Got a question about recording?

Here's a list of Frequently Asked Questions. They should provide you with a better understanding of "who does what" when making a record. It should also assist you in picking the best engineer, mixer, producer, and studio for your music.

You may want to print this as it is fairly lengthy.

Feel free to email us with any other recording questions you have.

 

Tracking Engineers

What's An Engineer Do?

A tracking engineer is the person you are trusting to commit the sound of your instrument to tape. They are responsible for:

the selection and placement of mics,  
selection of mic preamps, compressors, equalizers,
getting the sounds i.e. eq'ing, compressing or other processing the individual inputs
getting optimum levels to tape
setting up headphone cues,
aligning and biasing the tape machines,
editing the tracks
archiving the tracks

They should capture the sounds you and your producer want quickly, and free of distortion, phasing, popping, leakage, and other acoustic sludge, and store them properly. This frees you and the producer from technical considerations so you can keep your minds where they should be-on the music.

Be nice to your engineer. Engineering is a complex, difficult job, requiring years to become skilled. A tracking engineer is a vital part of the sound of an album, but not the whole story. The band, producer, mixing engineer, studios, mastering engineer, and budget all contribute to creating the sound a of recording.

Done well

Engineering appears easy, almost effortless. Sessions run smoothly and great sounds magically leap from your instrument onto tape. When working with a good engineer, you should be thinking "Wow we sound amazing. I bet any idiot could be an engineer."

Done poorly

Engineering looks mind bogglingly complex, is the focus of a session, distracts from your creativity, and makes you feel uncomfortable performing. This type of engineering is very popular with people who want everyone to know how smart they are 'cause they were able to read manuals and learned how to use a console.

Choosing An Engineer

When choosing an engineer you should find someone:

who can play you something they recorded that you like the sound of.
you can get along with. You are going to be spending a lot of time with this person, and even if they are amazingly talented, the work will suffer if they rub you the wrong way. Anything that will interfere with your creativity is negative.
who understands and listens the kind of music you make. Engineers are often very specialized and skilled in certain genres. This means a great hip hop engineer may not be a great rock engineer, and vice versa.
who has a good reputation. The music business and the studio community are very small. If someone is a buffoon, others will know about it. Ask around.

 

Ask specific questions

Once you find someone fitting the above criteria, ask your potential engineer...

how much the recording that you like cost to make, where it was done, who produced it, who mixed it, and who mastered it. These are all valid and important questions in evaluating someone's work.

exactly what they did on that recording.

all the recording?
all overdubs?
some overdubs?
mixed?
edited?
mastered?

Preferably they did the majority of the recording. Recording 90% of an album is a very different contribution to it's final sound than recording a keyboard overdub or doing some editing.

how long they have been engineering and where have they worked.
do they have formal training?

were they an assistant, until when, and who did they train with.

for a discography then check the album credits to determine if this stuff is accurate.
to attend a live show or rehearsals if possible. This will allow the engineer to become familiar with the the material, and internal dynamics of the band. It will also put the band at ease in the studio as the engineer will not be some total stranger.

 

Be Afraid When...
A tracking engineer that claims they can deliver the sound of an album they recorded, but didn't mix. This person is dreaming, or just painfully stupid. Point at them and laugh before leaving the meeting.
All a person's engineering credits say things like "2nd Engineer", "Assistant Engineer", or "Edited by". No matter what they tell you, this person did not record the record.
An engineer claims every other engineer is an untalented butcher, and has no idea what they are doing. There are really good and really bad engineers everywhere. Most of the good ones have positive things to say about the other good ones, and will recommend them. Most of the bad ones hate everyone, and believe no one understands their true genius.

 

Staff Engineers

Most studios have staff engineers and will encourage you to use them. Why?

Most studios are notoriously short of cash. They need to keep costs down and labor is one of the only negotiable expenses in studio world. You cannot bargain for a Neve console or a Fairchild compressor. However, you can get kids right out of school, pay them poorly, and call them an engineer. It is not uncommon for a staff engineer to work 18 hours a day for 20 or 30 days in a row without a day off. This provides the new engineer with the loads of experience they need, while supplying the studios with cheap labor, so they can keep rates down and stay in business. Everybody is happy right? Maybe , maybe not....

