4 Tips for Being a Recording Studio Badass
I’d like to reflect on a tracking session I had recently.
The session was with one of my more high profile clients and it went very well. Everyone present felt comfortable and able to create, and the producer specifically pointed out how smoothly I had the session going. Always feels good.
I think one of the most important jobs as an engineer is to make a session work flawlessly so the artists can focus solely on the art itself.
This article will focus on some things I did to insure my clients had an excellent experience at my studio.
1. Be Ready For Anything
The session was pre-production for a label project. The artist said all he really needed was his own rig hooked up through the monitors. No vocal recording.
It occurred to me that sometimes people get a creative spark in the moment. Particularly in pre-production, where an idea for a part might strike. We already keep the piano miked up at the studio, and I had mics on the Rhodes from a previous session. I also pulled over a couple synths and set them up on the credenza, and grabbed a couple guitars and put them within reach off to the side. I expected he’d be doing most of his work on his own rig, but I wanted to be ready if he felt like laying something in from the studio’s instrument collection.
Within an hour of the session kicking off, a writer/vocalist came through. As soon as he walked in the door I made a mental note of his height. The moment I got a second to step out of the chair, I set up a vocal mic in the live room. Even though we weren’t doing topline, if an idea struck, I wanted to be able to catch it immediately.
2. Stay One Step Ahead
I also opened a session on my rig. I patched both my system and the artist’s system through the cue sends. I took a quick glance at his session settings and tempo, copied them, and made a bunch of open tracks.
As soon as I saw the vocalist start nodding and mumbling to himself, I patched the vocal mic into a preamp and compressor using a few default settings that tend to get me close. I armed up my cue sends and stepped into the live room to preset the headphone box.
By the time the big reveal came: “hey, actually we’d like to cut vocals”—my response was “great, I have your mic set up—first knob on your headphone box is talkback, second knob is the instrumental, third knob is your own voice.”
I was ready to either track with a feed straight from the artist’s laptop, or from my own rig. I suggested we use my rig. We flew the instrumental over and started cutting a hook.
3. Know Your Tracking Shortcuts
Vocalists love when they can get their ideas out immediately. Once that energy starts flowing, it’s extremely important to be able to keep pace.
Here are a few things that will go miles in that department.
a) Tempo, key and song structure
Taking any moment of downtime to get markers in place for verses, bridges, choruses, intro, etc. will let you fly around the session at a performer’s whim.
Nothing makes a performer happier than when they say “hey, I just got an idea for the third verse” and your response is “great, here’s a two bar lead-in.”
b) Having open tracks ready
Every vocalist is different. You may need to roll parts onto new tracks, jump to harmonies, ad-libs, doubles—whatever. So the goal is to have a session set up and ready to go so you can respond quickly to “I’m going to add a third to that last phrase” with “awesome, here’s a two bar lead-in.”
There are a lot of shortcut key commands in Pro Tools. It’s important to know a lot of them.
It would be outside of the scope of this article to list them all, but being able to toggle between loop record and quick punch, or being able to create a new playlist without having to grab the drop-down menu are both super useful.
Go through that manual and learn them! A great practice is to go through a mix session and try to do as much as possible without using your mouse. It’s tedious, but you learn a lot.
Additionally, I also make sure that the “Loop Record to New Playlist” box is checked in the Preferences. Very conducive to a smooth workflow.
These ideas apply to any DAW you might be using. There might be different names for the moves and settings but they’re there. Usually.
4. Mix As You Go
While the vocalist is performing, I have RenEQ already on each track. I figure out the EQ curve while the vocalist does his take. Once I’m done, I may throw on a De-Esser. If I get through that, I may arm a delay channel and do touch automation on a previous track while a new take is being recorded on another one.
By the time the artist was saying “can we hear the whole thing,” the playback was EQ’d and vocals were de-essed, with delay throws on certain words, and the takes were comp’d and strip silenced.
It took me all of five minutes to make some nuanced tweaks, throw a limiter on the record and have it bounced out.
I also bounced a version without the limiter in case the artist wanted to produce around the vocals or audition the record in an environment where he could manage the playback level.
As engineers we tend to focus on the aesthetic side of our job. And our skills in terms of capturing and mixing performances is probably the larger part of what builds our reputation. But it’s important to also recognize the service side of our jobs.
Just to throw in another quick example—if I’m doing an attended mix session with a Rock client, I always tune up a guitar and place it within arm’s reach. It’s very reasonable that we may overdub a part during the mix and I want to be ready to go in case it comes up.
Point being: I know when this client comes to LA, I’m the first one getting that text to book up—because he knows that when I’m at the helm, everything has been attended to and the session can go at exactly the pace he wants. And that’s the impression I always want to leave with a client.
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The Workshop Series is a collection of five in-depth video tutorials (3+ hours total) that dive deep into specific topics inlcluding mastering, managing low end, creating cohesive reverb, mixing vocals to a two-track and more.
Learn new techniques, increase your confidence and level up the quality of your mixes.
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