|Over the last 10+ years, I've made records with people at all budget levels, using everything from the most basic 4 track cassette recorders to the newest workstations and 2" analog tape machines. Regardless of format or studio equippage, I've learned a few things that will help maximise efficiency and fun in the studio.
Change your guitar and bass strings the night before you come to the studio. If at all possible, have your guitars set-up and intonated by a pro for the string gauges you prefer. Unless you know what you're doing, DIY set-up and intonation can break your heart! Especially, don't adjust the truss rod unless you're sure you understand the mechanics of it. Even a half-turn of a truss rod can break it if it's already under too much tension. Broken truss rod=much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It's best to change strings the night before 'cos they'll stretch as they acclimate to being tensioned. If money is really tight (and you've enough length wound onto the peg), you can remove your old strings, boil them in plain distilled water for about 10 minutes, let them cool and air dry for an hour, then put 'em back on. Make sure to replace them in their right places! New strings should be tensioned to pitch, played for a few minutes (WITH CLEAN DRY HANDS), then stretched. Grab the string at about the 12th (octave) fret with 2 fingers and thumb and pull it away from the fretboard up and down a few times. You want to put firm tension on it, but not so much that you're yanking/breaking it.
Then re-tune the guitar and put it away in its case. Tune it up again in the morn, then put it away again.
For similar reasons, it's best to change drum heads the day before recording. I always tune/touch up drums in the studio as part of set up; but you'll still have more satisfactory results if the heads are new and evenly tensioned when you arrive to the studio. While you have the heads off, its the ideal time to track down and eliminate rattles and buzzes that loose lug screws/tom mounts can cause (the lugs are what the head tension rods thread into). It's also generally a good idea to lightly go over the bearing edges (where the heads contact the drum) with fine sandpaper/emery cloth, like 220 grit or higher. You're not looking to make sawdust, just to smooth any small irregularities or roughness. Also check floor tom leg/kick drum spike/tom mounts for rattles and buzzes. ALWAYS REPLACE your snare strainer wires before recording, these are actually quite inexpensive. When money is a hard concern, at least replace the snare batter side (the side you whack), snare strainer, and tom batter heads. Lubricate kick pedal/hihat pedal squeaks with WD-40 or powdered graphite. Be careful not to get WD-40 on wood or drum heads, it'll make em stretch funny/unevenly. Make sure cymbals are properly felted top and bottom, but not so tight that the cymbal can't swing freely. Dish sponge cut to size is a great cheap substitute for felts.
If you're planning to add loops/rhythmic samples to your project, you'll want to play to a click or metronome to assure tempo consistency. A simple percussion loop or alternating cowbell/conga beat is WAY easier to play to than a concussive "TIK! TIK! TIK!" If the click is a kick/snare sounding beat, it can confuse the drummer 'cos it's hard to differentiate those drums from the player's own drums in their 'phones. Loops, samples can always be replaced after the fact once a known, consistent tempo is established. If you haven't played to a click before, start practising WEEKS before your sessions. A low cost method is to just practise along with a walkman playing programmed beats (like any dance music).
Vocalists Time for your tune-up, too! The most helpful things you can do to ready your voice for the studio are:
Be well rested and hydrated
Know how to breathe properly.
Dairy products are best avoided when you sing; they'll give you extra mucus and gunk to mess up your performance. Alcohol can help some singers/players feel more relaxed and focused, but booze is extremely dehydrating - the last thing you want for your voice. So, if you're drinking, make sure to keep consuming at least TWICE as much water as booze. If you drink a pint of stout, drink a quart of water for maximum performance. If you drink some whiskey, follow it with at least twice that much water.
Every singer will benefit greatly from simple singing-specific breathing: Inhaling deeply through your nose, expanding your stomach and abdomen as you do. You're looking to breath from your diaphragm(the muscle that runs under and supports your lungs) as opposed to just inflating your chest. This allows for exponentially greater breath support and projection, and will add greatly to your vocal endurance.
Backing Vocals If you're planning to feature backing vocals on your project, start practising NOW. Many times great vocal ideas go unrealized in the studio because of unprepairedness. Other than the Rock n' Roll "group shout," backing vocals rarely work without proper rehearsal. Intentional dissonance may be your esthetic choice; if it isn't, practise before you get to the studio. the more, the better. It works wonders to have a couple/few vocal/acoustic guitar practises. It may seem strange at first, but it'll pay off big overall. If time allows, I'll gladly help with vocal arrangements and harmonies, it's part of what I do.
Keyboards/Samples/Loops/Extras Make sure you have all your leads, discs, power supplies, power strips, pedals, and OPERATION MANUALS before heading to the studio. Double check. Triple check. Check again. Sometimes studios will happen to have that extra unusual sustain pedal or weird adaptor-lead you've forgotten, but more often that not they won't!!! Many a session has ground to a halt due to a missing lead or power supply. I've used most synths/samplers over the years and can often suss 'em out without manuals, but it will always save time if you have the manuals even if you're very familiar with your synth's operations and editing features.
