Recording and Mixing – Advice and Tips

After the initial songwriting process, the groundwork for a successful release continues with the recording and mixing stages. In this blog, we aim to offer useful advice and tips on how to make the most of the studio process – what to look for in a studio, how much you can expect to pay, and what you can do in advance to prepare for as productive a session as possible.

Guest contributions come from Garry Boyle (GB), of Castlesound Studios and The Depot Studios in Edinburgh, and Sam Ellison (SE) from Blue Box Studios in London.

Recording and Mixing - Tips and Advice

What Should You Look For In A Studio?
First up, we’ll look at the various issues you should address when selecting which studio and personnel you want to use for recording.

GB: “I think a band should choose who they want to work with as a priority over where they want to work. Choosing your engineer and producer carefully is the first step to a good studio experience. The recording experience is a collaboration between you, the rest of your band, and the engineer / producer, so, working with people who understand your music and your end goal will make the experience more creative and organic.

An experienced engineer and producer will have worked in several studios and will be able to advise you on what would work logistically, sonically and financially to suit your project.

A recording studio can only be rated on one thing – its output. Listen to what the studio has produced for other bands and get an idea how they were recorded. The newest, cutting edge equipment may not always translate into the best sounding recordings, so make your judgment on the studio’s show reel rather than its gear list.

A good idea to finding the right personnel to work with is to listen to recordings that you like, and find out who worked on them. Other artists that you know may also be able to recommend particular studios and personnel.

How Much Does a Professional Recording Studio Cost?
SE: “At Blue Box Studios it costs £400 to book out our largest studio for the day, which is the only studio a full band could work in. An engineer costs around £150 for the day, and unless you’re qualified yourself you will need an engineer.”

GB: “Studio prices are quite varied depending on the number and quality of live rooms, how well spec’d the equipment is and, most importantly, how good the engineers are.
Recording and Mixing - Tips and Advice
For a small, single-live room studio with perhaps a booth and a modest equipment list, you should expect to pay around £200 – £250 per day. For a highly-equipped, multi-room studio, somewhere around £500 – £750 per day.

There are rooms and spaces that offer days for as little as £150 per day, however the equipment and spaces may not be ideal. With a talented engineer, however, you may still get the results.”

As we can see, there are large variations in what you can expect to pay for hiring a recording studio, but to help put this into the context of a full release, we need to look at what you can expect to achieve from the sessions.

How Many Tracks Should You Record Per Day?
SE: “One, or I suppose as few as you can afford. The way I see it, the more time spent on a track the better it will be. If you can afford to spend as much time on it as needed then the outcome will be better.”

GB: “If you’re in the studio for the first time, remember quality is more important than quantity. This goes for both sound quality and performance quality. If track one sounds dreadful, it doesn’t matter if you recorded five; the listener won’t get beyond the first track. If you did two great-sounding tracks over a weekend, you can bet people will want more!”

So, if you can afford to, aim for recording just one track per day. However, this approach may see the studio bills stack up quickly. There are various things you can do to help bring the cost down – we’ll discuss how you can prepare for the studio sessions shortly, but firstly, here’s a good tip from Garry on how to mix high-end studios with cheaper options:

GB: “Remember you do not have to do the whole project in just one studio. Many artists split tracking duties between several studios to maximise their recording budget. For instance, a 10-day project could be split up so the first few days are tracked in the high end studio to get the advantages of their rooms, staff and gear and then all the overdubs are done in a smaller, cheaper studio where you maybe only need a few channels and one room for vocals and guitars.

Do remember, though, that in a professional high-end studio you are likely to get through much more work in a day then you might in a smaller, less organised studio.”

So, when deciding on a studio, you should think of the overall budget of the project, and how much you can achieve each day. Sometimes just looking at the daily rate of a studio and going for the cheapest option may cost more at the end of the project.

Preparing For The Studio
One sure way to save money, is to be as prepared as possible for when you go into the studio.

SE: “Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice! There’s no point going to the studio just to find out you don’t know your songs perfectly. And there is no point making your record if it is not PERFECT. Too much time and money would be wasted in the long-run. Also, try and listen to lots of records you aspire towards and just generally get into the right vibe.”

GB: “It goes without saying that you should be rehearsed. However, being prepared for the studio is a specific type of rehearsed. It’s different from rehearsing for gigs.

Speak with your engineer and producer ahead of the session and establish how you will be recording. Will it be live? Will it be one at a time? Will the singer be singing? These are the questions you need to ask.

If you are not going to hear the singer whilst tracking (perhaps because they will be concentrating on their guitar parts in the live takes) be sure to PRACTICE like that. Make sure the song still grooves and feels great without the vocal. You’d be very surprised how much the tempo of a song is dictated by the singer. Do some rough demos, even on an iPhone, and listen back to these instrumental practices. Does it groove? Does it vibe? It’s better to find out beforehand rather than in the studio.

Sectional practice is also worth doing to see the relationships of the instruments. For example, drums and bass only, and then guitars and vocals only. It is amazing the number of times I’m in the studio and I hear the sentence “Oh, that’s what you are playing…. it clashes with….”

