— Down in Deep

Simple Tips On How to Make a Better Record

A series of observations ranging from the mundane to almost esoterically philosophical, most filtered through a bit too dry sense of humor.

1. Choose one tuner for everyone to use through the entire project.
Make sure it’s calibrated to instruments you may be using that do not have variable tuning, such as a Hammond organ.
Also make sure it always has fresh batteries. Cut it off between usage.
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as realizing that great guitar part that makes the song is out of tune with the rest of the track.

2. Pick a spokesperson for the band when dealing with engineers, producers, or session musicians. If you have to take a few minutes to discuss things to come to a consensus that’s fine. There’s nothing more confusing than having 4 or 5 people all telling you they want different things all at the same time. Everyone’s ideas can get a hearing, but not simultaneously.

3. Don’t forget to eat. This may sound silly, but I’ve seen quite a few sessions de-rail because of blood sugar issues. Sometimes this happens because everybody’s so in the flow that meals get passed by. The less acceptable way this happens is when you have a producer who is determined to get every second they can squeeze out of studio musicians & will put off meal breaks until way past the point of people being able to perform at their peek. The phrase that comes to mind is “Penny wise, Pound foolish”. You’ll end up loosing much more than you can ever gain by the extra 20-30 minutes squeezed out of the musicians. (Not to mention the obvious loss of good will & interest in the project from the musicians.)

4. Always keep snacks in the studio in preparation for tip #3 being ignored. Sodas & beer are not an appropriate substitute for food. Carrots, crackers, bananas, Cliff bars, & trail mix are safe choices that age well, (except the bananas). Also water is essential & will get you through a long session better than sodas or fruit juices.

5. Don’t be afraid to be wrong & admit it quickly. Everyone makes mistakes. There is no shame in doing so, it is one of the natural results of delving into the world of the creative. An occasional “Oops, sorry guys.” will zip by quickly with very little negative consequence. I’ve been in sessions where a series of mistakes was the moment that pulled the project together & everyone walks away friends for life & feeling great about the project. When you can say I was wrong without putting up a defensive wall people can connect on a deeper level and get the fragile egos out of the way.

6. Days before starting a recording project is not a good time to make big life improving changes. (Unless under Doctor’s orders, and in that case you probably shouldn’t be starting a record then anyway.) If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, don’t quit the day before you start vocal tracking. Most singers I know say it takes roughly 3 months to regain the vocal control they had after quitting smoking. A cleansing fast is not a great idea while cutting basics. The same goes for starting a heavy workout regime. The self-improvement programs can wait until the project is finished. I think you get the concept.

7. Play it, don’t talk about it. I’ve seen sessions grind to a complete halt for 30 to 40 minutes while people debate the value of an idea they haven’t even heard yet. The other instance of this is when, after a take there is an extended critique of the performance with highly detailed instruction to usually just one of the musicians on the session. The problem normally has little to do with the instructions being given, and much to do with a performer who is either unprepared, not right for the song, or just plain not good enough for the session. These long, drug out talking interruptions will not only impede the progress needlessly, but also just plain wear out the other musicians who are performing well.
One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had in a session as a player was on a project for a good friend with whom I’d played for years. My friend, the artist was not present at the session. After the first pass of a song the producer and engineer went into a discussion in the control room for over 45 minutes with the talkback mic off so I could hear nothing they were saying. When they finally finished, the engineer came over the talkback and said let’s get another take, but with no feedback on the previous take or instructions as to what they wanted from me. That take done, they went back into their huddle for about 15 minutes and the next thing I heard was, “That’s great, let’s move on to the next song.” Needless to say, I’ve always been previously booked every time that engineer or producer have called me for sessions since then. If you want to completely destroy the confidence of a young musician this is a good way to do so. Fortunately I was not young & easily intimidated when this happened. I just thought they were 2 of the rudest people I had ever had to work for.

8. Make sure your equipment is in good working condition BEFORE you go into the studio.This means check your batteries in active pickups, make sure the intonation on your guitars and basses is set properly, go through the drum kit for loose screws & rattles & replace the heads if needed, and for goodness sake, if you “think” there may be something wrong with your amp, get it fixed first or leave it at home so you don’t waste hours of everyone’s time trying to figure out what that weird rattling sound is. I can’t say how much time I’ve seen wasted changing mics, cables, & anything else you can name because the guitarist hears something not right with the sound, only to admit well into the process that the speaker baffle in his cabinet is cracked.

