The Other Side Of The Glass: Good Studio Practices
by: Jeremy Bartelt
As a music production teacher I try my best to prepare young recording engineers for the studio experience. The job of recording engineer is difficult because it is a very technical job mixed with a lot of creativity. You use your ears and your eyes at the same time on different tasks. (Those times you are checking levels on equipment and you realize that you haven’t listened to the take. Oops.) Plus, you are giving a service to clients so it takes a good amount of customer service, too.
So, here is my checklist for starting a recording session:
1. KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT – Make sure you can operate all of your equipment properly. Don’t take 20 minutes away from a band while you search for a power button on new equipment.
2. KNOW THE SOUND OF YOUR EQUIPMENT – If you are just starting out you may not be an expert on this but have some ideas. For instance, if I use my ribbon microphones, I use a specific microphone preamp. This preamp gives me lots of gain, let’s me change impedance, and has a sound I like.
3. SETUP EARLY – If you know exactly what instruments are coming in, have your microphones plugged in and on stands before the band arrives. If you don’t know exactly what is coming in, I would over-setup. Put everything up and then make choices when the band arrives. This helps you look professional, move fast, and allows you to focus on how things sound.
4. DOCUMENT – Keep your signal chain documented, if nothing else. I have seen young engineers plug-in 16 mics, go into the control room to patch them in, and have no idea what is plugged where. You probably have a mic panel, preamp inputs, and recorder inputs to worry about, at the least. Make it easy on yourself and write down the chain. Plus, if anything needs to be changed, then you know the chain and can change it fast.
5. BE A PROFESSIONAL – Be concerned to get the best sound FOR THE BAND. Discuss what they want and what you think makes sense for them. Be personable, but don’t be annoying. Answer their questions, but don’t make them feel stupid. Remember, you are serving the band and their sound. Sure, you want to be liked, but you want the band happy with the session first and foremost.
6. BE CONFIDENT IN YOURSELF – Even if you are unsure of some of your choices, go with them and see what happens.
7. DON’T BE AFRAID TO CHANGE SOMETHING – Setup your drum microphones and get levels. If everything sounds great, then move on. If the snare and floor tom don’t sound good, tell the band you need to change some things. This might mean a microphone change or just new microphone placement.
8. RECORD EVERYTHING – Capture everything so you miss nothing. Especially if you are recording to a modern hard drive. You can always delete!
9. BE ORGANIZED – Name and save sessions so they can be easily located later, name individual tracks, keep documentation on equipment and takes, and keep notes on any problems that arise.
10. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN – The sound has to be there. Listen and make it sound good. Don’t get caught thinking what you have done should be good in theory. When you are happy, make sure the band is, too!
11. BE CREATIVE – Try things, think outside the box, have some fun. If your ideas don’t work, try something else. You never know how something might sound until you do it!
As a music production teacher I try my best to prepare young artists and bands for the studio recording experience. I often tell my students that I love the term “recording artist” because studio recording is different from other performing. Almost all artists have performed live before they perform in the studio and most love that thrill of the stage. However, the studio can be the opposite for a lot of artists. There is no crowd getting into it and possibly no band playing next to you. It is just you standing in front of a microphone while someone else is listening closely to every nuance of your performance and then saying to you through headphones, “I think it could be a little better. Let’s do it again”.
So, here is my pre-recording checklist for bands going into the studio.
1. REHEARSE, REHEARSE, REHEARSE – You need to be able to play the songs in your sleep. Yes, this makes the recording go better, but if you are paying for studio time by the hour, then this saves you money.
2. FIND YOUR SONG TEMPOS – Even if you don’t record to click tracks, this still helps you find a starting place for each song.
3. MAKE SURE YOUR EQUIPMENT IS IN GOOD SHAPE – You want your instruments to be in perfect working condition for the recording. Broken pedals and strings, electrical shorts, and dead batteries can kill a recording session.
4. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE REPLACEMENTS – Extra strings, extra batteries, extra picks, etc.
5. KNOW YOUR SONGS – Which one(s) can you knock out in one take? Which ones might be problematic? Which one probably isn’t good enough yet to record?
6. MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF – Are you the band leader, guitarist, and vocalist? If so, maybe you should concentrate on the guitar now and do vocals in a different session.
7. MAKE EQUIPMENT DECISIONS NOW – Use your amp or rent/borrow something better? Brand new heads on the drums? Your Stratocaster on all songs or bring in the Les Paul too?
8. FIGURE OUT THE PROBLEMS BEFORE THE STUDIO – This goes with rehearsing. Listen to yourselves as much as possible. Make recordings or have one band member listening as the band rehearses. Don’t decide in the recording studio that the lyrics need to be re-written or the drum parts changed.
9. KNOW WHAT SOUND YOU WANT – Don’t get carried away here, but have some direction. The best thing to do is compare it to an album you like.
Jeremy Bartelt began his musical life as a small child studying piano, brass, and vocal music. Through middle school and high school he won numerous awards and was a member of prestigious ensembles. In college, as a bass trombone major, he was invited to the Aspen Summer Music Festival and toured Eastern Europe playing with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra. Right around the time of this tour, Jeremy had decided his new music love, studio recording, was what he wanted to concentrate on. After completing the recording arts program at FullSail University, he “switched to the other side of the glass” and became a studio engineer in Chicago. He worked at Chicago Recording Company, Streeterville Studios, and Colossal Mastering in Chicago. After a move to Minneapolis and some freelance work here and there, he started teaching music engineering and production at The Institute of Production and Recording in Minneapolis. After 5 years there culminated in him serving as the program chair of the audio engineering department, writer and instructor of the intermediate audio engineering class and surround mixing class, and an academic advisor, he moved to a high school program in Independent School District 196. In this, his current job, he writes and teaches classes on music production and audio engineering for high school juniors and seniors. In his free time, he records young bands and artists, tries to listen to music as a music fan (not an audio engineer), and loves spending time with his family.
photo: Jeremiah Satterthwaite