By Kevin Dietz
Sometimes as a recording engineer, you end up working with a band or artist who has little or no professional recording experience, or perhaps no recording experience at all. This can present a few challenges that we take for granted when working with experienced artists and session musicians. As a producer or engineer, it’s our job to make the process as transparent as possible for the artist, help them perform at their best, and end up with the best sounding recording possible. Here are a few things you can do to help maximize the performance, experience, and end result when working with a band or artist inexperienced with the recording process.
Before The Session
One of the first things you can do is get in touch with the band prior to their session to go over some things they might not have considered. This tends to be mostly gear related – do they have good instruments and amps? New skins on the drum kit? Fresh strings on their guitars? Guitars set up and properly intonated? Help get the band sorted and prepared prior to the recording date.
Hopefully the band has rehearsed to a metronome and has a tempo sorted out for each song; however, this can change in the studio, as it’s not uncommon to try a few tempos within a couple of BPM of the original to find where the song and the band sit just right together. Use your ears and help the band find a tempo that lets them sit in the pocket and lets the song come through best.
Separation While Recording
Sometimes a bit of leakage can be a good thing, particularly when you’re going for a whole band track live off the floor. In this case, isolating the drums, bass, guitars, and any other instruments will serve you better in the short and long term. Having everything isolated with no bleed from other sources will allow you to easily punch in on individual instruments/parts, and allows for easier comping between takes on individual instruments.
Take a DI
It’s usually a good idea to take a direct signal from the guitars and bass, and in this case it can be of additional use for editing after the fact.
Where there are guitars, there are bound to be tuning issues. Keep your ears open for any issues and remind the players to check their tuning after every take. Listen back to takes at lower volume to better hear potential tuning issues. Once again, ensuring the band has their instruments properly intonated and set up prior to the session will help with this.
A band not experienced with recording might only be used to playing their songs straight through, as is, with no consideration for overdubs or overlapping parts. Keep your ears open for ways to layer and overdub parts. Use your experience to map out potential parts to double track, layer with different tones, and help guide the artist through the recording of the arrangement. Take detailed notes of takes!
It should go without saying that a great headphone mix is essential for inspiring musicians to give their best performance in the studio. Inexperienced artists will likely need your help to dial in that perfect sound. Think like a musician and set up a great mix. Communicate with the artists regularly and make sure their mixes are solid.
Kevin Dietz is a freelance recording and mixing engineer who has worked on albums by The Cranberries, Alexisonfire, Silverchair, Bachman-Cummings, and many others.