Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Studios 2010: Lining Up Your Cue

| March 1, 2010

An IE Panel On How To Survive
A Recording Session

Hoosiers is one of the greatest psyche-up movies of all time. It’s interesting for this story not because of March Madness, but for how it compares to having a professional recording made. In a crucial scene, Gene Hackman’s character gives his green team a tour of the gymnasium where the state finals will take place. All the hard work and practice has brought them to a steel and concrete arena, where the baskets are 10 feet from the ground just like the home gym. There’s nothing to change, boys, just keep doing what you’ve been doing.

Don’t take that approach to recording. By all means keep practicing and putting forth effort, but even the most optimistic studio manager will tell you no two spaces are the same, neither are any two goals. And what exactly should you change? For starters . . .

“Change your strings and drumheads,” according to Dom Palmisano at Linder Avenue Recording. Soundscape’s Michael Kolar? “Your guitars restrung. For drums, a fresh set of heads.” Engine Room’s John Humphrey suggests, “If you’re a drummer, you want to make sure your heads are changed. Put new strings on the guitar.” Dave Banks at Energy Command . . . you get the point.

With more than 50 years of studio experience among them, Banks, Humphrey, Kolar, and Palmisano have seen it all. Even after stressing in pre-session meetings what’s important, artists still succumb to habit (sloppiness) or myth (the studio makes you sound better).

Of all the advice we culled from them, however, what stuck out was what might be considered poor marketing for the studios.

“The cost versus what you get,” pauses Humphrey, “learn what you’re paying for. Shop around and see what studios offer as far as what you’re trying to do, how you want to record, equipment, space, the whole package. Dollar for dollar what you get at different places is vastly different. It’s a shame to me when people come in and have paid the same or more for a lesser experience because they didn’t do their homework.”

Homework might rank among the reasons some musicians chose their craft, but Banks agrees. “What impresses me more than probably anything is the band that does its homework: does its research, talks to other studios, finds the perfect fit for its sound. I enjoy working with those because they’re more professional.”

Next on the list is to know what you’re doing. It seems obvious, but managing expectations might be the biggest responsibility a studio has. “Sit down and talk about what are you trying to get accomplished,” says Kolar, emphasizing that you want to share this with the studio as well. “What is the target audience and budget? The budget’s going to dictate all the answers. Then we can get real about what to expect to get done. If you’re just trying to get gigs with a demo, let’s rip and run. It doesn’t have to be Dark Side Of The Moon — just convey to a promoter you’re not going to embarrass them at their venue. If you want something to sell after shows, we’ll need to add a couple days.”

“I always get a guy, every week,” says Humphrey, “‘I wanna come in for an hour.’ What are you gonna do in an hour? It takes an hour to get in, get set up. That’s the biggest misconception.”

It’s a topic that gets these guys rolling. “If you’re talking about [expectations] the day you’re recording, it’s probably too late,” says Palmisano. I am someone who overcommunicates before people come in. A good studio can capture how you sound. Don’t try to prepare how you think you and your instrument will sound. Prepare as normally as you could.”

Banks adds, “People who come with beats often think, ‘I’ve got a five-minute song I can take care of in three or four takes. I’ve got a budget of $75 and can get done in an hour or two.’ Nuh-uh. You might be warmed up in an hour or two, and you might capture your tracks an hour after that, and then spend an hour or two editing. I think a lot of people have a misperception because of these tools now available to them like GarageBand, Cubase, or Sonar. They’ve got friends who have a microphone and they’ve seen them do it. They can get a mix that sounds like crap, but they can do it pretty quickly and figure someone with better stuff can do it even faster.”

The other point everyone agreed on was storage. Kolar recommends, “If your studio bill is paid-in-full, you’re entitled to leave with your masters. You’re gonna want to be sure to bring a hard drive or a 16GB thumb drive. All hard drives are a motor, and no motor lasts forever so back them up.” For that he recommends DVD or Blu-Ray copies.

Banks is surprised how unvalued the source files can be. “I can’t tell you how many bands get their final, two-track audio mix and don’t take the masters. I keep everything — I’m kind of a pack rat — but I urge everyone at the beginning to get an external hard drive. If the place goes up in smoke . . . ”

From there, Palmisano, Humphrey, Kolar, and Banks have laundry lists. Palmisano says not to leave personal gear behind, “It’s better to have, than to have hoped you did.” While Humphrey reminds to take advantage of the studio’s arsenal: “On the flipside, you have the under-assumption [the studio doesn’t] have anything. That comes from frugal, barebones recording and they don’t realize you have vintage amps and, you know, a piano.”

Kolar’s a big stickler on the strings issue (“There’s no amount of $1,000 Austrian mics with super-clean top end that will put the sparkle back into a guitar like a new set of strings”) and underscores maximizing time in and out of the studio. “A band will be having trouble switching an amp from clean to dirty, and nine times out of 10 the guitar player says, ‘That thing’s been acting up for awhile.’ I start at $70 an hour. If it takes a half hour to get an amp to be unfinicky, that’s $35 you lost that could have been spent on a repair that will last you years, instead of me coming up with some Rube Goldberg fix in the studio.”

Banks drives home that the studio is not the stage. “Bands overplay. When you get to talking about what their parts are, you know, every time you hit a footswitch to change tones we do that on a different take. That click-over isn’t recorded. They think they have two guitars, a bass, and a singer. There may be 10 guitar parts by the time they’re done. But they think, ‘This is how we do it live.’ Too many bands don’t practice with a click track, and they wonder why their recording sounds sloppy or warped. They slow down, they speed up.”

And finally, there are the things that impress them. For Palmisano, “Singers who sing on key.” Humphrey? “I’ve had pro bands burn out 10 basic tracks in a day.” Kolar likes when “they have all their files and it’s all organized.” And Banks is for “the drummer who doesn’t overplay, and the bass player who is locked in with the drummer.”

None of them, for the record, insisted upon three passes before any shots.

— Steve Forstneger

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