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First Take

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, February 1986

Paul White and Dan Goldstein on how to beat the problems of venturing into a professional studio for the first time. If you’re new to recording, the advice is unmissable.

It's every musician's dream to make each recording a great one, but all too often, the first studio experience is an expensive disappointment. We offer some advice on how to protect your wallet and your ego.

Most musicians have something to say on the subject of recording (usually different things). From the richest to the poorest, from the oldest to the youngest, from the most experienced to the most innocent, all have their views on how to make the most of studio time. You hear them often, waffling interminably about how anything less than 24 tracks is completely useless, or how nobody should ever start a recording session without a Lexicon.

The problem with this sort of talk is that it ignores one vital element of most early recording adventures, namely that there are two sides to a session: the musicians and the recording engineer. Failure by either to do their job properly can result in disaster, so getting the views of just the one side isn't really all that helpful, even if the musicians you're listening to have aims not dissimilar to your own. If endless mistakes and disappointments are bad news for players, they're equally bad news for engineers and studio owners, so it makes sense to get some feedback from both sides of the mixing desk.

The typical band (is there really such a thing in 1986?) turns up for their first session with only a limited idea of what recording involves, and quite often, they have some potentially damaging misconceptions about what a studio needs to produce good results. Generally speaking, musicians not versed in the ways of the recording process think that the more tracks a studio has, the better the results of playing in it will be. Which is not, strictly speaking, true. In fact, the specific hardware a studio offers isn't really an issue at this point at all. A good engineer will know if the equipment he has is up to the job, so long as you brief him properly first.

But before you reach even that stage, make sure you know why you want to make the recording in the first place. Is it simply for your own amusement? Is it to make demos to get gigs or a record deal? Or is it intended to produce a recording suitable for dedication to records or cassettes for you to sell commercially? If the third possibility is the case, you'll probably need to use a more sophisticated studio than you would if you were only recording a demo. That's not to say that you can accept shoddy workmanship for demos — you can't. But a tape with a bit more hiss on it will be fine for making demo cassette copies, provided it is well produced and properly played: remember that you're trying to sell your music, not the studio.

Now we come to the talking. Choosing a good studio from a page full of tempting-looking adverts is virtually impossible, but there are ways you can narrow the field down. Most obvious of these is simply to ask around among the local musical community; if one studio in particular emerges as being recommended for its competent engineering, decent range of facilities, and fair rates, go for it. Once you've decided to visit a studio, always discuss your proposed session with the resident engineer before committing yourself to time there. This applies as much to full-time, professional studios as it does to home-based facilities.

When consulting the engineer, you'll need to discuss the line-up of your act to find out how many tracks you're likely to need, and you'll also have to decide whether to do everything in one take or build up the composition in layers: there's no point taking this sort of decision later. From this quick and easy analysis (you'd be amazed how many people overlook it entirely), you'll be able to judge whether the studio has enough tracks to do your music justice or, at the other extreme, whether you're going to be paying for tracks you don't really need.

There are a few more specialist, but no less critical, considerations. The question of whether you're using real drums or a drum machine can exert a telling influence, for example, as very few home-based setups can accommodate a full acoustic kit, and fewer still can get a good drum sound out of one and onto tape.

"Musicians not versed in the ways of recording generally think that the more tracks a studio has, the better the results of playing in it will be."

Consider, also, the number of overdubbed parts you're going to record, as these need to be allowed for in the track-planning stage. If your Technical Editor had a fiver for every time he's filled up a tape, and then had a band decide they want to add another guitar solo they hadn't previously told him about, he'd have sold all his recording gear and gone into property development long ago. As a general rule, acoustic drums require a minimum of three tracks to themselves if you're going to stand a chance of getting a decent drum sound, and remember that if you're going to get the best out of an electronic drum kit, a drum machine, or a sequencer that has individual outputs for each of its voices, you'll need to devote a track to each of those voices. Anything with a stereo output (and these days, that means most polyphonic synthesisers) will need two tracks if you want to record it in stereo. All other instruments and voices will need a track each. Of course, tracks can be bounced down to make more tracks available, but do this more than once and chances are you'll find the drop in sound quality unacceptable.

If you've succeeded in finding a studio with a good reputation, the engineer will give you honest, objective answers to your queries, and you should respect his advice. If, however, he dodges your questions or fudges the answers, be extremely wary and refuse to be fobbed off.

Before the big day actually comes, make sure you've really got your songs properly rehearsed, and that everyone concerned knows the arrangements inside out. Obviously, this will be a lot more important if you're a nine-piece ensemble than it will be if you're playing and recording solo. But no matter how many you are, knowing every detail of your material's composition is essential if you're to minimise the number of mistakes you make and, as a result, maximise the amount of time you have at your disposal to do more constructive things, like getting the mix right (see later).

