How to Transition Your Home Recording Project to the Studio: Part 2

photo courtesy of Orb Studios_Thomas Blank of Quiet Company

For part one in this series, please read last month’s issue or head here.

PRE-AMPS & MICROPHONES

If you already have a quality analog-to-digital interface with a nice pre-amp, then you are off to a good start.   But what if your recording setup is a bit under par?  If you are going to record quality tracks at home you need some quality gear and luckily that doesn’t mean having to break the bank.  You don’t want any weak links in your recording chain (microphone, cables, limiter/pre-amp/interface).   So it starts with the best microphone you can afford; a few solid all around choices that pack the biggest bang for the buck are the MXL 990 ($100) and the Audio-Technica AT2020 ($100).

Keep in mind that both of these large diaphragm condenser mics need phantom power, so you’ll need a pre-amp/interface that supplies it or else they won’t work.   What you are looking for in an interface is the number of inputs that fit your recording needs and quality pre-amps with phantom power.  A 2-channel model that fits the bill could be the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 USB ($249).  If you already have an interface but it doesn’t have phantom power and your budget is a bit stretched, consider getting a stand alone pre-amp like the ART Tube MP Studio V3 ($95) which offers a decent tube pre-amp, phantom power and output limiter.

FORMAT YOUR HOMEWORK

So what do you need to bring with you from home when you go into the studio to finish your project?  We can’t stress this enough – don’t book a studio and just show up with your laptop full of home recorded tracks without first having a pre-production meeting.  Many questions need to be answered first.  Are you planning on taking the studio recorded tracks back home to finish mixing, or are you going to complete the project in the studio?  What software did you use to record the project?  What’s your bit rate and frequency (e.g. 24-bit 96kHz?, 16-bit 44kHz?)  If the studio runs the same software as you do, then you might be able to share a project file, but often the studio would like to just import individual raw WAV or AIFF tracks.  If so, it’s important that all of these tracks start at the same place (zero) so that the studio doesn’t have to waste time lining them up. Make sure that when you output each track, you aren’t adding any effects, that they all start at zero (yes, even if the lead guitar track doesn’t come in until the second verse) and label each track well.  You also want to tell the studio what the BPM (Beat Per Minute) is for each song so that they can set their project up correctly.

MISMATCHED TRACKS

Okay, you got through all those finicky format hurdles and things are going well in the studio.  Your newly recorded drum tracks sound great and the studio engineer has been able to make your vocals sound sweet.  But now that the mix is coming together, you realize that a few vocal phrases could have been better.  You duck into the vocal booth and re-record those parts and…wait, they don’t sound right.  They sound like they were recorded in another room; that’s because they were.  It can be hard enough to match tracks recorded in the same studio with the same microphone when days have passed between takes.  It can be downright impossible on a lead vocal track that is hot in the mix when some takes were recorded in a bedroom with one microphone and pre-amp and then re-recorded with a different setup in the studio.  In this case, you might have to completely re-track in the studio or do your re-tracking at home and send the raw files back to the studio for further mixing.

GOLDEN RULE: LESS IS MORE

It’s tough enough tackling all these technical issues, if you then add too many songs, it’s a recipe for disaster. Taking on too many songs during a single session, especially before you’ve developed a routine in the studio, usually leads to bad results.  There’s just too much to focus on.  We don’t even know where this style of over-cramming came from – perhaps the days when you could book a block of late night studio time on the cheap.   But remember, you get what you pay for.  We’ve heard so many horror stories from bands who booked 12 hours of studio time to record all the drum tracks for an album and 12 hours later ended up frustrated when nothing came out useable.   Yes, it’s better to do all the work of setting up the drums and working on one song to start (and don’t pick the strongest song either).  That way the drummer and band can get through the studio learning curve with less pressure and more focus.  You’ll then go back into the studio with the experience you need to be more effective and efficient.

THE MASTER

Mastering a song is the art of making a single track shine.  Mastering an album is the art of making all the tracks shine and work together in context – not an easy task.  This task is generally made easier when all the tracks on an album are recorded and mixed in the same place.  If you plan on making an album by recording and mixing some songs at home and others at a studio, you should really consider having all the songs mastered by a professional mastering engineer if your budget allows.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at [email protected]

Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at [email protected]

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