Take the Money
Paul White takes a look at what's involved when you start taking on paying customers in your studio.
When you're recording for your own pleasure, you can work at your own pace and if the result isn't quite right... well there's always next time. You have to work to a different set of standards when you decide to... Take the Money.
Many of our readers have built up their studios and their expertise to the point where they already accept paying clients. If you are considering taking this step, it is as well to know what you are letting yourself in for.
In some ways, the professional studio engineer has less on his plate than the small studio owner because by and large, he has only to worry about the engineering and can leave all the other responsibilities associated with running a studio to somebody else. Not so the chap with an 8-track set up in his front room. He has to act as engineer, studio manager, maintenance man and usually producer and musical adviser to boot.
If a client is paying good money to use your recording facility, it is only reasonable that the studio should be in a fit condition to start work when he or she arrives and that you don't have to start mending leads and rummaging through boxes of tapes before you can start work. This sounds obvious - and so it is, but its surprising how many semi-pro studios overlook these most basic considerations.
You should also find out what type of band you are dealing with before you accept the booking and be sure that you can cope; for example, if its a heavy rock band, will your sound insulation be effective enough to keep the neighbours happy or do you live in a modern semi with cardboard walls that seem to amplify rather than attenuate the sound? Likewise its no good taking on a 96-piece ethnic folk orchestra unless you have enough mics and mixer channels to handle things - again obvious but easily overlooked when in the presence of a promise of money.
Having decided that the potential session is within the capabilities of your studio in terms of these basic practicalities, the next aspect to sort out is how many songs the artiste would like to complete in a given session. This may vary from one to 20, so the first thing you have to do is to give a realistic estimate of what you think can be achieved. In an 8-track studio with a reasonably competent and well rehearsed band, you should be able to complete up to three or maybe even four creditable demo tracks in an eight hour day, depending on the complexity of any overdubs that may be required.
Every session is of course unique but I would tend to divide the day up into four equal slices. The first two hours are usually used to set up the gear and produce a decent sound and the second two by recording the basic backing tracks. Next, the overdubs and vocals are completed and the final two hours should be kept free for mixing and running off the odd cassette copy.
These rules are by no means hard and fast but for a conventional band with an acoustic drum kit, they shouldn't be too far off the mark. Of course an all electronic band or a band with an electronic drum kit may well get to the recording stage a little earlier.
The first chore of the day is to get the drums sounding decent, and contrary to popular belief, this is done by tuning the drum kit and not by 'fixing' it on the desk afterwards. This however is easier said than done because there are still a lot of drummers in circulation who can't in fact tune their kits and some who don't even realise that they have to. Some may not even own a tuning key. Rule one - keep a couple of tuning keys handy. Unless the drummer really knows how to tune his kit, the results are likely to be better if the bottom tom heads and the front bass drum heads are removed. I know it's bad practice to try to force a drummer to conform to your idea of a good drum sound but if he's a really hopeless case and won't co-operate, get the rest of the band to hold him down while you remove the offending heads after which you can stick bits of Blu-Tac into the nut boxes to prevent them rattling - next release the drummer.
Another common problem is that the heads may be badly worn or incompatible with the sound that the drummer actually wants to achieve but at this late stage, you can do little but point out the fact so he'll know better next time. Worse still is the drum kit with different types of head on every tom so that a roll round the kit goes 'doinng' 'bong' 'thud', instead of a nice even 'blat' 'blat' 'blat' but again, there is a limit to what you can achieve by damping. One possibility is to see if any of the bottom heads are better than the top heads and swap them over.
Rather than relying on the drums own internal dampers, use pads of cloth or kitchen roll held in place with Gaffa tape to tame any excess ringing, but remember that a drum kit is an acoustic instrument and that a few rattles and sympathetic resonances are to be expected. There seems little point in damping a kit to the point where it sounds like a set of hot water bottles full of porridge and then trying to reinject some life at mixdown by adding loads of reverb.
Whether you mic up every drum or use ambient miking or a combination of the two is up to you. After all you will probably have your own tried and tested methods but do make a test recording and make sure that the drummer agrees with your interpretation of his sound. I am assuming that the drums will be recorded dry so explain that you can add reverb at mixdown and demonstrate the effect if requested.
