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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! Youíd be surprised how many bands come into the studio obviously unprepared. If you canít play through the song without making mistakes, then youíre not ready to record yet. Take the time to practice the songs you want to track thoroughly. This isnít to say that you canít be creative in the studio, but itís 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 youíll inevitably listen back to it later on and think that you could have sang it better, or that you donít especially like this line or that phrase.
3. Record yourselves. Itís very useful to record your practice using a simple tape recorder. The finished product wonít sound very good, but youíll be able to hear if youíre 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 developed.
4. Get your gear in shape. Donít show up for a session that youíre paying for with gear that doesnít work, cables that cut out, batteries that are going dead, or blown speakers. If youíre 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 difference!
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 youíre 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 youíre busy! You donít 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 youíre recording at your home, make sure your family knows about it. Take phones off the hook, recording will require some degree of quiet. If youíre working at your practice space, make sure the neighbors know that youíll need some quiet, if there are other bands at your facility, ask them for their schedules, and work out a time when they wonít be playing in the next room.
7. Have a plan. Itís always better to have fewer songs to finish, and to know precisely which songs youíre trying to get done. Often, once a session gets rolling, itís easy to just go ahead and track some of the other songs you have. While this isnít terrible, in my experience these tracks are usually discarded, as they havenít 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 whatís best about your band and accent that. Your record may not sound like anything thatís come before, and trying to cram it into a pre-existing notion of a "good recording" doesnít do it justice. The Pixies didnít sound like anything that came before them, nor does Modest Mouse, or the Beatles, for that matter.
8. Relax! Recording is fun, and thereís really no pressure. Just be prepared, and youíll have a smooth, enjoyable session with a great product at the end!
John McKay is owner of Suitcase Recordings.
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