This seems like a no-brainer, but finish writing the damn songs BEFORE you book your studio time. I can’t tell you how often clients get to the studio and they haven’t even finished writing the song yet. How are you supposed to practice the songs until you can play them in your sleep if you haven’t finished the writing process? If you have finished writing, have you considered composition and arrangement? Will you be double or quad tracking the rhythm guitars? Will you be layering in extra guitar textures or doubling up on leads to make them stereo? Are you unintentionally playing a guitar solo over a drum solo? All these questions should be asked and answered long before you get to the studio.
You’d be surprised how many songwriters and bands skip this step entirely but if I could only give bands one tool before hitting the studio, it would be this one. Pre production is simply recording the song ahead of time to identify and resolve as many potential issues as possible. Even a cheap iPhone recording of your band practice can help you determine the tempo, the structure, the time signature, and alert you to possible issues in the arrangement. It’s also a great tool to help guitarists finish their leads/solos, vocalists to finish their lyrics, and even identify issues with drum fills. Whether you use your phone, program with Guitar Pro, use GarageBand, or Pro Tools, just get your songs recorded for future reference.
Seems easy huh? Seems like another no-brainer? In 10 years I’ve never had a band show up to the studio ready to play their parts. Band practice is for writing, planning, discussing, and problem solving. You should be practicing your parts on your own time outside of band practice and definitely before hitting the studio. The recording process is like a giant magnifying glass highlighting every person that shows up unprepared. There’s an enormous difference between playing a part, playing it well, and playing it well-practiced. The musician that spent hours practicing their parts saves a lot of time and therefore money in the studio. Maybe bands should start to fine musicians that show up to the studio and waste everyone’s time because they never bothered practicing.
I don’t care if you do it yourself, take it to Guitar Center, or pay a high quality Luthier to do the job, just get it done. There’s no reason you should arrive at the studio with a guitar that isn’t intonated, has a dead pickup, is riddled with fret buzz, or has a noisy input jack. Every single one of these things can and should be resolved before arriving at the studio. Pay a professional to have your guitar re-strung and intonated for the tuning and gauge of strings you’ll be recording. Speaking of things that cost extra in the studio, what about a guitar that won’t stay in tune or a bass that hits the pickup because it was set up wrong? The less time, effort, and money you put into your guitar, the more time, effort, and money it’s going to take to get a good product so save everyone the headache and put a little extra effort into your instrument and it’ll pay off in the studio.
The Right Studio
Did you know that not all studios are built the same? Same goes with audio engineers. If I was a serious guitar player, I would want someone who speaks my language and truly understands my instrument running the studio. I may not be able to play guitar as well as I’d like, but I can certainly hear when something is out of tune, catch extra ring outs caused by open strings, and when you’re not picking hard enough. Finding the right studio and engineer that has the background, tools, and know-how can make or break your final product. Look for someone who gives a shit, takes their time, and really digs into every little detail that makes a great album great. And above all else, choose someone who understands your genre. Good luck getting that aggressive guitar tone you’ve been searching for with an engineer that was born in the 50’s.
What To Bring
A lot of studios come pre-equipped with many tools of the trade but it doesn’t hurt to bring along a few extra items just to be sure that everything runs smooth. At the top of the list is going to be strings of course. You should be swapping out strings on your guitars once per song or once per 3 songs on bass. Bringing your own strings ensures that you get the strings you want in the gauges you prefer. Along with strings, bring along fret wraps or painter’s tape, guitar picks, straps if you like to stand, pedals you plan on using, fresh batteries, and quality cables. Depending on the studio, you may also want to bring tools, amps, and speaker cabs. And as silly as this is to mention, bring along at least one other string player from your band. Preferably the one with a good ear who probably wrote all the songs and knows all the parts who can bail you out of a jam because you never learned your parts.
In The Studio
You made it! Now that you’re here, it’s time to make the magic happen. My best possible advice for recording well in the studio is to spend a lot of time recording to a click track at home. Nothing can ease your nerves more than being over-prepared. And don’t forget to warm up. If you fail to warm up, that first 30 minutes of material you laid down will never compare to what you’re actually capable of. Be patient, take your time, be methodical in your tracking, and you’ll come out the other side with a killer product. Don’t forget to take regular breaks. Not just for your body but for your mind as well. Nobody plays great when they’re on their tenth hour of tracking in a row. Changing strings or eating food is a great natural way to work regular breaks and rest into your schedule. Last but not least, for the sake of everyone else in the band, tune your damn guitar! And tune it often! But for real, have fun, enjoy the journey, and take lots of photos. Your fans want to see how much fun you all had while making your favorite tunes.