photo (c) ben hodgson

Maximising Your Studio Experience

Dubh David Black’s guide to maximising efficiency and fun in the recording studio.

Tips for maximising your studio experience
by Dubh David Black

Over the last 10+ years, I’ve made records with people at all budget levels, using everything from the most basic 4 track cassette recorders to the newest workstations and 2" analog tape machines. Regardless of format or studio equippage, I’ve learned a few things that will help maximise efficiency and fun in the studio.

Change your guitar and bass strings the night before you come to the studio. If at all possible, have your guitars set-up and intonated by a pro for the string gauges you prefer. Unless you know what you’re doing, DIY set-up and intonation can break your heart! Especially, don’t adjust the truss rod unless you’re sure you understand the mechanics of it.

Even a half-turn of a truss rod can break it if it’s already under too much tension. Broken truss rod=much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s best to change strings the night before ‘cos they’ll stretch as they acclimate to being tensioned. If money is really tight (and you’ve enough length wound onto the peg), you can remove your old strings, boil them in plain distilled water for about 10 minutes, let them cool and air dry for an hour, then put ’em back on. Make sure to replace them in their right places! New strings should be tensioned to pitch, played for a few minutes (WITH CLEAN DRY HANDS), then stretched. Grab the string at about the 12th (octave) fret with 2 fingers and thumb and pull it away from the fretboard up and down a few times. You want to put firm tension on it, but not so much that you’re yanking/breaking it.
Then re-tune the guitar and put it away in its case. Tune it up again in the morn, then put it away again.

For similar reasons, it’s best to change drum heads the day before recording. I always tune/touch up drums in the studio as part of set up; but you’ll still have more satisfactory results if the heads are new and evenly tensioned when you arrive to the studio. While you have the heads off, its the ideal time to track down and eliminate rattles and buzzes that loose lug screws/tom mounts can cause (the lugs are what the head tension rods thread into). It’s also generally a good idea to lightly go over the bearing edges (where the heads contact the drum) with fine sandpaper/emery cloth, like 220 grit or higher. You’re not looking to make sawdust, just to smooth any small irregularities or roughness. Also check floor tom leg/kick drum spike/tom mounts for rattles and buzzes.

ALWAYS REPLACE your snare strainer wires before recording, these are actually quite inexpensive. When money is a hard concern, at least replace the snare batter side (the side you whack), snare strainer, and tom batter heads. Lubricate kick pedal/hihat pedal squeaks with WD-40 or powdered graphite. Be careful not to get WD-40 on wood or drum heads, it’ll make em stretch funny/unevenly. Make sure cymbals are properly felted top and bottom, but not so tight that the cymbal can’t swing freely. Dish sponge cut to size is a great cheap substitute for felts.

If you’re planning to add loops/rhythmic samples to your project, you’ll want to play to a click or metronome to assure tempo consistency. A simple percussion loop or alternating cowbell/conga beat is WAY easier to play to than a concussive "TIK! TIK! TIK!" If the click is a kick/snare sounding beat, it can confuse the drummer ‘cos it’s hard to differentiate those drums from the player’s own drums in their ‘phones.

Loops, samples can always be replaced after the fact once a known, consistent tempo is established. If you haven’t played to a click before, start practising WEEKS before your sessions. A low cost method is to just practise along with a walkman playing programmed beats (like any dance music).

Time for your tune-up, too! The most helpful things you can do to ready your voice for the studio are:

* Be well rested and hydrated

* Know how to breathe properly.

* Dairy products are best avoided when you sing; they’ll give you extra mucus and gunk to mess up your performance. Alcohol can help some singers/players feel more relaxed and focused, but booze is extremely dehydrating – the last thing you want for your voice. So, if you’re drinking, make sure to keep consuming at least TWICE as much water as booze. If you drink a pint of stout, drink a quart of water for maximum performance. If you drink some whiskey, follow it with at least twice that much water.

* Every singer will benefit greatly from simple singing-specific
breathing: Inhaling deeply through your nose, expanding your stomach and abdomen as you do. You’re looking to breath from your diaphragm(the muscle that runs under and supports your lungs) as opposed to just inflating your chest. This allows for exponentially greater breath support and projection, and will add greatly to your vocal endurance.

Backing Vocals
If you’re planning to feature backing vocals on your project, start practising NOW. Many times great vocal ideas go unrealized in the studio because of unprepairedness. Other than the Rock n’ Roll "group shout," backing vocals rarely work without proper rehearsal. Intentional dissonance may be your aesthetic choice; if it isn’t, practise before you get to the studio. the more, the better. It works wonders to have a couple/few vocal/acoustic guitar practises. It may seem strange at first, but it’ll pay off big overall. If time allows, I’ll gladly help with vocal arrangements and harmonies, it’s part of what I do.

Make sure you have all your leads, discs, power supplies, power strips, pedals, and OPERATION MANUALS before heading to the studio. Double check. Triple check. Check again. Sometimes studios will happen to have that extra unusual sustain pedal or weird adaptor-lead you’ve forgotten, but more often that not they won’t!!! Many a session has ground to a halt due to a missing lead or power supply. I’ve used most synths/samplers over the years and can often suss ’em out without manuals, but it will always save time if you have the manuals even if you’re very familiar with your synth’s operations and editing features.

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