In the Studio – Setting Goals

Have you ever been frustrated during a recording session?  Did you feel like you had prepped well ahead of time, but things still didn’t quite feel right?  Or maybe recording is a new thing for you and you weren’t ready for the intensity and focus you need over far more hours than a typical live performance?

Whether you are a seasoned recording pro or you are new to the studio, it’s worth mentioning how very different performing for microphones and a producer are from performing in front of your fans or a live audience.  When a visual component is present in a live performance, audiences are far more willing to forgive or simply overlook small inconsistencies.  Many of their senses are being engaged and they came to the concert to have a good time.  But when it comes to listening to recorded music, only the ears are engaged in the process.  Little inconsistencies (not even mistakes) all of a sudden become glaring problems, and sometimes the stress of trying to correct those tiny things in the studio wears you down and you start making bigger and even more noticeable mistakes.  It can be a vicious cycle that all of us have probably been through at one point or another.

I was producing a session just the other week where this started to happen to the artist.  They had prepped well and also had plenty of prior recording experience.  But from the producer’s chair, it seemed as though they had gotten too used to playing live and had forgotten just how pristine your performance needs to be on a recording.  As the first 30 minutes of the session progressed, I could see the artist begin to get frustrated as they realized they didn’t have the necessary focus that day.

Questions to Ask Before You Book Your Session

1. What kind of budget am I on, and does my budget fit my expectations for the final product?

Let’s be honest, money nearly always plays a factor in how well a recording turns out.  But there are ways to make the money factor have a bit less impact.  Know how much time you can afford and know ahead of time what you are definitely able to accomplish during those hours (see #2 below).  So many musicians save their hard earned money up and dump it on a day or two of recording that they haven’t taken enough time to think about and prep for.  That’s a waste.  Underestimate what you will be able to accomplish during your studio time and overestimate the budget you will need.  It’s a relief to finish what you set out to record with 30 minutes left.  It’s torment to have only 30 minutes left to finish 30% or 40% of what you set out to do.

2. How do I know what I’m capable of accomplishing during a session?

With today’s technology, this is easier than ever to answer.  If you have a smartphone, pull it out, download a free recording app, and get started recording your practice.  Don’t just put the recorder on and let it go, but instead prep a small section of your music that you’d like to record and then give it a go, one take only.  Not only will you get a great idea of how efficient your practicing is, but you’ll also get a taste of how the stress of recording will affect you before you step into an expensive studio.  And if you record yourself and you think you played it perfectly, listen back again a few more times.  In my experience, the better the musician, the more of their own mistakes they can hear when listening back.  After you record yourself, track how much time it takes you, day to day, to compile a perfect pass of those bars or phrases from the takes you record.  That time will be a direct indication of what you can expect to accomplish when you go in to record for real.

3. How do I best prep for studio time?

Very few recordings today are made in complete passes.  Almost always, recordings are made a few bars or a few phrases at a time and edited together later.  Even classical music.  Even indie music.  Especially pop music.  Knowing that, pull your music apart into the bits and pieces you will record far ahead of your studio time.  Practice those bits and pieces as if you were recording them and only have one shot to get them right.  Take the focus you need to perform live and multiply it by 10… that’s the focus you will need on each take in the studio.  Get used to starting anywhere in any piece of music and being right on track not only with the notes, but also the emotional context you’ve already derived for your interpretation.  Be able to faithfully and organically recreate that emotion, over and over and over again.

4. I get nervous in front of microphones, how can I make the anxiety go away?

Good news, if you’ve done your best with 1, 2, and 3 above you are well prepared.  Think of the microphones as your allies.  Yes they are critical listeners, but the only material they hear that your audience will also hear is what you choose.  The most beautiful thing about recording is that you can perform anything as many times as you’d like and your listeners never need to know.  You can take risks you might not otherwise take on stage.  You can miss tons of notes in a bar or two, but still play a beautiful take and use the other great material around your mistakes.  Above all, don’t let your studio mishaps get into your head.  You are making a recording for your fans, your listeners, your audience, and not for yourself.  They only person who will ever care about how bad take 10 was, is you!  Just like you trust your preparation for a live performance trust it in the studio as well, and laugh off your mistakes just like you would need to if they happened on stage.

Let’s boil this down to the most important topics we discussed here:

  • Correct Preparation
  • Focus
  • Budget Correctly
  • Relax and Trust

Good luck on your next studio project, I look forward to hearing about your successes!