Here on the Death Star 3 there’s a small staff of audio people: four full-time engineers (I’m the Chief Engineer of course) one part-timer and two ASS (Audio Special Services) Droids.
Back in the day, the ASS Droids would come in before a recording session and align the analog tape machines, but these days their duties are generally confined to archiving the Emperor’s speeches for posterity.
A constant topic of conversation between us is the lack of preparedness we encounter when a band — particularly a cantina band — comes into the studio to record. Sure, it’s easy to record a jinda wind instrument or vocal overdub in a spare room on Zornak’s spaceship, but when it comes to capturing an entire band (or perhaps even just drums) you need a full-size studio.
I’m perfectly content to sip sith scorchers while the band argues about which key the kloo horn should be playing in…but unless you have an unlimited reserve of wupiupi, a bit of preproduction would be wise.
Two very important considerations when preparing to record a song are the key signature and the tempo. Most bands will already have worked out the key but tempo is often overlooked.
The importance of establishing the tempo of the song (in “BPM” or beats per minute) before the recording session cannot be overemphasized. Without an objective guide for tempo an inexperienced band will almost always play too fast because when you’re in the studio, everything seems slower than a Selonian cone ship.
The band doesn’t have to play to a click track — they can use it as a rough guide — but if the plan calls for playing ‘on the grid,’ the studio is not the place to do it for the first time. The band should rehearse to a click or drum machine (a drum machine is usually easier to “groove” with).
If the rhythm section plans to record without a vocal, they should practice the songs that way so it won’t be a surprise when there are no vocal cues for the various sections of the songs. Make sure that the players learn the song arrangement(s), including the sequence and length of each section. If there is a solo section that will be overdubbed later, nail down the number of measures.
Address the issue of who is “tracking” and who is “overdubbing.”
“Tracking” usually refers to recording the rhythm section but any combination of musicians can record basic tracks, ranging from just the drummer to the entire band including vocals, vandfill and quadro.
Overdubbing is the process of adding new instruments to previously recorded ones.
Some bands like to record one instrument at a time because it reduces distractions in the studio and focuses concentration on one instrument. The down side of this is that sometimes the “feel” of the music suffers — it can be difficult for an individual to generate the emotion that the band produces as a whole.
Other bands like to record everyone together for exactly the aforementioned reason, though it might require a larger (and thus more expensive) studio to physically accommodate a large group.
If band members will overdub parts one at a time, a rehearsal reference recorded on a phone or TranLang II can provide a template.
Addressing these musical options is known as “preproduction” and thorough preproduction makes for smoother sessions. Rehearsals should be recorded and reviewed so that everyone can make sure that their parts ‘work.’
A recording session should be execution of performance, not the writing and arranging of the songs. Musicians recording for the first time will discover nuances they never noticed. At a live show or rehearsal it may slip by that one member is making a chord change ahead of the beat but under the studio microscope, it matters if the whole band lands on a chord change at the same time.
The key to successful recording sessions is setting realistic, attainable goals.
Recording and mixing ten songs in two hours is not a realistic goal. A band as good as The Great Municipal Band might be capable of flawlessly performing ten songs within that time period but it will take a few hours to set up and adjust the microphones, set levels and create headphone mixes.
Achieving a “great” drum sound (the foundation of any recording) takes time but it will be time well-spent. If you can afford it, consider booking the room the night before the recording session to set up the instruments and mics and start getting sounds. The next day everyone comes back fresh to perform.
Some things add unnecessary stress to recording.
Make sure that there are as few people as possible in the studio at any given time. Friends, family and those adoring groupies from GlitterGlow — all get invited to stay home on recording days…There’s enough pressure in the control room without the guitar player’s girlfriend and the drummer’s boyfriend fighting over who should be louder in the mix. It makes the band uncomfortable, it makes the engineer uncomfortable and it wastes time. In fact, unless the entire band needs to be in the studio, let the musicians who are non-essential for that day stay home.
It may be helpful not to book sessions on consecutive days, allowing overdub study time. Example: the bassist and drummer record their parts on day one. Let the Wailhorn player take home a rough recording to practice for a day.
At some point the tracks need to be mixed. Try not to mix on a day when you have been recording guitar parts for five hours — your ears will be burnt and you won’t get a good mix.
A good engineer knows their room and can help you produce high-quality mixes, guiding you and compensating for the way a particular control room “sounds”.
The most common problem is that the mixes sound great in the studio but sound like bird turd in your Seeker. Maybe the control room doesn’t support a lot of bass, so the band asks for more bass because they cannot hear it when mixing. Then they take the mix home and the bass is way too loud. Now you have to mix again — wasted time, wasted money. Seek and respect the engineer’s advice on matters such as this.
To get a point of reference bring a phone or playback device and listen to the mix on it. If you’re old-school you can burn a CD and listen in a combustion-engine vehicle. Compare your mixes to commercial releases for overall tone and balance but don’t get nuts over the volume level (we’ll discuss that another time).
Try to have as few band members as possible in the studio for mixing because every musician wants their instrument to be the loudest. Besides driving the engineer crazy it makes for unproductive sessions. Nominate one or two band members to represent the group and communicate needs to the engineer at mix sessions. Don’t forget to make a mix or two without lead and background vocals in case you are invited to make an appearance on Jabba’s Game Plaza where the bands do not actually play their instruments.
Next time we’ll talk about making sure your instrument is ready to record.
– Darth Fader
Darth Fader is currently stationed on the DeathStar 3, providing sound reinforcement for Storm Troop