How to Make the Most of Your Studio Time

Going into the studio to record a song, an EP, or an entire CD can be a nerve-wracking and expensive proposition. Here are some tips to make the most of your studio time.

Choose the right studio
This is probably the most important factor in having a good studio experience. In fact, it's so important that I've devoted an entire page to it.

Be prepared musically
Oddly enough, engineers often see bands who show up unpracticed, still in the dark about arrangements, undecided about which songs to record... you get the picture - unprepared, unplanned, and clueless. Delaying decisions until you get to the studio is one way to keep things "fresh" and "spontaneous", but it's also a way to make sure that your studio charges balloon out of control faster than a 1980's hair band messed up on coke. You should at least know which songs you're going to play and what arrangements you'll be using in them. Details of every note of every solo are optional but, frankly, knowing that will also help you keep the charges down. The fewer takes you need, the less time you'll need. And, the less time you need, the less money you'll spend. It sounds obvious doesn't it? So, know what you're going to be doing and know how to do it well before you get to the studio. Getting ready musically for your sojourn into the studio is called preproduction and it's invaluable.

Be prepared budget-wise
What you're paying for in the studio is time and expertise. Knowing how much time you're going to take doing things will let you know how much you'll need to pay. As such, arranging a budget for recording is actually arranging a schedule for recording. Let's start with the basic items that you'll be paying for:

Load-in/Setup: This is where you're lugging your gear from your car/van into the studio, putting the gear where the engineer tells you to, having microphones strung up around your gear, and having the engineer set initial levels for recording. Yes, you'll pay for the time that you'll take to do this. In general, if the studio is not usable by someone else or if there's an engineer (or other flunky) there to watch you, you will be charged for the time. Minimizing this time is good, but beware of minimizing it too much. An engineer needs to take some time to set up microphones and get levels set - rush him and you're going to get a lousy sounding recording (on the other hand, if you have an engineer who thinks he needs four hours to get the snare "sounding good", you might remind him of your budget and have a word about skill level). What you can do to minimize this time is to be ready to unload quickly and put the gear where the engineer says without too much argument. Make sure you bring all the gear you need (you will pay for the time it takes you to run home to get it, if you forget it) and bring only the gear you do need (the massive thirty-tom drum kit with twenty-five toms that the drummer never actually uses on the songs you're recording takes more time to set up and mike than the kit with three toms).
Estimated time: One hour to one day depending on the number of instruments you're messing about with.

Basic rhythm tracking: This is where you all get together and play the song(s). You will usually want to have the singer (or another member of the band) sing "scratch" or "tracking" vocals during this time so that you all know where in the song you are. The whole point of this is to get the band playing together to make the song have a "vibe" as opposed to simply having the drummer record to a click and then having everyone record overdubs on top of that. You'll want at least two or three takes of every song you're recording. There will be takes that are flubbed because a level goes too loud, somebody messes up a part, etc. You will probably need one-to-three hours per song to get a sound for the instruments, get takes down, hash out which parts of which take are the ones you want to comp together to create the basis for the song, and for the inevitable screw-ups, re-takes, and breaks. You might also have breaks in between songs to change out instruments for different sounds for the songs. You do not want to scrimp on time doing this part of the process, but if you start going over about an hour and a half just doing takes on any one song, there's probably something wrong and it's probably better to move to the next song and try to figure out what's going wrong during a break.
Estimated time: 1-3 hours per song.

Overdubs: Here is where your guitarists and keyboardists get to put in their solos, where you get to correct any mistakes you made in your playing that part that screwed up a take with a really good vibe, and where your drummer tries to screw up the song totally by trying to put Latin percussion onto everything. The amount of time you take on this will depend on the number of solos, added parts, and obvious screw-ups. Try to group overdubs together by band member so you can let others take breaks/go to lunch/screw about somewhere else during this time (because watching someone do an overdub is about as exciting as... well, watching someone doing an overdub).
Estimated time: About one-half hour per additional part.

Tear-down/load-out: Is the studio not usable by someone else? Is there an engineer (or other flunky) there to watch you? Yes? You're paying for it. Yes, it's been a long day (or days). Yes, you're tired. Doesn't matter. Get your crap out of the studio as soon as possible. Sometimes studios will be lenient about giving you extra time to do this. Sometimes they'll charge you extra at overtime rates. 'Nuff said.
Estimated time: One-half to two hours (but seriously, if it takes you more than about an hour, you've brought too much gear along).

