A few years ago my friend Kevin and his wife flew all the way out to Nashville from LA to record vocals for his album in my home studio. We had one week to track vocals for 13 songs.
Of course, we spent a lot of time just hanging out and showing them around Nashville, but 7 days was an ideal amount of time. It gave us plenty of time to focus intently on each song, and it also gave Kevin time to let his voice rest between sessions.
Many of us are using our home studios to record our own music, right? This has been especially true for me over the last few months, as I finished up recording my own album.
But I had been itching to get some clients in here so I could take off my “artist hat” and put on ONLY my “producer/engineer” hat. I like that hat.
After spending a week recording Kevin, I realized how important it is for us as engineers/producers to not forget the psychology behind the recording process. Music is a highly emotional event. When you’re recording a musician, you certainly need to focus on mic placement, gain structure, song arrangement, performance, etc., but a session can quickly go sour if you neglect the emotional side of the process.
Each musician is different, and if you don’t figure out how to create an environment he/she feels comfortable in, the rest of the process is going to be difficult.
I know what you’re thinking….”Dang…Joe and Kevin must have had some big fights, eh?” Not at all. In fact, the sessions went extremely well, and I think there are three main reasons for that. I’ll share those reasons with you as 3 tips for working with musicians in your studio.
1. Develop a Relationship with the Musician(s)
If you do this, you’ll most likely bypass a lot of issues later. Kevin and I were already friends before he came to Nashville, so this wasn’t all that difficult.
But we don’t always get to record our friends, right? Sometimes we’re recording complete strangers. In those cases, it’s important to find some “connection points” with the musician. Spend some extra time talking while you’re setting up microphones. Get to know the musician until you both feel comfortable.
THEN start recording. Take as much time as you need. You may feel pressed for time. “We’ve got to get started RIGHT NOW.” Trust me, if you rush into recording and skip over the relationship, it’ll only get awkward, and the music will suffer.
2. Set Goals
The goal with Kevin’s trip to Nashville was simple — record vocals. He also wanted to work on other things, like keyboard parts, percussion, etc. However, we didn’t let ourselves work on that stuff until the last day or two.
I knew that if we recorded two or three vocals and started goofing around with percussion, we’d end up rushing through the rest of the vocals at the end of the week…then we’d both be kicking ourselves.
So what happened? We really only got to add percussion to one song. The rest of the time we were recording vocals. This was fine with us, because the primary goal of these sessions was to get the vocals recorded. Mission accomplished.
3. Set Expectations
This is a bit different from setting goals. What I’m really talking about is setting expectations for how much honesty is allowed in the session.
That may sound strange to you, but a lot of musicians can’t handle honest critique. You tell them that the last line was a bit flat, and they just shut down. Musicians are an insecure bunch. (I’m one of them.)
So while you’re working on #1, developing a relationship, you need to have “the conversation.” Kevin and I had this conversation the first or second day he was here. He simply said, “The number one priority for me is a great-sounding vocal. I need you to be brutally honest with me.”
I love that. He told me he didn’t want his pride to get in the way of the process. So that’s just what we did. If there was a line that didn’t work well – or that I thought he could sing better – we recorded it again until we got it right. “Get it right at the source” was a bit of a theme for the week.
Some musicians will never be comfortable with this approach. If you start stopping them in the middle of takes and making them punch in and out, they’ll just wither and melt. You need to feel this out for yourself and decide the best approach. For someone like this, it may be best to just record 3-5 full takes and comp from there.
This is the part where you also determine if they will be comfortable with using tuning software like AutoTune or Melodyne to fix any pitch issues. If they’re not okay with it, then they need to go back and fix those out-of-tune sections.