I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said ‘Plan your work, then work your plan!’
Successful recordings are usually very well planned. Before you even think of recording anything, the whole project has to
be well planned if it is to amount to anything. That means the studio is ready when the band comes in and the musicians
are ready to record. It never ceases to amaze me how some musicians just are not ready to record. They come into the
studio not even knowing the piece thoroughly. It is a common occurrence to have a rock band come into the studio with
one of their own compositions only part finished. Arrangements, words, hooks, bridges, choruses, everything have to
be one hundred percent before the studio engineer can press record. You cannot even lay a click track if you have not
worked out in advance how many beats per minute the tune is.
Remember, studios are not the right place to start rehearsing!
There is no hard and fast rule about who plans the recording, though most of the time that role
falls to the producer. The producer of a recording is the person who is responsible for everything. He or she is not the engineer
or the artist. If the project is for a large label, he will be a hired hand who gets a fee for see everything through from
tracking to final mastering. If it is a small label, it might be the label owner himself. If it is a rock band
making their own CDs to be sold at concerts, usually one member of the band takes on the role of producer, planning the project,
hiring the session musicians and the studio, organising the final print run and budgeting the whole thing.
For larger projects such as a major film score, there are specialist management companies that
take the day-to-day running of the entire project from hiring orchestras, studios, engineers, specialist equipment and even
the buses and trucks to move all this around.
That means that the recording project has to be planned. The more complicated the recording, the better the
plan has to be. If you are just recording yourself singing and playing guitar, you will still have to arrange a stool
to sit on, put up a couple of microphones, turn off the telephone and find a space to record in, such as the living room,
that is acoustically appropriate and free from outside noise. You will almost certainly need to perform several takes
of each song and then take some time carefully deciding which takes are to be committed to CD.
Admittedly, all the above can be done on a fairly ad hoc basis, but once you involve other people,
things get complicated. Dates have to be made and if session musicians are involved or studios have to be booked, then
money has to be found. So let’s have a look at the processes involved in any recording.
As I mentioned earlier, it come as a shock to a small number of musicians that they should have
every detail of a piece of music (or whatever else it is that you are recording) has to be worked out in advance, if things
are to go through quickly. Even if it is your own studio, or you are fabulously wealthy and can afford to waste money,
the project will suffer if it is not planned properly. The first step in planning is to have finished writing the piece.
People and equipment
Having written everything down, the next step is to see what sort of people will have to become
involved. A lead guitar solo means you will need a lead guitarist. A haunting sax solo means hiring a saxophonist.
A piano accompaniment not only means finding that pianist, but also a piano.
At this stage, a list has to be compiled with everything that will be needed to complete the
project. If you are building a commercial studio, you hope that your studio will be on that list, but you must also be aware
that the producer is having to cover all kinds of other costs, from hiring in additional equipment, musicians, and in some
cases all the costs of manufacturing and packaging the final product.
Once the producer (or whoever is organising the whole bash) knows what he or she needs, a chart
of who does what and when can be made. Often this is in the form of a wall chart that gets hung up in the studio so
that everybody can see exactly how the project is progressing.
For a one-month lock-out, each and every day may be sited and a tight schedule organised.
It is at about this time that you begin to get an idea of the cost of the project. It is also the time
when false economies are made by getting a friend to help or using the cheapest engineer or musician.
Booking the studio
One of the problems for those booking studios for the first time, is the way that the business has changed
almost beyond all recognition. Back in the good-old, bad-old days (when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and I had hair!) a
band or artist did not expect to have to pay for studio time - hell, the label picked up the tab.
In exchange, the band got fame and fortune and a fat groupie called Becky. If things didn't work out,
well, try again. Get a better drummer, a sexier bass player, better songs and use the contacts you have made within
the label to have another go.
Back then (and I'm talking about pre-1990) the label or the management company, or who ever was covering
the bills, would hire a producer and an engineer that they knew would be able to cut the mustard. Both of these guys
would usually be studied musicians with loads of experience who understood exactly how to achieve 'that' sound.
The producer in particular, had a very clear idea exactly what needed to be done and how much everything
would cost. He knew which session men to book to cover ropey playing once the band had gone, he knew how to rewrite
the song to cover for the inexperience of the singer-songwriters and he knew which gimmicks, breaks and hooks would work -
and which are best left out.
Today, the band walks in and non of that is true any more. The owner-manager of the studio is also
the only engineer and there's no producer in sight.
Even if the engineer is an old-timer (like me!) who knows exactly what should be done, he is not really
in a position to dictate methods.
For example, the dreaded click track - many bands insist on not using a click. This is usually a bad
mistake. But if they are paying the piper, well, what does the owner-manager-engineer and general dog's body say?
An old-fashioned producer would just tell the band, that's how it's going to be done. If pockets are deep enough,
he would often allow both methods to be used and the band would afterwards have to admit that they were wrong and things sound
better when there's a steady beat.
The owner-engineer may even realise that there needs to be a two-bar bridge before the middle-eight, but
he is just not in a position to insist on changes. Also, a recording studio is a really stupid place to be writing arrangements!
So the answer is, BEFORE anything else happens, to get a wise, old head who understands music to listen
to what you are doing and suggest changes and arrangements, counterpoints and hooks. This could be an older musician,
a family friend, or just about anybody with some experience.
In other words, you need a producer!
If in doubt, nominate a member of the band to be that producer and then get him or her to ask for advice
from various people.
Of course, if you are sure of what you are doing, you can be that person!
Now is the time to pick an engineer, BEFORE you approach any studios. I always feel that those
young and very capable engineers that are coming up in the business today are the best. But a person like that will
make such a difference to your project, in a way that you can hardly appreciate, until you have experienced it!
Talk through the project with this person, deciding how much time needs to be spent on each of the four
parts and who does what.
You are now developing a battle plan and, of course, a budget.
Your engineer will definitely have favourite studios to work in and, if he is really on the ball, will have
his own recording system, so that he knows exactly where things are and how to get things done quickly.
There are three things to look for, when you and your engineer are picking a studio - things you would like
to have, things you need and things you absolutely musty have.
1. Things you would like to have - well, this could be vintage back-line, cool synths, a Hammond organ
or a grand piano. Perhaps a special mic or DAW (digital audio workstation) that your engineer wants to use, or perhaps
they have a collection of vintage instruments, or perhaps they have the biggest, the baddest and the meanest desk or recording
system on planet Earth.
2. Things you need - if you are not recording locally, you will need a bed and food. You will
need enough space for the whole band to play. You may need a place to chill and get away from the noise. Perhaps
you need somewhere to smoke, watch TV, whatever! But make a list of the things you feel you need to get the job
3. Things you must have - absolutely top of the list is the ability to give you your project as a
series of time-stamped WAV files of all the multitrack tracks on a DVD-R. Another must-have is the ability to back-up
at the end of the day. If you are doing a bigger project, they must also have a back-up system if the entire DAW fails.
Good monitoring and a choice of monitors is a big 'must!' Good mics, clean signal path, etc.
One final thought - to keep costs down, it's a great idea to share a studio lock-out with other bands.
We have just completed a one-month lock-out that was two bands and an advertisement and two different engineers, but all one
booking. It was hectic (12 people round the dining table in the evening!!!) but it was great fun and costs were about
half what they would have been!