Other than these, the basics you should cover are: restring your guitars a few days before and make sure they are set up, new drums heads on kit if required, bring lots of spares (strings, sticks etc…) and, bring a book! If you are the drummer and it is guitar day, be sure to keep yourself occupied.”

Now The Recording Is Done, What About The Mixing?
There’s an infamous phrase, ‘fix it in the mix’ … but both of our experts here certainly don’t agree with it. Getting the recording right makes for a better mix:

GB: “There is no such thing as ‘fix it in the mix’, get the take you dig, get the vocal that sounds great on its own and get the sounds right at source and you will be more than halfway to a great recording.”

SE: “If your recording isn’t up to scratch, you can’t simply fix it in the mix…

Recording and Mixing - Tips and AdviceThere is a definite logic to using the same approach to selecting a mixing engineer as you used in selecting the studio and recording engineer / producer – judge them on their previous results. There’s also little point in going all-out for a great recording, and having the mixing let you down.

GB: “Make sure this person understands your vision and expectations. Listen to their previous work and show-reel. A studio and engineer can only be rated by what comes out of the speakers, not the flash gear they have.”

What if the artist wants to mix their own recordings, what are their options?

SE: “Nowadays it can all be done on the computer, and Logic Pro is perfect for beginners. Learning to mix is something that takes time however, so if you’re a beginner you will need practice. My advice: watch loads and loads of YouTube videos!”

By extension, what if the artist wanted to undertake the entire recording and mixing process themselves?

SE: “There’s plenty of software available! I’d say the most appropriate for beginners would be Logic Pro – a lot comes bundled with the software meaning you don’t need to spend too much money and it’s the most straightforward to learn.

So, some things to consider when recording are: the quality of the drum kit, the acoustics of the room, the microphones and preamps being used and the analogue to digital conversion. Lets say the drums are only being recorded using four tracks – unless the person doing the recording feels like investing in some high quality equipment, the best thing to do would be hire some in.Recording and Mixing - Tips and Advice
For four-track drums one would need an identical pair of high-quality condenser microphones to create a stereo pair for general drum pickup; a dynamic microphone such as an SM57 for reinforcing the snare; and another dynamic microphone for the kick drum (ideally something designed especially for kick drums to pick up the low-frequency content). These microphones would also be great for the rest of the band – just use the snare mic on the guitar amps, the kick mic on the bass amps and the condensers on any acoustic sounds such as vocals or acoustic guitar.

Then all that’s needed are pre-amps, converters and a good room! Ideally a hardware compressor too… But on a budget there are audio interfaces on the market that work as pre-amps and converters.

Finally just look online for some mic techniques to help you along with how to set the mics up for each instrument, and learn how to use your software. Then LISTEN!!! If your recording isn’t up to scratch, you can’t simply fix it in the mix…

GB: “The basics have become so cheap these days that you maybe only need a few simple pieces to start recording yourself:

–    a sound card / interface. This gets the sounds into the computer.

–    a couple of decent microphones.

–    a computer that can cope with it.

Many interfaces come bundled with software such as Pro Tools, Cubase whilst others come bundled with computers, such as Garageband.

The recording software will likely have pretty good mixing capabilities and with this small setup you can start to make your own recordings. Even with one of two microphones you will be able to start getting decent results. Remember that getting the mic in the right place will almost always be more important than what kind of mic it is.

I feel it is important for musicians to be able to record themselves and have an understanding of the process however self-recording and producing can be a huge amount of work for one person in the band and can result in a loss of focus or objectivity, especially if that person is involved in the songwriting. It will be much harder work than booking a professional studio, but at the same time the benefits and outcomes will be very different and may suit the production. Good luck!

Funding Your Recordings
Whilst the recording and mixing process sounds expensive, even if you opt to do it yourself, the good news is that there are funding options available to help you out. Scottish-based artists may wish to read our interview with Creative Scotland, where you can find out about funding opportunities.

What’s Next?
Well, once you have your recordings mixed, the next step would be mastering. We also have a blog covering this topic, which includes details of a discount offer through our mastering partners, Alchemy.

Conclusions

  • Pick who you want to work with ahead of where you want to work.
  • Judge a studio on its output, not its equipment list.
  • Quality is more important than quantity when deciding on how many tracks to record. Aim to record one song per day, if you can afford to do so.
  • Productivity should be greater in a high-end studio.
  • Be prepared before entering the studio – it’s not only about the amount, but also the type of practice you undertake before entering the studio.
  • Pay particular importance to the quality of the recordings – you can’t “fix it in the mix”
  • If you want to set up your own studio to record, the location of the mics and the recording techniques are perhaps more important than the quality of the equipment you use.
  • You can learn recording and mixing techniques by studying videos online.

Sincere thanks go to our expert contributors, Garry Boyle and Sam Ellison.

Blog Author: | Managing Director, EmuBands
POSTED: Wednesday 13th November 2013

Image credits:
Sound Mixer: phanlop88 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Professional Condenser Studio Microphone: stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Music Mixer: -Marcus- / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The Red Drum Set Inside Studio: stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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