9. Partying all night before a 10:00AM session is not one of the wiser game plans a person can follow. ‘Nuff said.

10.The control room while overdubs are being tracked is not the best place to catch up with friends, discuss the CD cover, or try to impress persons of the opposite sex, (or the same sex if that happens to be your preference). There are going to be at least 2 people trying to concentrate on what’s being recorded & the constant & usually increasingly loud banter is very distracting & tiring to those trying to work. Most studios will have a lounge area and if not, go outside to socialize.

10. Pre-production can be priceless. Especially for a band. Spending time working out arrangements and song structure before going into the studio gives you time to work on getting great performances. It’s similar to the best reason to practice, so when it’s time to perform you can concentrate on expression, not the technical nuts and bolts of just getting through the parts. One word of advice about pre-production rehearsals. Hold these at the lowest volume possible so you can hear what’s being played. I’ve seen bands that have been together for years who have rehearsed the songs being recorded extensively who were surprised on hearing the playback of a take. They had no idea what the other band members were playing on the song, often playing different chord changes from each other, because they always rehearsed at concert volume with a full PA system blasting.
For solo artists, sitting with a producer to help solidify song structure and plot out arrangement ideas can help keep a project on budget & running smoothly when it comes time to bring in session players.

11. Always keep in mind a recording does not define your worth as a human being. A record is exactly what the word means, a record of how these songs were performed at this particular time. It’s no mistake that tape and DAWs are erasable media.

12. Write parts for your songs that you can execute flawlessly every time. A recording session is not the place to show what insane chops you have. The greatest recordings almost always have one thing in common, great, simple, memorable melodic instrumental parts that help define the song. Unless my memory is failing, in an interview with Billy Sheehan  he said he didn’t get paid in sessions to play 16 notes, he got paid to go boom—boom, and groove. I think that was Sheehan, if not, the guy is still right.

13. Don’t be afraid to dive down a rabbit hole every now and then. The idea you’re going for may not work out, but almost always something else will come up that is absolute magic. This tip is closely tied with play it, don’t talk it and it’s ok to make a mistake. Sometimes you’re gonna catch the rabbit and others find something totally unexpected. This is the place where the special stuff can happen.

14. Two spiritually related tips:
A: Even though this may be hard to believe, pizza is not the only studio meal option.
B: For studio managers, always have good coffee. This is especially important if the artists are from South America, the Pacific Northwest, or US Gulf Coast. I was recently informed I could get shot in Sao Paulo for describing a 45 minute old pot of coffee as “fresh”.

15. Understand your place in a recording session and behave accordingly. To go to almost insulting detail this means …….
If you’re a band member, act like a band member, take part in the creative process and express your opinions when appropriate. Don’t act like a bystander visiting the studio, but also don’t take the attitude that the engineer is there to give you lessons in studio techniques or be educated from your vast knowledge gathered from recording magazines. If you’re the engineer it’s not acceptable to bypass the producer with ideas to the band unless you have that close a working relationship with the producer. It’s your job to get sounds and try to keep things running smoothly, but not to get involved with scheduling or artistic calls directly with the artist. Any suggestions should be made directly to the producer, preferably out of earshot of the musicians. The point is not to make yourself look like the hero or genius on the session, it’s to make a good record. If you’re the guy who saves the day repeatedly it will be noticed and appreciated. If you are the producer keep in mind your name is not the one in big letters on the front of the CD. Your job is to make the best product for the artist, not yourself. If you are a sideman be open to direction and keep your ego out of the way. You were hired because somebody involved thought you were the best person for the job. That should be enough of an ego boost there. The direction of the project & technical decisions are none of your business, you’re there to interpret someone else’s musical ideas. I recently engineered a session in which a sideman, after taking 4 hours to record one song, came into the control room and immediately started criticizing the band’s performance and the “mix” on the track to the artist. The track had not been mixed at all and when the producer tried to explain this the sideman just kept going on about how the bass was weak going into the 2nd chorus and needed to be turned up. Not appropriate.
The most important thing for Producers, Engineers, and Sidemen to remember is what an honor it is for an artist to trust you to work on their music with them. If you lose sight of this it’s time for a major attitude adjustment or a different career.

16. Always play for the song. When I was 15 I fell into doing sessions with some of the top Nashville players of the day. They would put a metronome by the talkback mic, give me a number chart & I would lay down a simple piano track that they would go back and overdub on. They liked me because it was simple and in time, not because I was some flash player. After 3 or 4 sessions I was starting to get a bit of confidence and cut loose on one of the tracks we were doing that night. When the take was over the producer came over the talkback with, “That was real nice son, now why don’t you cut the Elton John shit and give me a track I can use.”. Changed my life. What I learned is never leave out a note that needs to be there, but never, ever play a note that doesn’t have to be there. Listen to the track, hear what’s missing, and play that.

