What’s Involved In A Recording Session?

XLR cables being plugged in

If you made it through the post “How Long Does It Take To Record A Song?” you will have found that I prattled on endlessly about the various complications common to recording sessions without actually answering the question. For this I can only apologise, and promise to take a more direct approach here, using a typical 5-piece rock band recording a 4-song EP as a template. Of course, every band is different, every project is different, and every genre encompasses different challenges, and therefore this is far from a one-size-fits-all methodology, however an arrangement such as this is nonetheless very common, and hopefully this will therefore provide some useful insight into what my working methods are and what you can expect in a session.

 

So let’s say I’m tasked with recording a 5-piece rock band. They want to record and mix their 4-song debut EP, and they want to keep their costs down to a minimum. The band is comprised of:

  • Lead vocalist/guitarist
  • Guitarist/backing vocalist
  • Bass player/backing vocalist
  • Keyboard player
  • Drummer


Let’s examine how that would work.

Prior to the session I open a conversation with the band, either by email or in person at the studio, during which the specifics of their project are discussed, with reference to any material that they consider instructive to the kind of result they’re looking to achieve. We discuss equipment requirements, production considerations, and any other relevant details with a view to agreeing a workable plan, ensuring that we are all on the same page and not approaching the project from different directions. Given the budgetary limitations imposed in this particular case, I recommend that we proceed with a relatively straightforward recording with minimal overdubs, focusing instead on capturing an organic, powerful representation of the band. The lead vocalist likes the sound of this because she favours a naturalistic representation of her vocal style, with good room miking and no double-tracking, and the rest of the band are likewise happy that their instruments will be cleanly represented and not stylised in any way that detracts from their natural sound. 

I am asked by the drummer if I am likely to sample replace drums. I reply “not unless absolutely necessary”. It may be the case that I ask the drummer to record a few individual hits, just for safety, after the main drum recording has been done, and perhaps I might use these hits to repair some dodgy sections here and there if required, but I am a strong advocate of recording as authentically as possible, utilising room mics and mic selection to capture the natural character of the kit and the performer, rather than digitally assaulting the material with a sample library. I consider the latter approach to be fairly crass and disingenuous for all kinds of reasons, and so unless there is a very specific reason to do that, I try to avoid it.

We go on to discuss how the band might be most comfortable in approaching the recording. I ask if they would favour playing organically together in the same room, or layering instruments separately to a click track and guide takes. Generally speaking I feel disinclined to suggest the click track approach unless there is a specific need for it, especially with regards to a traditional gigging band setup, because to do so is to impose an artifice on the group that pushes them away from their normal modus operandi, and potentially introduces unwanted complications (please see the post “To Click Or Not To Click” for a wider discussion of this topic). It is decided that the organic feel of a live band is preferable in this instance, and so we go on to discuss how this is achieved. I will go into this in more detail later in this article.

We finally discuss which instruments and amplifiers are to be used, with the drummer deciding that the studio’s Gretsch kit would be a great choice, combined with his own snare and cymbals, and the guitarists respectively eyeing up the studio’s Mesa Boogie and AC30 amplifiers. We all agree that these choices are appropriate given the sound they are looking to achieve. The bass player has a rig of his own that he would like to use. I then go on to make clear that the key to a great recording is excellent preparation on the part of the band, and point them to my blog posts, “How Long Does It Take To Record A Song?” and “How To Prepare For Your Session”.

With these considerations in mind, and given that this is the first time we have worked together, I propose two “Weekender” sessions, with the first two days for tracking instruments, followed by a break, and then a second two days to record vocals and mix. During the initial tracking session we focus on laying down the backbone of the songs (drums, bass, guitars, keys and guide vocals), and if we work efficiently with a well-rehearsed band then we should be able to produce good results by the end of our two days. It is queried whether there would be enough time on Day 2 to record vocals so that mixing can take place on Day 3, however I suggest that, whilst it would be nice, it may be pushing expectations too far given the quantity of material and the range of instruments that need recording, editing and balancing. It is often unwise to try to shoehorn a vocal recording into the dwindling hours of a larger session, for several important reasons, not least that everyone is generally tired by this point, and therefore producing a good vocal performance with a weary brain and a ticking clock is not very likely. What tends to happen is that the vocalist ultimately rejects these takes and re-records them on a fresh day, and therefore valuable time which could have been put to better use was in fact wasted.


