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Your first session recording in a studio: 6 essential tips for success

Nothing can really prepare you for the thrill of recording a piece of music for the first time in the studio… except this!

Preparation is the most easily overlooked but vital part of being a musician – get it right and everything is easier. And since recording studio time is a financial investment for most of us, it’s important that you use your time effectively.

You have to remember that whatever you record will last a lifetime, unlike a live show which is almost always a single moment in time and very much a one-off. Everything counts. So here’s how you can beat your studio session time…


1. Learn the music inside out

Spend enough time actually listening to the music you’re going to record. Try not to make the mistake of jumping right into playing or singing too quickly. Take the time to work on your individual part and digest the style, genre, feel and overall mood of the track you want to record.

This will help you create a part that is right for the song. Serve the song, not the part. It’s all too easy to slip into playing or singing too early, rushing and laying down a part that just isn’t right for the song.

Make lists, map out the song, know the arrangement, BUT be flexible! It’s also easy to make the mistake of being too prepared. Repeats parts to the point where it was ingrained and memorized.

This would have been perfect if the producer or writer hadn’t changed the arrangement, key, structure and feel of the song on the day of the session. But that is not always the case.

It’s so hard to actually change a phrase or part if you’ve spent hours practicing and memorizing it. Try to learn the basic structure of the song, but be able to change and adapt it as needed during the day.


2. Bring what you need – and what you might need

Make sure you have all your equipment in good condition. It doesn’t matter if you are a drummer, bass player, guitarist, singer or keyboard player, everything has to work.

Take a selection of mics if you’re a singer and have access, make sure you’ve changed the drum shells on your kit and use the right mics if you’re a drummer. These should be provided by the studio, but if you’re recording at home or have specific mics to use, make sure you use them and bring them to the session.

Guitarists and bassists; change your strings. Remember spare parts for everything. You don’t want to waste time going out and buying spare cords or batteries etc.

It’s always good to have a choice too. Different instruments, amps and effects have different sounds. Even if the equipment is not your own and is available to borrow from someone or the studio, it may be useful during the session. Don’t rely on what you always use, but adapt and serve the song.


3. Prepare the track

When you get to a recording studio, most things are the same. You will hopefully have a producer/sound engineer waiting for you.

In some cases, the producer is the songwriter and creator, and this can even be yourself and your own project. Either way, it’s good to have an engineer record your songs. It will give you a second opinion on how you actually sound and allow you to focus on the performance.

You can then spend a lot of time actually creating a sound with your instrument using various outboard digital effects and processors. Microphone positioning, especially on acoustic drum kits, guitars and bass booths as it is important to get the sound right. This will likely be mixed with your Direct Input (DI) on the amplifier directly into the recording console.


4. Focus on your performance

After all these preparations, you are now ready to start recording. Try to trust your instincts, be natural. Make the most of all the work you’ve put into the project up to this point. You will also need to draw on every ounce of experience and technique to start delivering a solid performance when playing and singing.

A good engineer will always keep the first recording of the session and use at least part of it because it often has the most energy. It’s important that you feel comfortable and communicate with the engineer if you need to take a break – it’s your performance and you need to be able to deliver it.

Sometimes you will have the luxury of recording with the rest of the band. This is often the best way to capture the energy of performances. The first instrument to go down is the drums, which are the basis of the vocals. We then move on to bass, guitar, vocals and keyboards.

One of the advantages of recording multiple musicians at the same time is that everyone can feed off everyone else’s creativity and manipulate ideas to fit the song.

If a musician makes a mistake, it’s easy to fix by editing the part or re-recording that instrument in isolation.


5. Try working with a song guide

It helps to have a vocal guide when recording your part. You can then record an appropriate part to match the song and lyrics, rather than playing or singing along to an instrumental backing track, which can sometimes be very clinical and cold, devoid of emotion and feeling.

You would then start double-tracking vocals. This adds depth and multiple harmonies to the vocals if needed. After this it would be doubling tracks, adding strings, percussion and samples, basically adding the finishing touches, essentially mixing down every part and instrument for the final edit.


6. Enjoy!

Finally, try to enjoy the whole experience. Relax and breathe. Recording is like most things, the more you do it, the better you get at it. If you have the equipment, try recording yourself at home, start practicing the basics.

The most important of all these is timing. Try practicing to a click or metronome. Your timing and meter must be perfect in order to record any song effectively and get the result you’re looking for. Your prep work will really pay off.