The following ties back to an earlier thread (for more background, excellent tips and more stories from other Buzzers): Studio time - what gear and how to prepare?
I decided to open a new thread not least because I am about to unload on you My apologies in advance!
This might be a bit lengthy, but I thought it would be worthwhile to share some impressions and experiences with the people in this forum… I will use section headings to find sections which might be more interesting for you.
Why studio? Why us?
About a year ago, I joined this group (i.e., a guitar player and a drummer) who were playing all original music (by the guitar player) within melodic rock and looking for a drummer. They already had 15-20 songs, and so I started to learn them one by one. Apart from a bass player, they also were looking for a singer (and perhaps a keyboard player), but other than some less than successful auditions, that hasn’t worked out yet.
The rehearsal room we have is in a “rehearsal room hotel” that is organized as an association, where we pay monthly dues (for the room, utilities and some hardware like drum sets and amps). The association has a yearly “contest” giving away 2 days worth of studio time in a professional studio that is actually housed in the same building. One pre-requisite for getting this is to play only original music. So, we applied and we got selected for receiving this “studio stipend”. I guess since the studio and the association are co-located and have this contest every year, there is a special rate for the studio, and the 2 days (8 hours each) come out to about USD 1000.
Now, while we are not going for any performing career in music, having some of your own music in a better than garage band quality seems enticing already. But, getting the experience of being in a studio and seeing how things work there, was certainly equally appealing.
We “won” the stipend in early 2020 and were supposed to go into the studio before the summer break. Alas, Covid-19 happened and everything was set on stand-by. We didn’t even have access to the rehearsal rooms between March and June because of that. Thus, it all got pushed to September.
We had narrowed down our choice for songs to record to four or five in the first go. For one thing, we were not clear on how many songs were realistic to attempt within two days of studio time. Also, we went for what we considered “realistic” songs, i.e., songs that had evolved so much that they weren’t constantly re-worked, and which we thought we could play without pushing the very limits of our technical abilities (more on that later). Still, if you play these songs in normal practice sessions, there are always smaller details and short passage that everyone sort of “fudges” a bit. But, since this happens and then is “forgotten” the very next moment, these kinks never receive much attention. Also, as you play, you might not notice exactly what everyone else is playing at the same time.
So, I suggested we make a “mock-up” recording in the rehearsal room, with the tools we had available. This actually turned out better than expected (sound-wise) and was now a good way to better (and more clearly) identify the kinks mentioned above. Such a recording really shows you how “sloppy” some stuff is. You might feel that when you play it, but since it happens in the moment, it is not something you think more about once the song is over. Note, these are not big ugly mistakes I am talking about here, just smaller issues never quite addressed or resolved.
This led me to re-think some of my bass lines, mostly some small adjustments, but also, in a few instances, almost complete re-workings. Other stuff that needed attention were alignments between drums and bass, and then some timing issues, especially in one song that features a lot of breaks where the whole bands stops for a beat or two and where the re-entry was always marred by the guitar player coming in too early (just a smidgen, but still). Again, I mention that because, I guess, in a live situation, you’d shrug it off time and again and fudge it, but I had an inkling that wouldn’t go in the studio. So, we worked a lot on that, but had a feeling that this still might pose a real challenge in the studio (especially considering the added nervousness).
Day 1 - getting set up
Ok, so we showed up at 11 am on day one, as agreed, and carried our instruments into the actual recording room. Drummer had only brought his sticks, everything else (including the cymbals) was as good or better than what he had, he said. Guitar player brought his guitar and his Roland guitar synth/multi-effects pedal. I brought my Mayones and the Boss GT-1B, but I thought it was too “noisy” to use (it’s not a high-end effects box), and really only had it with me in case…
Guitar player got set up with a Fender combo into one channel and his guitar synth into a second channel. We chose the Fender as he was only going to play “rhythm guitar” in the first go, which for our music means mostly arpeggiated chords and a fairly clean sound. Later, he was going to play overdubs and solos as needed through a Marshall. I got set up with a DI for one channel and a Peavey Mark III with a Peavy 2x15 cab into the other channel. Dialing in the sound went fairly quickly, but I suspected the sound guy was going for a/his go-to settings (more about that later). The most time was needed to dial in the sound of the drums, but at least the whole kit was already miked up and all. We all got a small monitor station with headsets, where we could set our own monitor mix. This required us to play a bit and record it and then we got it played back and could better adjust the headphone mix (though it still felt a bit crude). So, all in all, within about one and a half to two hours, we were ready to roll.
Day 1 - first recordings
OK, off we went with making the “base recording” for the first song. Now, playing with headphones was not something we were used to. It sounds “different” - better of course, but also different than what we were used to in the rehearsal room and thus requiring some getting used to. Hearing myself much better than I usually do in the rehearsal room very likely made me play a bit more “cautiously”, more restrained, softer, and thus less freely, and thus more prone to being off rhythmically.