Before outlining the kind of agenda one might expect throughout a 4-day session like this, it is worth detailing the nature of a full-band tracking session such as would be the case on Day 1. The following description therefore documents a fairly typical procedure:

With the drum kit miked and sounding good, including various room and ambient mics strategically positioned, the rest of the band is arranged in the Live Room alongside the drummer, possibly excluding any superfluous musicians with respect to the core components of the band. So, for example, if the band can capture their fundamental energy when stripped of their keyboard player and second guitarist, it may be the case that these two individuals are either excluded from these original takes, or repositioned elsewhere in the studio, perhaps in the Control Room. Let’s imagine that is the case here. So in the Live Room we have the drummer, bass player and vocalist/guitarist, with the second guitarist and keyboard player in the Control Room. The drum kit has lots of open mics positioned all around it, including on the surfaces of walls and perhaps further out in the hallway, and therefore it is important that no amplifiers are running that can bleed into these mics. The bass and first guitar are DI’d and run through an amp simulator of some kind, adjusted to approximate the players’ usual sound, and then fed into theirs and the drummer’s headphones. Likewise the keys and second guitar are DI’d, albeit from the Control Room, where they are able to monitor either the Control Room mix, or separate headphone mixes of their own. Some time is spent establishing individual monitor mixes for everyone such that they are able to comfortably hear themselves and whatever else is important to them. The singer is provided a vocal mic, which she will use to record a guide vocal during these initial recordings, taking care not to bleed vocals into any drum mics during sensitive sections. The volume of a vocalist with respect to a drum kit tends to be negligible so this is seldom a cause for concern, however I make sure to keep my ears peeled for any sections where the vocals may be inadvertently audible in the drum mics. It is very unlikely that I will attempt any isolation with large, cumbersome baffles because such panels are fairly ineffective and don’t generally offer much advantage. With everybody set up and ready to go, with levels checked and a few test recordings under our belt, and ensuring that I have cued up a suitable Control Room mix, we are ready for the band to let rip, which, invariably, they do. It usually takes a few attempts for everyone to feel totally comfortable, but once they are loosened up I get to experience the pleasure of sitting back, putting my feet up and listening to them sounding like their true uninhibited selves with a fantastic sound. This part really is a pleasure for me! The beauty of this approach is that, after recording all necessary material and establishing the fundamental backbone of the songs, we have the option of either re-amping the DI’d instruments, or overdubbing them completely. Both offer the opportunity to focus more acutely on the sound of each instrument, with due consideration given to tone and microphone choice. Very often the various musicians will decide to re-record their parts afresh, but because we are recording on top of a live drum performance, we are now working from a template that maintains an energy and character that may not have otherwise been captured. After all four songs have been recorded (I will let the band dictate how many takes they would like to do of each song — usually 3 is plenty), it is likely that I will now align the grid of my DAW to map on to each song in order to make any successive editing and overdubbing easier. From here the process of layering instruments and vocals can proceed as normal, in the safe knowledge that the fundamental basis of the recording is true to what that band really sounds like.


Let’s now look at a typical agenda for a 4-day session:

Day 1

9.40am
Band arrives and loads in equipment. We have a brief strategy meeting while the drummer unpacks his kit in the Live Room.

10am
I begin preparing a project within my DAW while the drummer sets up and tunes his kit. Coffees are made.

11am
With the kit set up, tuned and sounding good, I proceed to start miking it. 

1pm
Drum kit has been milked and sound checked, adjustments made, any concerns addressed. We begin adding successive musicians into the fold; first bass, then guitars, keys and vocals. By 2pm we are generally ready to start recording, perhaps after a brief pause for lunch.

2pm
Recording begins.

4pm
All basic takes have now been recorded and we can proceed with re-amping the bass guitar, feeding the cleanly recorded DI signal into a bass amp and miking as necessary.

6pm
End of Day 1.


Day 2

10am
Band arrives. Material is reviewed. Any editing work takes place.

1pm
Guitar 1 is set up and recorded as a fresh overdub.

2pm
Guitar 2 is set up and recorded as a fresh overdub.

4pm
Keys are set up and recorded as a fresh overdub.

6pm
Rough mixes are exported and handed to the band. End of day 2.


Day 3

10am-6pm
Full day of vocal recording (including backing vocals) with any further editing undertaken and projects tidied, ready for mixing.


Day 4

10am-6pm
Full day of mixing.

 

It is very important to note that the breakdown given above is a guide only, not a statement of assurance that all sessions will follow this course, as it presupposes a prepared, well-rehearsed band on a very limited budget who have worked hard to eliminate any surprise problems from their agenda. As stated in “How Long Does It Take To Record A Song?”, if it transpires that significant drum editing is required, or there are technical challenges on the part of the band, then it is entirely possible that more time may be required.

I should also reiterate that this is just one example of a band setup, but there are of course many others. Acoustic guitar recordings present different challenges, as does brass, piano, double bass, cello, etc, etc. If you have any questions about your particular configuration, I am only too happy to discuss it with you.

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