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more... GearHow-TosGear BlogRecording TipsRecordingGuitar TracksSeptember 2011

How to Be Armed and Ready in the Studio

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How to Be Armed and Ready in the Studio
We looked at quick-and-easy solutions for capturing musical ideas in the last issue, using everything from handheld digital recorders to compact multitrack devices [“Instant Capture,”July 2011]. Let’s continue with the theme of convenient recording, but change our perspective slightly. Capturing ideas is one thing, but making final master recordings is something else. For this, we’ll usually want a more full-blown studio including a DAW (digital audio workstation), some studio monitors, a nice mic or two (or many more), maybe an outboard preamp (or more), mic stands, cables, patchbays, etc.


Having all this gear is necessary for the flexibility to make recordings in different ways, and with higher fidelity than we can achieve using the down-and-dirty recorders we talked about last month. But—as we also discussed—when it comes to recording, it’s critical to be able to get into action quickly. When you’re ready to lay down tracks, do you really want to spend a half hour or more getting everything out, cabled up, set in place, booted, and ready to record? If you’re like me, you have limited time to work on your recordings. Why not spend that available time actually making recordings, instead of messing with the gear?

With that in mind, here are some tips for setting up your studio so you can quickly get into action. I’ll assume your studio is set up somewhere that you can safely leave things, and that you don’t have to tear down completely after each session.

Prep your DAW.
The biggest time-saver as far as your DAW is concerned is having the setup work done in advance. Create a template or templates that cover your basic needs. Create blank tracks, set up the routing to get mics into the tracks, set up your headphone mix, initiate the reverb you usually use during tracking, and so on. Basically, prepare an entire DAW session, but save the file as a template before you record anything into it. Then, when you do get into the studio to start recording, just load up the template, save it under a new name, and get to work. Creating well-appointed templates will save a ton of time at the start of each session.

Hardwire as much as possible.
Most commercial studios use patchbays to centralize all the connections for their gear, and to allow any piece of gear to be connected to any other piece of gear or mixer input or output. This flexibility is necessary because there are many different clients using the room, each of whom wants things set up in a slightly different manner. But in our studios, we are the client, and we don’t need all that flexibility. I find it far more efficient to directly connect my gear, without patchbays. This saves time by not having to hook things up before each session, and the signal is cleaner as well since there are less connectors and cables in the path. I’ve got my mic preamps wired straight to my DAW interface’s inputs—I use an interface with enough inputs so all my preamps can always be connected—and everything else is hooked up and instantly ready to use. This saves having to find cables, crawl behind the racks, and make the connections (I never have to re-patch). It really adds up when you save a minute or more for each connection at each session.

Have your most-used mics out and on stands.
I won’t argue that it’s safer for mics to be stored in their cases and/or a cabinet. But the trade-off is the time it takes to go to the cabinet, find the mic, get it out of its case, put the shockmount or clip on the stand, and insert the mic on the stand mount. All that time adds up and not only slows down the initial launch of the session, but also slows things down every time you want to use a different mic. Try keeping a few often-used mics out and on stands, ready to go. That said, it is wise to make or find a cover that can be slipped over each mic, protecting it from dust when not in use.

Make connecting mics easy.
As a corollary to the last tip, make it easy to get your mics into your preamps. Since most mic pres are rackmount units with the connections on the back, you have to crawl or reach behind the rack every time you want to connect a cable. You could “permanently” connect a cable to each preamp input that can be hung off the rack for easy access, but that can get messy. Or, you can do what I did—purchase an XLR patch panel that mounts into the same rack as the preamps. The mic preamp inputs hook up to the back of the XLR patch panel using short mic cables. Hooking up a mic up to a particular preamp is now fast and easy—just connect the mic cable to the mic and to the appropriate XLR connection on the front of the patch panel.

Keep necessary accessories handy.
I have a rackmounted drawer right below my DAW interface that holds a guitar tuner, a few adapters, picks, a slide, a capo, spare batteries, and other items that I often use when recording. The key is not loading the drawer up with a bunch of junk. Limit the drawer to the essential accessories you use on every session.

The more you can have your studio set up, configured, and ready to record, the faster you can get into action when inspiration strikes. Try this the next time you set up your studio for a session. Get it completely ready to go, as if you were about to hit the record button. Now, what can you do to pre-prepare your studio and rig so the minimum amount of time is required to get it to that record-ready state? The idea is to minimize the amount of work you have to do before each session, so you can instantly get down to the real thing—the creative work of recording music.


Mitch Gallagher is the former editor in chief of EQ magazine. He’s written more than 1000 articles and six books on recording and music technology, and has released an instructional DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit mitchgallagher.com.
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