Do they have “reference” recordings you can hear?
You should always ask to hear a couple recordings that an engineer has done to see if he or she suits your style. The only exceptions are engineers who are marquee names with recordings in the marketplace. It’s also advisable to bring reference recordings that you like––to show what you want to sound like. That way they can tell you if it’s doable.
Can you meet with them?
You should try to meet the engineer face-to-face prior to recording. You can play a demo of your songs, explain what you want and see if you both have the same vision and can work together under pressure. Beware of those who claim, “We can fix it in the mix.” They’re lying.
Finally, no matter what happens at your sessions, try to stay positive. If you encounter any difficulty, try to work things out but don’t beat a dead horse. Often it’s best to move on, then go back later and solve the problem with fresh ears and a better attitude.
Make the Most of Pre-Production
Preparing for a recording session is a crucial phase, and pre-production is just as essential. Unless you have unlimited funds, you need to schedule enough pre-production rehearsals to have everything down cold. If you don’t do that prior to recording, you may regret it. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of pre-production time.
Pete Hopkins and Jimmy Steinfeldt co-produced and finished their project, JP Hopfelt, in record time. Hopkins relates, “We were able to record quickly because we didn’t assume or overlook anything.” Steinfeldt adds, “We knew what we were going for. And the more you know the better you are. Otherwise you’ll waste valuable time.”
*Deconstruct the Songs
You don’t want to work on songs in the studio, where every minute counts. Jan Linder-Koda suggests, “Analyze the song structures; make sure they’re what they should be.” Examine each section––verse, chorus, bridge—to confirm it’s serving the song and not someone’s ego.” Remember: “Hit songs are not written, they’re rewritten.”
*Tighten the Arrangements
Songs should have momentum and dynamics. If they meander or are sluggish, you will lose listeners. Additionally, if you hope to get radio airplay, check the song’s length. If a song is lengthy––four minutes or more––perhaps you should consider recording a shorter alternate version as a backup.
*Check the Tempo
Pre-production is also the time to see if a song’s tempo is correct. Sometimes a minor variation, up or down, will make a big difference.
*Decide if You Need a Click
Do you play the kind of music that requires a click? If so, you need to find out if the musicians can actually play to a click (especially the drummer), and let the studio and engineer know beforehand.
*Critique Each Player
Every player must know his/her parts. But, you may notice that some performers are better live––it’s a fact of life. This is the time for honest appraisals. The studio will amplify any weaknesses, bravado and errors. If a player can’t handle it, consider hiring a pro.
*Be Sure the Tune is in the Right Key
Some songs sound odd, or strain the singer, because they’re written in the wrong key. This sometimes occurs when someone other than the vocalist writes a song. Pay close attention to your singer and make sure the songs are in his or her range.
*Record All Your Pre-Production Rehearsals
Recording your pre-production rehearsals not only gives you a demo of your songs––that you could play for an engineer or producer––it also gives you the opportunity to carefully analyze the material and performances.
*Iron Out Any Mistakes
Rob Michaels is a session cat and touring musician who has played with the Goo Goo Dolls, Chris Daughtry and Santana. He is currently finishing his own recording (Revolver Sessions) with hit producer Mikal Blue. Michaels wryly notes, “You can only hide so much in post-production. If a song isn’t written well, or the playing is sloppy, no amount of studio magic will fix it.” Again, in the studio everything is under a microscope, and the smallest errors can become big problems.
*But Don’t Over-Rehearse
Sometimes too much rehearsal can squash any prospect of spontaneity. Jan Linder-Koda relates, “A mistake isn’t always a bad thing. At times, it can give a song life and make it real.” She advises to always keep your ears (and mind) open for a surprise or magical moment. “Some of the best songs in history have a brilliant mistake or two.”
*Professionally Tune Your Instruments
Magic Moreno advises his artists to get their instrument professionally tuned and intonated. He notes, “There’s nothing more frustrating, or time wasting, than an instrument that constantly goes out of tune.”
*Plan the Tones You Want
If you have specific tones you want to record, be sure you know how to achieve them––consistently. Jimmy Steinfeldt of JP Hopfelt recalls, “We practiced the tones we wanted for quite a while until we had them down cold. When we got into the studio, we were ready to tap them instantly.” You’ll save a lot of time and avoid any misunderstandings if you take the time to connect with your engineer and let him know what effects you use. He can then make plans, adjustments to help you get the exact sounds you want.
*Develop a Language for the Studio
Clear and precise communication is essential in the studio. Jan Linder-Koda recommends, “Everyone should communicate in the same manner. During pre-production you can develop special words and shortcuts to use whenever necessary. Using language everyone understands will cut down a lot of ‘explanation’ time.” For
example, if someone gets too fancy, plays too many notes, you could tell him, “Simplify. Less is more.”
*Prepare to Sing and Play
To connect with the emotional content of your material and deliver a killer performance, it takes practice and know-how. Linder-Koda suggests, “Get physical. Identify the feeling in a song, give it a name, and project it through your body, voice or instrument.” Find what works for you and use it in the studio.
*Get Plenty of Rest
“Get a good night’s sleep before you record,” Linder-Koda advises. “Rest does wonders for talent.”
CONTACTS FOR THIS ARTICLE
JP Hopfelt (Pete Hopkins & Jimmy Steinfeldt)
Steve Burdick, Westlake Studios
Dave Williams, Melrose Music Studios
Joshua Aaron, Audiolot Studios