Howdy y’all! It’s your main man, Spread, with another installment of Spreaducation. Now, I’m not here just to plug music this time. I’m here to teach a little lesson about proper studio etiquette for the independent musician. I went to audio school and graduated from a very prestigious program, only to realize, soon after, that I’d rather be playing music than recording it. I’m not much up on what the latest gear is and I can’t really afford to buy any decent gear to start a studio. I enjoy rocking mics more than hanging them. I still get down on Pro Tools and record my own stuff and stuff for friends, but luckily I still know enough successful engineers to have recorded at some pretty bad-ass studios. I’ve seen many things and heard many more stories, yet I still see some of the same studio mistakes and bullshit happen again and again. I know because I am or have been guilty of disobeying almost all 10 of these tips I’m trying to give yall. I’m just writing this so you don’t have to learn the hard and expensive ways in which I have.
1. Be On Time and Have a Plan
Time is money, baby. Not only that, when you treat someone else’s time like it matters, they tend to work harder for you. Whether you tour the world or you’re just a local prima donna, people remember that shit and treat you accordingly.
You should also have a plan of attack for that particular session. Especially if you are spending good money for it. What song or songs are we working on? Maybe there is a tune that is more difficult and you want to tackle that first, or maybe you want to start with an easy one you all know well to get the session off to a good start. It’s really up to you. You know your project. You know your band(group, whatever). How many times have you heard someone say “Yo, we should get in the studio together,” and they don’t even know what your music sounds like and you aren’t sure what they do either?…It’s best to avoid those people. Realize there’s a task at hand and that task will magically turn into fun!
2. Leave Band Drama at the Door
I’ve heard a lot of artists say, “I don’t care about what kind of mic’s a studio has as much as I care if the viiiibe is right.”
While I agree with that, you could be recording on a tropical beach into Neumann Coconut 87’s and the vibe will never be right if the vibe between members of your group ain’t right. Whether you’re a 10-piece ensemble or a production duo, certain people have certain special ways of getting on your nerves. These things tend to magnify when you’re locked in a room together hearing nothing but each other’s voices for hours on end. This, sometimes, puts the engineer into the role of baby-sitter or mediator instead of…well…engineer. Also, those “bad vibes” carry over to tape…or oops, I mean disc or…whatever. Are those the moments you want etched in virtual stone?
You can’t change anyone’s personality, but you can try to get on the same page as everyone else BEFORE you get in the studio. Have a pow-wow, smoke a joint, carpool, eat lunch together, anything to synchronize things…or if your bandmate is really that bad, meeting before the session can at least get you warmed up and used to the asshole tendencies of your bandmate, which will only get worse as the day goes on.
3. Pre-roll/Stock Up
Did someone say joint? Let’s put it bluntly, lots of musicians smoke weed. Many of those who don’t smoke, drink. Those that don’t drink, at least eat.
– Cop a sack before going to the studio. Having your “weed guy” stop by uninvited is never a good move, and although some studios might have interns willing to make a run for you, are you a smoker or a fuckin’ rookie?
– Better yet, roll a few up before you get to the studio. Blunts, joints or a bong, any which way you can never go wrong.
– Know the engineer/studio’s policy about herb. Some don’t give a fuck, some give a slight fuck and some give a “fuck no.” Be respectful.
– Hit the liquor store on your way to the studio.
– Pace yourself. I know you think you “feel” it more when you get more tipsy, but your fingers are moving slower than they “feel” to you and you’re slurring your words and fucking up your breath control…and now you’re starting to be an asshole. Put the bottle down, son.
– Offer the engineer a damn beer! They may decline, but at least offer. They might let you use their fridge if you’re cool.
– Eat a good meal before you get there, if you can. If you are a vocalist, you might want to avoid too much fat and milk/cheese. Really, eat whatever the fuck you want, but it is true that these foods cause excess mucus in your throat. Spicy and acidic foods can also dry out your throat.
– Bring a snack. But make sure you bring enough for the whole class.
– Clean up after yourself. Don’t be a fuckin’ slob! “But they got people who do that. I’m paying good money for this studio.” Fuck you. It’s 7 steps to the fucking trash can. You ain’t fat Elvis yet.
