Stuff you should know about your first recording session

I recently had a very long conversation with a local artist. He is planning his first studio session and wanted to ask a few questions. I don’t think he was expecting what I had to say.

What will it take to produce a legitimate album project?

Well, that depends on several things. Unless you have unlimited resources, you had better figure out exactly what you want before you walk into the studio.

One of my teachers at the Conservatory told me about a classic studio trick for generating extra money. Wait until you are in the final mix stages and ask a simple question. “Is that really what you wanted that snare to sound like?” Walk out and wait for panic. Apparently, it works great on rookies. Like I said, know what you want before you book a session.

This guy is planning to use a high end studio because he heard that their vintage analog gear will give him the sound he needs. He is planning to hire their studio musicians to back up his vocals and guitar on a dozen tracks. He wants to show up with sheet music and work out his ideas in the studio. He imagines walking out with a finished CD that will work like the pied piper and draw in screaming throngs of new fans waving money at him. Not sure what medication he is on, but I probably need it. Studio owners lay awake at night dreaming about clients like him.

The kicker was when he asked about budget. After describing everything he wanted, he was concerned about cost. I told him that even a small local studio, working straight digital was going to cost him at least $40k for what he wanted. I think he crapped his pants. Seriously. He said he had about half that much. Good luck.

What fantasy world had provoked him to think like that? Pure delusion. Now, I was never the big studio owner. I had a few small places, never produced anything that made real money. But I recorded a lot. I worked with hundreds of musicians over the years. Learned a few things.

One. If you have budget concerns, do not use my studio as a practice room.
The clock is running, I don’t care if I ever hit the record button. You are paying for my time whether we are making an album or I am eating Cheetos watching you work out a track. Studio players will make magic happen, no arguments. I have seen it. They can take scribbled notes and a quick conversation and turn it into greatness. But it ain’t gonna happen cheap. Your best bet is to develop your music with your own players. They may not be the best in the world, but enough practice will get that dozen tracks worked out.
My friend Larry Howard won’t record a track he has performed it live a million times. He goes into the studio knowing how his audience will respond to it because they already heard it. Don’t act surprised when someone doesn’t like your stuff the first time they hear it. Don’t cry when you spend $40k to produce something they don’t like the first time they hear it, either. Play it before you record it.

Two. There’s a lot more to your sound than the gear.
I spent most of my time on music store grade gear. Never touched a nice console until I got to recording school in 1997. The sound was amazing. Being in the presence of a $100k console for the first time is euphoric. Indescribable. Exactly the feeling the studio owner hopes will suck the wallet out of you pants. It has to. He mortgaged his house to buy it.

I have mixed live and in the studio on everything. Behringer, Crate, Mackie, Phonic and all the other cheap stuff. I have also worked on Midas, Yamaha, Soundcraft, Sony and some of the ridiculous high end stuff. There is a huge difference in sound quality. The first time I mixed on a Midas Heritage 3000 console, I considered having an affair with it. I wanted to sleep on it and take walks on the beach with it. Going from older, mid grade consoles to a brand new Midas was mind blowing. So yes, I know what that gear excitement is about. ( Check our store.)

However. Everything plays a part in the overall sound. A U47 tube mic, into a Neve console going to a Sony tape machine, played through Genelec monitors should be spectacular. Right? But, if the room is poorly designed, the mix will never be right. If the cabling is cheap or damaged, it will hurt the sound. And what about the engineer? Does he know your sound? Does he really understand how to mix your style? Does he even care what the finished product sounds like? Everything matters. Having a mega console and high end tape does not guarantee a killer album.

I would rather book a session with someone using decent gear who was honestly interested in my music, and knew their stuff, than the big boys with an expensive track record. If money doesn’t matter, do both. Hire the good engineer and work in the great studio.

Three. Watch the details, plan ahead.
Don’t run through to the final mix and THEN notice your guitar was out of tune. You can’t change your mind a thousand times about that wicked effect you recorded. Burn more tracks if you need to. I always recorded a dry track from an electric guitar when someone insisted on recording with effects. Split the signal, record both. So when they end up hating it or figure out how far off the delay was, I can recreate it without recording it again. Fresh guitar strings? Extra picks? New cables? It all matters.

Do you know when your voice comes out best? Schedule your session for that time. If you always perform in the evening, why would you attempt a 9am session? Don’t set yourself up to struggle.

And finally…..

Brownie points go a long way. Call it kissing butt or whatever you want. It helps. Show up with a good attitude and think positive. You need the engineer to enjoy the time with you. Maybe even bring doughnuts. We like doughnuts. It goes good with our coffee.
The more personable you are, the more cooperative the engineers will be. That saves time and money. That may also get you good advice during the session. That’s worth a lot more than just good gear.

The coffee we recommend, for scoring maximum brownie points…
Trezo D’Haiti

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