5 Ways to Improve Your Recordings Before You Even Enter the Studio

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Image by Flickr user Marc-Wathieu licensed for use via Creative Commons

Image by Flickr user Marc-Wathieu.

Recording your music for release can be an overwhelming proposition. Time, money, scope, goals—it’s hard to keep it all straight.

The studio itself can add even more stress, especially if you are multitasking, juggling the jobs of a musician, recording engineer and producer, all while you keep your day job.

You’ve spent your whole life singing in churches and bathrooms. You’ve even become pretty good at it. But will that translate in the studio, when you’re performing in a unfamiliar environment?  With your voice sounding so small and dry in that vocal booth? And with the microphone capturing every little noise your mouth makes?

Everyone is staring at you. You are running out of time and money. You’re tired, and if you could just deliver the performance of your life, that’d be great.

This is not exactly a recipe for success.

The reality is that most truly successful projects are the result of loads of preparation. Even the ability to capitalize on happy accidents requires being ready for them to occur.

Artists are not to blame for the problems that inevitably arise. Recording is a different beast than rehearsing or playing live, and experience with recording remains the only way to become good at recording. Unfortunately, most musicians don’t practice it enough in advance of the big day.

Fortunately, there are many ways that you can help make sure that you are prepared for your upcoming endurance test, whether you’re a singer/songwriter, performing in a band, and even if you’re working on electronic music productions.

1. Experiment with Keys and Tempos

Musicians are creatures of habit. We often return to similar patterns and structures because that’s where we feel comfortable.

Often, when bands or artists develop a song, they have a “default” key and tempo. (Or two.) This can lead to songs that all sound very similar.

It’s amazing to me how much simply transposing to another key can fit the mood of the song much better. Certain keys have a vibe that better supports the lyrics and melody and help reinforce what’s working in the production.

Tempos often suffer from an unconsciously formulaic approach as well.  Songwriters often have a tempo range that feels natural to them to play in. They often don’t take into account that speeding up or slowing down the song—or even part of it—can drastically increase the effectiveness and emotional impact of the production. Even a few BPM can make all the difference.

Picking the right key and tempo for tune can not only serve the song, but the performance of it as well. Sometimes, even just transposing the key by a semitone or adjusting the tempo by two BPM can turn a performance from an uncomfortable struggle to a satisfying statement.

A failure to settle on a tempo and key that really work for a given song often stems from a lack of demoing. Which brings us to…

2. Demo, Demo, Demo

When musicians demo songs, they are like those elite athletes who film their practice sessions before the big game, and then review the tapes.

Through this process, you can experiment freely without worrying about the time and monetary constraints of the recording studio.

Try out alternate keys and tempos, arrangements, alternate patterns or riffs. Explore your chordal options more deeply. Altering individual chords even slightly can evoke a new mood and make the song resonate in a new way.

You are the artist. You know what does and does not work, but it is easy to fall into the same old comfortable patterns once again. What will make this song unique? What will make your music stand out from the 6,000 other releases coming out that same week?

All of the great artists harness the power of the demo. The Beatles did it. All the time. There are tons of alternate versions of their songs out there. And those are only the ones that have since been released! Every one is unique and amazing, and shows how the song has evolved and changed.

If you are currently making better music than the Beatles, then go ahead and keep on doing what you are doing. But for the rest of us, demoing is key.

Demos don’t have to be complicated. Place one microphone or recorder in the room when you are rehearsing and review the recording the next morning, in the cold light of day.

Compare this to your favorite records. Is the balance in the room good? Are the cymbals too loud compared to everything else? If so, play them more softly. Can’t hear the vocals? Everyone else needs to turn down.

If you are only playing music to get your ya-yas out, then go ahead and dime every amp to the max. Hit those drums like they owe you money. But if you are serious about making sure your music translates, a mono mic recording can be of great help. It will reveal how you sound as a unit. This will help your live shows, make you a better musician, and protect your hearing in the long run.

