So you think you’re ready to enter a recording studio? If you’ve done any research into what it takes to record a song then you’ll know that the process can be quite time consuming and expensive; especially if you are not prepared. A lack of preparation can lead to a weak performance, frustration for everyone involved, more time, and thus more money out of your pocket… not to mention a bad recording.
Recording your music can be challenging, but it should always be fun and rewarding.
When I first started recording artists out of my house a number of years ago, I had a number of them who had very little recording experience – if any. This didn’t bother me as it was kind of the point of my studio at the time. However, I quickly noticed some common issues from project to project. So if you are looking to book time in a recording studio and you have very little experience with the recording process or expectations, then this article is for you.
1. If you aren’t ready to play virtually flawlessly in front of a crowd, you aren’t ready for the recording studio.
I truly believe if you can achieve playing a song flawlessly in front of a crowd, then the recording process will be much faster and smoother for everyone involved. You will clearly be rehearsed, know your parts, and be ready to give a solid performance in the studio. That being said, I wouldn’t rush to play your first show either.
I’ve always kind of half joked how recording is where you find out how much you still suck. I remember the first few times I started recording myself and immediately thinking, “Wow those drums are sloppy as hell”. Same would go for my other band members or other musicians who I worked with that seemed to be great live performers.
Recording is About Capturing a Great Performance
At the end of the day recording is about capturing a great performance and that starts with being able to actually play your song well. However, in the studio you can’t get away with as much as you can in a live performance. You will really hear those sloppy chord changes, those off time kick drum hits, or those flat notes in the vocals even more.
Don’t assume the recording engineer can fix it in the mixing or editing process. Focus on giving a great performance because no amount of editing or signal processing can fix a weak performance. Polishing a turd doesn’t make it any less of a turd.
And for the love of God, have your song completely written and practiced before you even book your sessions. Writing and changing your song in the recording studio is a huge time and budget eater. Not to mention painful for everyone else.
2. Practice to a click track/metronome.
This is a must for drummers but I highly recommend it for everyone in your band. Before you even start laying down tracks the engineer will set up a click track 99.9% of the time. Deviations in timing are very noticeable in the recording process and yes, occasionally not using a click track does make sense. However, being comfortable playing along to one is essential as there is a high probability it will be worth using.
The first thing I usually did with a band was set up a click track then get the guitarist and/or bass player to lay down some scratch tracks in preparation for the drum tracking. This way the drummer had a decent reference track of the song and could focus on getting a solid performance. After that we could then shift our focus to bass, guitars, and vocals.
I usually kept the click track playing all the way up until it was time to track the vocals. Then depending on how the vocalist’s timing was I could turn down the click track if not off completely.
3. Know everyone else’s parts.
This doesn’t mean the drummer should know how to play the guitar solo. It means everyone should know who is playing what and when in a song. This may not seem like a major thing but it can certainly make the process vastly easier. It can prevent conflict between members during the recording process, minimize unpleasant surprises, and it can help the engineer execute the session effectively.
4. Make sure strings and drum skins are fresh and tuned.
If your strings or drum skins are a year old, spend the cash and replace them before you get to the studio. Old strings and drum skins lose their tonal quality over time, even when not being played.
I should clarify that the “year old” statement is more tongue-in-cheek. I’m not suggesting strings and skins are good up to one year. I’ll admit I don’t change my drum skins as often as I should, but if I’m going to be recording a song with the intention of capturing a great sound, I’m going to make damn sure my drum skins aren’t old and battered. Same should go for strings.
With regards to tuning, you should be checking it on a regular basis throughout the tracking process.
5. Don’t expect to bring your friends or significant other to the recording studio. Ask first.
Seriously. This became one of my biggest pet peeves and I’m not the only audio engineer to have this issue. Guaranteed.
There is virtually no reason for your friends or significant other to be in the recording studio unless they are actually in the band or somehow involved in your performance (like a vocal coach). So bare that in mind if you do decide to invite someone to the session.
First of all, in my case I didn’t have much room to accommodate the extra people.
Secondly, my recording studio is really more of a basement with recording capabilities, so it’s wide open. People had a hard time keeping quiet when we are recording so their talking, shuffling around, and glasses chiming all get picked up on the recording.
Drama In The Recording Studio
Outside of my personal situation, the other issue is that it can start to become more of a social gathering than a recording session. In the worst cases drama ensues and puts a major damper on the whole experience which is supposed to be fun, challenging, and rewarding. In cases that border on being annoying, people can begin to socialize instead being able to work on the task at hand.
