Tips for Recording Your First CD
You’ve been writing songs and playing them at venues. People are coming to see you play. They love what you do and now they want a recording. You found a producer and a studio who understand what you do, and somehow you budgeted money. Time to get in the studio and record. Technology has made recording a lot easier than it used to be, but it is still a lengthy and potentially expensive process. Better to learn some things ahead of time rather then learn them on the fly when the studio clock is ticking.
1. Know the Sound You Want
Your producer has plans for ways to present your songs, and with some work and experience you will too. Listen to music you know you like. Consider what sound you want for your own songs, and understand there is a difference between music you like and production style that is appropriate for you to emulate. Ask your producer to recommend recordings that will help you prepare for the studio. For a singer-songwriter perspective, listen to Gillian Welch’s CD “Revival”, and Patty Griffin’s “Living With Ghosts”. Both recordings feature acoustic guitar, but in very different ways. Are there certain instruments you love to hear, such as Dobro or keyboards? Find recordings that feature them.
2. Practice Working with Drum Loops
It may not be possible to record all instruments at the same time. To keep all musicians at the same pace, producers and engineers will often ask musicians to play to a click track, or a metronome sound, that is set to a agreed upon number of beats per minute. Playing to click tracks is harder than you think. Most people need to prepare for it. You can also use drum loops, or a rhythm pattern with a groove made up of multiple sounds, like what a drummer plays when he is playing an actual song. The GarageBand and the Guitar Tool Kit apps have built-in drum loops that you can set to any tempo you like. To practice, play it through big speakers so you can hear yourself and the drum loop equally. Do that for five to ten minutes a day and you’ll notice you play at a consistent pace, and the click track in the studio will not be problematic. You can also ask your producer if you can play to a drum loop of your choosing instead of the click track.
3. Publicize the Recording Process
Recording is going to take up a lot of your time. Sometimes you’ll spend a whole day in the studio and only get one song. You may feel like you don’t have the energy for much else. But your fans want to know what’s going on, and you need to tell them. Do you have a blog? If so, let your people know what song is on the agenda in the studio today. Take pictures while you’re recording and post them on social media. The buzz you create by publicizing the recording process will fill the room at your CD release party and garner crowds during your tour.
4. Pre-Production at Home
Some of the world’s best visual artists made sketches of objects and settings that later became large paintings. These sketches allowed the artist to explore the challenges of bringing a picture in his mind out into the world for everyone to see. Musicians can use pre-production as a type of sketchbook. With a USB mic and a recording app like Audacity or GarageBand you can make a recording of a song in minutes. Remember it doesn’t have to be fancy, in fact it’s better if it isn’t. All a pre-production recording has to do is help generate questions you can answer before you are in the expensive studio recording the full project. If 110 beats per minute seems too fast in pre-production, you can try slowing it down and recording it again at minimal expense. Establishing tempos in the studio will cost you a lot more. FYI: using GarageBand on an iPad is easier than on a MacBook. Audacity is free and fairly uncomplicated.
5. Plan to Record More Songs than You Include on the Album
Usually a full CD will have at least 10 three to four minute songs. Anything shorter is usually considered an EP, which stands for “extended play.” EP’s are sometimes made to create a buzz for a full-length recording to be released later. For a full-length CD, try to record at least 12-14 songs. When you are done, choose the top 10. This doesn’t mean you won’t use the songs you don’t choose. They can go on your next record, or you can offer your fans a free download of previously unreleased material to keep their interest up when you are between projects.
6. Consider Recording a Cover Song
Audiences like to hear an artist’s take on a song written by another artist. Your interpretation of a song you didn’t write often shows the kind of artist you are creatively just as much as the songs you did write (if not more). Want proof? Check out Cake’s version of “I Will Survive” and Saint Etienne’s cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. These takes sound nothing like the originals, and serve to define the covering artist. Some DJ’s playlists are devoted entirely to cover songs, so including one on your recording could help you gain exposure. Consider changing keys and tempos, and never try to sound like the original. Be yourself. Remember to pay proper credit to the original writer, and follow licensing laws. Check out Songfile.com for more info on keeping it legal.
Most studios offer both an hourly rate and a different rate for blocks of time. If you are traveling to a studio in another city, you may want to record all at once so you don’t have to make another trip. If the studio is local, you may be able to record over several weeks so as to spread out the expense. Talk to the producer and engineer to determine which plan is best for you. Set aside vacation time from your day job and don’t assume studios are open on weekends.
8. Be Careful Recording with Friends
Everyone likes playing with friends, but sometimes our friends are not professional. Studio time adds up quickly, and if your old high school buddy keeps screwing up claiming he needs another beer to get just the right take, you could be recording for hours at your expense. Know your friends’ abilities, know if they can handle performing before you hit any public stage or expensive studio. Rehearse. Have a plan. Write it in pencil and be flexible.
9. Take Care of Yourself
Days in the studio are typically long. You’re going to get hungry, and you’ll need to drink plenty of water especially if you’re singing. Good studios often have full kitchens. Know the setting before you get there and ask what others have done about meals. Are you a smoker? Do not quit the day before recording.
Take ear fatigue seriously. Give your ears a break. Step outside. Find a quiet spot and check your email. Walk around the block. When you return to the studio you will have a better ability to listen.
The Fine Print
Unless a record label is funding your project, recording feels like pleasant work without a paycheck. You not only don’t get paid, you pay someone else just to be able to do it. Having a realistic plan will make better use of your time and money. You’ll be happy about your recording and proud of the work you have done. And that’s exactly what you should be.