Because your body and mind are going to be under stress, a good preparation is necessary for a recording session as well as for a concert. The first time is always a time of surprises and we discover ourselves more and more all along. Here are ten tips to better anticipate what should be a precious moment in your musical life:
1. Practicing, but not too much!
Practicing a lot, the days before recording, is physically and mentally good only if you do so during a reasonable amount of time. When the recording session begins, you should know your tunes well enough not to have to practice too much. Before a sports competition, an athlete trains normally, or even a bit less, because the muscles need to relax in order to get reinforced, whereas an extreme use will weaken them. Go for a walk and breathe outside; it will help your physical health and free your mind at the same time.
2. Finalising the tune
Recording means setting a tune for good. You have spent weeks, months, arranging or composing a tune and you are going to record it the best as you can. Since performing is not an exact science, you should ask yourself how are you going to finalise it? This question is quite confusing when more than one possibility, each one as interesting as others, is available to you. I don’t think that I ever performed one of my tunes the same way twice at different concerts. If you want to keep moving forward, you need to reduce the number of possibilities prior to the recording session. A single hesitation, a slight imprecision in your playing can be heard at a concert as well as in a recording.
3. How are you going to record?
If your budget decides for you, it also depends on what this recording is for. While a demo doesn’t require huge resources, a good quality recording is important for a CD sold in stores; recording with good equipment is therefore necessary. Working with a sound engineer in a studio will save you a lot of time since he or she will take care of the technical process while you can focus wholly on your music.
If you have the equipment and a bit of experience, you could probably record on your own. Play the bits you have recorded to some other people regularly, as, after a few hours of work, your ears may not pay full attention to noises or musical details.
4. How to choose a sound engineer?
A good relationship between the musician and the sound engineer is essential. Each one has to know the other, understanding the language, how he or she works. Since you are going to spend many hours together, sharing common interests is important, so choose someone you like both personally and professionally. Sometimes you don’t choose this person, for instance when you are invited to record on someone else's musical production. If faced with a different taste or aesthetical points of view than yours, start by quickly recording a few takes and comment on them together. This will let you understand how the sound engineer works, his way of speaking and will help in finding a necessary compromise between you.
Working with a sound engineer means to share the success of the result. Trust his judgement; if you are passionate about your music, so is he about the recording process. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about the equipment he’s going to use, particularly the type of microphones, how they are going to be placed around your instrument, etc. All of this should be seen far in advance and must be tested right from the start of the session. Sound engineers prefer to set the equipment according to what is coming rather than having to modify it afterwards. Discuss settings together, such as compression, EQ, effects… Is there any sound effect to keep in mind?
A good sound engineer will also ask you some questions about the music you play or your instrument. Let them come. Although the majority of them may work only by ear, some ask for the sheet music of a tune as it helps to adjust the equipment which is set according to rhythms or a certain pitch of notes.
5. Recording outside a studio
In case of a live recording, and in order to have the choice between different takes, it is recommended to record more than one concert. More lively than a recording in a studio, the live recording requires you to take particular care regarding the acoustics of the venue, as well as taking into account the background noise from the audience.
A church acoustic or other highly resonant venue’s acoustics bring an interesting sound signature to the recording. Such an acoustic doesn’t work for all instruments and you would have to check the reverb according to different volumes and tempi. The temperature is usually cold in those venues and you won’t be able to record for as long as you would like without moving to get warmer.
If you are lucky to live in a quiet area, with a good acoustic, you could eventually think of recording at your own place. This would save you the time for travelling to reach the studio and will increase your comfort since you will be at home.
6. Keeping track of time
Controlling the time frame is very important in a recording session. One full morning is just enough to set up the equipment. At that point, you should have defined clearly how you are going to record, the positions of the microphones, the order of the tunes to be recorded day by day, the breaks, the food and the essential water bottle you will need, etc. If you work alone with your own equipment, days may pass quickly without finishing the recording which is why it is important to keep to the plan as much as possible.
A good way to apprehend the time needed is to list the tunes to record from the easiest to the most complex one. If you are not able to record the first tune, the easiest one, within the frame time, it is certain that you won’t finish the entire album in time either. In order to keep a coherent sound between the different tunes, keep the same microphone positions as well as the same material settings, during all the sessions. If you need to stop your recording, in a studio, due to lack of time, the sound engineer will have to change not only the configuration of the room but also the settings of the equipment for other musicians coming after you.
7. Know yourself
In order to check how you are going to be during the session, and this goes particularly if it is your first time, try recording quick takes at your own place first. Since the result you're after is more your capacity of playing while being recorded rather than the quality of the take, you don’t need any professional material for this. A simple microphone and a computer, or the recording app of your mobile phone will do the job.
If you are an early person and ready to perform right from the morning, better start recording early. Not too early though, as you don’t want to play with cold fingers. First, this will create physical tensions, and, the sound produced by the dry and tense skin in the morning releases unpleasant high-pitch harmonics particularly with nylon or Alliance strings. In any case, it is necessary to plan a good warming up prior to the recording.
8. Recording with your band
Recording with your band playing all together at the same time is not recommended in a studio. This approach is not practical, for the main reason that a single mistake made by one of the musicians is most of the time impossible to change during the editing phase and will oblige you to start again. Recording by click is by far more appropriate. Prepare by practising with the click in your headphones before the session.
9. Fix your instrument
It will be too late to change your strings the day before the recording. At least a week before, you should change all the bass strings to keep a homogenous sound between them. Take the time to change any gut, metal, nylon or Alliance strings, early enough to keep the right pitches when the recording session will come. When you practice, you probably don’t pay attention to all the buzzing noises coming from your instrument but, believe me, the microphones won’t let them pass. A few days before recording, a short visit to your harp maker is maybe necessary.
10. Adapt your playing
Recording in a studio has nothing to do with a concert performance. The energy you give at a concert, with an audience several tens of meters away from you, is not for when you play for microphones placed only a few meters from you. To preserve the natural sound of your instrument and avoid the distortion of the sound, keep playing in a light way while recording.
This list is far from complete but it gives you some good tools to be better prepared before recording.