Musicians' Resource Directory
Let's say you're lucky enough to corner a big-shot producer at a bar to get some tips before your band heads into the studio. He or she will probably (1) demand you buy a round, and (2) drink up and tell you to take a hike. Fear not: We did the drinking and hiking for you and spoke with three local industry veterans about the nuts and bolts of recording.
The Producer's Job
Geoff Ott, Producer/Engineer, London Bridge Studio (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains): The producer's job is to help actualize what's in the artist's head. When I'm producing, I like to go to the band's rehearsals, listen to their favorite records with them, and get to know them. It's important to learn the band or artist's language. I pick out the key points in a song, what the song is about. If a certain part sounds cool, that's what we need to build the song around. The producer must be strong and have the respect of the band.
Kevin Suggs, Freelance Producer/Engineer (Cat Power, Math and Physics Club, Smoosh): It always helps to have an opinion from someone who isn't in the band. If you are too close to the music you don't always see the flaws, or ways to make things better. You need someone looking at the big picture and not obsessing too much over separate parts.
Gary Reynolds, Electrokitty Studio (U2, Carrie Underwood, Brandi Carlile, Schoolyard Heroes): If you can afford a producer, get one. Look at your favorite artists—chances are, they work with a producer. Producers bring objective ears. The producer's ear can tell when the takes are good enough and not good enough, especially on vocals.
Suggs: I've found in my years of doing this that there is no substitute for good microphones and good preamps. If you get things sounding good on the front end, the rest will go smoothly. Bad mic preamps can make things sound small or edgy. The old saying "fix it in the mix" is not something I believe in.
I think anytime you can put the tools right into the musician's hands, it has the potential to be a very good thing. I've heard amazing records come out of basements and living rooms. This is because someone took the time to learn how to use the gear properly. Also, you can spend more time on things because the cost is less.
Reynolds: I record to Pro Tools, then bounce it to the Studor two-inch 24-track to mix there. Recording digitally, you have all the takes you want, all the control you want, and you can do all vocals, then take those tracks, make your commitments there, as far as which ones are keepers, and do your automation. Then whittle that down to 22 tracks. Then transfer from Pro Tools to tape machine.
Suggs: It's a big mistake letting the singer record their own vocals. They're not the best judge of their own voice. They'll think they sound bad, when everyone else is saying, "That's the take! That's the take!"
Reynolds: Go to a studio to record drums; don't get yourself in that mess. You want the recording to have impact, bottom line. If you don't have a budget, spend less time recording and more time rehearsing. Only go into the studio when you are completely ready.
Ott: Everyone's doing home recording and people are starting to see through it. The low-end Pro Tools with the low-end digital converters digitally truncate things, like in a mosaic—from far away it looks good, but up close you see things are missing.
Mastering is such a delicate thing. Invest more time mixing. T-Rex is a good DIY mastering program. Don't make the mix too hot, though. If you want quality, back it down. It'll transfer better to mp3 and radio.
Suggs: You don't have to spend a fortune to get decent home-recording gear. There are good mics for a few hundred dollars these days. Hell, an SM57 is only 100 bucks. And there are some fine mic preamps for under $1,000 (Chameleon Labs, Hamptone). Even those Digimax digital preamps aren't that bad.
If you are going to a pro studio you probably want to have your parts worked out. If you are doing it yourself at home, you will have more freedom to experiment.
Reynolds: For the home studio, get a Pro Tools rig and a Mac. Macs don't crash as much and are compatible if and when you want to take your stuff into a bigger studio.
Suggs: Making good recordings is a lot about making the musicians feel comfortable. If folks are relaxed, they usually perform better. Uptight or hectic environments don't usually make for great performances. Seventy-five percent of my job is getting along with people. I can have all the greatest gear and know-how to get the killer sounds, but if folks don't feel at ease with me they aren't going to record well.
Ott: Know your sound and figure out how to convey it. Tape isn't always the best option. Take the Strokes for instance: They sound lo-fi and analog, but it's digital. No tape at all. Gordon Raphael worked for months to get those sounds. Those guys had their instruments and feel so dialed in. Gordon was able to capture the sound better digitally.
And don't worry about the whole record. Pick five songs and do those. Devote your resources to the five songs. Go for the quality not the quantity. Having 10 songs isn't going to help you if they sound half as good.