Essential Studio Techniques

Outlines some basic techniques for playing in the studio, and discusses how the recording studio differs from the live gig.

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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.

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.

Preparation

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.)

Good luck!

66 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Bubonic Chronic
    bubonic chronic dude: dont ask for things and then go up MY ass for giving constructive criticism. Ill TELL you what I expectedL 1. Placements of everything 2. Info on the interferences of sound, how to clear up cancellations of that sound 3. Info about the actual recording process (besides 'do a lot of takes') So, your article is for the engineers? Two things to consider here, buddy: A. This is written with the knowledge that musicians and recorders will read this B. You sure as hell didn't get into anything objective, which is what most people are misinformed of. Just because your information isn't wrong does NOT mean that it's not inadequate. Again, learn to take criticism, you sure are good at dealing it.
    Look at the title of the article: ESSENTIAL Studio Techniques. Essential is practically synonymous with "basic," meaning you're not learning "advanced" studio techniques or "sophisticated" studio techniques, just a few simple pointers, some things that are "essential" to taking your band into a studio and getting a satisfactory product. There is nothing objective at all. If you want to know how to be an engineer, I can write you a 300 page book on that if you wish. No problem. The average musician doesn't want that. And I did say that I respect your right to criticize, but that I respect your criticisms a lot less since they don't actually focus on anything specific. It sounds to me like arrogant bullying...and I mean no offense when I say that. Good criticism: "Your article suggested that musicians play to a click track to make things easier and more flexible, but you completely neglected the use of a metronome in practice, and learning to play in absolute time. This is not a major complaint, but something you should have considered in your article. Playing to a click track is a skill all its own, and the existence of a click is not a guarantee of success." that I could respect. Bad criticism: "Whatever, dude, do you even know what you're talking about? I bet you haven't even been in a studio before." So don't mistake a dismissal of your criticism for an inability to take criticism. Take it as a counter-criticism of your style of criticism. Next time be more specific, focus on actual points and see if you can actually teach us something, correct me or expound on an idea you felt was too vague.
    pinholes89
    this is a good article to say the least, its for beginners that havent recorded in a studio before, but if u recorded at a studio, u'll automatically get that stuff down after your 1st or 2nd time
    CryingNut
    Simon Cowell, until you can sing, you can NOT understand what it is to be a good singer.
    CryingNut
    i didnt find this article "great" or "kickass" or "five-stars" but i got a laugh and thats good
    scumfuc_69
    My old drummer should have read this 6 years ago. But knowing him the way I do now, it probably wouldn't have helped
    Bubonic Chronic
    rhcpcure dude: Get a new hobby, alright? Besides crawling up my ass over something I wrote after spending all day trying to record a song in the studio - and thinking about all the things that would have helped. And when I say prove it, I mean prove how something I said is not true. This is from the perspective of an engineer, NOT a musician. What did you expect, altered scales? Picking sweeps? Half the bands I try to record haven't even rehearsed, and it's irritating as hell. I spend five hours Pro-Tools-ing it together, when they should have spent the five hours practicing. Then we could all kick back and have a beer, listening to a job well done. Instead? Headaches for me. So if you are better than most of the people I've recorded, good for you. You get a Bozo Button from me.
    rhcpcure2826
    bubonic chronic dude: dont ask for things and then go up MY ass for giving constructive criticism. Ill TELL you what I expectedL 1. Placements of everything 2. Info on the interferences of sound, how to clear up cancellations of that sound 3. Info about the actual recording process (besides 'do a lot of takes') Oh, and receiving good comments means nothing. People that browse these columns eat what they're given, and I wouldn't feel too proud of providing seeminly useful information that will go unused by the majority of people here. Please, everyone, post "I'm an idiot!" if you did NOT know to be prepared before going to the studio, and if this article alerted you of that.
    This is from the perspective of an engineer, NOT a musician
    So, your article is for the engineers? Two things to consider here, buddy: A. This is written with the knowledge that musicians and recorders will read this B. You sure as hell didn't get into anything objective, which is what most people are misinformed of. Just because your information isn't wrong does NOT mean that it's not inadequate. Again, learn to take criticism, you sure are good at dealing it.
    rubysoho8779
    i think it was a good article seeing as im just starting to think about recording stuff myself, and im a solo artist as of right now, but thanks, i could use some of those tips!
    scottish
    rhcp dude write ur own articale see if you can top that instea of bitching some one for trying to help. nice articale
    rhcpcure2826
    Bad criticism: "Whatever, dude, do you even know what you're talking about? I bet you haven't even been in a studio before."
    Are you connecting that to ME? I've been very specific, articulated my point to a good extent, I've focused on actual points, etc...
    rhcp dude write ur own articale see if you can top that instea of bitching some one for trying to help. nice articale
