Top Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Your First Studio Session

Dear Reader,

So I went into a recording studio in mid-July. My plan was to record a three-song demo and then, possibly, upload them to YouTube, while also sending out the songs to different music venues and indie labels. It’s now October and, of course, no songs have been uploaded or sent out. The main reason for this is because the session was, in many ways, a total failure. At least, that was my viewpoint of it after I heard the work that was produced. Like many things in life, though, it wasn’t all bad, because I learned a few lessons about what I should (or shouldn’t) have done that day. While there are many wonderful resources available on the web about how to prepare for a recording session, I thought I would pass along what I learned that day.

For a recording session, do:

  • Practice ahead of time. Assuming that you are not a major recording artist who has been given unlimited time in the studio, it’s important to go in to the recording session knowing what you are going to play and how you are going to play it. This means that you should probably practice everything beforehand. Just like you might have prepared a speech for class, don’t just prepare the content; also prepare for what (you imagine) it will be like to be in a studio. Try to imagine the different instruments, the audio engineer, the variety of recording equipment, the temperature (it’s going to be colder). The more comfortable you can become in this environment, the better results you will get when the “record” button is pushed.
  • Make Yourself Comfortable: When I used to read about musicians wearing sweatpants to the studio, I thought they were just taking advantage of not having to get dressed up for their job. However, I now understand the bigger reason: comfort. Going back to the first tip, being in a studio can sometime be very intimidating, but worrying about anything other than the music is not going to be helpful. Choose the clothing that will allow you to focus on the job at hand. In addition, if you have any personal items that put you at ease (and can reasonably fit into the studio), bring them along.
  • Know What You Want: Ideally, this should be thought of before you ever step foot into a studio. In today’s age, there are a lot of different ways to record your music. You no longer need a lot of fancy equipment to record your material. In fact, if you have a phone, you can probably make a demo. If you do choose a studio over home recording options, understand the reason for your decision. Are you looking for better sound quality? Do you want to gain experience working with engineers? Do you want to meet other people who work in the music field? And so on.
  • Talk to the company beforehand: When I first talked to the studio about coming in for a day, I was asked a few questions about what I was hoping to accomplish during my time there, what my general sound was, what instruments I needed, and so on. In hindsight, I’m really glad that these questions were asked, because it showed that the company cared about making sure that both of us were on the same level of understanding. While I was very lucky in that all I needed to record was a keyboard and my voice, it became apparent that it was really important to discuss everything beforehand. If you are going for a sound that is going to require many layers or instruments, make sure that your chosen studio has the necessary equipment to support you. It’s also critical that you know exactly what you are getting for your money. Is it just recording and mixing? Will they also put your songs on a CD? If so, how many copies can you get? If it’s not a CD, what format will they use and when should you expect to get copies of the finished product?
  •  Use Your Studio Time However You Wish: While I didn’t end up getting the results that I wanted, I did begin to loosen up as the hours went by. Part of this was just a feeling of hopelessness after I realized that I wasn’t going to walk out with a demo I could use (which, let’s be honest, is a horrible way to think). Another reason for the change in my attitude was because I took a few minutes to talk to the engineer and have a solid conversation, which helped me relax a bit. If I had repeated that a couple of times throughout the day, I imagine the nerves would have trickled away even more.

When going to a recording session, don’t:

