5 Basic Ways Producers Can Improve Their Studio Sessions
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The focus of this article isn't about gear or techniques on how to record, but rather about some of the other things that are associated with the recording process. Some of these may seem like common sense, but often can be overlooked because everyone's focus gets pulled into some of the many technical details during recording (which are still very important). The end result is affected by every single aspect of the recording process, so these are a few details that should not be overlooked, and will ultimately improve the end result of your recording.
This one may seem quite obvious, and is commonly talked about, but it really cannot be stressed enough. Proper pre-production will SUBSTANTIALLY improve your recording. Everyone will do it a little bit differently, and every project you encounter may not need the same amount of pre-production, but it still needs to be done. This may include working on the songs with the artist doing arrangement improvements, lyrical adjustments, or bigger changes such as rewriting or adding parts in, or changing the key to better suit the singer's range. The most important thing is that by the end of pre-production, everyone knows the song, and knows what parts they are going to record, and have practiced those parts.
Recording is still a creative process, so pre-production doesn't necessarily mean that the song is 100% done when you go into record. There always should be room for spontaneity and trying new things in the studio, but the songs should be at the very least 90% there when you go into the recording studio. When everyone knows (and practices) their parts, and has a good idea for the final vision of the project, parts are played with more confidence which leads to better takes and a more efficient studio session, which makes everyone feel better about the process.
2. VOCAL LESSONS
It might seem like I'm singling out singers here, but this does apply to other players as well. The reason I'm focusing on singers is that it really is the most important part of most recordings. It is often the most powerful emotional connection that listeners relate to when they hear music, so it needs to be treated as such.
As a producer, it is a really good idea to recommend, or even have it as part of a contract and include it in the budget, that the singer takes vocal lessons for a decent period of time before coming into record. It is also a good idea to know a well trained vocal coach that you trust, that understands the recording process themselves, and will be able to work with the singer directly with the songs that are being recorded. Focusing on things like proper pronunciation and lyrical rhythm, pitch control, vocal health, and proper warm-ups before tracking.
Most times there is a good chance that singers either have already taken lessons or are already taking lessons, which is great. However, it's still a good idea to have them see the vocal coach that you trust, as it will make sure that they are focusing on the right things. Sometimes it can be a bit of a touchy subject, as you don't want to imply that a singer is not prepared, not good enough, etc. But approach it more as just a regular part of the recording process for any artist, regardless of performance level, which really should be the case. It is a great way of getting the singer prepared, focused properly, and excited to get into the studio and nail the parts.
Since I have started doing this, I have a noticed a big difference in performance in pretty much every singer that I have worked with, regardless of ability. With some that are less experienced, it gives them confidence and tools that they can continue to use over the course of their career. For those that are already experienced singers, it's a good brush up on skills and forces them to put focus into being prepared for recording.
3. STUDIO VIBE
The overall vibe of the studio setting can play a pretty big roll in how people feel about their recording session. No one wants to come into an office type atmosphere to record their creative work, right? Every studio is a little bit different, but there are always things you can do to make a studio feel a little bit more comfortable, if need be. To me, lighting is a huge deal. For setting up, plugging things in, adjusting mics, getting sounds, etc. bright lights are usually needed to see well and to work properly…. But when tracking starts, I hate "working" lights, they kill the vibe for me. I am a huge fan of things like the coloured Phillips Hue lighting system, lava lamps, Christmas lights, etc. Lower lighting, and fun lighting can really help people get into the headspace they need to be in to record properly. Dimmer lights can calm nerves down, as people feel a little bit less "on the spot" when it comes to tracking, and confidence goes up. It's a small thing that actually can make a substantial difference in performance and session efficiency. It also helps to make sessions more fun, which is ideally how all studio sessions should feel. Plus it's a way to inspire a bit of creativity! If a session starts to get a bit stale and frustrating, try changing around the vibe…. change lights, rearrange some studio decor, adjust the atmosphere… it may actually lead to a bit of spark in creativity because you are exposing your senses to something new.
Studio sessions can often lead to long days that can sometimes be frustrating when things aren't going ideally as planned. Keeping a positive and supportive attitude as a producer is huge for artist moral. Music is a very emotive creativity, and emotions can sometimes get the best of people when they are put under the microscope of recording. Being supportive and staying positive will help calm artists down if their emotions are flaring up, or if their confidence is not at it's best. Sometimes it can even be as simple as knowing when to take a break and just have a calm, supportive talk. It could also involve knowing when to call off a session and reschedule, but doing so in a way that is not degrading to the artist and their confidence. You almost never will get what you want out of an artist when they are frustrated, angry, or feeling down about their abilities. Sometimes all it takes is a nights sleep and a new day. No one wants to spend a full day wasting time in the studio knowing they won't get what is needed. It's not your job as a producer to be a "councilor" of sorts, but it really does help to know how to read people's emotional state, and how to deal with people in a supportive manner. When artists feel good and are having fun, often this is when the best takes come out.
It seems like these days a lot of people are quite busy, and with the use of smartphones and social media, there are a lot of distractions that make their way into a studio session. For things to go smoothly, these distractions need to be minimized. To get the best takes out of artists, everyone, including the producer, needs to be focused on the task at hand. Smartphones can be a useful tool in the studio for things like quickly searching for a rhyme for a lyric, or bringing up an example of another recording to show to someone, etc. As amazing as they are, they also can easily distract people and halt progress during a session. I generally have a rule that you treat being in a studio session like a job (artist included), because really it is. To me, this means things like having your phone on silent, and only answering calls/texts when its an emergency, or during a break. If your phone is out, it means you are using it as a tool to help a session, not playing games or using it as a distraction.
Another fairly common distraction in the studio, is having too many people in the room during tracking. Studios can be fun and exciting, so people and band mates like to hang out and be present during sessions. If everyone is extremely quiet, sometimes this can be okay… but often if there's a bunch of people hanging out in the control room, it can distract whoever is trying to focus on their performance. It can also feel like the performer is being put on the spot in front of everyone, and may feel intimidating, like there's a whole room of people judging their takes. This especially rings true with singers, because headspace is EXTREMELY important when trying to get the best, and often most emotional, takes. As a general rule, I don't allow any other band members to be present during a vocal tracking session, unless the singer absolutely needs them there. The artist should trust you as a producer to know how to get the best takes out of the singer, and part of this is creating a personal bond between you and the singer. Other people being present can distract from this, which often leads to the singer not feeling fully confident of their abilities.
To wrap things up… music production is an art form itself, just like the music is. Every producer will have their own way of going about the process. The important thing is to not overlook the little stuff, as the entire production is a sum of all it's parts, regardless of how small they might seem. Hopefully you find some of these tips useful towards making some of your own killer sounding recordings!
Thanks for reading!