Make the Most of Your Studio Time

Even a vintage Neve 1073 console can’t save your session if you are sloppy and unprofessional.

Time and money – two precious resources that musicians never seem to have enough of. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it’s time to record, especially in today’s era of tight budgets and high production values. A poorly managed recording burns time and money.
If you do all your recording by yourself at home, and you somehow have tons of free time, you are safe to ignore this article. As soon as you start to involve other people in the process, whether they’re your band mates, hired musicians, or studio professionals, your time management becomes important. Effective time management in the studio, whether it’s a world class room with millions in gear, or your mom’s basement, is what separates the reliable pros from the bumbling amateurs. Use these tips to make sure your session stays on track (pun intentional – it was too good to pass up).
Have a Firm, Specific Goal. If you go into a recording with the attitude of “let’s just get in there and see what happens”, you’re already in trouble. At minimum, you need to know who will be involved, what songs will be recorded, and how much time your session will take. An ideal plan will go right down to the track-by-track detail of what you need to get done (i.e. a list of which tracks are being recorded for each song). Make sure that the goals of the session are communicated to everyone involved, and that all parties are comfortable with what you’re trying to accomplish. Most importantly, be certain your goals are realistic and achievable. If you have a competent producer or engineer involved, use these people for guidance on how much time you’ll need to get things done.

“Can I get everything louder than everything else?”

Know Your Parts Inside and Out Before the Session. This is such an obvious tip, but it’s very often ignored, even by people who call themselves “professionals.” Practice every part you need to play. Practice them until they are effortless. Practice them until you can play them blindfolded underwater while a burly Irishman repeatedly hits you with a cricket bat. Then practice them some more.
Be Certain Your Gear is in Fighting Shape. A gear failure is a bad scene no matter what else is going on, but in a recording session it can be truly catastrophic. Test your whole rig from top to bottom well before the session, and swap out anything that isn’t working for you. Don’t compromise in this area. If something is impeding you in any way, fix it or leave it at home. A guitar that’s uncomfortable to play for a short practice will cripple you during an all-day session. Most importantly, bring replacement strings, picks, cables, batteries, tubes, fuses, and everything else I recommend in the Gig Survival Kit article.
Show Up On Time. Again, an obvious tip that is widely ignored. Err on the side of being early. Even if you’re just recording yourself in your bedroom, sticking to a schedule is a good habit to get into.
Listen to Your Engineer, but Stay Out of His Way. Your engineer’s job is very difficult on a good day. Don’t you dare make it worse by ignoring his advice, or worse, impeding his tasks. A good engineer knows what does and does not work in a studio environment, and he won’t be afraid to tell you exactly what he needs. If he tells you to turn up your treble, turn up your treble. If he says something in your rig is humming, start troubleshooting. If you have a question for him, wait until he’s not busy, then ask away. Asking a dumb newbie question is always better than wasting half a dozen takes because you didn’t clear up something important. Oh, and bonus tip: if you go out for a coffee break, ask him if you can pick up anything for him. Even if he says no, he will appreciate the thought.
Be Respectful of Your Fellow Musicians. It’s easy to get caught up in an “it’s all about me” attitude when you’re recording, which is probably why plenty of bands fight in the studio. If you totally nailed your part on the last take, don’t flip out if the drummer needs a few more passes to get it right. And don’t be afraid to offer or, more importantly, accept constructive criticism. Recognize that you are all working toward a common goal, and that you need to support and respect each other to achieve it.
Be Prepared to Change Your Plans. No matter how carefully you plan and prepare, you will probably run up against some kind of unforeseen obstacle in the studio. You might find that the Les Paul you loved in all those rehearsals sounds completely wrong on tape. Don’t be afraid to reach for another guitar. Whether it’s a change in gear, arrangement, or the notes themselves, it’s important to embrace change in the studio.  The goal is to get the best sounding recording possible. Limiting yourself with pre-conceptions will only get in the way of that.

Calm blue ocean… calm blue ocean…

Relax. This is my most important tip, especially for studio rookies. Recording is exciting, and the pressure seems to be on all the time, but nerves will hold you back from getting your best performance on tape. Having a solid, realistic plan, and knowing your parts inside and out will be your biggest assets in keeping calm, and you can also do little things to make sure you’re more comfortable and relaxed. I’ve seen guys do sessions in pyjamas and slippers. Whatever works! Be confident in yourself and your band mates, and remember: all you’re doing is playing music, which is fun!  Enjoy it!
Let me know what you think about recording. Do you love it, or dread it? What do you do to prepare for a session, and how do you stay relaxed and focused in the studio? Let me know in the comments.

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5 Comments

  1. Great article! I tend to get really panicky just before recording and it takes two or three takes to get the nerves to go away and enjoy myself. Sometimes more if it’s a tricky part. 🙂

  2. “Time and money – two precious resources that musicians never seem to have enough of.”
    Epic start for the article. I record a lot in my “home” studio. I have acoustically treated rooms, good preamps and converters and everything. But here`s where I teach guitar too… It`s hard to have some free time to record. Sometimes I have 1 or 2 hours, and have to set up everything, record something, and then un-setup everything because the other student is arriving. I need time to record, but I need the income of my guitar students too.
    The article is amazing. It addresses the problem we all have. We are musicians… we like to play 24h a day, without schedules, preparations, deadlines, etc. But we all must put our feet on the ground… most of us are not rockstars who can get a top studio and stay there for 1 year, 24h a day, with everything ready to hit record.
    Keep on rocking!

  3. Besides, if you nail your part and the drummer (or anyone else) doesn’t, they could always go back and do another take only on that certain instrument or do the whole thing again and throw in the part you did awesome.

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