones quickly and know a variety of techniques, you’re more likely to be recommended in the future.
If the band is producing the recording themselves, the most important thing is being prepared. Demo your songs beforehand, list what guitar parts you want to record (including overdubs), chart them out, keep them organized and have them practiced and ready to play. Time is money in studios, and unless you have a group of people who like to stand around and let you ‘try something,’ it’s best to leave the experimenting to those with endless time and big budgets. Demo that part at home so you know it will work.
As we can see, the better prepared we are, and the more we know, can make us an MVP in the studio. I certainly recommend guitarists record themselves regularly. Computer recording is pretty cheap and you will learn about arrangement and engineering on your own time. Home studios are more common than commercial ones these days, and understanding the recording process makes us better prepared when we hit the big time.
Studios can be noisy places too. Traditional single coils can hum like crazy being around so much technology. It’s a good idea to have either a very well-shielded single coil guitar or some sort of hum-cancelling pickups if your sound is based around single coils.
When layering guitars for a song, using the same sound for everything will blur the distinction between the parts. Using a sound or pickup combination on an overdub that you would never use live might just be the ticket to having a track that stands out. Remember, a good arrangement is the sum of its parts, not about individual sounds.
Keep an open mind, and listen to what the song needs, not what you want. Studio recording is like boot camp for getting along with people and compromising (unless you’re paying for it all). Prepare well, and soon it will seem as natural as the stage.