Most people envision the live experience when they picture their favorite artists, but where would Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica or Elvis Presley have gotten without first working in the studio? The answer: not far.
Performing live and recording in the studio are two very different worlds. As the studio engineers and technicians must have a strong grasp of the art and science of recording, so too must the musicians have an understanding of how to play when being recorded. It's a team effort, and the final product will not be satisfactory if anyone on the team is not doing their job. As a musician, though, you are under pressure; your job is ultimately more important than anyone else's in the studio - including the producer, engineer, receptionist, janitor... Even with the very best people working with you in the best studio in the world, with top-of-the-line microphones, the final product will only be as good as your performance.
When you're playing live, the key is to maintain your stamina. You don't want to blow your voice, break your strings, or smash your drums during the first song. If so, you won't get paid, and might even get badly beaten by the angry mob you have created. One nice thing about the studio is you have the luxury of eliminating the audience - you don't have to entertain anyone.
There is what I like to think of as a "performance balance," which is to say you want to play as hard as necessary, sing with as much guts and feeling as you can, and basically get your very best possible performance on tape. You don't want to overdo it, though. The studio provides you with an opportunity to push your limits, to reach further into your bag of tricks than ever before, but if you shred your vocals, or thrash your fretting hand, you have just wasted a very expensive recording session.
The most common approach is to slowly build up to that "perfect take," otherwise known as "the one." Sometimes the very first take is fabulous, but usually not. Most of the time, your performance will improve as you repeatedly play the same bars of the piece again and again. So start conservatively. Allow repetition to build the strength of your performance naturally. At a certain point, you will feel ready to pour it all out, and when that moment comes, don't be afraid. Unleash all of your musical power.
Another advantage of repetition is that you will have several "backup" takes to draw from in case you do overexert yourself and have to call it quits, or if you make a minor mistake in the midst of a brilliant take (it happens all the time.) Performance is more important than perfection. It's better to keep a great take that has the right energy even if there is a more perfect take that wasn't quite as explosive. The studio is designed, and the engineers are trained to make perfection happen. Let them fix the mistakes later, concentrate on making magic.
Don't go into the studio unprepared!
That should be the mantra of every band, but unfortunately most get really good at gigging, then wind up spending a lot more time and money than necessary fixing mistakes in the studio. Metallica may spend a year in the writing songs and experimenting with different instruments and ideas, but they can afford it.
Until you become a millionaire, you will have to settle for good, old-fashioned practice. Before recording, make sure you can play the songs. It's much easier to bring a tight band into the studio and quickly run through two or three versions of a song than it is to try and coax a professional-sounding product out of chaos. This goes back to performance - if your band is no good, the end product will be no good, too.
Laying The Foundation
When you play live, you need the vocalist, lead guitarist, keyboardist, etc. In the studio, the less you try to accomplish at one time, the easier time you will have. Trust me.
The best thing to do is play the song with only the rhythm section of the band, leaving the vocalist and lead players sitting in the control room, shooting the breeze with the engineer. If you add them into the mix, you not only have to get a solid take of the drums, bass and guitars, but you also have to get a perfect take of vocals and guitar leads! And if one player has a good take, another will have a bad take and so on, thus, reduce your lineup as much as possible when laying the foundation.
The most important factor at this stage is timing. Some players will use a metronome to stay perfectly in time, which makes it easier to record in the modern style, and gives you all the flexibility in the world. Don't like measure 52? Pull it out! Slap 51 and 53 together and wham, you probably won't be able to tell measure 52 ever existed.
Other players, though, would rather rely on "inner" timing, and this is the older style of recording. Before the days of Pro Tools and click tracks, musicians recording in the studio had to be professionals. That means their timing had to be impeccable. The advantage of recording this way (old school method) is your music is more likely to "breath." If you want to sound more like Black Sabbath or Miles Davis, go for this approach. If you're leaning towards Opeth or Dream Theater, go with the first approach (the click track.)
By default, unless you're an impeccably professional musician with years of experience under your belt, use a click track! It's kind of annoying, but it pays off. Trust me.
Building The Song
This is the final stage of the recording process, and is usually the most involved. It's also the most fun, and potentially frustrating.
You can record the additional parts in whatever order you want once you have the foundation tracks laid down. The better your foundation, the more smoothly this will go. You will also have more flexibility, and more fun. Also, you will spend less time and money.
Repetition is the key to adding additional tracks to your foundation. Ideally, a practiced band will only play between two and five versions of the rhythm tracks, and will pick (or assemble) the best one from those. When recording vocals or solos, however, the sky is the limit on take counts. I recorded a guitar lead yesterday that took me 65 takes to get right. My max was 179 takes recording the guitar for "Man On A Mission," an instrumental inspired by a Sunday trip to Wal-Mart. (The original title was "Man On A Mission Of Funk," but I shortened it.)
You never know how many takes you will need. 7,000? If that's what it takes, do it.
Vocals is the trickiest part of all. A guitarist can play 179 takes. Granted, my left middle finger was sore for a month afterwords, but it was worth it. A vocalist, though, is going to have a shaky start, then slowly improve until they reach a peak, and then they are going to develop fatigue in their voice, and the performance level will drop, fast. You should record each and every take, and if you're only recording one song, sing until you are tired.
That is, quit when you're tired.
The reason I tell you to sing until you're tired is because with vocals, as opposed to any other instrument, you're going to run into the most problems. Voice is easily the most expressive instrument, and it's easily the most frustrating, too. You'll sing with the right energy, but be off key. You'll be on key, but the energy won't be there, or you mispronounce a word for some silly reason, or you're off time, or... The list of possible screw-ups is endless.
So if you have a large number of vocal takes, you can pick three or four that are really strong, and assemble a "perfect" take from there. The more takes you've got, the better the song will sound, but you can only sing for so long. After a certain point, everybody's voice breaks down and you're basically done for the day. Recording after this breakdown is pointless. You will throw all of it away, I promise you.
Once you have done the vocals, which generally come last, you are done for now - at least with the "body" of the song. You can keep building and building forever if you like, adding sitar, 12-string, a high school marching band, three semi-trucks driving through a warehouse wall, 11, 000 screaming kids... endless. You can do anything.
The art of recording, though, is knowing when to quit. General consensus is "less is more," but consider "Another Brick In The Wall" without the famous chorus line, "We don't need no, education!" Adding the right elements can take an ordinary song and make it a timeless classic. Adding the wrong elements can ruin everything. Plus, you have to consider cost (unless you're Metallica.)