4. Get as Much Pre-Production Done as Possible
This tip is probably more geared toward producers, beatmakers, etc. I’m lucky to have some engineering background, so I have Pro Tools at the crib and do a lot of my production from home. I get my tracks sounding as good as possible, within my personal studio’s limitations, and I also know how my engineer mixes, so I prepare my mixes for him to work with. I have shitty plugins and very little outboard gear. I leave my mixes relatively raw when it comes to compression, reverb, etc. I’ll EQ stuff as best as possible to give the engineer a good idea of where I want things to sit. I go through all the vocal takes and decide which ad-libs or background vocals I want or don’t want, do necessary edits, fade-ins, fade-outs, and crossfades, and arrange the track as I want it to sound. Even if you only work on an MPC or Fruity Loops or Ableton or whatever, get your tracks sounding as best as possible before going to the studio. Studios have great gear. They do make magic happen. But a shitty snare is a shitty snare. You can polish a turd in the studio, but it’ll just become a shiny turd. Know how to make your machine/software sound good without mixing and mastering.
For example, are you a J Dilla fan? Cool. If you want your beats to knock like that, figure out how to tune your samples. One of my favorite engineers, Bob Power, put it best when asked at The Red Bull Music Academy about engineering J Dilla’s drums: “Jay Dee is a pretty brilliant guy. You know his stuff is really simple , but one of his brilliant things is, the kick he chooses, where he tunes it, and where the bass is in relation to that. People who mix bottom-heavy music will know that that’s like ninety percent of the battle. So Jay Dee’s stuff in a weird way is easier to deal with as a mixer, than it might sound. And that’s another thing, if you know this, if you’re dealing with samples or just drum sounds on their own, where you tune them is absolutely key to both, the feel and the sonics of the track as well. And where you tune the kick drum versus where the vocals are going to sit and where the bassline is, if you haven’t dealt with it, you should.”
Also, one other thing…TUNE YOUR FUCKING INSTRUMENT BEFORE YOU GET TO THE STUDIO. If it always goes out of tune when you travel, then get there early to tune. Shit.
5. Know As Many of Your Lyrics as Possible
I know that the best music is created “in the moment.” I tend to begin my vocal sessions with a freestyle or two just to warm up my voice and my brain. Sometimes, I’ll decide to hit something newer and lesser known in the middle of a session just to freshen up the vibe a little bit. I’m a real MC. I CAN write a dope 16 bars in less than 15 minutes, but unless I have to, I probably won’t. Whatever it takes, do that. BUT you will save yourself a lot of time, money and stress if you can have the lyrics polished before the session. Not just written, but memorized, rehearsed and ready. Your voice is like any other instrument, or even a sport. The reason you practice is not because you are a boring person. Practicing makes it so you know the material well-enough to actually deliver it with true feeling and precision without thinking. Crumpled paper sounds in the vocal track are hard to get rid of, and if you are reading off of a paper (or your bitchass phone), most likely your mouth is not at the optimum angle to make that $10,000 mic you bought studio time for make a difference. Maybe the paper is in front of your face or on a music stand and your head is tilted down while singing/rapping/mouth farting etc. Either way, the engineer can probably “fix it,” but I guarantee you, the less an engineer has to “fix,” the better your record will sound. You should envision the mic as a portal to a magical world of the immortal, and nothing should get between your mouth and that mic, except perhaps a pop filter.
Speaking of microphones, you should know your mic and know your material. If you’re paying for studio time, you are most likely recording on a condenser mic (or ribbon for you vintage singers), so hopefully I won’t have to waste time in this blog to tell you not to cuff or cup the mic. If you have a part where you yell and a part where you whisper in the same verse, you should think of that logistically and work with your engineer. Perhaps you are savvy enough to stand back a bit when you yell and move closer when you whisper. Maybe it makes more sense to punch in the yelling part and the whispering part separately from the rest of the verse. These minute details are the difference between a mix that sounds “fixed” and a mix that makes you say “Wow!”