Particularly crucial if you're playing with a band is ensuring that everybody will perform as they should during a session that involves a lot of overdubbing; bear in mind that, if none of you have recorded in a studio before, this'll probably be the first time you've played your music in little bits, instead of all at once. Bear in mind, too, that pleas of 'We can't play this without the vocals' will be met by a tired, despairing look from the engineer which, roughly translated, means: 'What the Hell is this bunch of under-rehearsed, incompetent, and utterly talentless wallies doing in my studio wasting my time?' Practising beforehand with a cheap tape recorder will help you locate and rectify any dodgy elements of your performance, even if the sound quality is a bit on the rough side.

Luckily, the advent of modern sequencers and drum machines means you can store a lot of musical information and simply replay it, to perfection, at the touch of a switch when you arrive at the studio. Yet even this approach, which should theoretically save you masses of studio time, not to mention hassle, is fraught with dangers for the inexperienced.

"If your amps hiss like a boa constrictor in a deep-fat frier, get them fixed well in advance of the moment the Engineer presses Record."

And again, preparation is the key to avoiding them. Make sure you have standby disks/cassettes/chips for all your digitally-stored material, just in case the first copy goes up in smoke. Make sure, also, that you've recorded your material properly and that you aren't likely to change your mind about something as soon as you hear it over the studio monitors; editing digital data can be even more laborious than going over a passage you can't quite play time and time again.

Next we come to another area all too frequently overlooked by recording newcomers: tuning. Far, far too many people still persist in turning up to record with a vintage set of strings on a guitar which has about 12¼ semitones to the octave. Fit new strings, preferably the day before you begin recording to give them time to settle down, and check the octaves, adjusting the bridge saddles where necessary. If you want a bright, slappy bass sound, do the same with the bass guitar. And if you don't possess a tuner between the lot of you, go out and buy one; it'll pay for itself in studio time on the first day alone.

Almost all modern electronic instruments (synths and so on) are factory-tuned to concert pitch (A-440Hz), so you should have no problems there, even if you avail yourself of a studio's in-house keyboards: cock a careful eye at any control marked 'transpose' and you should be OK. Conversely, if you happen to be recording the odd ancient ethnic musical instrument that operates over a peculiar scale and/or has no tuning facilities onboard, remember to tune your more modern instruments to it from the start, or you'll have to resort to varispeeding.

You may be lucky and come across a helpful engineer who'll set up some of your instruments for you while the drummer is still getting his kit out of the Transit, but just as likely, he'll sit back in his chair with his arms folded, watching the money clock up as you struggle to get your act together.

Before you go over the studio's gear with a fine-toothed comb, check your own equipment — especially amplifiers — for any bugs likely to hinder the progress of an otherwise noise-free session. If your amps hiss like a boa constrictor in a deep-fat frier, or crackle and hum at the slightest provocation, get them fixed well in advance of the moment the engineer presses Record.

"For singers who've never really heard themselves before, the first foray into a recording studio can be a painful experience of self-enlightenment."

It's understandable that so many musicians dream their first recording session will yield results of impeccable quality. Sadly, it's also true that far too many bands grossly over-estimate the quantity of material their finances — and the time they buy — will allow them to produce. Inevitably, trying to record too many songs has one of three consequences. Either you discard some of the pieces halfway through the session when it becomes apparent there simply isn't enough time to get them all done properly; or you cut corners and end up finishing all the songs to a standard that does none of them justice; or you just run out of time and finish nothing, which usually results in everybody emptying their pockets, foregoing alcoholic beverages for three months, and saving up for some more studio time so that all the material can be sorted out.

The most efficient way to work is to put the backing tracks down for all the songs, then all the vocals, and finally any additional bits of decoration (solos and the like) that need overdubbing. As it frequently takes a couple of hours to set everything up and get it sounding right, you should aim only to get a maximum of three songs done in a day, unless you have everything very well planned and are confident that you can do more. Don't forget to add time for the mixing stage which, for reasons we'll go into later, can be a good deal more time-consuming than many people realise.

So now you've made all your preparations, decided that professional realism is preferable to over-confident elaboration, and you're about to enter the world of professional recording. Everything from here on in should be plain sailing, so long as you adopt the same efficient attitude that pervaded your preparations. Treat the whole thing like a military operation. Ask the engineer where he'd like you to set up, and once everything is working, get tuned up and check that the sound meets with your approval. If there are a lot of you, don't all play at once or decide that this would be a good time for an impromptu practice. Once the engineer has got his mics in place, he'll probably ask you to run through a song so that he can get the levels right — you'll get a chance to practice then. After this, don't alter any volume settings without telling the engineer, otherwise you may put in the performance of a lifetime only to find that the meter needles are wrapped round their end-stops and everything is distorted to buggery.

Other clever tricks to be avoided include the following: tapping your foot on one of the legs of the mic stand; starting to talk at the end of a take before the final cymbal crash has died away completely; and moving mics without the engineer's permission. If this sounds like Colditz rather than an environment likely to produce a creative musical experience, that's partly our intention. Recording can be as demanding as a carefully-timed escape from a PoW camp, but if you are reasonably thoughtful and the engineer is on your side, it can be a lot of fun, too. And in any case, most of the band can relax once all the backing tracks are safely out of the way, and the spotlight turns to the vocalist.