This isn’t about changing who you are or your music. The way you write or phrase things is what makes you unique. A demo is just a less biased way to examine the song so you can hear what works and what does not:

Are the harmonies too sweet for this sad song? Do the kick and the bass support each other and help give the song movement?  Is the guitar melody making room for the vocals? This means listening objectively and most importantly…

3. Choose What’s Important

What you play and how you play it is what makes you unique. Successful artists exploit this. But that means being honest with yourself and losing all your ego. The song is the only thing that matters, not your individual part or sound. This phrase, “lose your ego”, gets thrown around a lot, so let’s examine what it really means:

Every song tells a specific story, and each voice or instrument has a role to play within that story. Tell a confusing or unclear story, and no one will ever want to listen to it. This means that assigning levels of importance to each part is essential. Make sure it is clear to the listener, at all times, just what they should be paying the most attention to. Whatever you choose is fine—just make sure it is an active choice.

Imagine you are seeing Shakespeare in the theater. Would you enjoy Romeo and Juliet if there were two Juliets on stage? Both kind of saying the same thing, at roughly the same time? This would confuse anyone. Or what if actors started talking over each other?  The entire audience would tune out. Our goal is pretty much the opposite of that.  And to tell a clear story, we have to make choices.

Which element of the song is most important right now?  Everything else is playing a supporting role to that lead. Step back and examine how any part supports that lead.  Can you somehow make some room for that lead element to shine?

Moving to a different octave, well-timed rests, or adopting a call-and-response motif are great ways to draw attention in a dense arrangement while also generating excitement.

One great way to help figure out what the most important elements are and how to support them is to try a different type of rehearsal session. It’s difficult to make informed background vocal harmony choices at an all-amplified practice session. Setting up a “vocals only” practice should immediately highlight potential issues. Alternately, play the song without the vocals or have a rhythm section-only rehearsal. This will make it clear what parts need to be adjusted and moved around.

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  • Carmen

    This is a great article, Rich. Thanks for taking the time!

    It succeeds on a number of fronts: it makes very good points in a very clear way. Never condescending, and never assuming a single right way to pursue what are often qualitative, artistic pursuits. Just practical, common sense, yet often overlooked ideas that we’d all benefit from considering. Lastly, the tone stays positive and friendly, with ample smiles thrown in. I’m sure to re-read and pass on to others.

  • WW4

    Thanks for the article! As far as the advice, “Demo, demo, demo,” I would simply modify that to “Demo.” As an artist, I’m a superstitious creature: I believe any song has only a finite amount of time to really come across. Of course, I agree that demoing will go a long way toward helping the arrangement, allowing you to make decisions that won’t need to be re-worked on the clock.

    But don’t overdo it. In this age of home studios, it is all too easy to say “You know what? I can do a better take” or “Let me just try this, here.” The fact is, any nascent song has an infinite amount of possibilities–but only a finite amount of time for the excitement of its newness to really translate. Your Eagles and Queen and Pumpkins notwithstanding, it’s almost a truism to hear artists say “There was just something about the demo” that gets lost or diluted on subsequent iterations. All part of the weird and wonderful alchemy that is making music! Get the song down to the point where everyone knows it, but make sure it gets its proper take with all the energy and excitement and some of its newly-discovered mystery still intact for the studio.

  • Vider Gates

    Great one. Thank you. Yes.

  • Aonghus

    Thank you!

    You got it just right. And there is many opinions out there, but I could come back to this article again. Nice read. Nice reminder.

  • Rich Crescenti

    Hi Carmen! Thanks for the very kind words. Even in a DIY world, we can (and need to) still learn from, work with, and inspire others.

  • Rich Crescenti

    Thanks Aonghus! I appreciate it!

  • Rich Crescenti

    Thanks Vider.

  • Rich Crescenti

    Thanks WW4 for the feedback and furthering the conversation! I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying, and it is a very real danger, and I’m glad you brought up this caveat that I missed. A quest for “the perfect snare sound”, being a slave to the grid, or some other nonsense is often the culprit when a shiny, new track doesn’t feel as good as the demo. A great way to avoid this is to make sure that the actual time in the studio moves very quickly. If I as a producer can’t improve on the energy and excitement of the demo, then I have failed the band.

    I believe that demoing can even just be putting up a recorder during rehearsal counts. Any unbiased way to hear how the song translates is valuable. I also believe that long-term, the process of demoing will make the artists better at songwriting and better at studio performances. Being well-prepared for the studio also really frees up time to experiment, or chase down that brand new song/idea.