Working with a Staff Engineer

The benefits are:

They do everything that comes through the door so they will usually have worked on many different styles of music.
They will know their studio better than anyone else.
If you can find a talented up and coming staff engineer, you can get a great recording, and save yourself some money.

The downside is:

You may be working with a burnt out zombie. They may be running on 2 hours of sleep, which is a recipe for disaster in a studio.
They are tied to one studio and they have to tow the company line about their facility, as they depend on it's survival, just like a Gap employee i.e. " there is not one thing wrong with this studio" "you should record, overdub, mix , and master here" etc.
It takes years to become a good engineer. The subtleties of achieving and combining great sounds make the difference between average tracks and great ones. Inexperienced engineers even with the best equipment cannot compete with an experienced pro.
They have no personal stake in the recording as the studio pays them, not you. They get paid the same whether your recording is brilliant or terrible.

Some of them are really just staff assistant engineers, who engineer only when bands do not supply one.

Use the same criteria contained in Choosing an Engineer to determine if a studio's staff engineer is the right person to record your music.

 

Freelance Engineers

Freelance engineers are engineers who are hired by bands, producers, labels, and managers to record a project, and can work in any studio.

Working with a Freelance Engineer

The benefits are:

They are far more specialized, becoming experts in certain styles of music.
They have a great deal of experience.

They usually started out as staff engineers, got good and have moved on.

They can pick their own projects, so they don't have to work on things they do not like.
They can be honest about the shortcomings of studios as they aren't dependent on one to make a living.
They have a vested interest in making a great recording. You are paying them, not a studio.
They can be more flexible with scheduling, as you are their priority, not a studio.

The downside is:

They are often more expensive than staff engineers.
Just because someone is freelance, doesn't mean they're good. Some people use the term "freelance engineer" to describe unemployment. Check the credits to see.

Recommendations:

If you can find a good freelancer who likes your work, this is generally your best bet. They are usually more experienced, specialized and will give you better sounding tracks.
If you are tight for cash and a studio has a talented staff engineer, by all means use them. If they are good, they will soon be freelance and you won't be able to afford them.

Incidentally, studios should also discount a room when you do not use the house engineer. (The staff person will also love you for giving them the days off.

In any case remember to use the criteria contained in Choosing an Engineer to determine whether a specific Staff or Freelance Engineer is right for your recording.

 

Mixing Engineers

Engineers vs. Mixers

Just because someone is a good tracking engineer, don't assume they are a good mixing engineer. Mixing is an entirely different skill than tracking, and many good engineers are terrible mixers.

Mixing involves

a great deal of creative input,
a much better understanding of dynamics, songwriting, orchestration, arrangement, and taste,
the ability to get great sounds.

It is often beneficial to have a different engineer mix an album, rather than use the one who recorded it. A new perspective on the songs and the sounds can be positive.

Good mixers are more expensive than tracking engineers, but this is OK 'cause you don't need them for as long, and if they're good it's so worth it.

Don't be afraid to push the mixer to get what you want. They usually like creative input from the band. Many of them err on the safe side after years of abuse from labels. Safe mixes are boring fodder for old people living in Florida.

Helpful Hints When Mixing
Discuss what you are looking for from a mix beforehand.
Mixing is very tedious, difficult work, that requires long periods of concentration, so don't bring all your friends and hang out in the control room and smoke crack. Distracting the mixer is bad for your songs, your mixes, and your career.

Give the mixer a chance to get set up. Usually a few hours into a mix a good time for the artist to show up. By then the mixer will have something for you to listen to.

Mixers who won't let you attend a mix are posers. This is childish and insecure. Don't put up with it.
Try to listen to other instruments besides your own. It is often very difficult to be objective about your own work and, therefore, resist the incredibly strong impulse to constantly obsess on your own performance. In other words, don't hover over the mixers shoulder all day and say "Could you turn me up?".
Be nice to the mixer. They can wreck your record.