For singers who've never really heard themselves because of loud backing and non-existent fold back, the first foray into a recording studio can be a painful experience of self-enlightenment. Being clamped between a pair of headphones through which you can hear yourself clearly above everyone else frightens a lot of people, so don't worry. If you're responsible for the major part of the vocal chores (backing singers have it comparatively easy), you'll doubtless have trouble coming to terms with the fact that you're perhaps not quite another Paul Young after all, but take heart: you should be able to ask the engineer to feed a bit of echo or reverb into the cans, which'll help to lull you into a false sense of security.

"You might think you'll spot any nasty moments as they happen, but music has a habit of sounding quite different the day after, when your hearing has returned to normal."

Your problems don't end there, though. There are some further rules governing how you approach singing in a recording context, and one of the least flexible is that you should avoid moving around too much in front of the microphone. It may be easy to get carried away with the music, but swaying from one side to another won't get you anywhere; you'll probably end up having to do another take because the vocals varied so drastically in level first time around. If you prove troublesome in this respect, a considerate engineer will resort to sticking your nose to a drum stick attached to the mic stand, which is none too comfortable.

When all the tracks are down on tape and everyone has dropped in chunks to replace passages with mistakes in them, it's time to get on with the mix. For the uninitiated, the mix is that time when everyone wants to be the loudest except the singer, who suddenly doesn't want to be heard at all. Respect the engineer's advice, at least to start with, and remember that a good mix doesn't mean all the instrumental parts being equally as loud as each other: if anything, quite the reverse is true.

Once the engineer has set up a rough mix, you can ask for subtle changes of pan position, EQ and level, but while this is going on, make sure you're listening to the song as a whole, not just your part. And don't be tempted to try to bury an iffy bit of playing or singing under yet another overdub; it'll only clutter things up.

Your engineer may feel you're responsible enough to take care of the reins for a short time while he goes and gets a Chinese take-away, and if you're reasonably conversant with mixing techniques (Portastudio experience will prove invaluable here), this should be great fun. Beware of getting bogged-down with the number of available facilities, though. It's a trap that's all too easy to fall into, and once you're in it, you'll be struggling to get out again.

The danger looms even larger when it comes to using outboard effects. These are wonderful things (more wonderful now than ever, in fact), but used to excess, they can destroy a recording. Use a little reverb on the drums and vocals, by all means, but don't swamp them. More vicious effects like flanging should be used in small doses if they are not to become wearing, and the same applies to heavy repeat echoes.

Be careful, also, to avoid cliches. Particularly dreadful (and popular) ones include repeat echoes on the last words of lines and at the ends of songs, flanged drum patterns, and panning from side to side during guitar solos. Try to find effects to suit the song: if it doesn't need any, stick to just a tiny amount of reverb to take the dryness off things.

But this problem doesn't end with simply applying each common effect in the right quantity in the right place. There's also the dilemma of being faced with a battery of weird and wonderful new goodies, trying to get weird and wonderful results out of them by fiddling aimlessly, and finishing up with three hours less to complete the mixing and no new effects to show for it. In much the same way as complex, unfamiliar in-house synthesisers should never be used with anything other than extreme caution, so outboard units should be treated with similar care. As technology advances, so these units become capable of creating ever wider ranges of effects, with a corresponding increase in the number of possibilities they present the end-user. Even relatively low-cost machines such as the Yamaha REV7 and Roland SRV2000 digital reverbs offer a vast range of variable parameters difficult to grasp fully in a week, let alone a couple of hours. The moral? If you decide to start tampering with any studio gear that represents even so much as partially unfamiliar ground, keep an eye on the clock. Stick to tried and tested sound-treating principles and don't attempt anything too fancy.

When the mix is complete, run off a cassette copy and check it on a home hi-fi system or car stereo. You can guarantee that whoever else listens to your recording after the event won't be doing so over studio monitors, and what sounds great in the studio may sound less impressive outside. If you're optimistic and think your recording may be the recipient of some airplay, take a small radio-cassette machine into the studio with you and see how it sounds.

If you're hiring the master multitrack tape rather than buying it (remember that a single reel of 1" tape now costs in the region of £40-50), ask the studio to keep it intact for a few days so that you can remix or replace any bits that are unsatisfactory. You might think you'll be able to spot all these at the mixing stage, but music has a habit of sounding quite different the day after, when your hearing has returned to normal.

In fact, the problem of retaining objectivity during mixdown is what leads many people to record and mix on entirely separate occasions, days or weeks apart. It doesn't make much sense to mix more than one song at any one time, which means that during mixdown, it's quite possible you'll listen to the same four-minute piece of music 20 times in succession. And if you've spent the last four hours recording that piece of music, that's the last thing you should be putting yourself through.

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Roland PAD8 Octapad

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Hammer Strikes Out!

Publisher: Electronics & Music Maker - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Feb 1986

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler



Previous article in this issue:

> Roland PAD8 Octapad

Next article in this issue:

> Hammer Strikes Out!

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