In the Studio
Hit writers and Studios:
Congratulations! You’ve come a long way, from that first moment of inspiration to your completed song. What started as a blank sheet and frustration has blossomed into your completed contender for an Ivor Novello award. Very well done.
But before you can really consider your song completed, it has to be sung. As we’ve discussed before, songs are written to be heard, not read, this is why we must sing our lyrics as we write them. But as most songwriters are not great singers, at some stage we must get someone else in to perform our songs, a session singer, then we can present them to the world, get that massive publishing deal, and retire in luxury.
Real World Studios, Box, Wiltshire
This handout details many tips on recording vocals in a professional recording studio, working with a session singer and managing your song writing data. Beyond the simple computing advice, this is not a sheet detailing the technical aspects of engineering a vocal session, but is a beginner’s guide on how best to behave in the studio and how to get a great vocal from your performer.
These days, it’s quite typical for a song writer to have most of the means of recording vocals available in her own home studio. Most of these tips can apply in a home studio too with a little modification. In the end, these hints are largely common sense but are still worth stating, as common sense is not that common in music!
Before you get to the studio:
On the evening before you leave:
- Print out several copies of the completed lyric to your song; at least one for you, one for the singer and one as a backup in case of accidents. Also, make sure you bring a copy of your words on CD as a plain text file. This way, you have a quick and easy means of making sure you can print out more copies when you need to in the studio.
- Make sure that if you are intending to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Cubase, Logic or Pro-Tools that the studio has the system you need up and running plus an engineer available to you who knows how to run it. This may seem unnecessary if you know your DAW back to front, but it’s fundamentally important. Unless you know the studio just as well, it might be that the computer system is set up in a way that’s totally different to the way you’re used to working. In that case, you need a local expert: the engineer!
Eden studio, London
- If you are using software instruments in your track, make sure that their output is bounced down as an audio file and then re-imported into your song. You must not assume that the studio has the same plug-ins as you, as most of the time they won’t! Get around this troublesome issue by only using audio files.
- Check that your files and equipment work properly. This is particularly important with the files needed for your DAW. It will be more than a little embarrassing to arrive at the studio only to find that a virus or a mis-burnt CD has ruined your weeks of hard work. Check your files before you leave. Which brings us to the most important thing on our check list:
Every computer user must have a backup policy. This isn’t optional; hard drives are mechanical units with moving parts that wear out with time. Therefore, please bare in mind this fundamentally important fact:
Every Hard Drive Will Fail!!!
Sadly, sod’s law will also mean that your hard drive will fail on the way to the studio to record your singer leaving you unable to do any work. You’ll still have to pay for the singer and the studio time but will come away with nothing. Not a great situation.
The inside of a dead hard drive. This should be the only time you should see this.
But this situation can be easily avoided by adopting computing best practice. This is a maxim that I live by every day; please memorize it, as it will save your musical and general computing skin:
Digital informational does not exist unless it is in two places at the same time!!!
So, you must have at least one backup of all of your work at all times otherwise your work could just disappear into the murky world of computing hell. Just think how much time you have wasted in the past trying to recover a file that you’ve accidentally overwritten or deleted, remember how angry and frustrated you became, how you nearly threw your computer out of the window and swore you’d never use another Microsoft product? All this is avoided by having the right backup policy. Now, we can discuss how to backup properly all day, but this is a course on song writing so lets limit ourselves to dealing with just one scenario: our trip to the studio. Here is a step-by-step guide to getting the backups you need done:
- You have checked that you have all the files that you need for your session, they all work properly and they are all in one folder that you can easily identify.
- Make your master CD/DVD. Please use only branded CD/DVD media and burn the CD/DVD at the slowest speed available to you. This will avoid any data loss due to errors introduced by burning the disk too fast.
- Your CD/DVD is now burnt and verified. This is the master copy that you will be using in the studio. Check it by loading its contents onto your computer. Does everything launch just as you expected? If yes, then proceed to step 4. If not, check your original files again, check your computer hardware and system configuration and try again.
