Preparing for the Recording Studio

I love prepping people to go in the recording studio for the first time!  Theoretically, I like people to have had some basic training in singing, but recording pre is its own thing aside from technique.  Here’s a run down of stuff to do to prepare to record.

Take The Amount of Time You Think You Need an Multiply It By 50

Practice with your backing tracks until you are sick to death of it.  And then do it again 50 more times.  You cannot overstate how much prep you need.  Actually, if you have an unlimited budget, you don’t really need to be THAT prepared but it will still help.

The main reason to prepare so much is because recording studio burn money.  You have not only studio rental but also fees to hire a recording engineer (and possible vocal coach) – the engineer fees are usually included in the recording studio fees but you should ask about that when you make the reservation for the studio just to make sure you’re on the same page.

Let’s say your recording studio fees are $125/hr – which is pretty reasonable here in Manhattan – if it take you an hour or going over the spots you missed to try for that one take where you kinda accidentally hit it right, that ends up adding up.  So it’s better to have all the notes really solid, everything in muscle memory, lyrics memeorized, and – and this is the part that many people can’t nail the first time – knowing exactly where you will come in, especially in parts of the song that are out of tempo.  If you have practiced a ridiculous amount of time with your backing track – exactly the one you will use as the recording backing track is preferred – you will be able to nail most or all of these.  They can somewhat “correct” your entrances, pitch, etc, in studio but there are three problems with this: 1) In genres where auto-tune is not a part of the sound youj’re going for, these sections can sound kinda fake and 2) it might not be exactly exactly how you want, but just how the engineer can rig it to sound not too bad, and 3) Anything they have to correct in the actual studio will take the engineer an order or magnitude longer to do than if you can just sing it into the mic the way you want it to go.

If you don’t know your entrances, it might be helpful to have a vocal coach with you who can cue you.

Studio Time Starts at the Exact Time of Your Booking

The tendency with recroding studios is to not set up your session too much in advance and to do that when you come in.  They might move the piano into place or set up a microphone stand, but you should expect that you will be selecting a microphone and getting whatever instruments are going to be playing at the session set up after your start time and not before.  If they let you set up before, consider it a courtesy on the part of the studio.

Time Can Be Lost Doing Track Selection At The End

How studios usually record these days is you do a few run throughs of the song and then they Frankenstein a version together out of the multiple takes.  You might have like 18 phrases separated by breaths in a particular song.  Every time you breath, there is an opportunity to easily change which version of the song you will use for that particular phrase.  Let say you do 5 cuts of a tune and there are 6 phrases (it’s a very short song apparently), you might use phrases from the different cuts like so:

Engineers can also sometimes splice together two different takes even when there is not a breath in there, but this is Advanced Frankensteining and takes time (and doesn’t always produce great results)

If There Are No Good Takes for a Certain Spot, You Can “Punch In”. Which Takes Time

After you Frankenstein together your final cut, there may still be a note of small bit in the middle of a phrase that isn’t your best work.  For these situations, there is something called “punching in”.  This process involves the engineer playing back your recording, including the vocals, while you are at the microphone.  You sing along with it and the engineer records the bit leading up to the note or two you are punching in.  Because the two versions are almost identical except the “mistake”, the engineer can more eaily combine the versions without having an obvious-sounding splicing point.  Punching in works better for mistakes than for issues where your skillset isn’t up to par (for example, if you miss a note cause you don’t have the technique to do the singing required).  You can take the rough version home, go see a technique teacher for a month of two and then come back and punch in when you have the note, but it’s not a great option because untrained singers tend to sound different every day and you need a high level of consistency with a punch in.

Medium Level of Preparation

Here’s what a 3 hour vocals-only session might be like to record 2-3 songs if you aren’t totally tight with your backing track:

12:00pm (read: crack of dawn) sessions starts

12-12:15 mic selection for vocals

12:15-1:15p recording vocals (and taking time between takes to practice coming in on time in teh trickier areas)

1:15-1:45 selecting the takes and assembling the Frankensteined version (If there were relatively few takes)

1:45-2:15 re-recording any places where you think you can quickly do a better job

2:15-2:25 Incorporating the new pieces

2:25-2:35 Punching in

2:35-2:55 Incorporating punch ins, fixing any issues that might still exist.

2:55-3:00 “Bouncing” the version (this means saving it and getting it into your hand on a thumb drive or a removable hard drive

You would walk out of the studio with a version which maybe you’d be happy with but it’s likely that it still wouldn’t be your best work.  Total cost: $375 plus storage devide for files.

Avg cost per song (vocals only): $125-188

High Level of Preparation

If you came into this same situation with a boring level of practice with your backing track, this is what it might look like, but you’d probably get to do 4-5 songs:

12:00pm (read: crack of dawn) sessions starts

12-12:15 mic selection for vocals

12:15-1:15p recording vocals (with not too much practicing between takes)

1:15-2:15p selecting the takes and assembling the Frankensteined version (If there were relatively few takes)

2:15-2:35 Punching in here and there

2:35-2:55 Incorporating punch ins, fixing any issues that might still exist.

2:55-3:00 “Bouncing” the version (this means saving it and getting it into your hand on a thumb drive or a removable hard drive

You’d likely leave with a very high level recording of 4-6 songs that are much better and cleaner than the 3 songs in the previous example.

Avg cost per song (vocals only): $63-94

After The Session

You’ll still need to mix and master your recording so there are actually more expenses than these.  This pricing scenariio also assumes you have the instrumental tracks already done prior to the vocal session

Sometimes, if a recording is not great, then a second session is scheduled so the vocalist can practice between (or an extension of time for the existing session is booked if the studio is not blocked out for another project).  Even sometimes the engineer does additional work on it in post-production (post-production is after you record), with or without you present, to kinda work the recording into something better.  This is super costly.  The additional sessions (usually there is a 3 hr min) are $375 (if your studio is $125/hr) and additional post-production will run $125 per hour as well.

Summary

It’s totally okay to go into the studio unprepared.  As long as you have money to burn and are okay.  But if you are on a budget, it’s best to prepare with a vocal coach familiar with the recording process. It’s almost impossible to overstate the amount of prep time you wanna put in if you are going in to the studio.

This scenario is for if you just record the vocals, but if you are going in with full band to cut some tunes every time a band member (which includes the vocalist) has to stop and figure something out, it eats into time.  It’s normal to have questions and need to stop and listen or do some spot correcting, but if you can minimize this, it significantly decreases your monetary outlay.  In larger bands, any issues are ultiplied by the number of band members.

Going into the studio can be intimidating and I am happy to go in with you the first time (or any time after that), but the very best investment you can give yourself is really being tight with your version of the song so you can nail it in a take or two.  Recording is super fun and also a trial by fire.  But IMO the super fun part overrides the trial by fire part.  Hit me up and let’s get you prepped for your studio date!