Rough mixing/evaluation: This is where the engineer/mixer goes off and balances your stuff well enough that your singer(s) can sing to it and that you can hear any particular flaws/empty parts in an arrangement and have time to react. You won't be needed during this time. This is good because watching someone doing this is about as exciting as... well, watching someone mixing. Depending on the arrangements you make with the studio and/or engineer this will cost nothing to around a half hour's time per song. You should get a CD of this to listen for what additional overdubs you need.
Estimated time: One-half hour per song.

Vocal tracking/Other overdubbing: Unless you're Dick Dale, you probably need vocals for your songs. And they had better be good. The good news is that there's not much setup for a vocalist. You mount a mike, get levels, and record. The bad news is that the vocals really have to be good, so you may many takes to get a stunning vocal performance. Couple that with the fact that most singers can't sing for more than about three hours without reducing their voice to mush and you have a recipe for potential budgetary disaster. The main thing to do here is to be ready to catch a performance at any time. Remember those scratch vocals from basic tracking? You may end up using them. Plan to schedule the vocals on days you're doing other things. Or vice versa. It's the same when tracking backing vocals. Assuming you've done your preproduction work and everyone know what parts they'll be playing in the studio, this is probably the most variable portion of your budget. Be watchful for signs of singer fatigue and be ready to do something else with your remaining time for that recording block, if necessary.
Estimated time: One-half to two hours per vocal track.

Initial mixdown: This is where it all comes together. This will cost more than you think it will. Why? First, the engineer has to do editing - taking out little annoying things like string squeaks, breath sounds, your singer being off pitch, etc., on every track you recorded. This is very time consuming. Then the mix engineer (who may not be the same as the recording engineer) has to take these raw tracks and meld them together into something that approaches a song that holds excitement and passion and a chance of not making your listeners barf. Again, this takes time... depending on the number of tracks, about six to eight hours per song. This is something you don't want to skimp on - let the pros take their time. You might get lucky and only take four hours per song... but I wouldn't bet on it. Again, this is something that the engineer or mixer can do either with or without your presence. Frankly, he can probably get it done faster if you're not there, but some people like to be involved. He'll probably send out/give you CD's with initial mixes (or maybe just have you download them). By this time, if you're still thinking about putting on more parts, you should probably think again. At this late stage, you should have the arrangement you wanted from the start and you're unlikely to improve things by piling on another layer of sound. If not, see the section "Be prepared musically" above.
Estimated time: Six to eight hours per song.

Final tweaking: The mix has been done. You've all received copies of the songs and have listened to them. You all have your opinions (usually consisting of "Why isn't my part louder?!?!?!"). Now you get to go back to the studio and all talk to the mix engineer while he moves the faders back and forth, right? Not so fast, cowboy... If you spend time in the studio doing this, you're going to have several people talking at once... you're going to be annoying the crap out of each other and the mixer... and you're going to be spending a lot of money. It's best to get the CD of the initial mix, take it to somewhere that has a good stereo, and make your notes. Then, get the band together in a place with a really good stereo, compare notes, and decide as a group what actually needs to be done. Then you email that list to the engineer who will do what he thinks you mean and send you back yet another CD. Then you repeat the process. Only if something is hideously wrong where you don't think the mixer understands what you're talking about or if you want to do a final signoff on a song do you actually want to go back to the studio for a final listen to the track(s). By that time, everyone should be sick of hearing the song(s) over and over again anyway (The good news? You get to play these same songs over and over live for the next year or two to promote your CD! Ain't show biz grand?). The minor amount of changes that you want to make to any song during this part of the process shouldn't be more than an hour or two of the mixer's time.
Estimated time: One to two hours per song.

OK, so let's say you and the rest of your five-person punk band, The Scrud Monkeys - consisting of a drummer, bassist, two guitarists, and a singer - want to record a six song EP. How long is that going to take you? According to the estimates above, you'll spend about two days in the tracking room as a band and another couple days or so recording vocals and/or overdubs:

Day 1 schedule: Setup, Tracking songs 1-4

Day 2 schedule: Tracking songs 5-6, Lead vocals songs 1-2, Overdubs songs 1-4, Load out

Day 3 schedule (scheduled for about a week later): Lead vocals songs 3-4, Backing vocals songs 1-3, Overdubs songs 2,3,5,6

Day 4 schedule: Lead vocals songs 5-6, Backing vocals songs 4-6, Overdub song 6

After this, the mixing engineer will mix your songs, burn CD's, and listen to your input and trying to please you. This will take about a day per song (six hours in editing and initial mixing and another couple hours letting you piss in the mix to get the flavor right). The total cost of the entire process? At my munificent studio rates... about $1395. Call it an even $1500 for the process, because there will be overruns. Not exactly cheap but, when you look at this on the basis of an hourly rate, not the kind of thing anyone's getting rich from, either. A typical full CD can be produced for as little as $2500. Note that prices vary. I run a very inexpensive studio. If you're paying for a "world-class" studio, you may pay ten to twenty times this, not to mention paying for additional personnel needed to work on your masterpiece. Remember, too, when setting your budget, that you still need to add costs for mastering, CD cover design, CD manufacturing, and promotion.