  • Put too much pressure on yourself: When I went into the studio, one of the things I kept thinking about was how I needed to get all of the songs completed by the end of the day because I only had ten hours. And, of course, they couldn’t just be demos, but something extremely brilliant, because I would not get another chance to record in a studio for a very long time. It’s no surprise, then, that I sounded like a nervous wounded animal who was about to be eaten alive. In short, I put way too much pressure on myself. Instead of “motivating” myself to do better, I simply sabotaged any chance of success. Of course there will always be some pressure, because being in a studio costs both time and money, but it shouldn’t escalate to the point where you are ruining your songs.
  • Think About the Geniuses: Before the studio session, I read about how musicians like Cat Power and Regina Spektor and Bob Dylan have recorded amazing versions of songs in one take. In some cases, they simply went to the piano, hit “record”, and wrote a new composition in the first try. But, since I’m very aware that I am not Bob Dylan or Cat Power or Regina Spektor, it really shouldn’t matter how they recorded their art. What I should have been paying attention to was how I could make my song sound the best–no matter how many tries that took.
  • Pick the Most Expensive Place: Going along with the whole “don’t add pressure” idea, I would say it’s important to stay within a reasonable price range when picking a place. Yes, you will want a reputable company that won’t cheat you during any of the stages. That being said, if you are just making a demo, this is not going to be the final version. If it’s very important to you to know that you are working with the most extravagant equipment, go for it. However, make sure to ask yourself if it’s really worth the extra cash, or if a more modest studio will suit your needs just as well. Not only will this leave you with enough money to pay rent, but it will also make you less nervous about being around equipment that costs way more than you can afford to replace should you accidentally touch it the wrong way and destroy it.
  • Worry About What the Engineer Thinks: Besides anxiously watching the clock, I was also really self-consciousness because I knew that the audio engineer was hearing everything I was doing. I kept on apologizing to him for having to listen to someone with vocal and keyboard skills as horrid as mine. In return, he would offer me the same two things. First of all, he would tell me that this was his job, meaning he wasn’t bothered or bored by all of the takes that I had to do on my songs. Secondly, because this was his job, he had heard a variety of different musicians, and some (as hard as this was to believe) were much, much worse than me. As he said, it’s always the people who think that they are a living legend in the making that end up delivering some of the worst vocal catastrophes. So, if you are even remotely self-critical, just know that there are others who sound a lot worse than you do.
  • Leave the Studio Unsatisfied: Of course I’m the biggest hypocrite to write this tip, because this is exactly what I ended up doing. But, in hindsight, I see that one of my mistakes when I went to the studio (one of many) was I allowed the engineer to spend a lot of time mixing and cutting together different vocal and keyboard takes in order to make one complete version. I was too shy/discouraged at the time to say it, but my goal was to get as close to one take per song as possible. I do believe that, had I asked for more recording time and less editing time, I could have possibly relaxed enough to deliver something I was satisfied with. Or, realistically, something that wasn’t quite so bad as to make me want to jump out of the nearby window. If you find yourself in the same predicament, don’t be afraid to speak up. An engineer is not a producer, which means that they are there to serve you. You are their customer, and if you’re happy, then they are happy.

Do you agree/disagree with any of these tips? Do you have any recording experiences that you want to share? Feel free to leave comments down below.

Sincerely,

Charlie

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10 Responses to Top Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Your First Studio Session

  1. I don’t have a lot of studio experience, but I feel a lot of the things you describe even while recording myself. Knowing a performance will be “permanent” makes me nervous! My favorite way of defusing the nerves is to really concentrate on feeling the song. I try to remember why I wrote it or chose it and get into that. If I think about making every note perfect, I end up with something that sounds strained and mechanical. Or worse, I get so nervous I make lots of mistakes.

    • That’s good advice. The emotions behind the sing is much more important than how it sounds. I know that when I am listening to a song, I can forgive a lot of “mistakes” if I believe that the singer is engaged with their material.
      Thanks for visiting!
      -Charlie

  2. I agree. My own recording studio experiences didn’t involve singing, but recording for plugs for the college radio station, for which I was then a student DJ, recording for a series of dramas meant for educational purposes for a high school (got some incentives for those), and producing voice-overs (not using my voice, though) for the institutional videos I created for the tertiary school I worked for before. I didn’t have as nerve-racking an experience as yours, but having worked somehow in studios, I know you are spot-on.

  3. Can’t help you there. I’ve never recorded but I will say, if you were intending to submit it to a record label, it’s good you didn’t download it to YouTube. No one will touch your work if you’ve put it on the net.

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