Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to do some studio work for a local singer. Studio work is different than playing a gig, soI thought I'd give you some studio tips to make your experience in the studio both fun and productive.
What is Studio Work?
First off, anytime you are offered studio work, I suggest you take it. Working in a recording studio is a valuable learning experience and it makes you a better player, musician and listener!
When I refer to studio work, I’m not talking about working a mixer or setting up mics -- although that’s fun and rewarding as well. In fact, I almost went to school for recording production and engineering! No, when I speak about studio work, I’m talking about being a pianist/keyboardist on a recording session and laying down your own tracks.
Studio work is not always easy to come by. So if you're fortunate enough to get an opportunity like this, you really need to wow the engineer and your fellow musicians. For the most part, this kind of work is distributed by word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals. The last two studio jobs I got was because I knew the guitarist on one session and I did a recording session with another group and the engineer took my number. From there, I ended up getting about a half-dozen other jobs!
Can you see how this can be a rewarding creative experience that can literally pay off?
Before walking into a studio, it is good to know some “studio terms.” You might already know some of these, or you might have heard them used in a different way, but here are a few terms that are good to know:
- Session – short for recording session. Sometimes musicians use this term for a recording session, or a jam session. Basically think of it as an organized date that you should be ready to play.
- Tracks – recordings (CDs, etc…) are done in what’s called a multi-track system. This means that you record every instrument on its own individual track so that when you mix the instruments together you have a lot more control over the sound. In this format you can raise the volume of the vocals while making the bass softer. Today. 99% of studios use digital systems which means that the recording is done on a hard-disk system. This gives the recording engineer the ability to record practically an unlimited number of takes per song. (Wiki link)
- Takes – think of this as a “try” or a “once through.” Every time you go through the song and record your part…it's a take. This might happen as a group or as an individual. For example, when recording with my group Katahdin’s Edge, we would rehearse the material outside of the studio, then record live in the studio. This means we all played at the same time…no over dubs. We would do 3-5 takes of a song. Then we would pick the best take and use that one on the CD. Now, in the session I recently did, I was the only one laying down tracks, so I did multiple takes of only my part while the rest of the band was untouched.
- Engineer – This is the head honcho. They will make you sound great or sound bad. Always be respectful to the engineer. They are the ones who normally setup the mics, run the recording session and actually run the equipment. If you show the engineer respect…they will be of great help and value to you. I sometimes hear guys in the studio treat the engineer like a lackey and bark orders at them like “I need more bass” or “My monitor sounds like #!@#, can’t you do anything about it?” Needless to say, being polite goes a long way in the studio. Please and thank you go a long way. Moral: treat the engineer with respect and they’ll do the same in return.
- The “booth” can refer to where the engineer sits (where the mixing board is, though often this is called the control room) or a vocal or drum booth where the vocalist or drummer might record.
Getting Ready For The Studio
Before going to a session, always do your homework. I like to get a rough recording of the song in advance (especially if it is an original) before walking into the session. This gives me an opportunity to create a basic “cheat sheet” of the chord structure and form of the song. You can see an example on this page.
Now, there are musicians that like to spend 5 days in a studio and let the music come together organically by rehearsing and recording all at the same time. You have probably heard stories of how the classic rock bands would spend all week in the studio, sleep there, party there, etc. Well, I can tell you that for the most part, those days are gone. Studios are expensive to run, and even more expensive to rent. A typical recording session costs about $50/hr. There are many other costs that could be involved as well -- like a producer, hard drives, backups, etc. So, time is money in the studio!
Here are some good tips to help you prepare for the studio:
- Practice BEFORE the session! Do not practice your parts in the session. If it takes you an hour to “get down” your part, you just spent $50 or more of studio time.
- I’ve said it before -- be quiet and listen! Do not “yammer on” about the game or what not, especially if you are a hired musician and not the one paying the bill. If you want to socialize, do it after the session.
- Get your equipment in order before you walk into the studio. You don’t want to be fiddling with your strings or keyboard settings while the clock is ticking.
Now let’s now talk about studio performance. Let me start with a story…
The last session I did was in a very small studio (see the picture on this page). After all the equipment, there was only about a 6×8 section in the control room where I was recording that was uncluttered. Bear in mind, I had never met this engineer, or the singer! There were also 3-4 other random people who came in and out of the room to hear what was going on. Now, if I was new to the studio, this would have been somewhat distracting, maybe even intimidating. Studio work is hard enough without having a bunch of by-standers looking on to see what you are doing. Personally…I love it. I like the challenge and I had a secret weapon…I was prepared. Since a lot of musicians go into the studio and perform on the spot, you look like a hero when you come in and just lay down your tracks.
This brings me to trusting yourself. If you’re in the studio it is because someone asked you to be there or you booked the studio time yourself. This means that others have faith in your abilities or you have personally amassed the resources from your work to provide this forum for your music. Trust in your ability, trust in the time and practice that you have put into your instrument and trust your ears.
Here are a few good rules to live by in the studio:
- The equipment is not yours, it is very expensive and can break…so don’t touch it! Most engineers will get, understandably, very sensitive if you start moving mics or touching knobs. If you’re new to the studio, you may feel a lot like a kid in a candy store. There is a lot of cool stuff to touch…but don’t.
- Don’t pop the speakers. Always ask if it is o.k. to unplug or turn on your equipment. You get nasty pops if you unplug while the speakers (which are called monitors in a studio) are on.
- Be respectful and do a lot of listening. Tensions can run pretty high in a studio because it's usually a small space and time and money are on the line. If you are hired as a musician to work on the session, be quiet, do as your told, get paid and go home. This has worked well for me and has landed me other studio work. Musicians, engineers and producers like working with musicians that are easy-going and do their job.
As you do more studio work and learn to listen to what is happening around you in the studio, you will get a much better understanding of how music is made and the people that make it.