A Recording Engineer's Guide to Professional Recording Tips What To Expect

From a recording engineer's standpoint: The tips and ideas on how to prepare and conduct yourself when going in for a professional recording.

Ultimate Guitar
Okay, just to start this off, I haven't been on UG for a coupla years, my last article was published in 2003, so i haven't kept up with any articles and discussions going on here obviously. However just to give my background, i'm an Audio engineer who works mainly freelance and have worked woth some pretty big names, but started off as a musician self-taught in guitar and bass. Now, I've run my fair share of recording sessions, some with professional artists signed to major and indie labels, some with local bands trying to get their name in the local music scene. I've been involved in very professional settings, and very lax settings, very professional artists, and others who don't know a microphone from their own foot. The following are just some tips on what you could do to make the engineer's life and yours a little easier during the long and arduous recording process. A lot of these examples I have personally seen, and if I come off as sounding harsh and parental in saying "Don't" a lot, forgive me, but some people need to be told, strictly because they have no idea of what to do and most imporantly, what NOT to do. Firstly, before you even consider coming into the studio, make sure you're rehearsed. I can't stress this enough. You save time, you save yourself a headache, and you save the engineer a lot of time sitting there waiting for you to see if you can remember your part. This is very basic however it's necessary to point out: come in prepared to play your part perfectly with your eyes closed and in any situation. You may have to play it slightly differently or make modifications depending on what the producer and engineer discuss, however make sure you know your part well enough to be able to build on it. Secondly, another important thing to think about before you even walk into a studio. When you know you have a recording session booked, and you know you're going into a recording studio ahead of time, then do a couple of basic things to make sure you and your instrument are at the best you can get them before you go in. For guitarists: if you have time, get your guitar set up, put new strings on it, give it a polish, and have a backup guitar or 2 ready if necessary. Make sure your amps and pedals are working correctly and that you know how to move your rig around without spending an hour setting it up when you should be recording. Same goes for bassists and other string instruments: get your intonation right, get new strings, get your rig ready to go. Drummers, tune your set if you know how, and if not get someone else to do it for you. I can't stress the importance of a properly tuned drum set in a recording. Use some cleaners for your cymbals to brighten them, or throw em around if you want a deader dull sound, all your preference. Vocalists - try not to go out drinking and puke the night before you have to belt a chorus, it makes everyones jobs difficult. Everyone involved should get good rest, drink plenty of water, and get laid if you can the night before to make sure you come in stress free, relaxed, and focused on nothing but the music you need to play. (Dead serious about the laid thing, I once had an artist come in and was antsy to go see his girlfriend that night and couldn't focus at all on what he was playing, resulting in about a dozen takes of a relatively simple part.) Hangovers will always slow a session down, and if you're paying by the hour, you want to be as concise as possible while still doing things right. Next up, be professional when you come into the recording studio. Try not to bring anyone you don't Need to have there, example, obviously you want to bring your band to discuss the project and how things should be going, but do you really need to bring your high school music teacher through to show them the studio? Especially during the setup time, when the engineer is setting up microphones and wires and arranging the space, you want to give them as much leeway and time to concentrate if you want the recording to come out well. An engineer cannot focus on how the room ambience can best be picked up if you have a bandmate's girlfriend nagging him about what the shiny lights do. Another thing about setup time, this is the time where you tell the engineer exactly what you want to hear, how you want to sound on the recording, so they can set up the room and microphones and your environment to make you as comfortable as possible, and give you the best sound. Common courtesy - always ask if you can smoke for example, plenty of studios allow smoking, but plenty don't. Don't expect them to change the rules for you - lots of the equipment used in recording shouldn't be exposed to smoke to prolong its life. An absolute rule in the studio: when in doubt, ask. If you don't know what it does, don't touch it. Now once you're properly set up with microphones and headphones in an isolation room or a live room, you can adjust things to make sure you're the most comfortable while playing. If you want to stand up, sit down, hop around, and all that, make sure to tell the engineer. Golden Rule: do not touch the microphones once they are set up. The microphones are set up where they are for a reason. To add to that, don't hang your headphones on the microphone stand, but try to make everything else comfortable for yourself. If you'd like candles lit, or the lights in the room dimmed, or want a picture of something to focus on placed somewhere, ask and we'll take care of it. If you're comfortable and in the zone, everyone wins. Something to keep in mind; you should always expect to wait around for a little while. A lot of times, small trivial things may go wrong which could end up pushing the timetable back a little bit. If you expected to be recording by 7, sometimes setup will get delayed because of an issue with the equipment, wiring, or the microphone placements. Placement is unbelievably important when micing an instrument, and if you see an engineer constantly fussing with a microphones placement, be glad, because they're trying to get the best sound from the get go. Try your best not to snap at them to hurry up, or start complaining about it taking longer than expected. With all that equipment and machinery in a studio, you have to expect some of it to be tempermental. Patience is a virtue which will save you many migraines in the studio. Another important thing to do while recording - maintain consistency in how you play a part. An engineer will do a sound check to make sure they have a good signal coming in from the microphone or DI box or whatever they're using to record you, and when they ask you to play so they can "get levels" - that means they're adjusting to make sure they get the right volume. It doesnt help the session if a drummer decides to just tap the snare drum when getting levels, and then during the song slams it with both sticks with everything they have. That just ends up making that first take unusable, because it WILL distort the microphone, and the first take will just be readjusting levels to what you actually play. Try to stay consistent. Something very important for drummers or percussionists, or whoever ends up going first in the