I have been very lucky in my career to work on both sides of the glass with some amazing producers, engineers and studio owners. I have sadly, also had the misfortune to work with some folk who were not as prepared as they should have been when it came to running a successful recording session. Below are 9 things you can do to make sure that your next recording session runs as smoothly as possible from a technical point of view. Sadly we can’t pick your next clients, so who knows what might happen there.
1. Microphones, Lines And Connections
Make sure all the mics are plugged in, set up correctly and routed into your recording platform correctly and that signal is getting “to tape”. You can’t really set the gain or recording level until the artists or band arrive but give yourself a fighting chance of being ready to go at the agreed down-beat time and make sure there are no obvious signal flow issues, by having completed a ‘line-check’ before you start. There is nothing cool about faffing with dodgy mic cables when the band are about to get going on the first take.
2. Don’t Use Dodgy Gear
If you know you are about to use a piece of gear in a session that has an intermittent fault on it, I’ll put money on that during the session, it will fall over or fail. It’s Murphy’s law (as some might say) so save yourself some grief and only use fully working, reliable equipment in your sessions. It goes without saying that all the gear you use on a session should be in good working order but gear does break, cables do fail and stuff does go wrong, but reduce the possibility of things going wrong by not using unreliable equipment to start with.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to kill the vibe or the buzz on a session, have a poorly set up or broken headphone system. It’s not sexy and it’s not a fun thing to invest in but a great sounding, easy to control headphone system, will keep clients happy during the session and keep them coming back. There is nothing more frustrating than getting half way through the perfect take and having to stop because your monitoring has packed up or dropped one side or gone all distorted. As a drummer I am often accused of wanting my headphones quite loud (I don’t by the way). A good pair of headphones should be able to go to the point where anyone, even drummers or brass players need to turn it down, because there is enough headroom in the system before things start to distort. Hearing “It’s not designed to go that loud” is not what an artist wants to hear when they are trying to get in “the zone”.
4. Hard Drive Space And Speed
Make sure you have more than enough storage space available for the session. If you can, record each session or project to a new drive or as I call it a scratch disk. An empty 250Gb or 500Gb SSD will be plenty big enough and fast enough to record even the most demanding of sessions, even if you are recording a 50 piece orchestra. Small SSDs are now very cost-effective to the extent you can treat them like a reel of tape back in the day. By not having all your eggs in one basket, with one very big drive, with many sessions and projects on it, if the worst happens, then you haven’t lost the lot.
5. Click Track
Talk to the band or artist about the type of click track they want, prefer, or are expecting to hear. Some people like a woodblock type sound, some a cow-bell and some like a more modern pip and pop type sound. The sound used for click playback can make a massive difference to the way a drummer locks in, or fights the tempo of a track. Be ready to change the sounds of your click track and remember to burn an audio version of the click track just in case something happens to the session and you need to do some later fixing.
6. Song Version And Tempo
If this is a session that you are getting from someone else, make sure you are using the correct version of the track and that it is set to the correct tempo. I have heard stories about days of studio time and money being wasted when the named artist, who was not present for the rhythm section tracking date turned up in the studio and announced to those in the control room that the song had sections missing that were added in the latest writing sessions. These sort of mistakes might not be yours to make or to spot, especially if you are not producing, you are just engineer or assistant, but always take a look at the creation and latest update dates and times on session files and maybe, let it be known if there are later versions of a session on the drive. It might take 10 minutes to go and check but it can save a lot of time and money further down the road.
7. Digital Clock Setting
If you are in a studio where you are using a combination of digitally connected equipment (and who isn’t these days) you need to make sure that all those devices are set to the same sample rate and set to receive their clocking signal from the same digital clock master. Unless you have a studio master clock, your digital clock master is normally your audio interface or the most expensive digital piece of gear in your rig as it will probably have the most stable digital clock. In practice it really does not matter that much as long as every piece of digitally connected gear is clocking from the same master at the same sample rate then you should avoid digital clicks and pops and other nasty digital artefacts that are not only off putting to hear, as you are tracking, but will make it onto your recordings I promise you.
8. Software Conflicts And Updates
Do make sure that you are running the latest most up to date version of your chosen DAW for your operating system. At this point I don’t care if your on mac OS, Windows, Linux, iOS or BeOS (check it out) just make sure that all the software you run and need for the session you are about to start is up to date and supported. You might not think the supported bit is important right now but if, or rather when you have problems and you need to place a call or email to tech support, it can be quite embarrassing when you are told, politely that your system is “not supported” and there is nothing that they can do to help.
Also always make sure your plug-ins are up to date as these are very often the cause or errors and crashes during start-up and recording.
9. Test Recording - The Stress Test
Once everything is up and running, set up, routed and ready to go and you are sat down with a coffee before the artists arrive, try running a stress or load test on the system. Put all the tracks into record and hit record and let it run for 10 minutes or so. If you like, you can even watch the system usage monitors on your system or DAW. If it runs for 10 minutes then there is a more than fair chance that you will be OK over the duration of a 3 minute pop song or 5 minute orchestral cue. However, if you get 15 seconds in and the recording quits and your DAW throws an error code at you, then you have time to make modifications to your system to save wasting time once people arrive. Again there is nothing more of a downer as an artist than getting half way through the perfect take (and it’s always the perfect take) and the DAW kicks you out of record or falls over leaving you with a nasty squelching noise in the cans.
Don’t Just Do As I Say, Do As I Do
These are 9 of the things that I do before each and every session I run at my studio. In many cases these lessons have been learned the hard way through personal humiliation and financial cost. If you have any processes or checks that you do before your sessions please do add then in the comments section below I would love to add them to my “pre-flight checks”.