I had more than one occasion where a friend or relative of a client got drunk, knocked my external hard drive to the ground, broke glasses, spilled their drinks, or decided to tell me how to run the session and how things should sound, clearly not knowing what they were talking about (see point six below). I also had someone get into a fight with their significant other during a session. It wasn’t major, but it was bad enough that it really made things awkward for the rest of us, delayed the process, and killed the vibe for a while.
Afterwards I learned that if it came up, I always made it clear I usually didn’t want anyone in the session who didn’t need to be there, only making the odd exception.
I’m not saying this happens all the time, and the reality is I dealt with it on a case by case basis. If you want to bring a friend to the session, ask the engineer and have them adhere to the next point too.
As another reference, this recording studio did a similar blog post with some other good points – one of which is bring food, not friends.
6. Don’t get wasted.
I’m not against having a few drinks in the recording studio. Recording music should be fun, relaxed, but still productive. When I had a paying client I virtually never had a drink, mainly for my own personal reasons. However, I didn’t hesitate to offer my clients a few drinks here and there – if they were of age of course. I usually tried to keep my mini fridge stocked with beer. Sometimes they brought their own.
There were times however, where someone would clearly have too much to drink. For a number of reasons this can be a bad situation and it all depends on how the person handles their alcohol. Sometimes they get belligerent. Sometimes they break stuff by accident (or on purpose). Sometimes they’re a happy-go-lucky drunk and it’s not that bad at all. The common thread however, was that in all the cases an artist had too much to drink, they couldn’t play their instrument any more. Referencing back to the previous point, if a guest of the band had too much to drink, they usually disrupted the session in some way.
You’re Sabotaging Yourself
You are paying someone to capture a great performance for you. Don’t sabotage it by getting loser drunk and not being able to play. Or worse, getting loser drunk and being disrespectful and ruining a potential working relationship. I did not hesitate to ask someone to leave if they were too drunk. A recording studio really isn’t the place to throw a party.
7. Show up to the recording studio on time.
I couldn’t believe how big of in issue this became. Though admittedly it wasn’t as bad with bands as much as it was with hip hop and rap artists. I could write a whole other blog post about my experiences with the hip hop and rap culture and I probably will. Don’t get me wrong, some where an absolute pleasure to work with, but there was a common thread in that scene that made me very hesitant to work with artists in that genre. Anyways, I digress.
If you’re going to be late, at least communicate to the engineer that you will be late. I’ve had clients not even show up to sessions without so much as a text message. It’s extremely disrespectful and a waste of the engineer’s time… and they’ll probably charge you for the wasted time.
Communication Is Key
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting you better be there right on time all the time, but the key is communication between you and the engineer. If you need to reschedule, tell them as soon as reasonably possible. If you’re going to be running late, let them know. A recording studio typically charges by the hour, so running late can cost you.
8. Research Costs & Set Your Budget.
This is a loaded topic and I will not be able to cover all the various scenarios. However, the chances are that you are financing the recording of your band entirely on your own. So, how much will it cost?
Well this is about the same as asking “How much is a car?”
The reality is that it depends on the studio you work with, and how prepared you are. If you are looking for professional, radio ready recordings, be prepared to spend upwards of $700 per song – minimum. It will probably be closer to upwards of $1000 per song.
If you are satisfied with something more demo quality, you might be able to find a studio to record you for as little as $200 per song. Likely closer to $400, however.
So How Much Should I Really Budget For?
Ultimately the point is to give you an idea what recording can cost, and from there you can start to set your budget. If you just want to record one radio ready song, I would budget for at least $1000. If you are just looking to get a song recorded quickly and on a tight budget, you could possibly have it done for as little as $200, but I would budget for at least $400.
The reality is that the quality of your recording will come down to:
- your budget,
- the studio & engineer,
- & how prepared you and your band are, as most studios charge by the hour.
One thing worth noting is that many studios offer discounted rates for larger blocks of time. Almost all will be prepared to negotiate a unique price for projects of larger scale – for example at least a 5 song, radio-ready, EP.
Trying to figure out some recording options can be tough. Determining the right studio will depend on your band and budget. You can always contact me for advice, or check out this post on The Best Recording Studios in Calgary.
To sum it up, there are 8 things you need to do, or be aware of before entering the recording studio. Taking these into account will save you a lot of time, headaches, and money. So, before you enter the recording studio make sure you have considered the following:
- Rehearse. If you are not ready to play in front of a crowd, you are definitely not ready to record.
- Practice to a click track or metronome. Especially drummers.
- Know everyone else’s parts.
- Make sure strings and drum skins are reasonably fresh & tuned.
- Don’t expect to bring your friends or significant others. Ask the studio first.
- Don’t get wasted.
- Show up on time, or at least communicate with the studio if you are running late.
- Research the costs, and set your budget.