- Make your first CD/DVD backup. Again use only branded CD/DVD media and burn the CD/DVD at the slowest speed available to you
- Your CD/DVD is now burnt and verified. This is the backup that you will be taking with you to the studio. Check it by loading its contents onto your computer. Does everything launch just as you expected? If yes, then proceed to step 6. If not, check your original files again, check your computer hardware and system configuration and try again.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5. You are now making a backup that you will leave at home. This copy will be invaluable to you if you somehow become separated from your files on your journey to the studio. In that instance, you can either race home to collect this copy or organize for someone else to bring it to you.
- Lastly, if you have access to any web space through your ISP, you should upload emergency copies of your files to this web space. Now, its most likely that your ISP has allowed you space somewhere in the region between 5MB-100MB which is nowhere near enough for all your audio files for the studio session. As a work around, you should upload only your lyric (in plain text format of course), and an mp3 file of your complete backing track, mixed down and ready to be sung to in an emergency. Make sure you know how to access these files web before you leave!
All this may come across as a little hysterical, but if you follow these guidelines then your session will not be cancelled due to lost files. One last point:
Don’t do the fools backup!
Which is copying the same file(s) to another folder or partition on the same hard drive and believing that this is a backup. It’s not, and in my experience this is the route to losing years worth of work in one go. Remember, every hard drive will fail eventually, so having two copies of an invaluable file on one drive is useless! You must backup to a separate storage device or medium.
On the day
- Make sure you’ve eaten breakfast. You need to be alert and energetic; you don’t want to start the session feeling hungry. Also…
- Bring along any refreshment you may need e.g. water, fruit, chocolate. You shouldn’t rely on there being a canteen or a café/corner shop near the studio. Chances are there will be; and if so you can make friends with everyone by sharing the food you brought along.
- Make sure that you arrive on time. You are paying for this studio, you are the producer and therefore you are in charge of the session. It makes a good impression (or at the very least avoids making a bad impression) by being the second person to arrive. The first person to arrive will be the engineer or studio manager who will be opening and setting up the studio for you. There’s not a great deal of point in turning up before this person, as you’ll be standing in the cold!
Some studio dos:
- Stay focused on the job in hand. The recording studio is a place of work.
- Please be careful where you put your drinks. Many recording sessions have been ruined simply by a mug of coffee being tipped into the mixing desk! Expensive, dangerous and disruptive.
- Keep the studio tidy.
- Make sure you take regular breaks. You need to give your ears regular rests; I would recommend having an ‘ear brake’ of at least 10 minutes every two hours. Also, try to take your breaks outside in the daylight and fresh air.
- Eat regularly. This is particularly important for singers. It’s hard to concentrate with low blood sugar levels so keep fruit around (Apples are great) to enable you to nibble all day without piling on weight.
Some studio don’ts:
- Don’t smoke in the studio, even if everyone on the session is a smoker. Have cigarette breaks outside. Also, you’ll tend to find that it’s easy to chain smoke in the studio, so enforce a blanket ban in the control and live rooms. It’s good for the equipment, the environment, everyone’s health and everyone’s bank balance.
- Don’t drink alcohol in the studio until the end of work time. Spilt drinks are expensive, drunken musicians are a pain in the wallet. Also, alcohol affects your hearing, which you’ll be using extensively.
- Unless you have a very good reason, don’t go on working in the studio beyond, say, 8pm. The ratio of time spent versus quality decreases quickly after this time. Work to a strict but realistic schedule and you should be able to avoid working into the small hours.
- Try to avoid extended sessions of experimentation. Its fine to be creative in the studio, but don’t forget it can work out to be an expensive dead end. Be disciplined.
Studios and the people in them.
