5 Powerful Ways to Improve Your Recordings
- Before You Even Enter the Studio
January 19th, 2017 by Rich Crescenti
This article appeared on the Sonic Scoop website:
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.
Remember that nothing gets people to pay attention like contrast, which brings us to:
4. Exploit Movement and Change
Turn any of your favorite songs down to low level, and chances are that you will immediately know what is most important element in that song. Everything else will disappear behind it.
However, the role of “leader” can shift between voices and instruments from time-to-time, and employing this technique can make the song more engaging. If your verse vocal part is a fast and busy, open up and leave some space in the chorus. If the bridge synths are all huge drone-y chords, switch to a simple rhythmic pattern for the intro, or drop out all together for the verse.
Unless your goal is to emphasize the sameness (maybe a song about how every day drudges on and on until the inevitable heat death of the universe, for you goth kids out there), make sure your music has counterparts or opposing points of view. There are all kinds of opposition to explore: Fast to slow, dense to open, matching patterns, vs. alternating rhythms, a single voice to a chorus of voices, even contrasts in your rhyming structure.
You can even try to create “shifting alliances” between voices and instruments. If two parts are vibing together in one section, have them each lock in with other voices in the next section. These kinds of tonal and rhythmic variations can drive home the big chorus payoff, or the feeling of loneliness when that third, more introspective verse drops.
Much of this is done in the studio these days. But working these ideas out and having a clear plan can of how the song will unfold can make your time in the studio more productive and fun. Which brings us to…
5. Actually Hire a Producer or Studio
Now that you have worked through all these variations and distilled these songs to their pure, raw beauty, it’s time to actually record.
Home recording is an unbelievable gift to musicians and writers. The freedom it offers to write and demo at your own pace, and as often as you’d like is truly wonderful. But there is a reason the pilot doesn’t bring you drinks in the middle of the flight: Anyone performing a dedicated function can be more effective than a multitasker. So bring in professionals to do those important jobs for you.
It’s easy to confuse the fancy gear at a pro studio as being their primary, but those knobs and faders are only the icing.
Don’t get me wrong—I love working with vintage microphones, consoles, and instruments. The subtle shading available helps paint a picture that solidifies the story. But no one dances to the amp tone, and no one bought Thriller because of the vocal mic that they used.
Any basic home studio today has more recording power and flexibility than The Beatles ever did. But there are very few people making recordings that good today.
This is because the value in hiring professionals is that they help allow you to focus on what is essential: Performance Teams of people made the records you loved growing up. Sometimes, it’s all too easy to forget that what makes music wonderful is the connection between the people involved
It often pays off to hire a dedicated producer, along with an engineer and assistant. So many headstrong artists bristle at the thought of a producer, and it’s easy to see why: The industry is full of stories about labels hiring some hotshot producer with full creative control, and forcing the artist to be something that sells, rather than connects.
To be fair, whenever someone else is footing the bill, this may still end up being true. But the term “producer” can mean a lot of different things.
A good producer can help a band or artist become a better version of themselves. Their unbiased opinion can be invaluable through all the stages listed above. At the very least, a producer will function as a project manager. How can one expect any project to be a success without having someone in charge of seeing it completed effectively? And, at the most, a producer can become a collaborator, a musical soul mate who helps make your music even better than the sum of its parts.
Finally, it’s important to remember a key idea: There is absolutely no wrong way to make music. Giving advice is always a dangerous proposition. Our lives and experiences have been different, and what speaks to me may leave you cold. So if you disagree with any of the ideas above…good
Hopefully your music career will be long and wonderful. Successful artists are artists who change and grow, and the only way to do that is to try new things.
My purpose here is not to tell you how to record, but to suggest a way of approaching the process that has worked for so many others.
If it works for you too, don’t forget to thank me in your Grammy acceptance speech!
Rich Crescenti is a freelance engineer, producer, teacher, and drummer who works out of several studios in NYC, helping bands make unique recordings. Rich also hits things with sticks for the Brooklyn-based rock band Bugs in the Dark.