 

Producers

What's A Producer Do?

There are as many production styles as there songs, and a producer can focus on arranging, song fixing, sonic wizardry, writing, playing, voodoo, or a combination of these. Generally a "Good Producer":

creates "what you hear in your head", from writing to completion of a song.
makes the record better than you thought it could ever be.

is up on equipment. They know what instruments/amps/samplers/mics/preamps/compressors/eq's etc. will help create the sounds you need, and how to combine these separate sounds to create the recording you want.

must be able to get the absolute best performance from the artist.
should inspire you, which is often difficult in the sterile recording studio world.
can help improve song arrangements.
picks the strongest material the artist has, and can accurately assess the band's strengths and weaknesses.
may co-write some or all of a song with an artist.
organizes and attends all recording sessions, from bed tracks to mixing, keeping them flowing as smoothly as possible.
determines when a performance is good enough to keep. Years of ear training go into hearing timing, pitch, groove, pocket, and tone. Remember when you couldn't hear if your guitar was out of tune? You know how bad that sounds now? Producers develop senses finely tuned to all of the things that make a performance special. You have to trust their ears. That's why you are paying them. Careful though - many of them will force a performance so perfect that the record is a sterile, boring piece of shit by the time it's done.
often chooses the studios, negotiates rates, and books the time.
organizes the budget and determines how it will be spent.
often gets called on to referee. They must be able to resolve disputes within a band smoothly.
should listen to the band's opinions, not just steamroller them.
is usually extraordinarily organized, as combining all the pieces making up a record can be a daunting task.
should be able to identify and help the band with it's weaknesses.
should attend the mastering.
can be a buffer between you and your label to minimize annoying A&R input.
can often help you shop your record to labels.

 

Choosing A Producer

The most important thing when choosing a producer is to look for the right kind of producer for the kind of music you want to make.

This includes a person who would be an expert in:
the type of music you make.
the type of sounds you like.
the type of songs you write.
Find someone who:
understands and listens to the kind of music you make.
is really into the artist, not just looking for a paycheck.

is good at seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the artist.

can maximize the artists strengths and can help with the weaknesses . e.g. if your arrangements are lacking, get a producer with arranging chops, if your songs need help, get a good song producer, if you sound bad, get someone known for their sonic brilliance.
Ask questions:
Ask the producer exactly what they did on the recordings you like. Every record is different, every production job is different.
Ask how much that recording cost to make. Any monkey can make a good sounding record for a pile of cash.

Ask about the producers production philosophy. How do they like to record? How do they define a successful production ? What are their favorite records? What do they listen to at home?

Check album credits to determine if their discographies are legit. Getting coffee for Mariah and producing her is very different.
Discuss what you re trying to do with the project. Are you trying to get signed, going to commercial radio with it, going to college radio, don't give a shit, are they songs for your mom. Is it a demo? an indy record, a finished master ? Be specific.

 

Specialization

No producer is good at everything. Each has their own specialized talents.

Most are specialists in certain genres.
Many are known for a specific sound.
Most are musicians and songwriters.
Most favor certain recording styles and equipment.

Find someone you can get along with. Even more so than an engineer, you will be dealing with the producer on an extremely emotional level. They will be there to witness the stresses, insecurities, and excitement of making the recording so you need to feel comfortable around them. If this relationship doesn't develop, and you do not trust them creatively, the recording will suffer.

Experience

They should have a body of work that you respect. One hit wonders can be very lucky producers who were in the right place at the right time

Experience is very important. It takes a long time and a lot of studio hours to become a good record producer. Anyone who is good never stops learning. With this in mind ask yourself "Have they done anything good in the last 1000 years? Sometimes producers stop learning, forget why they loved music and it turns into a job. This is scary and can indicate that the "best before date" has expired. This certainly doesn't mean you need the "flavor of the month" producer, just someone who is current, passionate, and still making records you like.

