Rules for Recording on a Budget, Part 2 of 2
If you didn’t catch last week’s post, I recommend reading through part 1 of this series before diving into part 2.
Rehearse more, edit less
As an engineer, I have no moral objection to editing, tuning, quantizing, or otherwise mangling performances till they’re right. So you have a choice: spend the time in rehearsal to get your parts right, or spend money on studio time so I can get your parts right (hint – one option is cheaper and sounds better). Here are my guidelines for effective rehearsals:
- Write out charts and lyric sheets, in whatever form of notation makes sense for your band. Make sure the charts at the minimum notate the chord changes and the song arrangement (ie 8 bars intro, 16 bar verse, 8 bar chorus, 4 bar interlude, etc.). Everyone in the band should have a copy of all charts and lyric sheets, and bring extra copies for the engineer even if he is not participating as a producer – it will enable efficient communication about the songs.
- Everyone playing a melodic or harmonic instrument knows the chord changes. I can’t tell you how often I discover no one knows the changes except the rhythm guitarist.
- Drummers can be excused from knowing the changes (though savy drummers will know anyway) but should, like everyone, know the arrangement like the back of their hand. Drummers rehearse the songs till they don’t miss a single arrangement change, ie if they are supposed to play the ride on the chorus, they don’t play the first half bar on the hat and then sheepishly switch over.
- Prepare for the way you are actually going to track the material. It is shocking how often a band will rehearse one way, and then show up at the studio and struggle to perform under entirely different circumstances.
- If you usually play an acoustic instrument and sing, but plan on overdubbing your instruments and vocals separately in the studio, rehearse them separately so you are ready to do so.
- If you are going to track the band without a scratch vocal, rehearse the band without any vocals.
- If you are going to record to a click, rehearse the band with a metronome pumping through your PA or into headphones. Hold your rehearsals to the same standards you will hold for the recording regarding the click. If you can’t hold to a click in rehearsal, it’s not going to get easier in the studio. Rehearse more or devise a new plan.
- Record your rehearsals and analyze the band’s performance. These demos should be telling – yes, the sound will get better in the studio, but the performances will not. If you are grimacing and groaning while listening back, there’s a problem – track down the musical or performance issue and fix it in rehearsal.
- Change up the parameters of rehearsals to give yourself a chance to hear the music in different ways. Don’t wait to get to the studio to hear what the bass part is, or what the keyboard player’s been playing. Try low volume rehearsals, no drums rehearsals, rhythm section only rehearsals, unplugged rehearsals, etc. You may discover issues that had been hiding in the rehearsal room volume wash.
- Use your rehearsals as an opportunity to learn what you need to hear to play or sing your part cleanly and expressively. Many inexperienced musicians do poorly on stage and in the studio because they have not yet learned what they need in their monitors or phones, and thus can’t request what they need from the engineer. Don’t put yourself in the position of fighting your monitoring. Allow time to experiment in your rehearsal room, and make sure you get what you need in the studio – don’t suffer any BS from an inexperienced or insensitive engineer when it comes to cue mixes.
- Lead vocalists should learn to play their vocal melody on an instrument other than voice. This is an incredibly instructive exercise that will help solidify the shape of the melody in your mind, train your ear, improve your pitch, and show you where there is room for inflection and expression.
- Every background singer should learn his/her part to to the point you can sing it without hearing the lead vocal. To my mind if you can’t sing your part without the lead vocal, you have not yet written a part, you’re improvising.
- Background vocalists should practice the same approach listed above for lead vocalists. Don’t wait for me to “discover” what your background part actually is while pitch-correcting it.
- If yours is a “harmony band” or otherwise strongly features background vocals, hold vocal focused rehearsals. Work note by note till the parts are tight.
- Lead players in any pop genre should write solos and rehearse them, without question. If you’re on a budget you need to nail the guitar solo in 20 minutes, not 2 hours. Improvising in the studio is imperative for improv-based genres, inappropriate for a pop/rock band on a budget.
- As my music teacher used to say, if you rehearse a lick 10 times in a row and finally nail it the tenth time, that’s a 10% success rate – that’s an F. Even if you nail by the fourth try, that’s 25% – still an F. Go into the studio like that, and under the gun you may not nail the lick once. Remember – an amateur rehearses till he gets it right. A professional rehearses till he can’t get it wrong.
Keep a view of the big picture
Music tends to be an ego-driven exercise, and I know because production and engineering tend to be as well. When you’re on a budget, you literally cannot afford to let egos get in the way of your project and your goals. Remember that you have to set priorities, and you’re going to have to let some things go. Remember that when people listen to your record they hear music: not a guitar tone, or a drum fill, or a really cool automated delay effect (though I really want to nail that delay effect, too). Does the track groove and support the vocal? Does the vocal connect and tell the story? Does the song hold your interest? Does the mix fit your genre? Does the performance represent your band well? If you were to hand someone the disc right now, for what would you be making excuses? These are questions that will help you focus your efforts on the important tasks to reach your goals for the project.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful! Feel free to ask me to clarify any of these ideas. If you have your own guidelines for rehearsal or recording, please share them in the comments section. If you’ve got any questions about planning your next studio project, don’t hesitate to get ahold of me via the contact page.