Contrary to Dave Simpson's optimistic article, the bass guitar can be a real challenge to your engineering skills if either the instrument or the player is substandard, and some degree of compression is in any event desirable. Direct injecting the bass into the mixer can sound good if the bass and player are both good but miking up the cab may give a more 'live' sound and mask some of the finger squeak, rattling and tonal inadequacies that all too often manifest themselves while DI'ing. A combination of the two techniques often yields good results, but watch out for phasing problems which could result in a nasal or boxy sound.
Guitars are generally easy - just stick any half decent vocal mic a few inches in front of one of the speakers and you should get a useable sound.
If however you get a HM Hoodlum who insists on using his ten by twelve megastack with a two hundred watt valve head, try a power soak or set up the stack in a different room (preferably in someone elses house) or in the cupboard under the stairs. It's always handy to have a combo of your own that records well and I use a Sessionette 75 or a Custom Sound Cub 60 if the clients own amplification turns out to be unsuitable. A Rockman or similar is also a viable alternative if this sound fits the style of the clients' music.
Before you actually get down to recording, discuss the songs, particularly any intros or breaks that might produce timing problems and decide how you're going to tackle them. For example - if a song needs an acoustic guitar intro which is to be overdubbed later, put down a hi-hat beat or drum machine to act as a timing track - this can be erased later or muted at the mixing stage. Don't however fall into the trap of letting the click track bleed into the guitar mic or you'll be stuck with a background click that is impossible to remove - monitor the click track using headphones!
Once all these details are sorted out, do a test take of the song and re-adjust the record levels which will have inexplicably risen by 10dB or so since you did the original soundcheck. It's at this point that the inexperienced musician will panic, so apply all your charm and skill to put the harmless wretch at his ease and explain that unlike live gigs, you can actually correct mistakes before the public hear the result.
It is common practice for the drummer to count in songs on the hi-hat but so that this can be removed more easily at the mixing stage, get him to miss out the last beat. The band will soon get used to imagining the last beat and it really does make the engineer's job easier.
Before you do a serious take, recheck the tuning which is quite likely to have drifted and again, a well prepared studio will have its own tuner for that very purpose, some semi-pro bands are very lax about tuning and may not notice that a problem exists before it's too late unless you tell them.
Having captured an exemplary set of backing tracks on tape, get the overdubs down, taking care not to erase any of the existing tracks (very embarrassing) and then evict the rest of the band whole the vocalist does his stuff.
Vocalists new to recording tend to be a bit nervous when the red light is on, so do what you can to put them at their ease and try putting bags of reverb through the cans to lull them into a false sense of security.
If you thought that getting a good drum sound was fun, wait until you get to the mixing. A simple definition of the mixing stage would be 'that time when everyone in the band wants to be the loudest except for the vocalist who suddenly doesn't want to be heard any more.'
To start off with, disregard everyone and set up a rough balance patching in any effects that will be needed along the way. Use panning and space to create separation rather than sheer level and only then start to modify the balance to suit the bands preference. If you think that they are making any great errors of artistic judgement, point these out but don't be too pushy because they are hiring you after all. Inexperienced bands tend to ask for all the cliche treatments such as bags of echo at the end of lines and too much reverb on everything so try to point this out without appearing to be a nauseatingly clever sod! When everyone's happy, do the mix and play it back to make sure that everybody's happy with it and try to hear it on at least two different sets of speakers.
This is important, as many studios get a great sound on their main monitors but when you get the tape home and play it on Auntie Ethels hi-fi, it sounds dull and badly balanced.
It should go without saying that if anything goes slightly wrong in the mix and the band don't notice it, don't be tempted to let it go as it is: do the mix again properly.
Apart from charging for your time on an hourly basis, it's a good idea to offer the option of buying or hiring the multitrack tape because few bands will have the facility to play this back. You will of course charge for the stereo master tape which the band will almost certainly want to keep, and it's also worth filling in the pertinent details on the back of the box such as tape speed, track format etc. The request for a handful of cassette copies is almost inevitable and very few people bring their own, so keep a box of ten or so good quality tapes to cater for this requirement.
If at the summing up stage you can round the price down a bit, your clients will appreciate it and feel that they have received a good deal so it's worth doing, as is providing them with endless cups of tea or coffee and the odd sandwich if its a long session. If you waste time by erasing bits by accident, don't charge them for the extra time taken putting things right again and don't send them away with a master tape that you're not happy with because whereas it only takes a few duff sessions to create a bad reputation it takes a long time to rectify the situation.
To sum up then, make sure that you're equipped to handle the session, don't waste the client's time, and maintain a friendly, relaxed atmosphere whilst doing the best job you possibly can.
Feature by Paul White
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