Now’s a good time for us to have a quick look at who we may meet in a studio. Many beginners to the music biz game expect to be able to do everything themselves. This illusion is made ever more compelling by the power, flexibility and sheer ‘wow’ available in modern day DAWs. The music technology press telling its readers that they’re all ‘producers’ if they can move a slider around in Reason or Cubase does not help the situation. This is not true, and nothing annoys proper producers more than programmers calling themselves producers. Try it one day!
Nope, the recording industry has not changed that much since the 1930s; all the old roles still apply to greater or lesser degrees. Go to a top flight studio and there could be more people working there than in McDonalds at lunchtime. Here’s a list of the people you’ll find in the studio and what they do:
Funnily enough, this guy does the least, or at least appears to do the least. Producers have an air of calm about them, often disappearing for hours at a time to do some unspecified task, returning looking very pleased with themselves about something. Whilst the band wants to record everything right there and then, the producer prefers to move along at her own pace, somehow spending a whole day recording a tambourine. But the producer is the boss, the buck stops with her. She is the one who organizes the studio time (often in cooperation with the record company or whoever is paying for the session) and gets ‘back handers’ from that same studio. She is the one who decides when something is played or sung well enough or not. And she’ll get all of the glory. And a big wedge of cash too.
She wouldn’t lower herself to setup a mixing desk, she leaves it to…
This is the girl who gets her hands dirty. She sets up the microphones, runs the mixing desk, maintains the equipment, and looks after the producer’s mental health. In essence, it is the engineer’s expertise that makes a track sound good, and that’s why every decent engineer has an air of smugness about them. They know that they’re really the one’s who are in control, its just bad luck that they’re not getting any glory. Sometimes the producer and engineer can do a ‘good cop/bad cop’ act, with the engineer as the learned sceptic, the producer being on the band’s side. The engineer secretly wants to be a producer, and secretly knows she never will be.
The Tape Operator
A dying breed in some ways, as tape is being used less and less in studios. But then the tape operator was always much more than the girl controlling the multitrack tape machine. Although a junior job in the studio hierarchy, the tape op has the capacity to destroy a whole session with one mistake, and therefore is a responsible position that no-one wants. The ability not to record over something very important is essential; ‘record on 24’ means record on track 24, not all 24 tracks!
Think of them as bus drivers, essential and ignored until they get something wrong.
…is the notorious person who makes the tea one day, produces Beyonce the next. This girl does everything that the other people in the studio are too busy to do. So, she’ll run to the shops to buy you a packet of cigarettes, collect the pizzas, and somehow knows the names of all the drug dealers in the area. Always be nice to these people as only the very driven would ever do this job, and the very driven succeed in this game. Therefore your paths will almost certainly cross again, most likely at the ‘Top of the Pops’ studio.
Writes the parts for the string section you’ve hired in at great expense. She’ll also conduct the string players for you for a fee. If you’re mad/lucky enough to be recording a band with brass, woodwind and percussion sections then this person will be of immense importance to you. It’s likely that you would have been working together on your arrangement together for a few weeks before you even enter the studio. In fact, you’re likely to prefer this person over everyone else in the studio, as they tend to be cheerful, friendly, and reliable and well-rounded human beings. Unlike…
No person role in the studio has expanded as much as this person’s. Originally, she would have been called in just to program or ‘patch’ sounds on the new fangled ‘synthesisers’ back in the late 60s. Now, she has a role up there in importance with the engineer. She may be programming all the drums, she may be tidying vocal and guitar parts in Pro-Tools, and she may be the person basically making all the music for your song! Expect this person to be a combination of a visionary with a strange almost algebraic like efficiency. As such, she is a hopeless geek who will have no shame in reeling off serial numbers, UNIX codes and statistics like she’s reading quotations from the Bible. Therefore, she’s essential to your success in the studio! Please don’t get her started on the comparative merits of the Mac and Windows platforms.