But again, to keep costs minimal, you'll need to be prepared. To do a CD for this low a price means you'll need a recording engineer who is an experience professional who can mike a drum set to perfection in an hour. You'll also need to go through the material like clockwork. People will need to be there when you're ready for them, you'll need to be prepared to sub in one activity for another, should someone be missing. Someone will be doing the job that a producer normally does and they'll need to find that magic managerial mix between being a complete martinet and a flexible open, groovy sort of guy. Given that a lot of people may not have these skills and a lot of other band members seem to resent the band member who takes control of a recording session, you might want to appoint/hire a neutral third party to do this.

Another way to reduce costs is to do some of this work yourself. Record as much at home as you can. Keyboards can usually be recorded pretty easily with a good sound at home. Bass can be DI'ed and then effected with someone's screaming SVT-clone plugin. Guitars are a bit trickier, but you can do those, too, in a pinch. You'll pay for the time needed to import these tracks and you'll still pay for mixing, but all you'll have to track in the studio are vocals and drums (as long as your drummer can play to a click).

In any case, being prepared, having an initial schedule going in, and having someone there (even if it is you) to monitor the process will save you time and money.

Bring appropriate gear
In the studio the watchwords are small, quiet, and reliable. Big, noisy, and easily broken will cost you time (and, in the end, money). Here are some tips for various musicians:

Guitarists: You should have figured out which guitars you're going to use on which songs before you get into the studio. Take those and leave the rest at home. There are really only five electric guitars in existence - the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, the Gibson ES-335 and Les Paul, and the Rickenbacker 3xx/12 - again, leave the others at home. Oh yeah... you'll probably need an acoustic - drag one along in case your amp burns out. And speaking of amps, a nice combo amp like this will go a lot farther than your Triple Rectifier full stack. Usually, even a half stack is too much (unless you're really a dedicated metal player, and even then I'd guess that the combo I mentioned would still be fine, except that you're probably not man enough to use it) - it takes too long to unload and set up and the engineer will laugh at you behind your back... really. Similarly, if you have the pedalboard from hell, you might want to think about stripping it down, using only the few pedals you need to record the songs. In fact, using only the pedals you need for each song is probably best. It will cost you five minutes in re-cabling pedals between songs and save you a ton of noise (and, speaking of noise, use batteries in the pedals to avoid power supply hum and bring extra batteries). Feel free to drag the others pedals along in your car, just in case, if it makes you feel more secure, but the shortest signal chain that will create your tone is probably the best. And, speaking of tone, get some new strings and make sure they're stretched out before you get to the studio. Finally, if the engineer tells you to turn down, do it.

Bassists: Read what I said to the guitarists above and carefully consider using DI instead of dragging along your 8x10 Ampeg cab. In addition to phasing issues when mixed with the DI signal (which a good engineer will insist on getting anyway), it's a beast to set up. In reality, the guy who's mixing your songs will have a nice plugin that will buzz up your DI signal as much as you want and the bits on the disk are a hell of a lot lighter than your beastly Ampeg setup. If you must insist on dragging along an amp and speaker, use something like this - it's a lot easier to carry and your back will thank you. Unless you're playing fretless or standup, you'll only need three basses - a Fender P-Bass, a Rickenbacker, and some modern five-string behemoth with active pickups (personally, I like these, but then I'm a wimp...). Like your guitar playing friend, get new strings. Besides, no one listens to the bass, anyway.

