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Silence.. silence.. silence.. tap tap.. IS THE MICROPHONE ON?
The importance of monitoring in the recording studio
If you are at this stage of the production process, then hopefully you have a great artist or band to record, a great song, and an effective musical arrangement. With all of this in place, you're ready to go into the studio and record.
If you take notice of what is commonly said on the Internet, then you might think that good recording is pretty much all about having the right equipment. This could not be further from the truth. Yes you need equipment of a basic professional standard, and a good recording environment. But when you have that it isn't better equipment that you need, it is all the other factors that go into the making of a great recording. The first of which is...
If you have done your A&R work well, then there won't be any problem with the quality of the musicians you are recording. Problems with poor musicianship cannot be solved in the studio other than by a good deal of fakery, which I won't go into further here. So let's assume that you are working with good people. You'll need to get the best out of them.
It would be nice to think that a musician could enter the studio and work to such a high level of professionalism that they could give their best performance in two or three takes. Yes this can happen, but you shouldn't expect it. A good producer will coax a musician into giving their best performance, and indeed a better performance than they thought they were capable of.
Clearly the singer will be most important, so let's consider what you can do to get the best vocal performance.
Firstly the singer will need to warm up. A professional singer will know what works best for them and they will warm up while you get on with other aspects of preparation. But if you are working with someone with a natural talent, then maybe they won't know how to get the best from their own voice. Any singer will perform better with ten minutes or so of warm up. Vocal exercises are good, but just rehearsing the song to be recorded will work. Some singers need half an hour or forty minutes before they are at their best. As the producer, you will have to judge when the singer is ready to go for the first take.
Next there is the interpretation of the song. If the singer knows the song well, or perhaps wrote it, then there shouldn't be too much work to be done here. Certain lines or words might not be coming through clearly enough. Maybe a pause to separate some words can help the meaning come through. Details like this can really help.
But if the singer doesn't know the song so well and perhaps has only just learned the melody, then there may be a lot of scope for improvements. Rather than try to tell the singer what to do, you can ask them to run through the song in various ways - quietly, without emotion, with much emotion, smoothing the words into each other, chopping up the delivery etc. Together, you and the singer can find out which way sounds best. This can happen almost instinctively rather than having to analyze every detail. Think of it as exploring the possibilities of the song.
Once you have found the ideal performance style, then you are ready to record. It is common practice to try out two or three microphones and see which sounds best, which can be different for different singers, and even different for the same singer on different days. Don't over-work the singer at this point. You want them to be in the peak of condition when you are ready to go for a take.
It's worth pointing out that it can be useful to record everything that happens when the singer is in front of the microphone. What may seem like a rehearsal or try-out may turn out to be the best take of the session! You don't need to tell the singer you're doing this. Sometimes the best takes happen when the singer doesn't realize he or she is being recorded.
Once the session is under way, then your job as a producer is to make sure that the high standard of quality with which you set out continues all the way through. Make sure that every line and every word is delivered exactly as you want it, with no faults either musical or technical.
I have concentrated on the vocal, but you will apply a similar degree of attention to the whole of the recording process - to recording the basic instruments, lead vocal, background vocals and instrumental overdubs.
Although the recording process can be a matter of capturing everything that has already been decided musically in the best way possible, there is always that chance that some aspect of the song or the arrangement could be improved. Indeed, when a song is constructed in the studio, which is a common production method, then experimentation is absolutely essential. It is often the producer's job to say, "Why don't you try this?" Or even, "Why don't you try...?", in which case you're asking the musician to do something that you can't imagine yourself. Quite often what comes out of the experiment isn't useful. But if you try ten ideas and get one that works, you're on a winning streak. Indeed, if it isn't the case that many of the experiments are not working, then you're not experimenting enough!
Although recording is mostly about performance, creative use of the equipment can play an important part. This could be using a tube microphone to achieve a warm characterful sound. Or a complex chain of compression, delay and other effects could be set up to allow a musician to react to what they hear. There are two important points to remember however - the first is not to make things worse. A tube microphone might sound lovely and warm while you're recording, but when you come to mix you might find clashing consonants printed into the recording that you can't fix. You need to hear these problems in the studio and correct them before things go any further. The second point to remember is that musicians can get bored while engineers are 'playing' - as they can perceive it - with the equipment. A good producer will pay attention to the mood of the musicians and if necessary move things along so that they are always well-motivated to perform at their best.
One last point - when you get to 30 minutes before it's time to start packing up, now is the time to consider whether you have captured everything you need to. When the musicians have gone home and the studio has closed its doors for the night, there will be no going back, at least not without extra trouble and cost. So think now. If you have indeed recorded everything you needed to, is there one thing that could be improved? What would make the greatest difference to the recording if you could improve it in these last 30 minutes?
In summary, recording is probably the most interesting part of the production process. Getting the musical performances to be the best they possibly can be is the most important thing to consider. Technically, you need to record to a professional, 'no faults' standard. But the success or failure of your recording as a commercial enterprise will stand or fall on the music.