Here long-time recording veteran Chris Gilroy pulls from years of experience in the control to offer artists advice on how they most effectively maximize their time often costly time in the studio in order to see the kind of results they want.
Guest post by Chris Gilroy
Just about 360 days a year I am holed away in some near windowless room. Hunched over a slew of knobs and faders helping an artist(s) bring to life the art they hear in their heads. I have seen a lot of people prepare to be in the studio. From the jazz session that handed out new tunes in the session to the singer/songwriter who brought along her collection of special rocks and crystals to set up on the piano for inspiration, each has a process. What we do before we get into the studio will help everyone get what they need out of the space.
Studio time is expensive. Most of us are working with finite budgets, primarily financed through day jobs. Let's talk about some key points that when the studio clock starts running will help you can get the most out of your time there. Even the seasoned studio musicians can take heed.
Talk to your engineer/producer about what you are looking to accomplish. Have some sonic references and arrangement talks. Many studios start the clock during set up, so it help if everyone knows ahead of the session who and what instruments are coming. This will let the engineer start to figure out setup and choose mics before you get into the space. A solo piano takes less time to set up then a big band, but both will take time to get levels and sound right. Trust your engineer and budget accordingly.
A hard thing to do is judge how much time it will take to record just one song. I have found that with good musicians who know the piece of music well it can take over an hour to nail the piece. I tell all my clients if you have a song that is 5 minutes long and you do 3 takes, that is 15 minutes. Listening back to each take takes another 15. That means you are looking at 30 minutes to just play and listen to the song 3 times. Now figure in the few minutes to walk to the control room, then more time to talk about what worked or didn't, time to get back to the live room, and maybe more time to run a troublesome section. This says nothing of the occasional bathroom, water, food, or cigarette break.
PRACTICE BEFORE YOU GET INTO THE STUDIO!!!! Studio time is always going to cost more then a rehearsal space. I wish I could count how many times I have sat while they practiced in the studio. This is different then rehearsing a section that is throwing someone, or everyone, off. Have everyone know the tunes and their parts before they step in the studio. On a similar note, try to warm up before you get into the studio. For vocalists it can often take a good hour of warm ups before they start to get their body to respond that way they need it. Do that outside of the studio.
Make sure your bring a hard drive or something similar to back up your material at the end of every session. An external hard drive that connects through USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt, is ideal as flash drives often don't have enough space for a full session back up and also slower to transfer. Back ups and rough mixes happen during the time of your session. Expect roughs to happen in real time. If you want 5 different takes of a tune that is 4 minutes, that's 20 minutes just getting roughs together.
Remember to give your engineer breaks. After about 4 minutes we get short term ear fatigue. All it takes is a minute or two till we settle down and are ready to get back at it. When you move onto over dubs, the engineer and bassist might do punches. Then the guitarist and engineer. Then the vocalist. All this time the engineer is working straight. I worked on a musical project where they cycled people through, including the music director and producer, while I was stuck working as fast as possible for 8 hours straight. It wasn't fun and I am sure my work got less perfect as the clock went on. Every now and then step aside and let the engineer use the restroom or get a coffee.
Ok, that's the boring stuff. Let's have some fun!
Assuming the time has been allocated, it's great to try a few different guitar amps. I always try to get my players to run through 3-4 before deciding on one for the session. Then there are mic choices. Each mic is different and adds or subtracts to the sound. Same with drums. Often times I pull out 4-5 snares for the drummer to try. Once they settle on a sound and feel, we go through and tune everything making sure we are getting the tones we all after. Finally, it's time for mics! The more time spent on the set up and initial sounds lead to a better sounding record, and often less time fixing it in the mix.
I always encourage any bookings to add extra time for experimentation. Knock out everything on the list first, then pull out some weird instruments, effects, or amps, and add some spice to the arrangement. This is always the time where everyone gets excited and can use the studio as an instrument. Often the sounds that define a track are found during these times. Violin into a space echo into a leslie with weird mis matched mics? YES. That weird synth pad that has a filter being controlled by the dynamics of the lead guitar? Weird, but YES. Have these moments, you will not regret it.
Remember above all, is to trust who you hire. Look and find the people that you want to work with. You will be more excited to get into a windowless room with them for hours or days on end, and hopefully help your sound blossom. Trust in them and their guidance. No engineer, assistant, or producer I have ever worked with wants their clients music to fail. Everyone involved wants the project to be amazing. When an album is successful everyone benefits. Don't take the process personally. The target is having the song be beautiful and perfect (horrid and evil, depending on the direction). Alas I can't remember for the life of me where I read this quote, but a great producer spoke about their role like this:
I view producing being similar to archaeology. Every piece of music is already out there and exists, we are just trying to uncover it from the soil. We are all searching, and we might look in different directions, but we are all trying to uncover the same hidden treasure.
See you in the control room!
Chris Gilroy, producer & house engineer at Douglass Recording, earned his degree in Sound Recording Technology from UMass Lowell. He has worked on staff at Avatar Studios in NYC, and has run sessions in studios across the east coast. Chris has worked with a diverse range of artists including Ron Carter, Mike Stern, The Harlem Gospel Choir, Christian McBride, Vomitface, Oz Noy, Indian Raga, & Antibalas. He loves tubes and tape. chrisgilroyrecording.com