17. May seem too obvious to have to mention, but, please bathe and brush your teeth. Also going easy on the perfume is pretty good practice to follow. Even a large control room isn’t that big.

18. This can be a tough one, but try to be realistic about what it is you’re doing stylistically and what is going to work in your style. Just because you happen to love New Orleans R&B or North African drumming doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense in your James Taylor influenced song. Or then maybe it will work. Try it, but don’t force it.

19. My experience is that when a mix refuses to come together it seldom has anything to do with the sounds. It more often has to do with song structure, basic drum groove or approach, or something else much earlier in the process. Much down the same line, it’s not always the obvious sound that is cluttering a mix. I once had a song that just wouldn’t clean up. Looked at all the usual problem areas and nothing there, so I started with everything muted and brought in tracks one by one until I heard the clutter appear. It was a track that I never would have thought could cause that type of problem. Lesson here is trust your instincts but drop your preconceptions and be methodical.

20. For engineers, don’t worry about keeping your working methods secret. Most people don’t care how you do things. Hundreds of other engineers have probably done the same thing before you ever started recording. Every good engineer will get completely different results out of the same basic techniques because they hear things differently and will adapt things to find their desired results.

21. Develop the habit of making decisions quickly. People who can’t make decisions don’t finish records. Every decision doesn’t have to be right, but when you give yourself permission to make mistakes you lose the fear of making decisions.

22. When troubleshooting a problem in a session, or otherwise, always check the easiest thing to fix first then move to more time intensive solutions. Example, you lose a bass DI signal between takes. My first question is going to be is the bass turned up. Most often this is the problem. Next is is the bass plugged in. At this point I will usually have gone into the tracking room myself because we’re at the stage where the answer is most likely to be there. I then will check if the bass is plugged into the DI, if it’s in the input, not output of the DI, and if the bass is plugged into the cord going to the DI and not another cable that’s in the area.The next question is if it’s an active bass and when last the battery was changed. The next step is to make sure no one pulled a patch bay cable by accident. Only then will I change microphone cables or the DI box. In most cases step 1 or 2 finds the problem. This approach works in every situation. The key is being thorough in every step.

23. Get your eyes off the clock and your mind off how much it’s costing minute by minute. No one can concentrate on two things at the same time. You’re either going to be creative or you’re going to be worried about the costs. One of the easiest ways to kill a session is to be constantly talking about how much it’s costing. Not only does it somehow end up slowing down the work flow, but it also makes every one involved wish they were any where besides this session. Relax, stay focused and things will get done faster and better than if you’re watching the seconds tick off and counting the pennies.

24. Don’t expect your first studio venture to be the greatest thing ever recorded. Just like learning to play an instrument, learning to perform in the studio is a process. The artists we all admire had spent years recording demos & small budget records before they made their big hit records. Stay focused, keep your eyes and ears open and learn. Same goes for aspiring engineers. Get an internship and be in a studio every minute possible, watching and learning. The most important things about making good records has little to do with technical knowledge, it has to do with session flow and dealing with people. Volunteer to do all the grunt work you can so as to spend as much time as possible hands on the process. (ie: Running stems may be tedious, but you can learns a lot about how a mix fits together sonically when doing this thankless task. You also gain big brownie points & probably a free lunch from the engineer on the session,)

25. Give people time to do their jobs properly. Not so many years ago it was common to spend from one to three days getting drum sounds before tracking with the band would start. Now many bands are upset if it takes much more than 20 to 30 minutes. There’s no way to get any type of quality sound as quickly as people have begun to expect. My guess is with drum machines and virtual instruments becoming so prevalent many people now expect every thing to be basically plug and play. Keep in mind if an engineer or producer insists on changing mics, amps, or guitars for a take it’s because they care about your record. It may take a few minutes to accomplish, but the difference is well worth the time spent.

26. Never work with a producer or engineer you’re not comfortable being around. It doesn’t matter how much you might like their work or sound. You don’t have to become soul mates to have a good working relationship, but you do have to be able to relax and communicate.  A good rule to follow is to meet with the producer and talk about the project, road stories, whether you like the beach or mountains better for vacation, anything you want to talk about. After a short while every one will know if a working relationship will be possible. Often the producer will hire the engineer and it will be someone they like working with. Most likely if you get on with the producer the engineer will be fine.If the engineer is supplied by the studio you should meet them when you check out the studio.

