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October 6, 2012

Make the most of your time in the recording studio

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The Daily Star

---- — Today many musicians record on their own using predominantly computer-based systems. The price of that recording technology has been reduced in recent years so that the only investment truly needed is the computer or mobile device itself, and it is easy to distribute home recordings over the Internet and consequently throughout the world.

Some bands reach a point in their development when they feel it’s time to make recordings in a professional studio, using the services of a recording engineer and sometimes a producer (we won’t get into the producer’s role here, but many engineers fill the role of both an engineer and producer). How can those bands make the best use of their time in the studio? What can the bands do to help the studio and engineers make the best possible recording?

To answer those questions, I spoke with Oneonta-based recording engineer, Andris Balins. Balins has been recording music for more than 15 years and is a partner in Dryhill Studios, in the West End of Oneonta. Nels Cline of Wilco, Sean Lennon and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof are among Balins’ more well-known clients. He is hired on a regular basis to make recordings for the Chimera label, and is becoming known as an engineer that specializes in analog recording. He has also been active as a teacher at a number of local colleges, and is teaching recording techniques at the State University College at Oneonta. He was the sound engineer at the West Kortright Centre and the Roxbury Arts Center for many years, but his freelance work at studios throughout the Northeast keeps him too busy to work full time at those local venues.

* Balins’ advice about studio recording

An important part of completing an album by yourself or in the studio is having the end product in mind. What will be your budget for the recording and manufacturing process if you do plan to have a physical album release? You want to create the best possible recording to present to the public, and having a plan of how to do so will maximize the use of your time and money. You may decide that you can record the guitar, bass and vocals on your own, but that you’d like to use a studio to track the drums and do the mix. Keep in mind the reasons that you want to go to a studio in the first place. It may be for the sounds that you have not been able to capture, or the often invaluable experience of having someone else listen to your music and help make the final recording a reality.

After musicians have made the decision to record their music in a studio, they should ask questions and make a plan for the recording process. Do they want the band to play together for the recording or do they want each musician to play his or her part individually? 

The advantage of having the whole band play together is that the recording can be made more quickly and the musicians can capture the feeling of playing together. But editing individual instruments can be difficult or impossible, depending on the separation achieved in the miking technique. If someone makes a mistake, everyone will have to take the time to play that part over, so this technique usually involves editing a final recording from multiple takes and is one recommended for a well-rehearsed band, or one that doesn’t mind imperfections in the final recording.

When you record only one part at a time, you have full “editability” of those individual tracks. You also have the advantage of recording the instrument in any way you’d like instead of being held back by concerns of leakage in the mics from other instruments. But keep in mind you also lose the spirit of musicians playing their parts together in real time.

With either method, danger lies is getting obsessed with recording the perfect take. Give each song a specific amount of time (depending on your budget), and if a take isn’t happening, move on to the next song. Come in with 10 songs prepared but be ready leave with the six songs that really worked. You want people to hear your best work, and it’s a good thing if they are left wanting more, rather than getting tired of listening.

* Efficient work with the recording engineer

Make sure you meet with the recording engineer before you start to work so you know that their methods are in line with how you’d like to record. During your conversation, discuss what recording method will be used (one at a time or a live band recording), what instruments may be available for the recording, and what the final product will be. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample of the engineer’s work before you agree to record at the studio. Gauge how interested the engineer is in the music you’re making. It’s often a good sign if the engineer wants to hear the songs before you come into the studio. Also explore your options and call a number of studios so that you can get an idea of the different opportunities available to you.

Come in with a realistic budget including what you’ll need to make the project available online or as a physical item. Putting together a realistic budget can only help you and the engineer. Keep in mind a small budget does not mean a bad recording; it may just dictate the recording methods used.

*Studio costs and time

Studio prices have fallen to less than half of what they were just 10 years ago. Expect to pay $15 to $100 an hour, and know that more affordable session rates may indicate, such as a studio that is not as fully equipped (with recording gear and instruments), or an engineer who lacks experience. Of course, more expensive does not always mean better, and the most important factors will be that you see the studio and meet with the engineer.

The number of “takes” needed, and the time required for recording and mixing, will be very different for different musicians and different styles of music. A punk rock band doing a down-and-dirty recording and quick mix could expect to complete one song an hour. Bands using modern techniques of pitch correction and recording each part individually could easily take a day or more per song.

*Balins’ advice to musicians

Bands shouldn’t be discouraged by today’s music industry environment. Musicians are really more free than they have ever been to make the music they want to make. It can be more affordable than ever, and you can release it (for free) on your own with sites like bandcamp.com.

“Music is far from dead and there’s so much yet to be discovered,” he said. “I’m really curious about what’s going to happen next.”

*Final thoughts from Balins

Make careful plans for your time in the studio. Choose your best songs and decide whether you want to record the entire band live or with individual takes.

Meet with the engineer before the recording session to discuss recording techniques and methods, and to ensure you get along. Music is a magical form of communication that is still a huge part of human life. If you approach the process without the fears often associated with going into the studio you are much more likely to capture the recording of your dreams. Do what you can to make yourself as comfortable as possible in the situation, and remember that making music should be a fun and artistically rewarding experience!

Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.