recording: If you are the first person to record and there is no reference track, use a click track, or metronome. Please. It makes the engineer's job easier when everyone can follow your tempo accurately, it helps your performance to get into a steady rhythm without worrying about if you're slowing down or speeding up, and it will save a song if you can do it correcty. It's an amazing pain in the ass if a drummer slows down and speeds up without a metronome, and the guitarists and bassist are expected to follow their tempo changes. Plus from an editing standpoint, if an engineer can map your tempo in Pro Tools or whatever digital audio workstation they're working in, it will make it easier for them to search through your song, they can measure out how many bars you play, and if you need to go to the 23rd bar, the engineer can find it perfectly if you stay on a set tempo. Now there are several ways you can approach while recording, or tracking. While tracking, if it helps you to focus on a certain object, or have some type of audience to make sure you play better, then you can set up a picture of someone who inspires you, or even a teddy bear to focus your performance on. It's very tough to recapture the energy and vibe that an artist has while on stage and performing to a large crowd in a small isolation room, and anything that can be done to help alleviate that will be done, within reason. We may not be able to get a girl to throw her panties at you while you record, but then again you never know. However, if you like the idea of isolation while you play, and want to feel more like you're just at home jamming on the couch, that's fine too. Whatever you need to get the right performance and emotion from your recording, it shall be done. And please be sure to treat all the equipment in the studio with extreme care. Sometimes i'll put 2 microphones in front of a vocalist, a U87 which costs approximately $2800, and the other, an AT4060, which costs about $1,500. That's a lot of money being used to record your voice. Please treat these microphones with respect, and don't tap on them to sound check, or scream as loud as you can into them at close range. These are delicate electronics which can be broken by a sound that's too powerful, and you don't want to be responsible for breaking a studio's best and most expensive microphone. And i'm sure you won't like to explain to the rest of your group why they can't use it now. After you're done recording and are listening to the takes, listen and critique as much as you want, it's your music, and always maintain a good conversation with the engineer about exactly what you envision for the music is. If you want it to sound like you're in a garage but clearer, then that can be done. If you want it to sound like you're at MSG, that can be done too. But don't expect the engineer to know what you're thinking, know what you want right off the bat, and be able to do something in 2 seconds. Some techniques engineers do take time to complete before you can hear it. Be patient, and you'll save everyone a headache. Once the entire band is done tracking, I really suggest appointing one or 2 members of the band to act as the "Producers" to be around for the mixing process. You generally want these people to know what everyone's opinion is on what the music should sound like, and be fair in making decisions to the overall mix. As an engineer, it gets very problematic when you're working with a 7 piece ska band, and each and every single person wants to throw in their 2 cents. It works much better for one or 2 people to discuss what they want for the group as a whole, and convey that to the engineer. Also, don't be afraid to experiment. A lot of engineers end up having to play the part of producer as well, and if they suggest something, be open to their ideas. A lot of bands these days are aware of what kind of things can be done with digital recording in Pro Tools or any other DAW, however I'm seeing an increasing number of musicians being wary and uncomfortable with producing an album that can't actually be played live. It's understandable to be able to play the song you're recording with your band, however a recording is there to demonstrate your ability as musicians. Use the ability that you can have as many parts and pieces to your song as you want to add to the song. Play a second guitar part an octave higher on an acoustic guitar to add flavor and richness to the overall mix. Try doing thirds and fifth vocal harmonies to add power and fullness to a vocal performance. Do multiple takes. And to continue off of that, one final complaint. Vocalists - Do Not Be Afraid Of Autotune!!! Autotune has come a long way from Cher and Britney Spears, and some other pitch correction software is Absolutely transparent. When i say absolutely transparent, i mean that I used pitch correction software on a singer to fix a couple of parts they couldn't get right, and they are completely against Autotune and pitch correction, and they had no idea i did anything. Even trained audio professionals can't tell when a vocal has been pitch corrected sometimes, if it's done right. If it doesn't sound good, then don't use it. But at least give it a shot if pitch correctness becomes an issue. Follow some of these basic guidelines, and i can assure you, the engineer will rave about how great an artist you are to work with, they will be excited to work with you again, and you will end up with a much better product than what you could have had. The audio engineer is technically your employee as you hired him or her for the job, however if you make their job easier, it ends up with a better product for you. Respect your engineer as much as you would respect another member in your band, and things will go well.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    brilliant. im hoping to record with my band soon adn my dream job would be working in the studio as an engineer/producer. thanks for the advice and keep it up!
    Greeat article, cheers. Most of these up and coming bands forget the importance of getting everything down perfect before even going into the studio. I can only the time they waste haha. Also, i was thinking of sound engineering in the studio or at gigs as a career, got any tips to get into the whole business and what courses are available etc etc? Cheers
    great article. You did a really good job of explaining things and describing what an engineer actually does. I've actually been thinking about what I want to do with my life and a sound engineer sounds like the right direction to head in.
    Good article, but slight correction "MOST people cannot hear autotune." There are some people like me who are also work as audio engineers who can hear it at almost every instance. For the 99% the population, though, you are correct - they can't hear it.
    thanx for writting this it helps a lot something ill pass on to my band members.i want to be a audio engineer when i grow up.i sorta have my own recording studio w/ my comp. its just hard 2 record drums with a comp mic.but nywh thanx for the article.
    Great article, me and my band currently have our own self made studio. Hopefully we'll have a demo soon but are in need of publicity, however now having read this studio article it has given me alot more confidense into what to expect when entering a licensed studio. Brilliant article, great read .