Another look at life in the studio

The Night Drivers and I are in the studio this week in North Carolina, recording new material for Mountain Home, so I figured this would be a good time to offer up an “encore presentation” (rerun) of a column I wrote about recording in the studio:

Going into the studio to record is something that all professional and semi-professional (and in some cases, complete amateur) musicians will do at some point in their careers, usually early and often.

The studio, as anyone with experience can tell you, is a world full of pitfalls. For a band,  it can be more dangerous than touring in a banana republic in the middle of a military coup. It can also offer moments of joy (the end of the session, for example).

Many trade publications feature experts giving their sage advice about how best to prepare yourself for the studio and how to conduct yourself once the sessions begin. They cover everything from microphone types, to proper pre-session rehearsal, to recommended calorie intake while recording (carb-loading is recommended for bass players).

Instead of covering that ground again, I’m going to explore the psychology of the studio experience. Besides, even though I try to sprinkle “RE-20” and “Beta-58” into my everyday speech, I don’t know very much about microphones (though I have noticed that turning them up seems to make them louder).

Feeling comfortable with yourself and those around you is critical in the studio in order to get the best performance possible, yet many solo artists and bands overlook this factor in their studio preparation. It can be the difference between a session ending in a warm, satisfied, still-on-budget kind of feeling, and the session wrapping up with tension oozing from every pore in the room, and grown men crumpled up in the corner in fetal position, weeping softly.

The selection of the producer and engineer is a very important decision, and their bedside manner may be as important as their competence in the nuts and bolts of the recording process and their coffee-making skills. 

Selecting a producer who knows something about your music, and, more importantly, likes it, is critical. Picking a producer because of his/her name recognition is only valuable if that producer will be supportive and thereby bring out the best in you. 

Aside from working on the selection of the material, arrangements, and being a mediator in the discussions about whether to go with Mexican, Chinese, or Sonic for lunch, the producer has to act as coach, parent figure, and shrink, all at the same time during the recording process. That’s no small task.

At no time are these roles more important than when you’re in your little cubicle, booth, or, as in the case of one studio where I worked, the bathroom, conversing with the producer through the talk-back button. And this is where it can all go so horribly wrong.

This is also where the producer knowing something about your personality and/or the  personalities (and, if we’re honest, neuroses) of your band members is very important. The fact is, not all musicians are secure enough to handle the producer barking “No good! Do it again!” or just “Flat!” or my personal favorite, “Come on in (heavy sigh). I think that’s the best we’re going to get.” Some experienced studio players are fine with this, but generally that form of tough love works better in a high school football environment.

To be sure, musicians can be hyper-sensitive (lead singers, yes, we’re talking about you!). Still, whatever their personality flaws may be, the goal is still the same: get the best performance out of this person that you can, even if some babying is required (promising cookies for a good performance and referring to overdubs as “overdubsy-wubsies” may be extreme, but it shouldn’t be ruled out). A producer without the understanding to do that may not be your best choice. Artists’ insecurity issues dating back to early childhood can’t be fixed during a recording session, and meanwhile there’s a project to finish.

Perhaps you’ll make the decision to self-produce. This has advantages, but it should also come with a big warning label, even scarier than the one on your mattress.

One obvious advantage is that you as an artist or band have complete creative control. You’ll also save a producer fee, which can get pretty expensive, especially if you use producers with last names like “Was” or “Were.”

One big disadvantage is that you need to know what the heck you’re doing.

Another big one is that all that “handling” and personality management mentioned above will now fall into your lap. Have fun with that.

Perhaps riskiest of all is the band self-production situation, i.e., where all band members are equal co-producers. There’s no doubt this has worked well in some situations in the bluegrass music world, but at best it can still get complicated, especially around mixing time. At worst, it leads to studio fights and bands breaking up, with bitterness, hard feelings, and a big studio bill left behind for someone to pay.

Have you ever observed an album mixing session in which five or six different people are standing around asking to have their parts turned up, until the engineer eventually has all faders turned up to eleven? This is what can come of multiple producers, and it’s the kind of thing that engineers vent to each other about when they meet for drinks.

One thing is certain about self-producing: unless you have a lot of audio engineering knowledge and production experience, your selection of an engineer for your project will become that much more important. 

I’ll take the engineer topic up next week, and I’ll also list the telltale signs your session is going badly.