In the two previous installments in this series we touched on some powerful tools for consistently making great recordings. In years past pre-production was vital to not killing your budget in a big studio. Fast forward to today, many of us have our own studios, which means that we need to be wise about how we budget time once we start recording. There are things that can only happen in the studio, hence why it is important to make the most of pre-production. Standing around in the studio while people work out what should have been done in pre-production wastes peoples’ time and is not conducive to creating that great vibe we all want in the studio. If you’re a songwriter or producer, keep in mind that you are key to cultivating an atmosphere where a song comes to life, not just capturing the various basic tracks necessary to bringing your vision to life.
The following approach has delivered consistently great results when working with a worship team or band. Create and share specific goals about what you want to accomplish in your pre-production, including how much time you’ll be asking from people. If possible do this over a pizza or at least coffee. Just because you don’t want to people standing around while you execute your vision in the studio does not mean missing opportunities for them to feel they are part of something. Prior to, and well before rehearsal(s), send everyone an eMail with a chart, lyric sheet, arrangement, and rough recording for any material you’ll be covering. If these are just sketches let people know that in advance so that they don’t waste time perfecting an arrangement versus crafting a vibe. Speaking of which, it never hurts to send them a link to songs that are in the vein of what you’re going for, especially ones you’ve recorded previously.
Once you have an arrangement up and running, record it on your iPhone (or whatever) and then play it back for everyone. This is a great place to gather feedback that you can act on immediately, or keep in mind once you start actually recording. If you are working on multiple songs in one rehearsal, you might want to do this for each song, and then record all the songs again at the end of the night. This will help everyone see the bigger picture of how the songs work together. After rehearsal share these recordings with everyone so they can remember exactly what they played. You’ll also want to document the tempos so you know what the exact BPM is for each song prior to going into the studio.
PRODUCERS, ENGINEERS, AND VISIONARIES
If you’ve ever watched a drummer jump up and show a bass player how a part should be played, you’ll appreciate how important it is for everyone to know who is in charge of what before going into the studio… too many cooks, etc.. Many of us are the producer, engineer and the visionary, which means that the recording process will start and end with us. Setting up a track sheet for each song before you start recording will help you document the tempo and other key production notes. Veteran producers like George Martin did this long before the advent of the digital age, when there were far fewer tracks, takes, and tasks to manage.
Whether you’re working with a worship team, band, or just yourself, the rough iPhone-style recordings will reveal a lot about what the end result is going to sound like. If you don’t believe me, consider yourself (nicely) warned!
We’ve just about all heard the live version of “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley. It is an iconic recording, and the vocals sound great. So good in fact that you probably didn’t notice the that low E string on the bass is way out of tune. Great vocals make a song, out of tune ones kill it. If your rough recordings have any serious pitch issues, you’ll want to head this off at the pass, before you track a single note. Have a friendly conversation with them in person and in private. Get their input and if necessary have them partner with a vocal coach before stepping foot in the studio. In my experience no one is more volatile than singers in the studio. They have to tell the story with conviction and believability, while also being in tune. Once a singer gets too far into their head, they tend to focus on technique and not the story, and what you get is often not keeper material. Whether it is pitch or believability, get them sharing rough recordings with you so you both know that once they do step into the studio, you’ll get what you need and they’ll have a great experience.
Drums and Bass
In much the same fashion you’ll work with the vocalists, you’ll want to make sure that when your drummer and bass player walk into the studio they are able to own the time and dynamics for all the songs you’re going to record. I remember hearing Lincoln Brewster talk about working on Steve Perry’s solo album and that some of the tracks had different bass parts pieced together to make up the entire track. Did anyone notice, and/or did it matter in the big picture? Arguably not, but getting drums tones takes time, and unless you leave a drum kit set up in the studio and don’t move a single mic, the tracks will not sound the same from session to session. Invariably you’ll like one sound better than the other and will quite possibly fixate on that every time you hear your recordings. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but often it isn’t!
Guitarists and Effects
I remember hearing Steve Vai reflect on how little he enjoyed having one of the producers he worked with force him to use studio effects in post. Steve had spent hours coming up with the sounds that to him were part of the songs, while the producer had something completely different in mind. While we are lucky that a lot of Christian music is recorded using all our beloved guitar gizmos, recording with delay and reverb is tricky if you can’t play a part from start to finish without punching in. Guitar, like vocals is not just mechanics, and getting a “punch” to sound like it was part of a previous performance is hard enough without effects, so keep this in mind.
If you are judicious in how you approach your pre-production, the recording process should be fun and relatively easy. If everyone walks into the studio knowing what they’re supposed to play and have taken the time to rehearse, they are simply recreating something they’ve already done. If everyone has been diligent, people know what needed fine tuning before setting foot in the studio. This makes recording a lot easier, and a lot more fun. It will also get much better results.
That said, there is nothing worse than having a great performance that doesn’t sound good. Noting there is a ton of gear on the market, here are a couple of tried and true suggestions for getting great tones!
I’ve been super impressed with the Audix FP7 drum mic package. Other noteworthy mentions include Sennheiser 421s on toms, and a Shure Beta 52 on the bass drum if you like an extra-meaty attack. In terms of placement, YouTube is a great resource, and the Audix folks have done a great job in creating a useful range of how to videos.
You can’t go wrong with a Shure SM57. With the help of an LED flashlight, find where the edge of the dust cap is on one of your speakers and place the mic at a 90 degree angle to the cab, touching the grille. The further you move away from the center of the speaker the darker the sound will be, and the further you move away from the cabinet the smaller it will start to sound, due to the lack of proximity to the sound source.
An Audio-Technica AT4040 is a great place to start. They sound great and won’t break the bank!
In the next issue I’ll be covering some production tips on tracking and mixing as well as suggestions on virtual keyboard sounds and controllers. Until then, happy tracking!