The next challenge was the tempo. For everyone considering to record in a studio at some time: agree on a tempo beforehand, tap it out on a metronome app and write the BPM down to take into the studio. Don’t let it all depend on your “feeling”. We hadn’t done that and really didn’t think it was necessary. That is, partially, because many of our songs start off with the guitar player playing an intro alone before first bass and then drums or both of us come in. That’s how we always played and never thought more about it. Also, we really didn’t want to play with a click track (but I’ll get back to that later).
So, clearly it was amateur hour, and the sound guy said that even though guitar player starts, we need to count in if we wanted to add overdubs etc. OK, so we tried first with the drummer counting in, but that confused the guitar player (mostly because we had never done it like that). I know this sounds ridiculous that such trivial matters can throw you off, but for noobs like us, the whole studio thing was a nerve-wracking experience (especially on Day 1). Ok, so let guitar player count himself in… after a few attempts, that worked. And thus we recorded our first song.
Day 1 - listening to the first recordings
We then went over to the other side of the window and listened to the track together with the engineer. OK, not bad, but some smaller blemishes here and there. However, I already started to worry a bit about the bass sound (naturally!). It was solid, provided a good foundation, but I didn’t feel it was overly “defined”, I couldn’t easily hear the phrasing (in the mix, that is). Now, that is partly because of my technique (or lack thereof), but certainly also how it was recorded. So, I asked whether that could be adjusted later in the process, and the sound guy said “yeah, a bit, but not substantially!” Hm, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it right there and then, and also, I thought, it actually might work well for this particular song.
We went back into the recording room and recorded a second take and then some passages only, where we all (or only guitar or only bass) got “punched” in. We didn’t take many of those at this time. Back over on the other side, we glimpsed already some of the magic that is done AFTER you played. He said he could take bits from different takes and splice them together, but that would be tough here because we didn’t use a click track. But, he also could slightly shift part of what we had played forward and backward in the time grid to adjust for minor rhythmic or timing inconsistencies - quite amazing. The guy was really fast, looking at nothing but waveforms in ProTools and copying and pasting away. In the end, he could “fix” all of the minor flaws and we thought it sounded good, he thought it sounded good and we decided to move on for now. (I guess, depending on the ambition level, and inherent technical abilities of the musicians, you could spend hours or days just fine-tuning one song, but this was not going to be the best use of the time we had in the studio).
Day 1 - more recordings
We then actually recorded three more songs in the next couple of hours, and felt a bit more “relaxed” about what we did and how some of the post-processing (and the punching etc) was going to work - we even did one of the songs in the first take! Well, all this newly restored “cockiness” was about to get a real blow!
The last of the four songs we wanted to do (and we had wisely put that last on our list) was the one mentioned briefly further up, which has a recurring motif where the whole band stops for a beat and a half before bass and guitar have a unison riff to resume before the drums join again. We knew this was going to be tough. So, we recorded it and the sound guy just kept shaking his head… Both, tempo and timing were all over the place! The song starts off (again) with a solo guitar intro and then bass and drums join in. What we hadn’t realized before was that the guitar player plays his intro in, say, around 115 BPM, but as soon as we all join and play the main theme, we are - by some unfathomable telepathic process - already playing at 120 BPM (it doesn’t sound forced and you don’t really hear a transition). And, even worse, by the end of the song, carried away by sheer enthusiasm (and some extra adrenaline in the studio), we were at 125 BPM.
Thus, we realized we needed to try this with a click track. None of us has any experience with this and it is really a nerve-wracking experience and takes a lot of getting used to. First, we had the problem which tempo to use (120? 125? 130?). Well with 130 and even with 125 the intro felt rushed, not as “lyrical”, not as intended. (The issue about whether music should be forced into a grid all the time is another discussion, but for recordings and relying on some post-production magic, it is apparently not up for discussion). So, we had to settle for 120 BPM, which, as soon as we played the main theme, felt weird, like playing with the brakes engaged and bathed in molasses, and we were invariable trying to speed up (muscle memory and all that…). And that annoying click - it is like a madman chipping away on some stone and the guy seems constantly out of time; while it is of course you that is out of time! But, really trying to follow (or internalize) the click, while hearing your band mates either rush, drag or otherwise try to follow that slave driver, isn’t really a good recipe for relaxed playing.
The last two hours of Day 1, recording this more demanding piece with a click track, were excruciating, but somehow we got it done in the end. When I got home, I almost immediately went to bed, I was so mentally drained. It had been a super interesting, fantastic experience on that day, but also demanding, tiring and immensely humbling. But, on the bright side, we got the basic recordings for four songs in the can - more than we really could have hoped for.
