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.