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5 lessons I’ve learned in the recording studio

recording studio lesson

These days I have a special opportunity to record a debut album with my band Bloom. This isn’t my first time in the studio, but I’ve never worked on a full length CD before.

Recording the first album is a milestone in my musical career. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since I was a teenager. Over the course of last few weeks I have learned a ton about music production, recording, arranging and guitar playing.

Below are 5 essential lessons that I would like to share with you. Hope you find them helpful.

Lesson #1 Keep time

For a long time I have thought that my sense of time is quite good. Not perfect but quite ok. I spent a lot of days practicing with metronome, I have recorded myself hundreds of times. It always sounded decent so I didn’t pay much attention to my time keeping skills before coming to the studio.

What a surprise it was to see that I was rushing quite often. It wasn’t a big deal but still quite an unpleasant revelation for me. Right then and there I’ve decided that I need to work on my rhythm much more.

The funny thing is that even if you know that you are rushing, it is hard to do something about it. It just feels so natural. Only thing you can try is to slow yourself down a bit. But this can be quite challenging if you are not used to it because once you start paying too much attention to your timing, other aspects start to suffer. You just don’t have enough capacity to consciously control every bit of your playing. Lesson learned.

Currently I am working much more on my time keeping skills and it is getting better. One tool that I find very useful is this drum trainer. It is much better than a regular metronome because it goes on and off so you have to pay much more attention to your timing. It’s a great little tool, try it.

Lesson #2 Don’t overdo it

We as guitar players are sometimes very proud of our own playing and really think that the music will benefit if we play all the time. Not true.

The fact is that most guitar players overplay. They play too much and won’t leave any space for the rest of the band. I am aware of this problem for years and yet I still find myself playing more than is needed. This is maybe not that obvious during the live performance, but it is definitely quite clear once you are in a recording studio.

If you play too much – especially when it comes to rhythm guitar – you are slowly destroying your own songs. If you want to be everywhere, you are loosing one of the most powerful musical tools – power of contrast. There is a place for you to play and there is a place where you should be quiet. Both are equally important.

Lesson #3 Polish your guitar parts before you enter the studio

This is another very important aspect that I have neglected a little bit. Sure I was prepared to the best of my abilities but recording in the studio requires a whole new level of awareness that you probably can’t cultivate in your practice room. You need to go out and experience it.

It is not only what you play – that is quite often the easy part. But what really matters is how you play it. How long will this chord last? Where is the accent? Is there enough time to play every note clearly? What is the exact timing of this riff? How does it go together with bass and drums? How does it sound like, how does it feel?

Thinking about this questions will make your recording much better because you start to listen from a different perspective. Now you are able to consider how it fits all together. In the end it is not about you but about your songs.

And that brings me to lesson #4.

Lesson #4 Listen like a listener, not musician

When you are recording your songs, you can become quite obsessed with every detail of your playing. You want everything to sound perfect. But what can happen is that your recording will loose the human touch. It is ok if there are some imperfections, it just shows that you are also a human being as everybody else.

We have to listen to our own work from the position of a listener and not musician. When you are recording, you are musician, but when you are done, you should change your role and start to listen to your work with a different set of ears. Your recording has to be interesting for listener, if it is not, it doesn’t matter how good your technical abilities as a musician are. If you can’t get people’s attention, you are out of business.

With all the possibilities of modern recording studios, you can edit everything. You can make everything sound just right on time and in tune. But with too much editing your work can become sterile, boring and predictable. You are not a drum machine and you probably don’t always sing in tune. But that is ok, that’s why we like to listen to the music. If our desire was to listen to perfect recordings, we can let the computers play the music. And I think not many people would be  interested in that kind of performance.

Lesson #5 Studio is not a concert

There is a great chance that what sounds good during your live performance, won’t sound good on your recording.

Here is an example:

I play a lot of acoustic guitar and during live shows it sounds really good (at least I think so) if I play hard and with a lot of intensity. Quite often I let the strings hit the frets for a buzzing effect and I also use the guitar as a percussive instrument. And this sounds very good to me, because it gives juice to live performances.

But I was quite surprised to find out that this kind of playing is not really suited for studio work. When I tried to play in this manner, it sounded too forced and I didn’t like the tone. Once I started to play with a lighter touch, my guitar opened up and sounded much much better. No fret buzz, no guitar percussion. This really made a huge change to the way my playing sounded and also the overall sound of recording had improved.

What I’ve learned is that in the studio you have to play much more subtle, you need to pay more attention to your tone and touch, you’ve got to be more aware of all the little nuances that your instrument can produce. You have to be more sensitive to all the details so the result is pleasing for you and also for listener.

So here are five lessons that I wanted to share with you. I hope that this can help you to prepare yourself better for your next recording sessions.

Please let me know what lessons have you learned from your studio experience.

Image courtesy: Zdenko Hanout

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