Not an ex-soldier, but the person who rescues a session when everyone else is sitting staring at a silent mixing desk, swearing profusely and considering switching careers to care work. This man (it’s always a man for some reason) knows everything, he’s a real engineer with solder under his finger nails dealing with transistors and impedances, voltage rails and counter-induction. He knows the difference between an insulator and a semi-conductor, and when he can’t fix your mixing desk/tape machine/computer/guitar/kazoo it really is game over in the studio… at least until someone spoils things and remembers that you can always hire gear in. Has the appearance of the caretaker from your school, but with worse skin and weird teeth. And he’s married, but no-one ever knows how.
The Session Player
Turns up, sets up, plays brilliantly, has a cigarette and leaves. It’s as simple as that with most session players. They often have great music stories to tell, so its good idea to get friendly with them and hear what they have to say. Make sure your not paying them by the hour though. Lusting after their vintage and pristine equipment isn’t cool either, but they won’t mind.
The Session Singer
Turns up, warms up, sings brilliantly, has a mint tea and leaves. Every session singer has a solo career just about to take off. None ever does. The thing about session singers is that they’re supposed to be excellent but vanilla, they’re not supposed to be distinctive or stand out from a crowd. That’s why they’re not stars. Don’t mention this to your session singer until they’ve finished singing though.
The Studio Owner
Is often an old rocker, probably from the early seventies, which incidentally was about the last time that it was a good idea to own and run a studio. He looks a bizarre combination of a man ravaged by drinks and drugs but with a peculiar, child like charm intact. He’ll be friendly and supportive, but with the unmistakable air of a man who’s heard it all before. And he will name drop shamelessly, mentioning his best mate Paul McCartney within a few minutes of meeting you. These people need you, or rather they need your money, bear that in mind at all times.
The A and R guy
Knows nothing about how a studio works and likes it that way. He’ll make a point of telling you this, then frown, and accidentally prove his point by saying that he thinks the track ‘needs more MIDI’. But this person needs sensitive handling; after all he’s in charge of paying for all this studio time. It’s also an unspoken truth that his job is on the line every day of the week, and he needs us more than we need him. So treat him kindly, keep him on board because he’s a fickle sod that’ll forget he ever met you if you can’t cut the mustard (or the cocaine).
Makes a huge entrance when he arrives, carefully says hello to everyone in the band, listens to the track, has a private word with the producer (which seems to take ages, as everyone in the band gets paranoid), gives the band some irrelevant piece of news (like ‘you’ve been asked to play in Bournemouth for an RAF reunion’) and then leaves in a hurry looking very stressed. Ignore this person’s musical input unless he’s paying you.
The Band Members
Come in two varieties: the ones who are here to work and the ones who are here to party. The workers put heart and soul into their playing, then hang around sheepishly in the control room until abject boredom sends them to the café next door to tank up on instant coffee. When they come back, everyone in the band will love the track except the singer who will have a check list of twenty things he wants changing, mainly his own vocal and bizarrely something the drummer’s done on the hi-hat.
How the partying band behaves depends on what time of day it is and what drugs they’re on. You can rely on them to not arrive in the studio before dinner and then expect to work through the night. This kind of band will be primarily concerned about not sounding like their greatest rival (who are usually far more successful), and have a peculiar obsession with the Beatles or the Beach Boys. Sadly, they’ll love everything they do at the time and hate it all the next day once the hangovers have kicked in. As such, these sessions are learning experiences, character building and great for anecdotes. Keep coffee and paracetemol on you at all times.
That’s you, and if you’re in the studio at all then chances are your either in the band who’s being recorded or you’re paying for the session. You’ll spend most of the session feeling a mix of elation and exasperation, inwardly you’ll be frowning but outwardly you’ll be beaming like a politician, especially at the singer who just can’t sing your words in time.
Chances are that this will be the first time you’ve heard your song properly, and now you can clearly see royalty cheques flying through your letterbox, and a long career stretching in front of you.
Then Logic crashes again losing the last four hour’s work and you remember that you weren’t sure about the song in the first place….
The bloke standing at the back who’s done it all before
That’s me. And I’ll be boring everyone with anecdotes from the 90s, name dropping like an idiot and praising everything.