27. Never choose microphones or other studio gear by price tag. A good engineer is going to have a strong idea of what will sound best on a specific sound. This will quite often not be the Neumann or whatever that you read is “the best”.  My favorite microphone for a single mic on acoustic guitar is one I got free with a $150.00 microphone I bought only because it sounded great on clarinets. . It definitely doesn’t fall into the high priced gear column, but I’ve had more guitarists want to know what it is so they can buy one than have asked about the vintage and very rare AKG small diaphragms I own. Trust your ears, not your pocketbook.

28. If you think highly enough of a person to hire them then let them do their job.If they are not able to do their job then replace them. It makes no sense to hire a producer and then ignore advice on budget, scheduling or artistic issues. A producer’s job is to help get the artist’s vision realized in a recording. There are very few artists with the ability to detach enough to do this or with the organizational skills to write a realistic budget and schedule for a project. As to engineers, if you want to make sure they have minimal interest in your project just dictate micing techniques, tell them how to set eqs in a mix or educate them on all you’ve learned from the recording instructional videos you’ve collected. It’s fine to tell them what you want things to sound like, but let them get there with their own methods. I’ve noticed it’s almost always the least experienced artists that tend to make the mistake of dictating every detail of the process. The more experienced seldom say anything about the technical end other than whether or not they’re happy with the sound. I personally take this to a bit of an extreme. When working as a player outside my own studio I make it a point to never comment on any engineering or production on a project unless it is to compliment the appropriate persons. If directly asked what I think about a microphone set up the answer is always going to be let’s hear what it sounds like. I’ve learned quite a few great tricks by being respectful of other’s work and keeping my mouth shut.

29. Interns should be seen working and not heard unless spoken to directly. The reason you’re interning is to learn, not because you know more than any one else in the building. Stay focused on the session, don’t be running in and out constantly talking on your cellphone or trying to make connections with the talent in the building. Do your job and learn the basic skills and soon enough people will be hiring you. Nothing brings more respect than professional behavior. Nothing can disrupt a session more quickly than an intern who doesn’t behave professionally.

30. Know when to stop working. It’s tempting to try to pull that last hour or two out of a day, but seldom productive. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop a session and take a break or even shut it down for the day.

31. Take care of the business first. Money can get in the way of music like very few other things.Make sure everyone agrees on rates and payment arrangements before starting a project. Along with this, don’t book studio time if you can’t pay for it. Doing so never works out well for anyone involved.

32. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time you can afford in the studio. If you don’t have experience in the studio a good producer can help you work out a budget and schedule. It’s not fair to ask an engineer to schedule your project unless you are willing to credit them for production also. Do yourself a favor and listen to what they tell you instead of what you assume. I’ve had clients come in with the idea that an album is 45 minutes long, it should take an hour to finish a CD. Often people will cite old jazz records being recorded in a day, many of them were, but what most don’t realize is that the band would practice in the studio for three to five days before recording. This gives the engineer ample time to select mics, get levels, and position the players in the room for the best sound possible for a live recording.

33. Show up on time and ready to work. If load in is at 6:00 be there at 6:00 and load in. Don’t show up and then announce you really need to eat or decide it’s time to talk about your last show with your bandmates. One of the only times I’ve ever thrown a band out of the studio was a group that had a 10:00 AM Saturday morning session booked as a trio without drums, they called Friday and asked is it could be moved to 8:00 AM. They showed up at 9:30 with a quintet including a drummer. The musicians then proceeded to talk and eat until after 12:30, still not having set up any equipment. It was 2:00 when they finally were ready to record & then played for 45 minutes. I had another session starting at 3:00, so I decided to cut them a break and charged them from 9:30 when they showed up & got on to my next session. Around 20 minutes into the next session there’s a knock on the control room door and it’s a couple of the guys from the previous session saying they felt I had cheated them and they should only have to pay for the 45 minutes they actually recorded. When I brought up the fact they were an 1&1/2 hours late for their requested start time I was told that I would have been there anyway. I gave them back their check and told them to stop disrupting my session. Of course, these guys couldn’t quite manage that, and returned several more times to “discuss” things until I finally told them they had wasted too much of my time already and get out and don’t come back or call me again under any circumstances. They weren’t great musicians, but were pretty good. A couple of them I occasionally am asked by other producers about hiring them as session players. You can imagine what my response is.

34. Don’t be a dick. Word travels fast and far. Reference the story with “Show up on time and ready to work” tip.

35. A good headphone mix is important to a getting a good performance. Taking a few minutes to get this right can make a huge difference in what happens for the rest of the session. I do caution against the inclination to keep turning everything up louder. All that happens is eventually you have nothing but distortion and no real idea of what is playing back.