Knowing your material is crucial. I know most of this is rapper-centric, but singers and arrangers can take a lot from this too. For example, do you know the vocal arrangements already? Do you have harmonies charted out or are you working with a pro who can come up with better harmonies off the cuff than you could write in a million years. That’s okay, no shame in that. Know your material and know your personnel. George Clinton’s genius lies not only in his ideas, but his decision to swallow his pride and hire the best singers and players he can find. Save the “demo” for the crib. It helps to record a rough version (hopefully for free) BEFORE you get to the studio so you can make sure you avoid cringeworthy moments and include good ideas. It’ll never be “perfect” but it saves you a lot of explaining and disclaimers when someone listens to your material if you do it right. Once your album is done, you have to sell it, and its tough to sell something you’re slightly embarrassed about.
6. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
This is a great way to avoid #2. Everyone else in your band knows your strengths and weakness, you should too. Nothing is more frustrating than spending an expensive hour listening to a guitar player try to nail a part that you know someone else in the room can play in their sleep. Or listening to a rapper try to sing a difficult part when there’s a trained singer in the room. The studio is a place for pros. If you gotta practice, do it on your own dime. It’s okay to pass the baton for the betterment of the team. Aim high, try your best, and if there’s ever a time to “go for it,” it’s when you’re in the studio. But if you came up with a drum part and you can’t get the drummer to learn the feel quickly, respectfully suggest that you play it. Sometimes it’s not all about skills as much as it is feel. Be honest with yourself and your bandmates/producers and delegate responsibility accordingly.
This isn’t only about playing. If there’s a dude who is always an hour late, don’t catch a ride with him and plan on something productive you can do with who is there. Yea, he’s an asshole for not listening to #1, but #2 is definitely gonna happen unless you just focus your energy away from the late dude and focus on the task at hand with who is there. Maybe the late guy is the singer (big stretch). Well, lay down the rhythm section parts so when his funky ass gets there he can hit it right away. Argue after the session. Shit, take him out back and whoop his ass as soon as you’ve got some free time (don’t hit him in the face though if you have an upcoming video shoot). But this time is expensive so don’t waste it arguing like some little bitches.
Know who you are. I once had a drummer tell me the sound he was going for was “Herb” Alexander, from Primus. I eventually had to tell him, “Look, you need more practice, your style isn’t at all similar to Herb, and your drums aren’t tuned and don’t sound like his drums. I can only make you sound how you sound.” If your band sounds like The Sex Pistols on stage, don’t get in the studio and try to be Steely Dan because you have all these toys at your command. Do you. If you’re a rapper and you can’t get every song in one take, fuck it. Who cares? Punch in every line if it’s gonna sound better. The studio is not about you, it’s about the sound. Listen to suggestions, ask for advice and let any criticism fuel you rather than discourage you. The studio magnifies the ups and downs of band “family” dynamics. It’s best to act like you’re at your grandma’s house and be nice to your brothers and sisters, because if not, you’re picking your own switch to get beatings with. The type of shit that’ll make you grow up to be a lumberjack. That’s not okay.
7. Know Why You Are In The Studio
This kinda goes back to #1 about having a plan, but it’s important to reiterate. Ask yourself some questions before you make plans. Is this the only studio time you’re going to get in the foreseeable future? Are you working on a single? Working on a good old fashioned album? Do you wanna just record as many songs as possible and see what happens? Got one solid tune and wanna see what you can come up with after that? Just mixing? Tracking, overdubbing, and mixing? Just vocals? Just drums? All these are all reasonable scenarios. It helps to know the answers to these simple questions before you do anything.
8. BOAP ToSs (Bring Only Essential People To Sessions)
R Kelly may or may not take young girls to the studio and lock them in the mic closet until he’s finished with the session, but you are not R Kelly. Your wife nags you, your girlfriend is too fine for anyone to concentrate around, and your homie, who calls himself a “super-producer,” couldn’t play Mary Had a Little Lamb on his Casio. Your other homies who tell you all your verses are tight are lying ass yes-men who just want to smoke up all your weed.
Maybe that isn’t you?
