Each piece of the recording studio sums up to one big musical instrument -from the microphone, to the control room of computers and machines, to the facilitating engineer, all the way to the comfy couches in the lounge. Also, let’s not forget the most important part of this musical instrument: you, the creator. At Studio 11, providing the service of a studio session to musicians is a creative process we have optimized through technology, communication, and decades of musically-focused innovation. We’ve witnessed countless Chicago locals, as well as some of the world’s most cherished artists, use the studio at its highest potential. Throughout it all, I can assure one thing: the key to maximizing the musical potential of the recording studio is efficiency. If you’re efficient, you can create more. And if you can create more, your art can impact more people.
Below I’ve compiled a list of tips, insight, and common mistakes to avoid for making the best use of a studio session – from setting up an appointment to walking out the door with an amazing record. Some tips may save you 1 minute, and some may save you 30 minutes.
First, choose a studio with expertise in the music you’re creating.
Do your online research! I regularly meet rappers come to who come to Studio 11 after booking time at facilities with engineers who have no idea how to mix rap music. When this happens, we say welcome home.
When booking studio time, get to know the studio staff.
Believe it or not, even in this fast, modern era of screens and images, speaking to an actual human being on the phone is the best way to book studio time, especially if you have any questions. A brief conversation with professional studio staff will help you get adequately prepared, as well as book the perfect amount of studio time. Schedule your session in advance. Introduce yourself when calling, be ready to discuss what you want to work on, and be ready to make a security deposit. Know what exact dates and times work for you and your team before calling. A good first impression on the phone can go a long way in your musical career.
Arrive on point.
Plan your travels to arrive on time, not early or late. Also, while it may seem obvious, make sure you and your team know exactly where the studio is located. I often see artists arrive on time, but then waste time (or even worse, become interrupted during a good recording) by answering the phone to direct a lost team member.
Make sure your instrumentals are ready for the engineer.
After a friendly welcome, beats are the first thing the studio engineer will ask you for. The most efficient way to provide your beats is using a flash drive or hard drive. Literally, you can enter the studio, hand the drive of beats to the engineer, upon which he or she will load the first beat into Pro Tools, and in as short as 4 minutes you’ll be getting set up behind the mic, ready to rock. If your beats are coming from YouTube, email the links of the beats to the studio before your session. 5 minutes on YouTube finding that “J Cole Type Beat” is 5 minutes less for creating. Moreover, when leasing beats from online beatmakers, its crucial to download the purchased beats immediately. Usually, internet beatmakers provide download links to their beats once a transaction has been made. I’ve been in plenty of studio sessions where clients forward these download links to our email without downloading ahead of time, only to find out that the links have expired or contain a wrong instrumental.
Additionally, if you’re a beatmaker bringing in a tracked-out beat, or even an artist coming in with vocal files recorded elsewhere, always double check that your stems sync up, are in Wav. format (44.1kHz, 24 Bit), and that no files are missing or out of order. Do not come in with a ProTools session or project file. Bringing your computer along to a studio session, just in case, is never a bad idea either.
Ask the studio what resources are available if you plan on integrating live instruments, such as electric guitars.
Be prepared. Trust, but always verify.
If you have a demo track for the song you’re working on, leave it on the back burner.
There’s no such thing as using the studio to make a demo that already sounds bad sound good. Sorry, folks. Parting ways with a demo track can be tough, especially if you’ve listened to it constantly. In reality, if you listen to anything long enough, eventually something that sounds bad can appear to sound good. Using a demo track as a guide when recording or mixing also hinders efficiency, since referencing the demo interrupts more important tasks of the studio session. Ultimately, demo tracks can crystallize ideas and stall the creative, imaginative process. Prepare to re-create and reinvent ideas. One of the greatest assets of the professional recording studio is the ability to create with a fresh slate, alongside an objective engineer who has never heard your song before, therefore acting on instinct from years of experience. Trust that the creatives you hired (and researched before your studio session) will meet your vision without ever needing to hear your demo, or anything for that matter. Similarly, when a mechanic starts working on a vehicle, he or she doesn’t need to know what the problems are. Surely, there are instances where demo tracks are helpful; however, if you do have the condition of “demoitus,” rest assured, the cure is simply entering the studio with an open mind.
Prepare to perform.
Make sure your song lyrics are written down, memorized, or well-defined in your creative mind before stepping up to the mic. Rehearsing ahead of time is imperative. A song full of hot punch lines and riffs may seem well-composed written in a notebook or iPhone notes, but quite the opposite when performed out loud (a microphone will reveal even more kinks). You can write endless punchlines down, but you can’t evaluate their rhythm without rehearsing out loud. Extra, little words which aren’t the rhymes or punchlines are what usually throw things off. Written lyrics also don’t account for the need to take a breath! So, rehearse loudly and fully, again and again, until you truly know the best, most consistent way of performing your song.