Day 2 - an easy start
We met again on Day 2 at 11 am and after some chit chat about Day 1, we listened to the tracks recorded the previous day and made a few more minor adjustments. Well, the sound guy did this and we chimed in with suggestions or explanations (as we better knew how it was supposed to sound). The main idea for the rest of the day was to work on overdubs (mostly for the guitar, but also a bit of keyboards (handled also by the guitar player)). We were already pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to get a shot at vocals on that day.
Day 2 - bass sound
As we were chatting and listening to the recordings again, I brought up the issue of the bass sound again. As I wasn’t sure I was doing a good job in explaining myself, I hooked up my phone and played a tune that has - in my view - a nice bass sound. “Ah, OK!”, the sound guy said, “I see now… what you want is a Jazz bass sound, dialed almost all the way to the bridge PU!” Which was anyway the only thing I could get on my bass to resemble a J, as the Mayones has a PJ configuration. So, he adjusted the amp settings, I adjusted the bass settings, he dialed in a lot more mids, and then he said: “OK, let’s record the bass track again for this song!” OK, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, the bass sound rather “nasty” in the headphone monitor… too hissy, too scratchy, too, uhm, thin!?! But, when I could listen to the recordings afterwards, it sounded really good - much better than what we had had the day before! Who’d have thought I like the bridge J sound!?!? And that after I just sold my Geddy Lee jazz … Anyway, as a take home message: don’t be shy to “show” the sound guy what sound you are after by, e.g., playing a song from your phone. I should have done that on Day 1!
Day 2 - more recordings
Then he said: “Well, we should redo all the bass tracks now. I want you to be happy with the end product!” Oh, boy, that stressed me momentarily. And, also, I didn’t want to take up extra time. But, I looked at the other two in the band, and they said “Yeah, go for it! It does sound better!”
So, in I went, all by myself, and pretty much played three more songs in one go (with some occasional re-starts and punch starts). It is actually amazingly relaxing to know that you don’t have to start from the beginning again every time you make a mistake. In the end, I was actually very proud of myself of having played all tracks one more time (and potentially better than yesterday)! After that, I could finally relax some more.
Day 2 - overdubs
The rest of this afternoon was spent recording some overdubs. This was mainly the guitar player adding some more sound effects via the Roland guitar synth, or playing lead on the guitar, or playing a few keyboard passages. He is not a seasoned keyboard player, so that took some fine-tuning of the MIDI information to make everything sit correctly. For the lead guitar, he opted for a mix of an overdriven sound from his effects board and the sound recorded through a Marshall amp. He took a number of takes here and then everything was sorted out using ProTools. Cleaning up bass lines, drum tracks or rhythm guitar is already fascinating, but when it comes to shining up a solo and getting rid of most blemishes, this approaches brain surgery - amazing!
The drummer had a real quiet day. We kept all his tracks from Day 1. That was possible because he a) plays very solidly (but even he struggled with the click and the punching, where you hear what was recorded before and try to play over it and then beyond), but also because he b) played very disciplined. He abstained from overly complex fills and such. He can play more complicated stuff (and does so when we play live), but here for the purpose of recording and keeping the rest of us tied together, it was perfect that he kept it fairly straight. I think this is also an important lesson to remember.
Day 2 - sound guy
The sound guy was really good. I might have suspected him early on for running on routine, but in reality, we should just have asked him more questions and discussed things earlier with him. He was really interested in the music, tried to calm us down, listened to our (sometime unrealistic) wishes, talked us out of it when necessary, but also said: “Yeah, OK, let’s try that!” He felt super knowledgable about what he was doing, was a musician himself, and otherwise just a beast with ProTools. One two occasions, he really made us change things and I think it was really for the better. He pointed out that one of my bass lines didn’t quite match up with the kick drum, and suggested a different phrasing. It was super tough to implement that there and then, but the result was indeed much better. And, then later, he talked the guitar player out of playing the root note also in the lead voice. There was a slight intonation problem with the guitar and the sound guy explained that if you play the root note of the chord that the rhythm guitar plays in the lead as well, then every tiny tuning issue will stand out much more than when playing the third instead in the lead.
What is still missing
At some point, we ran out of time and had to pack up, but there are still a few things missing, so we probably need to pay for an extra day or so. There are a few overdubs still missing, and then, of course, all vocal parts! And then, there is the final mixing that needs to be done. So, it will be another few weeks before we get the final product!
I learned so much, got challenged, tested and humbled a good number of times, but I am very thankful that I had this opportunity. And, naturally, I think it was worth it all, and the final tracks will be awesome. At least to us…