by Bob Brown
There are many reasons a musician or group may decide to head to the studio to record. Perhaps your group is looking to expand opportunities, and is frequently asked to provide a demo. Or maybe your audience or fan base is asking for a CD or streaming site. Maybe you just want to experience the recording process, and see just how good your group can sound. Whatever the reasons, the process of selecting a studio and preparing for your first recording session can be a bit intimidating. That is exactly why a first-timer’s guide to professional recording is necessary.
Selecting a Studio
No matter what your recording objective—to produce a useful, high-quality demo; to learn about recording or even just experience the recording process—step one will be to identify a studio that can meet your objectives and lock down a date to begin recording.
You will probably find that many studio options exist in your area, ranging from small, in-home or basement studios to large, commercial (and possibly renowned) studios. Develop and list your goals and requirements, which should include at a minimum: the number of songs, type of music, and purpose of the project. Are you a cover band recording a three-song demo to produce for a streaming site? Are you a church choir recording hymns to sell a CD to your church members? Many studios have specialties, and if your recording project has a unique aspect to it, there may be a studio that has recorded your specialty before.
You will also need to think about the format of your recordings, as pricing may be dependent on the quality or resolution of the music files you receive. Your requirements should specify file format, such as MP3s for download and streaming, higher quality WAV files to burn onto CDs, and native digital audio workstation (DAW) files, such as ProTools files, if your group intends to do additional processing on the recordings. Identify any specialized instruments or equipment you will need, and don’t want to transport to the studio, such as a grand piano or a vintage rotary speaker cabinet.
Once your goals and requirements are documented, spend a few days calling and interviewing studios of various sizes and scales. Be sure to convey the details of your recording project, and ask studios to describe a recent project similar to yours. Let them know whether any members of your group have recording experience. Ask to tour the facility. Be wary of a studio that is reluctant to let you see their operation prior to signing a contract. For a larger studio, ask if you will be able to meet your assigned sound engineer to discuss your recording project in advance of the first recording session.
Most studios will charge hourly rates, ranging from $60 to $150 per hour. If your requirements are specific enough, the studio will be able to give you an estimate for the number of hours, the rate per hour, and the cost for any extras (such as the piano or specialized speaker). For larger projects, find out how multiple sessions will be scheduled. For smaller ones, determine whether your project will be in a single long session or several shorter ones.
Using all this data, select your studio and sign the contract and required paperwork to lock in your first recording session.
Preparing and Practicing
For a band that has only performed live, it is helpful to know some of the differences between playing in a live music venue and recording in a studio. In addition, rehearsal for the session is decidedly different from practicing for a live show.
While it may seem obvious, be prepared to play your music flawlessly. In many recording processes, the first step is typically the recording of a “scratch track” for each song that includes the full band, and serves as a baseline for the rest of the session. This part of the process is not intended to have more than a few takes, so the ability to play flawlessly for the initial scratch track will save valuable time. Advanced preparation should also include agreement on song structure. For example, the different song ending you worked out for a cover song that fades out on the original recording can fade out in the studio recording.
Another helpful tip is to practice with a click track or metronome. The more precise the timing is on the scratch track, the easier the rest of the session will be. Bands used to playing only in live settings may be surprised to hear that a song picked up eight beats per minute between the beginning and the end of the song, which can be problematic in the precise world of digital audio.
Be aware of the differences between playing live and recording in a studio. The most significant difference is the use of headphones during the entire session. Band members communicate with each other, as well as the sound engineer through headphones. In addition, to isolate instruments onto separate tracks for use in the mixing and mastering process, the band (or their amps) may be in separate isolation areas.
Most importantly, have a great time in your first recording session, and enjoy those high quality recordings that make you smile each time you listen to them.
A full-time business unit vice president and part-time keyboardist, Bob Brown’s band, Eleven, made up of six colleagues at Aquilent, just made their first professional recording.