Take Your Mixes To The Next Level

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

4 Tips For A Great Recording

Band recording image
It's book excerpt time again, this time from How To Make Your Band Sound Great, a particular favorite of mine. This excerpt contains 4 tips for a great recording, but it's aimed at artists and bands that don't have much recording experience and may have unreal expectations of exactly what's supposed to take place.

"Whether your recording yourselves with your own gear or are using a studio, the goal is the same - make the songs and the recordings sound as big, as polished, and as accessible to your audience (however large or small) as you can. With that being said, here are some things to be aware of:

Tip 1: You hardly ever get it right the first time.
Contrary to what you might have heard about hit records done on the first take, most recordings of any type require a lot of work to be any good. It takes time to get both the right sounds and performances, and unfortunately, these things usually can’t be rushed.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn when recording is not to expect gold-record-quality playing right off the bat. One of the worst ideas that you can get is that you have to be perfect every time you play. It just doesn’t happen that way so don’t get discouraged. Even the best studio players make some flubs or have slightly erratic time when they’re playing. They just go back and fix the problems afterwards and you can too. Yes, it does happen occasionally when someone gets extremely lucky and plays something terrific on the first take, but it’s a rare exception even for studio savvy and expert musicians.  

Recording is hard work. It’s not uncommon for people to slave over a part for days or even weeks until it feels right in the track. So if pros won’t settle for something that’s not the best it can be, why should you?

I know you’re probably thinking about all those hit records in the 50’s that were done in just a few takes, how the first Beatles record was done in one twelve hour session, and how in the glory days of Motown in Detroit they used to crank out three number one hits in three hours. All true. But don’t forget that all those famous 50’s artists honed their act from months and years of playing on the road, the Beatles played six sets a night for a year in Hamburg before they hit the studio, and the Motown studio musicians were the best of the best jazz musicians in Detroit with some hall-of-fame songwriters and arrangers. But besides all that, the bar is set so much higher for recording these days. Sad but true that many of those incredible tracks just wouldn’t make it through the recording process if they were done today because of defects in the playing.

The fact of the matter is that recording today on any level is a demanding process, so don’t expect great results right away. Just like a band learning a new song together, everything takes some time before it actually gels, so just be prepared to work until you get it.

As an example, I really believe that a typical overdub takes at least two days to record. The first day you work the part out until it’s a perfect fit for the song. The second day you actually perform it well, since now you know how to play it and can just concentrate on performance. The whole trick to to follow your gut. If you think deep down inside that you can do it better, then you probably can.

Tip 2: Recording is a lot of work.
In the majority of cases, making a record is hard work. It takes a lot of time to work parts out, make them sound great, and play and/or sing them well. Sure there’s been a handful of records that have been done on the first take or in a couple of hours (mostly in the 50’s and early 60’s), but that’s a rare occurrence that involves as much luck as winning the lottery.

During the recording of one of my early band’s demo tapes, we became increasingly frustrated because it seemed to take forever (a whole 4 hours!) to record  six songs from our set. “We must really suck,” is what we told ourselves from that point until the band broke up, but only later when I began to regularly work in studios did I learn the real truth. Recording is hard work and takes a lot of time to make something that’ll sound good.

Now these were songs that we’d been playing at gigs every weekend for about a year so we knew them backwards and forwards. Or so we thought! First of all, you never really know exactly what you’re playing and exactly what you sound like until you record yourself. Almost always you’ll find that something that you thought was gangbusters is in fact just a buster. You might be playing a line differently from the other guitar player. Maybe your rhythm pattern is different from what the drummer is playing. Maybe you just can’t hit that high like you thought you could.

The secret here is to be brutally honest with yourself about your playing and singing, just like in the previous chapters. If it doesn’t sound great, either rehearse it until it does or don’t play it at all!

Tip 3: A producer is important
Whether you’re recording cover material as a demo for getting jobs, or making a record of your own songs (remember - there are no demos when it comes to your material), it really helps to have an outside ear to help out. I can tell you from experience, most people are incapable of doing more than one of primary studio jobs at the same time (artist, musician, engineer, producer). Yes, Prince does it, but he’s not in a band and has plenty of time and money to get things to his liking.

A producer is the equivalent of a movie director in that he has the ability to craft your songs technically, sonically, and musically. Having a producer really helps your studio efficiency.  He can tell you when a take is better (or worse) than the rest.  He can tell you when something sounds good (or bad) and most importantly, tell you why. He can mediate between opinions of band members (if you let him). Just these things alone can make things go a whole lot faster and save you some money and some brain damage as well.

Obviously it’s best to get a pro who produces a lot and knows his way around the studio, but someone like that will charge you. An engineer can usually help by the fact that he has a lot of studio experience but once again, it’s really hard to engineer and produce at the same time and do both well. A trusted musician friend who likes your band can be really helpful as long as he has the respect of all the band members. The real key is to have a respected outside voice that can help you in your decision making.

What you don’t want, however, is a control freak who insists things be done his way, someone that claims to have a lot of experience that can’t back it up, or someone who everyone in the band doesn’t respect. It’s your music and he works for you (unless you’re signed to a record label in which case he works for them). He’s there to facilitate your vision, not his.

Tip 4: Recording isn't a party.
You should never treat recording as anything other than something that must take your entire focus.  Indeed, you’ll need to give it 100% of your concentration to sound your very best. To that end, recording should never be treated as a party. It’s not a place for your friends or fans to hang out, and it’s not a place for a couple of six packs. Just because you might be a punk band, it doesn’t mean you have to carry the lifestyle over to recording. The Sex Pistols had to be wild, wasted and non-conformist because that was their image, but they were deadly serious when recording. Green Day also had that persona in the early days but were really serious when recording and that’s why they climbed the ladder and most of the others from that scene didn’t. So if you want to make the best recording you can, don’t show up wasted, show up on time, and show up prepared. Good music makes you cool, not your act."  

To read additional excerpts from How To Make Your Band Sound Great and other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.
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