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Back to Basics: Get Ready for The Studio

Dave Hunter

Once you get a band that starts writing some original tunes, or even if you need to compile a demo of good renditions of your covers set to help you land gigs, you’re probably going to want to go into the studio to do some recording. This can be a daunting proposition if you’ve never recorded in a real studio before, and often the “red light fever” that sets in when you’re trying to get that one great take under pressure is worse than the nerves that hit you before going on-stage. A few tips about preparation for the studio — regarding gear, performance and attitude — can go a long way toward calming anxieties, and helping to make you ready to get the best and most efficient performance out of yourself and your bandmates.

Get Your Gear Into Shape

Under the sonic microscope of a good studio microphone, your gear’s flaws will reveal themselves alarmingly quickly. The basic rule of thumb here is to get everything ship-shape before you get into the studio so that you avoid undertaking essential maintenance while the clock is ticking. Specific things to check include …

Guitar: Make sure your intonation is accurate and the guitar stays in tune well. There should be no unwanted rattles or buzzes or any noises in any of the controls that will be used in the course of playing. You should put a new set of strings on before you go to record, but not at the very last minute — give yourself time to stretch them in and let them settle.

Amp and speaker(s): If you have any dying or noisy tubes replace them now. Check that everything functions as it should, and play the amp long enough (before entering the studio) to ensure that nothing will fail or grow noisy with prolonged use. Check your speaker and speaker cab thoroughly and eliminate any rattles by tightening speaker mounting bolts, back panels, handles and whatever else might start to vibrate when played at volume. Chances are that you don’t notice these when cranked up on-stage or in rehearsal, but a studio mic will slather that annoying buzz all over your precious solo.

Effects and Accessories: Test all cables (cords) that you plan to use, and clean the tips with a squirt of electrical contact cleaner and a little muscular rubbing with a soft cloth. Put fresh batteries in any pedals that use them, and check the AC/DC converters (wall warts) that you use with any others to ensure they aren’t noisy or sporadic.

Have Your Performance Ready to Roll

Major artists with unlimited studio budgets, or anyone with the luxury of a good home studio and time to burn, can afford to improvise and compose in the studio with the proverbial tape rolling. The rest of us need to make the most of that $50 to $100 or more an hour we’re paying for the privilege of recording, and to have our performances down before we cross the hallowed studio threshold. Make extra time to rehearse ahead of your studio date, put in some additional woodshedding on your own parts at home and ensure that any bandmates who are unsure of their parts or song arrangements in general are brought up to speed. Make any charts, notes and cheat-sheets you might need to help things go smoothly — you’re not on stage here, so there’s no shame in following a chart if it helps you get things right — and have them ready to go for the big day. And after all that … take a few deep breaths, loosen up and try to bring a little life and spontaneity into your playing. In one sense you can never be too well rehearsed; in another, you can’t afford to let yourself start feeling bored with your playing. Once you get an acceptable take or takes, if there’s enough time, don’t be afraid to change it up and try something different. It might just be the one.

Attitude, Dude

If you’ve never recorded in a professional studio before, the first thing you want to get into your head is the fact that the “best stage sound” and the “best studio sound” are usually two very different things. The engineer’s job is to help you achieve the latter, so don’t be offended if he or she makes suggestions about altering your approach: changing your guitar settings, using different amps or effects pedals or even playing your part slightly differently. Any good engineer should take account of the gear you would prefer to use, and of your own playing style — in light of the kind of music you’re trying to make — but if they suggest any major changes, it’s probably worth trying them out. Most often, such engineers have no agenda other than getting the best results for you and your band, and chances are they work in that same studio day after day, with a different band every couple of days, so they know what is likely to get the job done. They are trying to work with you, not against you, so take any advice in the spirit in which it is intended, and see what you can make with it.

On the other hand, they are also working for you, since you’re paying them. If you deem an engineer’s gear or performance suggestions to be highly objectionable for artistic reasons — that is, if you are convinced your approach really will work, and perhaps they don’t entirely understand what you are trying to achieve — explain yourself and voice your objections, politely, and proceed as you see fit. In the end, a successful studio experience usually requires a dash of give and take and a pinch of compromise, so polish up your diplomacy badge and be prepared to use it.

Most important of all, have some fun in there. This is your time, your money, and your music. Sure, you’re likely to be a little nervous, but you got into this thing in the first place because you love it. You want to enjoy yourself in the studio, savor the experience and come away with results that you can live with at the very least, and that you are over the moon with ideally. Take all of these practical considerations to heart, but don’t let them get in the way of achieving these goals, and your day in the studio will have been a worthwhile venture.

Want more Back to Basics? Read ‘How to Get Your Gear and Yourself Gig-Ready.’

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