36. Communicate. Things mess up and will go wrong. Checks will bounce. Sometimes session musicians don’t work out as planned. As long as everyone is sincerely trying to work out a solution and communicates these are not big problems. The only time I’ve had problems approach critical mass is when one of the parties stop trying and basically disappears. That’s when the lawyers have to make an entrance.

37. Scheduling can make or break a session. For a full band session stagger the load in times for musicians. (I like to schedule the drummer a couple of hours before the rest of the band comes in & have a good jump on drum sounds while the rest of the guys are getting set,) Be realistic about overdub scheduling and work things so players aren’t sitting around for hours doing nothing. The longer musicians are sitting around doing nothing the harder it is to get them out of the mindset that they are there to hang out. There needs to be time factored for hi, howdy, how do you do, and getting comfortable/familiarized with the project, but long spans of dead time can make all involved start feeling “why bother”.

38. For engineers and producers. Be very wary of all in budgets. My experience is the people who insist on this normally do so because they are not being honest about the scope of the record or their ability to perform in a timely manner. For the last 7 or 8 years my all in budget is automatically double what the high estimated budget would be. I will give an artist multiple budget proposals covering several different set of options and let them choose. I can say unless the artist completely leaves the plan chosen by adding additional material or insisting on using sub par musicians against my advice that have to be replaced, I have never come in over budget on a project.

38. Do whatever you have to do to make tedious tasks pleasant. It’s not really much fun tearing down after a 14 hour tracking session so I tell myself it’s a form of meditation. After doing this for a while it starting working. Sometimes reality is what you make it.

39. The difference between a great record and a decent one is in the details. (Given the musical content is equal.) A while back I took a project mixing a CD for some friends at a very reduced fee. When checking out the roughed in versions the band leader told me “That’s good enough.”. I informed him I don’t do “good enough”. I know his intention was to show respect for my time in light of the low budget, but they ended up with a great sounding project, not just good enough.

40. Every session matters. Whether it’s a potentially career changing big artist or a low budget first outing by an amateur.  If a project is worth taking, it’s worth giving your best effort.

41. If you agree to do a job for a certain price don’t gripe about it later.  When you negotiate a price be clear as to what the job includes and don’t allow the EXPANDING SESSION SYNDROME. If an artist asks if you can add extra songs to the work day be clear that you’re happy to do so, but it will cost more.

42. When you drastically discount your rates you become the person that works really cheap. It also hurts every one else in the business. When you work for free it is NEVER appreciated. You may think you’re building a relationship with an artist, but watch and see who gets the call when there’s a budget. It’s not going to be the person who worked for free. I’ve made this mistake in the past, it will never happen again.

43. Be realistic about your abilities. The best thing you can do with a job that you can’t handle is recommend another person who specializes in that area. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I’ve picked up much more return work from doing this than I’ve sent elsewhere. It shows that your focus is to make sure the job is done as well as possible and clients appreciate this.

44. The only person you are in competition with is yourself. Music is not a competitive sport. Every musician, engineer, and producer has their own strengths and weaknesses. People will be attracted to the person that best fits their own needs and personality. Get to know others in your field and appreciate their strengths as you concentrate on developing your own. Some of my favorite days in the studio have come from the pure joy of watching another producer or musician take a song somewhere that would have never occurred to me.

45. Be respectful of studio gear. Watch where you walk, don’t put drinks on top of expensive electronics, and don’t just throw down headphones when you finish a take. Not only will you be much more welcome back, but you will also avoid periods of down time while the staff is trying to fix what you just broke.

46. There are really only two different types of records. One is a chronicle of a performance, which can be slicked up some by judicious overdubs & a few studio tricks. The other is to create a sonic landscape with little regard to the “perform ability” of the recording.
As an artist you need to decide what kind of record you want to make. It can be song by song, but you need to have a clear idea of what the goal is going to be. (Electric Ladyland is a good example of this.)

47. If you have multiple interns keep them  involved  or they will end up congregated in the hallway socializing & never be there when you need something.

48. There are 2 very different approaches to overdubbing. One is to craft a specific part with the producer & perform it until it’s perfect. The other is much more like mining. Dig out a whole bunch of stuff that you’ll hope will be good & sort it out later to find the gems.

49: Never act surprised by the smells you encounter in an iso-booth after a musician has been working in there for several hours.

50. To sum them all up: Have fun, don’t be a jerk, have fun, you don’t have to be “right” all the time, have fun, people are strange & enjoy the strangeness, have fun, and most of all, have fun.

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