Reputation

They should have a good reputation. Yes some producers are scum who'll work on anything for a buck, but they are easy to pick out if you look. The music community is small. Everyone knows everyone. Ask around, if you hear bad things, they might just be true.

Danger Signs

Beware of the following:

Anyone who says they can do all kinds of music.
Anyone doesn't want to see a band live or attend rehearsals.
Someone who guarantees you a record deal.
Someone no one's ever heard of.
Someone who works at a feed store all day and produces on the weekend.
Someone who does jingles all week but really "wants to get into music" in their spare time, using you as guinea pig.
Anyone with a mullet.

 

Studios

Choosing A Studio

Once you narrow it down to a few studios, visit them and see for yourself.

Get them to play you some of the records made there.
Do you like any of the records made there?
Meet the staff - they are a big part of the experience.
Check out the atmosphere. Can you be creative in that environment?
Is it a small one studio facility or a giant multi-plex. Each has benefits. Which will suit your needs?
Are they all music or do they do some film, jingle work too?

 

Ask questions:
Does the room come with an assistant?
Does the room come with an engineer? If so what have they done?
Is the studio well maintained? Who does it? Recording in studios with poor maintenance will drive you crazy and cost you time and money, as well as ruining your creative vibe.
How many hours is considered a full day?
Are there extra charges to use certain pieces of gear?
Ask for an equipment list and discuss it later with your engineer.

 

Suggestions

Most studios are good for certain specific things. Some are great for tracking, some for overdubs, and some for mixing. Studio's that claim to do it all are suspect unless they are huge multi-room facilities. Use the strengths of each studio to maximize your recording, and minimize the cost.

Most engineers have favorite studios and can help you determine which ones are best for you and your budget. They have to be able to pull off the sounds you want, so consult them. That's part of what you are paying them for.

 

 

Home Recording

Can We Record At Home?

With shrinking recording budgets and a boom in home and project studios, plus the growing number of digital audio workstation options available, one of the most common questions you get asked is "Do you think we could record some of this album at home?"

Generally home is a tiny project studio. Many overdubs can now be performed in environments like this. The easiest things to do at home are D.I. stuff which goes directly to tape without the need for a mic. Samplers, keyboards, direct bass or guitars etc. all fall into this category. Programming at home can also save you a zillion dollars.

To successfully pull off recording at home, carefully take into account the following:
Rent at least 1 good microphone, mic preamp, and compressor. Just about every high end company now makes a recording channel including a mic preamp, compressor, and eq. They are simple to use and can be rented inexpensively.
Hire an engineer that you trust (see choosing an engineer) to record it for you.
If you cannot afford an engineer, record as flat as possible (no eq) and use little or no compression (using this stuff poorly can cause huge problems that cannot be fixed later).
Listen to music you know well in the control room to acclimatize yourself to it's sonic weaknesses.
Frequently take tapes out of the studio and listen to them in an environment you know (car, home, etc.).
Pay careful attention to mic placement, leakage, phasing, and distortion.

 

Advantages
It's damn cheap.
You can spend more time getting performances cause it's damn cheap.
You are often more comfortable and less stressed.
You can save more dough for mixing & mastering.

 

Disadvantages
If you don't rent microphones, preamps, etc. quality of the recording will suffer.
If you don't hire an engineer and you don't have a clue how to record, the quality of the recording will be lame.
The recording space may sound bad.
The "control room" may be so sonically inaccurate, you won't be able to hear or accurately assess the quality of the sounds.
You may be recording on some goofy non standard recording format and need to bounce later, thereby losing a generation.

 

Analog or Digital?

Anyone still hopelessly clinging to one format regardless of budget is an idiot. Engineers, producers, and waiters all seem to have valid opinions on this ever popular subject. Here are some more:

Regardless of cost, and given a choice most music engineers would prefer to record to a good analog machine for the quality of sound.
This is not always possible, convenient, or flexible enough for the project. It is probably more expensive as well.