Drummers: I don't have much to say that I haven't said earlier in this section. Small, quiet, reliable. Being a drummer, there's only so much you can do with small and quiet, but there is one thing - if the studio has a kit, it's probably maintained better than the one you've been dragging about on the road for the past five years, so use it if you can. If you can't use it, and you need to bring your own kit, do so, but if you don't plan on using a particular drum or cymbal in at least one of the songs you're going to record, don't drag it along. Many fine albums have been made by drummers who only had only one kick, two toms, a snare, a hat, a crash, and a ride. Sure, go ahead and add a couple of toms and another cymbal or two. Bring along a couple of snares if you have them. Even better, just bring an electronic kit because your crappy sounding drums are probably going to be replaced by your mixing guy anyway and it's a lot easier to replace using MIDI triggers than using audio-based triggers. On the off chance that your drums won't be replaced, make sure you have new heads and have the drums tuned by someone who knows what he's doing. Oil the pedals and make sure that the hardware is sliding quietly. If you need to, replace the bushings and felts on your cymbals. Once the mikes are set up, don't move them. Don't drag along the timbales or RotoToms, even though you think they're going to sound really neat on these songs - if it wasn't agreed to in preproduction, I wouldn't go off in left field now (I think I saw an ad on Craigslist saying that The Scrud Monkeys were looking for a new drummer). Feel free to put them in your car, but keep them there until asked. Shaker eggs, tambourines, claves, castanets, and the ilk are fine. Put them in a box (perhaps in your car?) until needed. Don't be offended if no one asks to use them. And bring extra sticks.

Keyboardists: Assuming your drummer and the rest of the band can play to a click, consider recording your parts before you get into the studio and bringing both MIDI and audio versions. One less person to screw up a part in tracking increases the chance of getting good takes for the other instruments. If you're offended that I would even suggest such a thing, then at least make sure you bring as few keyboards a possible, make sure you have enough cables, and have your settings/samples/soft synths all available on your computer so it doesn't take an hour to move from one song to the next. Bring the equipment you need to record MIDI as you play. If the feel is right, no one wants a good take lost because your synth setting is off a bit.

Singers: Feel free to bring your own microphone. You may even be able to use it. Engineers want singers to feel comfortable and, if using your own microphone is what it takes, that's fine. However, you and the record might actually sound better if you let the engineer use his $3,000 Neumann U47 on your pie hole instead of your crappy blown out SM-58. Just sayin'... Keep an open mind. Make sure you have lyric sheets with you - debating what the words to the song actually are during the recording session can be expensive.

Again, small, quiet, and reliable are the watchwords when it comes to the gear you bring. If you can use stuff that's already at the studio, that's about as small as you can get. Don't ovepower the studio. As for reliable, no one wants to hold up the session while you track down a cable buzz or a mechanical squeak. Don't let these things happen to you.

Don't bring your posse
This ain't Tombstone, and you aren't the sheriff - you don't need a posse. Are they there to work? If not, they shouldn't be there (unless you like spending your money on a very expensive party room). A studio is a place to get music recorded, not for your friends to chill in. And they can be distracting - if you're showing off to impress them, you're more likely to get crap than brilliance on the recording. If this posse includes your girl-/boyfriend, it's even worse. No one at the studio (yourself included) needs this sort of stuff. Remember this rule and you'll be one step closer to adhering to the following rule...

Don't be an ass
When you're in the studio, you are a customer, but you're also a guest. You shouldn't trash the place, break things, or do things that would put the place in physical, financial, or legal jeopardy. If you do so, you will probably be asked to take your business elsewhere and be charged financially for the consequences of your actions. Remember that you'll be out of there in a few days, but the engineer has to be there ready to work with someone else the day after (or maybe even a few hours after) you leave. Besides being considerate of the space, be helpful to the engineer. You, the other members of your band, and the engineer are all there to work together to get your music out to the public - your hangover or the argument you had with the bass player last night will not be productive. And you're not too good to help out. If the engineer asks you to move a mike, do so - it may only save him a minute or two by not having to leave the control room, but those minutes or two add up and can save you money. And I don't care how many songs you've recorded and mixed in your home studio... this is not your home studio! You don't know where the best mike or instrument placement is in this room, you don't know which mike to use, and you probably don't know which macro keys to push on the DAW that the recording engineer has customized for himself. And God knows you have no fucking clue as to how to run an Otari. This is the engineer's domain. You've hired the studio and the engineer for its sound and his expertise - use them, don't abuse them. Sure, if you hear something absolutely dreadful, point it out, but as the title of this section says, "Don't be an ass."

Have fun
So you're there, you're all in place, the mikes and signal chains are all set up... you're ready to roll. Take a deep breath and relax. And then count off and make some magic. Because that's what it's all about. You've probably written these songs (or you love them for other reasons) and it's your chance to let the world hear you perform them as well as you can. Play (and sing) your heart out on every take. Try to make each take more interesting than the last. Dare to blow a take or two if that's what it takes to make the tracks on your CD sing. The bottom line is that music should be about daring and having fun. If you have fun in the studio, you're half of the way to making a great recording. And playing music is fun. Playing music in the studio is even funner (and, yes, I know "funner" is not a word).

I hope that these pointers have helped you prepare for your studio experience and I promise I won't write a page about "Paying Your Bill on Time".