5 universal truths that save time, money and sanity in the recording studio.
By Xerxes Praetorius Horde
It used to be a big deal for recording studios to brag about their equipment in their brochures and info sheets in order to attract big clientel. They would claim things like “4 isolated live rooms, 19 different guitar amps, 4 different drum kits with a selection of 12 different snare drums, 1974 Dawson 64 Channel Mixing Board, fostex super duper red coloured pre-amps, 1969 parabolic palyndrometer, grey frequency scrubber, high plev inducer,..” and a whole pile of more technical stuff that a many hard working musicians don’t even know what’s for.
Truth be known, all that stuff is important. I learned a long time ago why – it’s not because the studio owns it, but because the folks who work there know what all that stuff is for and why. I could ask a studio operator – “do you guys have a rackmount analog bolliater?” If he said “a what?” then I’d instantly know he was not the sort of engineer experienced enough to make use of that gear, primarily because he didn’t know what it was.
In fact, I don’t know what an analog bolliater is either. I made it up along with most of the other junk I listed.
Here is what I would consider an attractive advertising brochure for studio of the new millennium:
Gregg’s Home Studio
Comfortable basement studio with a nice live room, plenty of comfortable furniture for everyone in the band to lounge on while the singer does 19 takes to get one word just right.
– Pro Tools 10
– more plugins than you knew existed
– In house electronic drumset
– engineer born after home computers were invented
– will rent any necessary microphones and pre-amps from local backline outfitter
– hourly rate for small projects
– by-the-song rate for larger projects
And so when we ask the million dollar question – “do you have an analog bolliater?” The likely answer would be – “I’m sure there’s a plugin for that.” (A plugin being an easily downloadable add-on to the recording program that takes the place of some fancy piece of physical equipment that would otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars and maybe only ever get used once or twice a year). Does the young engineer know what it is? Maybe not – but if he’s good he’ll get it and learn to use it before you start to record.
It’s all good to hire an old pro…and I’ve worked with some brilliant old pros…but the fact cannot be disputed that someone born into the technology is far more comfortable and immersed in it than someone that had to re-learn their entire craft when the digital recording revolution began to really hit hard at the end of the 20th century. I saw it happen – an old pro muddle through the technology at an expensive hourly-rate studio. Time is money, and this guy was learning to use the technology on OUR dime!
Years after that experience, the New Jacobin Club decided to tackle the extravagant and ambitious project of recording the concept album “This Treason” by ourselves with little outside help. We had more than a couple fellows in the group with computer based recording experience, and access to all the equipment we could want.
6 months after beginning, we stood back and marveled at the sonic tower of Babel we had constructed that was made up of a drum part that took up 16 tracks, a half dozen separate guitar tracks (electric, acoustic, 10 string, clean and distorted..), layers of electric cello, theremin, synth, percussion, a second drumset in places and the grand addition of some sequenced orchestral parts.
Had we been paying anyone a per-song rate to finish this album, they would have faked their own death early on and fled to another country with our money.
At the end of the ordeal, I contemplated some universal truths about the modern studio recording process that I had distilled in my head after 20 years in and out of fancy expensive studios, cost effective studios and basement set-ups. If I can save just ONE studio project from disaster by sharing this, I will be satisfied:
1. A studio is wherever you decide to record your album. Will it sound bad because the studio was in your basement? No. Black Sabbath recorded “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” in a Gothic Castle in England. Can’t you tell? No? Exactly.
2. Gear is no substitute for experience. Owning the most expensive running shoes in the world will not make you an Olympic sprinting champion.
3. Preparedness fixes 90% of problems before they happen. “We’ll fix it in the studio” is a dumbass way to approach recording music. Equally dumb is learning your part in the studio. Leave that to the high paid session guys in LA.
4. Crap in, crap out. If it sounds crappy to begin with, it’ll sound crappy in the end too. “We’ll fix it in the mix” is another dumb time and money wasting approach. A professional engineer friend of mine calls it “polishing a turd.”
5. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. If everything sounds great to begin with, STOP with all the compression, replacements, EQing, blah blah blah…just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do a thing. When the first 4 rules are observed faithfully, this usually ends up being the last obstacle between a recording and a great recording. This is personally my own BIGGEST studio pet peeve.
Nowadays people don’t talk about recording studios as much. Rather, they talk about recording itself….and that’s what the common thread between these five points is.
To wrap up our own story, we toughed it out and released the juggernaut gothic rock opera “This Treason” in late 2010. It was packaged with a dvd featuring a full multi-camera angle concert with the Angry Teeth Freakshow, a concept video and a bunch of additional live footage to max out the dvd’s content. It was met with some glowing critical praise (especially from the UK and USA) as well as some jabs at just how massive and sprawling the whole thing was, mainly from some our own homeland hipster metal critics.
Thanks for reading…RoTT ‘N RoLL!
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