Most high end mixers and mastering engineers wildly prefer 1/2" analog 2 track over all digital formats.

The preferred digital formats are ones with high resolution and high sampling rates (the current fav being 24 bit 96KHz).
Hard disk digital recording is more flexible in many ways, with editing and processing abilities not possible in analog world.
Many albums are now done in a hybrid analog digital mixture. The big danger of bussing all this music around is the number of converters you pass through. If you record to analog, bounce to Pro Tools for editing, mix from Pro Tools on an analog console and mix to DAT you have gone through 3 sets of A/D or D/A converters, each having their own dramatic effect on the signal (and that is before mastering!!). This kind of thing happens all the time and is often necessary. Just be aware of what's going on.
Budgets often determine which formats will be used. Simply make the best recording you can on the format you can afford . If you have great songs nobody will give a shit how it was recorded.
If you have no songs, you can record on big slabs of gold and mix to unicorns horns and it won't make a bit of difference.

 

If you are recording to digital

use the best analog to digital converter you can afford.
record as hot as possible to maximize the resolution.
please don't use a gazzilion plug ins on everything, you often can't undo the damage.
back up your files or make safeties often.

 

Mastering

The final stage before going to CD. Mastering involves:

Assembling mixes, editing, eq'ing, and compressing are all part of mastering.
This is a very different skill than engineering or mixing.
Mastering engineers are extremely specialized.
Mastering is a critical element in the recording process.
Mastering engineers are often described as weird, creepy, and lacking social skills.

 

There are basically 2 types of mastering

  1. Full blown professional mastering at a facility that is a dedicated mastering facilty.

  2. Mastering done at a recording studio on a digital audio workstation like Pro Tools or Sonic Solutions in a control room is not specifically designed for mastering.

General Info
Expect to pay between $125 -350 an hour for a professional mastering facility, usually allotting a day for an album.
Recording studios that master are often much cheaper, as low as $50 an hour to about $100. The same amount of time is involved with either option.
The difference in price often is a result of the cost of the specialized equipment, the cost of building the mastering studios to exacting sonic standards, and the level of experience of the mastering engineer. You can get the same facility with an up and coming engineer for a lot less than an established star.
The quality of recording studio mastering is usually dependent on the mastering engineer provided they have at least a minimum level of quality gear. Given that these rooms will generally have more sonic inaccuracies than a dedicated mastering facility, you must rely even more on this engineers familiarity with the room to sort out what is going on with your music.
Recording studio mastering will probably never replace professional mastering rooms and they can be scary, but they are a cheap alternative that can produce great results with the right engineer.

 

 

Annoying phrases to listen for

"We can fix it in the mix."

This is a phrase developed by morons to disguise the fact that they have made a mistake and cannot figure out how to fix it now. It is hoped that you will forget all about it until you are in the mix, at which time you will hear it and say, "Wow how did that get by" No one will be able to remember whose fault it is by then.

"When I was working with so-and-so"

Who gives a shit who you were working with last week? Namedropping is a studio art form perfected by people with enormous amounts of free time and tiny penises. Remind them who is paying them this week, and that you promise to tell them if Bono calls.

"You're doing it wrong"

Most great ideas are accidents and the studio is no exception. Never listen to anyone uttering this phrase ever again.

Other versions of this phrase include "You can't do that." or "I've never heard of that."

"I used to like them when"

Studios are populated with record store geeks, music freaks, and computer nerds, all of whom can turn you on to amazing music you have never heard. They are also populated with pompous, annoying know it alls, who don't like anything that has sold more than 2 copies. These people have also discovered every famous band, and "liked their early work". It usually turns out this was when the artist was about 3 years old and learning to fingerpaint.

The best way to deal with this is to play the "famous imaginary band game". Make up a band name, tell them critics love them, and ask if they have heard of them. Inevitable the answer will be "Yes". Following this admission of guilt, mercilessly beat them about the neck and head, wrap them in gaffer tape and tie them to a tree with their underwear around their head. 'Nuf said.

 

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