Perform with passion.
Perform as if its your last chance to ever record. Perform with every part of your body. Use your chest and diaphragm. Say it like you mean it. Get emotional.
The best artists in the world are shockingly passionate when performing in the studio. Hands down, your performance is the most important part of a studio session. An inadequate performance can’t be fixed when mixing, so take your time to execute at your highest potential. If you want to sound like Kendrick Lamar, perform like Kendrick Lamar. There’s no such thing as a Kendrick Lamar button when mixing. Furthermore, if you want feedback from the engineer, or someone else in the room, ask away. By the same token, if someone is giving a distracting opinion, tell him or her to be quiet – or to leave the studio. Dim the booth lights if this makes you feel creative. Have the engineer put autotune or reverb in your headphones if it brings out a better performance. Make the studio your sanctuary when recording – not only for comfort, but also as a means for stepping out of your comfort zone when performing.
Know your Ps and Qs when in the booth.
When tracking vocals, familiarity with studio lingo such as stacking, in-outs, punching in ,or ad-libs allows for a better flow in the recording process. Your engineer will be happy to explain what these aesthetics are, however becoming familiar with them in advance saves time. Think ahead about the building blocks of vocals you want to make up your record. I/e – do you want background vocals in your chorus, or do you prefer to not have them?
A microphone is also a sensitive musical instrument, making mic technique an invaluable thing to consider. Closer proximity to the mic will have a different sound than performing a step back. If you’re performing at a relatively constant volume, and are about to get really loud, simply back up on the mic to avoid distorting and having to record another take. Rapping toward the phone you’re reading lyrics off of, rather then aiming your voice at the mic, never sounds good, either. The same goes for turning your head back and forth too much. The pretty, pristine, high-end microphones found in professional studios will highlight poor performance qualities as much as the good ones. Great mic technique is another trait among the best artists in the world.
Also, a side note for headphones: cover both ears because the mic will pick up and record music from the phones. When all is done, headphones are rested on the music stand and never on top of the microphone.
When your engineer is mixing, provide input at the right moments.
The moment you finish recording vocals is an excellent time to pop a bottle and take shots with friends – only away from the control room where the engineer is working. The quieter an environment you give your engineer, the better your record will sound. By no means am I saying festivities shouldn’t happen in the studio – they absolutely should; however, keep in mind, mixing and mastering is a task requiring lots of focus and tranquility. If you do have specific, imperative requests for your record, that’s totally cool, welcomed, and expected – but first give the engineer a few minutes after recording to do his or her thing. I promise you, your record will not embark in any sort of wrong direction during this short period of studio time. Patience is necessary for efficiency. Certain aspects of a sound or mix may take a few minutes to become fully developed or understood, so making a premature critique of the sound could be distracting to the engineer, and ultimately unnecessary. Of course, feedback during mixing is very important for creativity in the studio; however, we also must be sensitive about when and when not to speak up. The idea is to be involved without helicopter-parenting the record. Yet, I will say, if you happen to hear a word or line that’s mispronounced, such that you will be unable to sleep at night, please speak up immediately to get back in the booth.
When the mix is finished, the engineer will bounce or export the song, giving you a chance to hear the final product start to finish on the glorious studio speakers. If there are changes, or sections you want to specifically listen to, let your engineer know before he or she bounces your song.
Be prepared to receive, store and share your music.
At the end of a studio session, you should expect to receive a final product of your song in the form of an mp3 and 16 bit Wav file. Your engineer will be able to return your material by copying these files onto a flash drive or hard drive, burning a CD, or via email. Keep the files you receive safe and organized. I highly recommend backing up all files you receive from the studio on some sort of hard drive dedicated to storing your music. Utilizing cloud storage such as dropbox or google drive also is wise. Do not use your email as a storage locker for your music because emails disappear and passwords become forgotten. When the time comes to upload the music online, or to shoot a music video, always use the Wav file, which has substantially better audio quality than an mp3. Soundcloud and YouTube will compress the life out of any mp3. In fact, some streaming services strictly require wav file uploads.
Reflect on, and learn from your studio experience.
One of the best parts of engineering is seeing artists improve every time they use the studio. Each studio session, I witness my clients create with increased style and grace. Like any musical instrument, practice makes perfect.
Hopefully, this article was helpful to any creator interested in taking their art to the next level by booking professional studio time. I, too, once was new artist who had never been to a music studio, slightly nervous, with no idea what to expect. If you’re reading and have more questions, please reach out.
Engineer Chris Baylaender