Things That Will Most Certainly Mess Up Your Session
Unresolved personal/interpersonal issues
Heated arguments WILL cause setbacks and wasted time in the studio if they arise. More than one band has broken up in mid-session over incredibly stupid arguments. This is totally different than playful teasing or average misunderstandings. Petty sniping quickly chips away at everybodys' morale and patience. So either hash out your conflicts beforehand, or agree to the "timeout" rule: Anybody can call "timeout" on any discussion at any time, meaning that the topic MUST be dropped and dealt with outside of the studio and after the day is done. Really my ONLY hard and fast rule is that the studio must be a safe, creative haven for everybody involved. Things that hinder that are not welcome, which leads us to...
Friends and Significant Others
It's fun and exciting to be in the studio. It's only natural that you'd want your friends and S.O.'s to see/hear you in action. But, all too often they'll bring the distracting bits of the outside world in with them. If your lover is dropping by to bug you about bills to pay, getting the laundry done, etc, you will not be fully focused on the task at hand THAT YOU ARE PAYING FOR. Many musicans-- even the very most talented - are hindered by nerves when there are people from outside the band hanging round. And even though the player might say they don't mind, they just might be too polite to say otherwise. It's important that you make it known that somebody, anybody in the band has the right to ask that observers leave the recording area at any time and for no reason, without argument or bitchy slagging from anybody. I'm fully cool with as many people observing as you'd want, provided that they all understand that we're working, it's costing you money, and that noise and discussions in the control room can be disruptive to our process. I ALWAYS strive to make the studio a good time for everybody - why else would ya want to do it? - but keeping your project on time and on budget is what I aim to do. And, hey, we're creative people so we must address...
I make no moral judgement on anything that adults choose to do for themselves. That being said, after working with hundreds of bands made up of well over a thousand individuals total, I have never had a project involving hard drug use come out as well as it would've without. BY HARD DRUGS I MEAN HEROIN, COCAINE AND METH. Besides erratic behaviour and mood swings, thievery, paranoia, senseless arguments and the potential for sudden inglorious death, hard drugs have psycho- and physiological side effects that cause bad misperceptions of how things actually sound. If you use hard drugs, do so on your own time and away from the studio. And though I make no kind of professional endorsement, moderate cannabis, caffeine and/or alcohol use seem to be the only fairly benign mood-altering substances in a studio setting. But be well aware of your limits before hand. Neither the studio nor engineer will be compelled to refund money wasted cos somebody's too baked/drunk to perform! And you should ALWAYS WITHOUT QUESTION expect the same from your engineer!!!
Headphones Getting used to playing with a headphone mix can seem strange at first, but the increased recording options that headphones allow make it well worth doing in most cases. To do some types of recording headphones aren't necessary; but if you're recording in home or a fairly tiny studio it often is. Particularly, because of the extremely short transmission path of sound through headphones into your ear canal, physics dictate and experiences prove that the sound will often seem sharper in musical pitch than it actually is. For vocalists, this can maim an otherwise great track. Of course, technology has allowed us to deal with "global" (whole track consistent) pitch issues for over 20 years now, but if you don't catch it right away, it'll make subsequent overdubs just sound wrong. This perceived sharpness happens when your headphone mix is TOO LOUD. Any engineer will gladly give you as much level in the 'phones as you want, sometimes you need it loud as hell to get the right feeling, but this is something to be aware of. Likewise, if you're doing guitar, keyboard, whatever overdubs through headphones, the same thing can happen--verify the tuning of every instrument with the SAME TUNER for your whole project to assure relative intonation, don't try to ear-tune any instrument through headphones.
If you want to be respected, remembered, and recommended, pay the studio/engineer UP FRONT at the beginning of each project or day. Many studios and engineers offer some kind of discount for cash. Engineers operating on a free-lance basis must pay for the studio rental; if the engineer is left holding the bag, the band will likely be widely reported as deadbeats to every studio and engineer in the cosmos. Money is always a difficult topic; if I were in this for the money I'd have quit 10 years ago! Most engineers do this out of sheer love of sound and the satisfaction of a job well done at rates that on first blush could seem high. But bear in mind that the $125 or $150/day the skilled engineer asks usually works out to be around $7/hr, owing to the fact that any good engineer will be at the studio before you, work with you for ten or more hours, then will remain after you leave to do back-ups, cleaning, burning discs, taking notes, and prepairing for the next day. If the engineer and studio are paid up in a timely fashion, that means less distraction and more concentration from your engineer, plus increased desire to cut some slack if your project runs a little over time. Plus, the power of Karma can't ever be underestimated.
There may be times that your producer/engineer type will suggest a part or technique that might not make sense to you; ask for clarification any time you like, and remember that they're only interested in helping you make your project the best it can be. Sometimes you'll just have to trust their judgement even if their suggestion seems counterintuitive or flat-out mad! No matter how long I do this, I know I'll learn something new from every session, and I'm always excited to explain or share tips I've gleaned along the way. Good Luck!
-copyright 2002 Dubh David Black
-This may be freely copied, distributed, and printed for personal use, as long as the copyright and author notice is included.