News From The Woods - September, 1988


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published September, 1988

"Stop! Hey! What's That Sound?"

Pick the scenario that describes your situation best:
#1 - You've got a dynamite band and you need a dynamite demo tape to get gigs with.
#2 - You or your band have some original material and you need to impress a record company/agent/manager with a decent recording.
#3 - You intend to record your own record/cassette and sell copies on your own until the "big break" comes.

The only thing all three scenarios have in common is that you're gonna' need a recording studio. But how do you CHOOSE the "right studio"? Well, you can read brochures and literature and make phone calls and ask other bands where THEY record...... But nothing beats visiting the place firsthand.

I could have almost made a career of visiting studios in the past 25 years, and in just about every instance, it wasn't the knobs and lights that impressed me; it wasn't the décor and studio design; not the way the engineer talked shop. Y'know, it's not even the Gold Records on the wall, either. It's always the SOUND the studio produces in the hands of a CAPABLE ENGINEER, and the track record of the studio's performance in terms of satisfied clients.

When you feel you're ready to go into the studio for WHATEVER reasons, do a little homework first. If you've heard recordings by "local" bands and they sound good to you, call them up and ask them about their experiences in the studio. You can learn a lot that way.

Next go through a music publication like NIGHTFLYING and examine all the ads for studios. Remember, NEVER pick a studio just because it's "handy". It might seem cheaper at the time, but you could suffer later for it and realize you've thrown your money away.

Call the studios and do some "shopping". You can narrow the list considerably as you talk to each studio and take notes on how they handle your inquiries. Compare each studio's advantages and drawbacks. When you get the list down to 3 or 4 prospective studios, it's time to make a "road trip" and check out the facilities in person. Make appointments with each studio so you won't interrupt their business, and they will be expecting you. After you've been shown around the studio, ask to hear tapes of recently recorded groups/artists with a similar musical direction as yours. When you hear something that appeals to you, ask how recently it was recorded; who engineered it; how long it took to record and mix it; what the budget was for the project, and compare it to your situation. If you DON'T hear anything you like - better move on.

Take along rehearsal tapes of songs you intend to record and ask the engineer to preview it. That should give the studio a good idea what to expect and guide them as to what material they will bring to you for comparisons.

You know what REALLY gets me? When the guys put my tape on, plays the first 25 seconds or so, then proceeds to start talking about whatever pops into his head. How can you listen and talk at the same time? A studio that really cares about your project and not just the money will properly listen and evaluate your tapes. This is not just a courtesy gesture! Someone with "good ears" can tell if extra time might have to be spent on the session because the drummer's time fluctuates, or a singer can't hit the high notes, or the guitar player hasn't put much thought behind his solo passage, etc., etc. All these "little" items will cost you more time spent on the project. It's been my experience that as an engineer I can learn a lot more about the client by listening to their tapes than by any exchange of information, and the tape doesn't even have to be a good recording.

Other points to consider:
Low rates may not mean you're gonna' get out "cheap". Your tapes may sound "cheap" as well. On the other hand, recording in a top-dollar studio doesn't necessarily guarantee a successful session, either.

Does the hourly rate start when you walk through the studio door, or does the studio provide setup time (particularly the drums)? If you don't get the drum sound you're looking for before you even start recording, what makes you think you can "fix it in the mix"?

Does the studio insist (or "strongly suggest") you use their drum kit? That's like telling Henry Ford he has to drive a Chevy in the big race!

Walk around the studio. Talk to the engineer. Ask questions. Do you feel comfortable in the studio? Does the engineer try to impress you with his great knowledge of equipment and recording, or does he spend more time listening to what YOU want to do with your session?

Be cautious of ANYONE who can "make you a star". Such people DO exist, but most of them don't live in Arkansas!

Remember, it's not the equipment or numbers of tracks that REALLY makes the difference - it's the guy behind the knobs that will make or break your session. And don't think you can go into an unfamiliar studio and "do it yourself". You'll be fooling yourself AND wasting your money.

Plan your budget. If your instincts tell you that the studio you'll probably get the best results in is 200 miles away include your gas, mileage, lodging, food, etc. right into your recording budget. (HINT: most studios will arrange or recommend accommodations for you. They know the area better than you and probably can suggest a decent and clean motel). You'll find that the more you plan out your strategy, the more CONTROL you'll have over the situation. If it all runs smoothly, like clockwork, you will eliminate all the hassles that can prevent that creative spirit. Everything will be more positive and enhance the overall good vibes of the session.

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