Is Your Band Ready To Record Pt. 1 - The Music

A discussion of the musical barriers bands face when they enter the studio for the first time.

Ultimate Guitar

One of the pet hates of producers and recording engineers who work with unsigned bands is that they very often are nowhere near ready to record an album. Like the warring couples who delude themselves into thinking that having a baby will somehow fix a rocky relationship, a lot of bands think that recording an album will somehow paper over the cracks of their problems and give new direction and impetus to the band. What it will actually do is tear the band to pieces.

It's easy to understand why desperate bandleaders and managers may see recording an album as a solution to a band's problems. The extra income and prestige of an album would certainly seem to make the band a more attractive prospect, and possibly encourage troublesome musicians to step into line. This is an illusion, however. Not only will trying to record an album not solve these types of problems, it will actively make some of them worse. This series of articles is about why that is, and what you can do about it to get your band into shape to record.

Musical problems are perhaps not the most serious or crippling problems that a band will go into the studio with, but they are the most common and the biggest source of annoyance to producers and engineers. I've never had it happen to me (at least not yet), but a couple of producer friends of mine have recounted being asked to record songs that are clearly nowhere near finished, and in one notorious case consisted only of some lyrics written in biro on the side of a cardboard box!

An album is typically 40 minutes to an hour long. Does your band have that much material? Does your band have that much material that's actually good? Are they full songs, or just ideas with varying levels of fleshing out? To be able to record effectively, cheaply and easily your band needs a settled set of quality songs whereby all the issues of structure and arrangement have been decided on and rehearsed. Deciding on arrangements, or even writing songs, in the studio wastes time and burns your money. If you run out of cash because you spent your studio time writing rather than recording, you won't get your album finished and it will be a huge waste of everyone's time and effort, not to mention cash. Few bands will survive such a disaster.

Importantly, most of the cheap, modern ways of recording involve overdubbing, i.e. everyone laying down their parts one at a time. The cash savings that can be made recording this way as opposed to putting the whole band in a live room are immense, but the price you have to pay is the need to be supremely well-rehearsed and organised. Everyone needs to know their part, and know the structure of the songs, not relying on the other members of the band for their musical cues. If you have one or more musicians who need a nod from one of the others to remind them when the chorus is coming, you are not ready to record.

Remember that recording is a skill in itself, no matter how great you are at playing your instrument. Many musicians are affected by Red Light Fever, and fall to pieces trying to record parts that they could perform live with one hand tied behind their back. Recording requires accuracy, timing, consistency and discipline in a different way to rehearsing or performing the mental approach required when recording is a whole new way of thinking about the instrument. Musicians who are not experienced in recording can waste a lot of time in bad takes, as well as getting frustrated and beginning to doubt their ability. This can lead to wasted takes, wasted time, wasted money and potentially interpersonal problems if one musician is struggling and the others think he or she is holding them back or costing them money. You owe it to your band to make sure you have the means to record yourself at home, and that you incorporate recording into your practice routine on a regular basis.

Another issue to bear in mind is that making changes to songs during the recording process will result in large amounts of work being thrown away and having to be started again. Even a comparatively minor change could result in a huge amount of extra work, and possibly extra expense. A new kick drum pattern will require a new bassline, which may require new rhythm guitar, and maybe new lead guitar if things don't sound tight any more in other words you'll have to throw three quarters of the song away.

So the moral of the story is to get as much tinkering done as possible before you start, and for the whole band to understand and agree that past a certain point no more changes (besides those that don't require ripping up months of work) will be made to the recorded versions of the songs. It's very difficult to stop creative people from creating, of course, but tell them that any big changes subsequent to that will have to be saved for the live album!

I have put together a questionnaire for bands that allows you to assess just how ready your band is to record, and will give you detailed feedback on what areas your band needs to work on in order to record an album successfully. For free access, all you need to do is sign up to my mailing list.

About The Author - James Scott is a London Music Producer, writer and audio engineer. He works with up-and-coming artists to help get them noticed in the industry.

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Thank you James, very valuable information! Thought-provoking and in-depth, can't wait to read the next part!
    Good advice. A friend asked me to join a band a few years back, and I said yes (since I had been in other bands with him). What I didn't know was that, for the most part, it was a studio band. Up until that all the bands I had been in were live performance bands. On top of that, I hadn't met some of the other people in the band before, whereas all the other bands consisted of people I knew. The first day I went to practice they were recording the guitar tracks for a new song. After watching my friend play his parts, they handed me a guitar and said "its your turn now". I had never heard the song before this. Needless to say after messing up quite a few takes, I began to feel not only embarrassed, but inadequate (the riff was a no brainier that I could easily play in my sleep). On top of this, they used a something called a click track (which I had never head of before, derrr!). I was accustomed to playing with a drummer. THESE THINGS ARE VERY VERY DIFFERENT!! Long story short, the studio is a totally different beast than a live performance, and as such must be dealt with using different skills. Even to this day, several year later, I still get "red light" syndrome. This article is spot on. Having a home studio, even a cheap one, is good for practice, and should be used on a regular basis by any serious band. Know you r material, and how to deal with recording before going into the studio kids!
    Aldo Chircop
    Very relevant and true information. It's very easy for an inexperienced band to get frustrated by these issues if they are not prepared for them. Looking forward to the other installments.
    I just took your questionnaire, and I have to say - job well done! You've pointed out some issues I need to deal with before going in to the studio.
    Nice imformative article! You've identified many of teh major pitfalls encountered in the studio. It's no secret that many major bands recordings acually have studio musicians on the actual recording because the actual artist couldn't keep time, play each take the exact same way EVERY time, etc... Recording in the studio isn't for wimps or casual musicians... Thanks for sharing & Jam ON!
    too many bands .get a real job -go to college -etc .every body and there grandma think there a recording artist cause they can make a cd.computers ruin the music industry dam it man you dont need more than 4 tracks ha ha the beatles did al right
    It seems that every young band (16 - 21) I record, all drummers seem to think they can play to a click and very few of them can and then the band gets upset when their recording sounds really sloppy after the drummers takes that the band think 'will do' lead to it slipping out of time in places/
    What is good advice to help with red light fever/syndrome? I had been playing with bands of all types of genres for years, in front of thousands of people, when I went to do an EP with the then-current band I was in, and was so nervous when the tape was rolling I was screwing up even our most simple songs. To this day I still get it, even when recording in my home studio!
    Draven Grey
    gypsy, Most good engineers record every single take, even when you're warming up, and often enever even telling you they're doing it. Many times, you'll have a great take before you even know they're recording. You can also apply this method when you DO know. It takes the pressure off when you not only are well rehearsed, but don't really have a set take that is suppose to be "the one."