Got a band and some great songs and ready for the studio? I have made two “bluegrass” albums in the past 4 years and I’m working on a third. Disclaimer: I put bluegrass in quotes, because they are quite on the fringe, and many tunes are not bluegrass at all. The best way to record, is to experiment and find what works best for you and your band. I have come up with some techniques that I believe work best for me, but I’m still learning. Between my experience in the studio, talking to other musicians and reading up, here are some opinions and strategies I’ve developed.
Rehearsal and Pre-production
I heard an interview with Tom Petty on the radio the other day about the release of his new record, and he exclaimed how he was “old school” and basically wrote everything in the studio. Yeah, in-studio impromptu production is great if you have the money for it, but most of us don’t. The studio is a fun place to flex your creative muscles, try different things, imagine and develop unique sounds, but this can be costly. My strategy has to spend a lot of time in your “home studio” testing your ideas. A home studio may just be a smartphone. It may be an old 4-track. Your home studio may single mic, a USB interface and a computer. I use a USB interface and a mac to record all rehearsals for Crossing The Black (due out in September.) Rehearse well. Band members come prepared. Rehearse with your band with a click. Record your rehearsals. Listen, and think of how to improve, or make your songs stand out.
Based on how your rehearsals go, you will decide how to do your tracking.
Choosing the Studio
There are gaggles of important parts of your recording from the room, the mics and the instruments, but signal chain starts with the musician. You have to be honest with yourself when you listen to your pre-produciton recordings.
Should we take the band into a professional studio? Is your band is touring, or ready to tour, or do you have a following (people who would buy your record?) Have you released and sold home-recorded albums before and you’ve got new material that’s more mature? Do you have an extra $5K burning a hole in your pocket? If your answer is “no” to all of these questions maybe you’re not quite ready to go into the professional studio. Listen to your recordings, play them for other people. Get out into the world and share your music. What is going to be your ROI? If you don’t have a plan to sell your record, you’re going to lose money. I don’t tour a lot (at all, really.) I’m trying an online strategy based on providing educational materials, and free content to build an email list to sell records to. Maybe you’re into touring? Perhaps finding an online community is the right fit for you? You need some way to get your music in the hands of potential fans.
For a first record, consider setting up around a single mic and recording yourself. Make sure your configuration makes for a balanced mix. Then there’s no mixing to do! Send it off to get mastered (this is important) and you’re done.
Do I Need a Producer?
I have only self-produced my records, but I can say that producing is a valuable and underrated skill. If you’ve made recordings in the past, and you’re not quite happy with the results, but can’t put your finger on why, I suggest seeking consultation from a producer. A producer can help you find that thing you’ve been missing. A producer will help make your improve your sound by helping arrange your tunes to they grooove, have engaging musical elements such as hooks and different harmonizations, and rhythmic ideas. Most importantly, a producer won’t let stuff get on the recording that doesn’t fit the VISION of the record, making the music cohesive and digestible. A good producer makes you sound like the best you you can be.
I feel like you can achieve a great sound in many different ways, depending on the aural aesthetic. If you want the Play all together with as much isolation as you can in the studio while maintaining visual contact. I like to record as much live as possible. I feel that this leaves you with the most musical and beautiful result. For Crossing The Black, I recorded the majority of the vocal tracks at my house, but the basic tracks were recorded at Big Red Studio.
After tracking a couple takes of a tune, listen to the tracks you record all together. Decide which take has the best feel. Remember this may not be the take with the least amount of mistakes!
Listen to the chosen take. Each member should have a pencil and paper, and while watching the time meter, mark down all the locations where you feel a fix is required. Then go back and knock out your fixes. Hopefully there aren’t too many!
Practice with a click, but– DON’T RECORD TO A CLICK!!!!
Mixing & Mastering
A good producer, and a good studio engineer will get mixes close via the performance. For example, when the mandolin is taking a break, the rest of the band should focus on supporting the mandolin, quiet down, make the foundation groove tight, and make her sound great. That way, the engineer doesn’t have to use a volume curve, or push faders when mixing. This is one of the bonuses and the beauty of playing live, as well. If all this is done, a mastering engineer’s job is easy… just make it louder, and perhaps a touch of EQ.
Get your music out there!