9 Things I Learned While Recording My First CD
Recently, I finished the last of four short recording sessions for a CD that I’m planning to release next month. After each session, I wrote down things that I had learned that would help me improve the experience of the next session. By the end of the entire process, I had a nice little list of tips and tricks that I figured I’d share to help other people as well as get some feedback to improve my recording process.
Some of these may be obvious, or you could have more recording experience and disagree with one or more of the tips (in which case, please let me know so I can learn too), but since these are things that I learned I thought that maybe someone else could learn something from them too, in which case, it’s worth sharing.
Number Your Measures
Numbering your measures is one of the more obvious ones. Doing this only takes a few minutes, but it helps make the session more efficient if you and the recording engineer can call out a measure number to start at for a take.
Use Special Recording Strings
For each of my recording sessions I used La Bella 413P Studio Recording Classical Guitar Strings. These are La Bella’s medium tension recording strings (the 500P are the high-tension ones, but I opted for medium tension, so my hands wouldn’t tire as quickly) that utilize polished bass strings that help to “reduce the harsh squeak sound when playing and recording.”
The first time I used these strings I was taken aback by how different they felt from traditional nylon or carbon strings. So for the latter sessions, I bought two packs so I could use one for a couple of weeks before the recording sessions and get used to the feel of the strings, and then put the other set on a few days before the actual sessions to give them time to set and avoid tuning issues.
While there’s nothing wrong with using your regular strings to record, I noticed a difference in the number of squeaks in my playing when I used the recording strings and I think they helped the final product sound significantly better.
Another fairly obvious one, but it’s important to include since I found that the level of practice and precision needed for a recording was higher than a regular concert performance. I had to be able to play my pieces cleanly and accurately enough to avoid any buzzes and production noises from the strings since those would be picked up by the microphones and ruin a take.
I also found it helpful to practice in sections so that I could start from anywhere in the piece. I’d suggest, if you have the time, to get to a point where you can start from any measure and play to the end. Bottom line: having your pieces at a high level will help minimize the number of takes you have to do, saving you time and money.
Be Mindful of Body Noises and Piece Endings
If you're working with a professional recording engineer (which you should, unless you know how to edit and master yourself), they will likely have incredible microphones that pick up everything; even your breathing and noises created by moving your arm or shifting your weight on the chair. To avoid a recording that has lots of distracting sounds in it, work on relaxed breathing during your practice before recording or do an activity like yoga to be more mindful of it.
When I started the sessions, I found that I had a habit of cutting off the strings or moving around without enough space after the final chord of a piece. I had to make a conscious effort at the end of each piece to stay as still as possible and let the sound ring for an extra few seconds before moving to ensure that I was able to get the ending that I wanted.
Don't Stop Until You Have More Than You Need
I stole this one from a recent episode of The Entrepreneurial Musician podcast with Andrew Hitz, and I think it may be one of the most important on this list. The last thing you want is to finish a grueling, multi-hour recording session and then have the engineer call the next day to tell you that there’s one phrase that you never got a good take of (luckily this didn’t happen to me when making the CD). It is, of course, possible to do another take of the section, but it can be challenging to get the same set-up and tuning that you had for the rest of the recording so it may sound different, forcing you to re-record the entire piece. Always do an extra take (or two) while you're still in the same spot/mindset/tuning so it is easier to edit later.
Triple Check Tuning
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but it's one of the most critical components to getting a good recording, especially for guitarists whose instruments will go out of tune for no good reason at all. Check the tuning before you start to record. Every. Single. Time. It may be annoying, but it’s much less so than finishing a long section and realizing that you can’t use any of it because your B string was slightly flat.
Make Sure Everything is at the Same Tempo
One of the easiest ways to make sure that a take is unusable is to play the section at a different tempo than you used for the previous parts of a piece. Most of the time just having a good idea of how fast you take a piece or a section will suffice, but I came up with a little trick that worked incredibly well: I put one earbud in my ear, connected my earbuds to my phone, and set the metronome app on my phone to the tempo I wanted for a given piece, and turned down the volume as low as it could go without being silent. This enabled me to have a sort of click track while playing that was soft enough not to be picked up by the microphones, but was still present enough to help me keep an even tempo between takes, making editing easier. Additionally, since I still had one ear free, I was able to add some expressiveness and musicality to my playing (I found this almost impossible when I put the earbuds in both ears).
Know What You Want Your Recording to Sound Like
This tip has two meanings: one is to know how you want to play a piece in terms of tempo, rubato, dynamics, tone color, articulation, etc. The other is to know what kind of sound you want the recording to have. Before this project, I didn’t realize how much difference there was between different guitar recordings; some were incredibly dark and bass heavy, others were clearer with less depth. Depending on how you position the microphones and what kind of post-production effects (reverb, EQ, etc.) are used, you can create vastly different sounds with the same guitar.
There’s no right or wrong answer to what sound you aspire to, but it is crucial to think about it beforehand so that you can communicate your vision to the recording engineer. Before my first session, I listened to lots of recordings and found 4 or 5 that I liked a lot; then I sent those to the engineer so we could find the best mic placement to capture a similar sound.
Once you release the recording, it can’t be changed so make sure you’re happy with your performance and interpretive decisions as well as the mixing and mastering.
Be Well-Rested, Fed, and Hydrated
As I mentioned earlier, recording microphones pick up everything, including fan or air conditioner noises. Because of this, you need to make sure that all those appliances and others are turned off during every take so that the sound you pick up is just the music.
For some people, this won’t be an issue; you’ll be able to record at any time of day without AC and be completely fine. However, I live in Florida and decided to record in May when it usually gets to around 90º in the middle of the day, making the only possible times to record either early in the morning or late at night. Because I’m not a morning person, I opted for the late-night sessions, usually going from around 8 pm until 10 or 11. This decision did help with the heat, however, one time I forgot to take a nap during the day, so once we got an hour or so into the session I was exhausted and it took much more time than it could have to finish up for the day (I made sure to take a nap after lunch before the next session and it went much better). Recording sessions are intense, so you want to be ready prepared physically and mentally for the task.