Jokes aside, it is never a good idea to have people in the studio who serve no purpose. Deeper still, it might not even be a good idea to bring the whole band if they are not needed in that particular session. While tracking, I understand. You want to have the band camaraderie happening, etc. But for mixing? Trust me. If you have a 10-piece band, and all 10 of them are at the mixing session, you will never get the song mixed. Do you have a producer? Bandleader? Guy who writes all the tunes? Those people belong in the mixing session. Are you footing the studio bill? Well, you have every right to be there. Otherwise, keep it simple. If you are a 4 piece band, you can all go help with the mix, but you all should get together before the session and discuss and write down mixing notes. That way, you can already argue with the guitar player about the fact that he is loud enough, but he still insists on being turned up. You can all acknowledge the bass player fucked up a small part so you can punch in or just have the engineer drop the bass out in that section or copy and paste another part. Whatever it is, it helps to know these things before going to the studio. It saves fragile artistic egos from being put on the spot. Also, engineers work long hours and they are not trying to tweak every second of every song like you are. They aren’t as attached to the music as you. If one guy in the band thinks the engineer should tweak this or that, it might not get done. If the whole band feels the same way and have discussed it before the session, it will get done. No one but the engineer EVER thinks the mix is finished. But you eventually have to pinch that shit off. The engineer is essential to helping that process, but he/she cannot read your mind. If you have an idea of what you want, your mix will sound better. If you go into the session and haven’t thought about it very much, you’re not gonna be as happy with the results.
I digress…Anyway, don’t bring people to the studio who will make you act weird. Trim the fat from your mixing session.
9. Know Your Studio’s Capabilities BEFORE You Book a Session
I know most studios have a place on their website that shows the gear they have available. People love seeing all the gear…but just admit it…You don’t know what half of that shit is or what it does. But you do know what YOU do and what you need to get done. If there is anything that seems like it would require a lot of preparation for the engineer, make proper arrangements beforehand. The more time spent on setting shit up, the harder it is to get in the groove once you start recording and the session becomes less fun for the engineer and more of a chore.
If you don’t know the difference between auto tune and a vocoder, you probably shouldn’t ask the engineer to “make your voice do that robot thing.” Did you have that effect in mind before the session or are you just trying to cover up a vocal part that you don’t like? Is your guitar tone sounding shitty? That’s okay, admit it and work with the gear available. Do you know how to tune your drums? Because if not, that fancy gear is just gonna magnify their shitty sound. Are you just working on a demo? Don’t waste money on a fully-equipped studio and give your homie with Pro Tools or Logic at the crib some run…
Knowing your studio/engineers’s capabilities is essential. Don’t be one of those people who orders the chicken and mushroom dish at a restaurant and sends it back, refusing to pay, because you don’t like mushrooms. Read the menu, do your homework.
10. Treat The Engineer With Respect
Last, and certainly not least, don’t be an asshole to the dude/chick that is doing their best to make you sound good. Some engineers are really cool dudes, some look like Weird Al’s stunt double, and some kinda look like Jeffery Dahmer. They spend a lot of time inside. Regardless, be nice to them. Do you wanna piss of your barber with the scissors in his hand? Your tattoo artist? The person cooking your food? Didn’t think so. Your audio engineer is all of those things rolled into one.
But you paid them good money? Good for you. The only price you can pay to treat me like a dick in my own studio is an asswhoopin’. Your engineer doesn’t care how many records you sold or how many Twitter followers you got. Eat a dick. This is their job, and being a musician is supposed to be your job. Being unprofessional is very popular amongst many musicians. So is being broke and unsuccessful. Funny how those go together…
Most professional engineers I know(and amateur for that matter), work 10-15 hour days regularly. They’ve listened to your song, whether it sucks or not, more than you have. They’ve solo’d every flat note you sang and just listened to it over and over and over until they made you sound like you know how to sing. They didn’t laugh in your face at every other word that came out of your mouth because you have no touch with reality and you are just a crazy motherfucker that happens to be talented at one thing.
I understand that a lot of engineers can be snobby, gear-head, controlling dicks sometimes…Well, try not to work with those guys, and if you must, do your best to respect where they’re coming from as much as you expect them to respect you. The best engineers will create an atmosphere of warmth and creative freedom. The best of the best will also know how to talk to musicians and keep the session productive when it starts to get off track. Regardless of who your engineer is, treat them like your project is in their hands, because it is. Respect them, and they will go out of their way to make your project sound great. Once you walk in that studio, it is not just about you anymore. You are committing your sound into the permanent world, whether you just sit on it and never put it out or sell a million copies. Unless you engineered the whole thing yourself, you didn’t do it alone. Show some respect for the engineer who helps you bridge the gap.