    Yes, make me the bad guy... 'articale'? I dont concern myself with recording techniques, as I am not qualified to give enough info about something that can be used (however, bubonic chronic supposedly is...)
    Look at the title of the article: ESSENTIAL Studio Techniques.
    IMO, the key word there is TECHNIQUES. I can't see 'do a lot of takes!' as being a technique. If you have the capacity to write a 300-page book with something relevant to recording, how can you manage not to include ANYTHING in an article a couple of pages long about something relevant to recording. But don't try to skew this arguement by telling me that I don't specify, because you are just trying to divert attention from the main point: The inadequacy of this article. Care for me to specify? See above.
    dionysus85
    Great Aricle Mate Good Tips & Interesting I Will Have To Remember Those Thanks 5 Stars
    AnnaPlaysGuitar
    rhcpcure2826, if you think this guy is a can't-write-a-decent-article dumbass that's not worth your time, then STOP POSTING. The article was informative, but pretty vague. How do the metronomes work? Second, I need some ethos. How do I know you know what your talking about? Overall, I give it 4 stars.
    rhcpcure2826
    rhcpcure2826, if you think this guy is a can't-write-a-decent-article dumbass that's not worth your time, then STOP POSTING.
    When did i say that? People dont seem to get it here, the betterment of UG is my main concern, but people like YOU, annaplaysguitar, see criticism as me lashing out for no reason. Unfortunately, bubonic chronic was one of those guys that cant take criticism either, and made this an arguement...
    Prospect
    This is really a poor article. Bubonic Chronic i just have to laugh at you. You say you have your own studio yet you write shit that is common sense. These arent studio techniques. You should rename this article, "Common Sense Studio Basics For Dumbasses". If people dont already know this shit when there going into a studio then why the *** are they playing music? People like that should do telemarketing.
    Covin
    A decent article, but like most articles, the majority of possibilities and suggestions that are made in the piece are descriptive only for a certain budget/situation. Perhaps if there were different parts for different budgets (ie, self-funded as opposed to some money already collected) it would be a little more thorough. But generically, it's fitting for a rookie's first recording. Nicely done.
    rhcpcure2826
    I will respect that a lot more if you can contribute something better (in other words, PROVE IT!!)
    So, the only one qualified to criticize anything are the ones who have surpassed the one being criticized??? Move over, Siskel and Ebert (sp?), apparently only great movie producers themselves are fit to criticize movies. Simon Cowell, until you can sing, you can NOT understand what it is to be a good singer. The point is, I know a good, helpful article (or the contrary) when I see one, and I don't need to write an article to know that another contains marginal information (namely, this one). Please, you need to be more accpeting of criticism, you need to let go of your hubris, and you need to learn how to welcome and then harness criticism to improve.
    That's all it is, and all it claims to be
    What IM saying is that it can be more than that. (not to mention, that article's NOT all it claims to be, by omission of more significant techniques that are NOT learned by common sense)
    Bubonic Chronic
    To naysayers (ahem, rhcpcure..whatever, Ramco), I own a studio. I also have been in one (or two, or three, or five, or ten...) I'm not trying to write for a professional magazine or the AES (know what that is?), I'm writing for recording musicians at large, who may be recording for the first time, or spending their band's entire fortune (or lack thereof) on a session. Here's how to get the most out of it. That's all it is, and all it claims to be. You're free to criticize, and I respect that, but I will respect that a lot more if you can contribute something better (in other words, PROVE IT!!) I can criticize Jesus, or Einstein if I want. Doesn't make me right.
    TerrorBlade
    this article was good hopefully this i will get to record n use this article for help
    boxcarblink41
    That was great, keep it up dude, 5 stars. But I disagree, the outcome can sometimes be better than your performance, at least for vocals, with pitch correctors and all.
    BMAN12688
    that was a good article (unless your metallica) lol. sry, thought i should poke fun at it since u use it for every paragraph. otherwise, good info
    eastern_riffs
    It was an excellent article,I'd give it five stars. Nice part you write about the money.Hahhahahaha.
    faqu
    Oh man... that was the best article I have read in a long, long time!!! Great job!!!
    Dlawso
    I would say that this is a good article. But then, how DO you define a good article. If t contains alot of facts, is it a good article? Or if it makes you laugh, it is a good article???
    Ramco
    One nice thing about the studio is you have the luxury of eliminating the audience - you don't have to entertain anyone.
    That is the dumbest ***ing thing I've ever heard! This whole article is written like it's for complete retards and has no respect for the reader's intelligence. He makes 3, maybe 4 points in an amount of space that people have used to make hundreds of points. Has this guy actually ever been in a studio? My guess is no.
    frigginjerk
    ^ shut the *** up. everything he said was more or less true. I've been in a studio before, and it's all true. get a solid rhythm track down quick, then take your time with overdubs. it's classic advice. you also have to recall that's he's writing for an audience of tens of thousands of web surfers; there's no point in appealing to a niche audience for a front-page article.
    SingingSabre
    5 stars from me. Good points which I'll use when ever (if ever) I record in a studio!
    Abe
    "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! " Thats not true, you can re-record what wasn't perfect. Other than that, pretty good.