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Studio Preparation: What You Should Know Before You Go

March 11, 2010

The tracking room at Michael Wagener’s WireWorld Studio.

What makes a hit record? It is a perennial question, but it has also become one that must be asked on a playing field now leveled by downloads, ringtones and social networking. “To make it these days, it’s so competitive and so hard and there’s little insight into what it takes to get there,” says producer Johnny K. Step one, of course, is getting your music heard, and that means recording. But before you invest in studio time and a producer, you need to be prepared.

For some “sound” advice, we turned to a diverse panel of experts: Michael Wagener, the heavy metal producer of the 1980s (and who is still in demand for recording sessions and workshops); Jason Burleson, guitar, banjo and mandolin player in the award-winning bluegrass group Blue Highway; Johnny K, producer and guitarist, whose Groovemaster Studio is a recording home for top rock bands; John Leventhal, multi-instrumentalist and award-winning producer who has worked with artists such as Michelle Branch, Shawn Colvin and most notably his wife, Rosanne Cash; harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who has spent more than 35 years sharing stage and studio with master craftsman Willie Nelson and also “unproduced” the Naked Willie album; and Bruce Kulick, best known as a 12-year member of Kiss during a pivotal time in the band’s career. Kulick has a wealth of studio, band and touring experience, and recently released his third solo album, BK3.


Michael Wagener sharing his studio expertise with members of the Black Mollys.
Practice
While it sounds elementary and should be a given, many bands don’t commit to rehearsing. Time is money in the studio. If you don’t know your stuff, you’re wasting both for everyone involved.

“This is very important,” says Kulick. “You want to be really tight. Rehearse. Play the music in front of people, even in rehearsals. I’m very strict about rehearsals. I don’t want the band to seem uncomfortable about the songs. When I recently toured Australia, I had two new musicians and I was very comfortable with them. We had three and a half days of rehearsal and we were ready. At a certain point you’re only going to be as good as you can be, and in a week of rehearsals, sometimes day four is better than day seven. Why? Who knows. Things can change, both live and in the studio, and practice is very important.”

“Everybody should be in the pocket,” adds Wagener. “If one guy plays on his own terms, it won’t work. Another thing: There’s a little word called practice, which we don’t hear about much anymore. If the musicians groove together and hear each other, things will fall into place.”

Practice shouldn’t stop after your tracks have been cut or at the end of a recording day. As Johnny K remarks, overtime pays off. “In the case of Staind, Mike [Mushok] would go home, come back and blow my mind,” he says. “He absorbs and puts thought into things, and it’s always worth the wait. Dan Donegan of Disturbed records all his parts, demos them and comes in rehearsed and ready to go. He has his own Pro Tools rig set up in the lounge of the studio. He’s listening to his performance, his recordings. Mike Wengren is there with his V-Drums and they work together. It’s pretty amazing. C.J. Pierce from Drowning Pool would work all day in the studio, then record his parts and come in the next day. Gabriel Garcia of Black Tide is into GarageBand and evaluates his work before coming in. After recording for eight hours, you’d think his fingers would be sore, but he goes into the lounge, plugs in and keeps playing while I record the other band members.”



Choose Your Team Wisely
To save money, you may be tempted to produce and mix the project yourself. Affordable software makes it possible for anyone to saturate the internet with their music directly from their home studio. Don’t do this!

“Nowadays, kids call themselves producers, and all they do is put beats together—in other words, steal other people’s songs!” says Wagener. “The ability for a guitar player to record himself and be the engineer is not a good thing. You can get good tone, but engineering is a left-brain situation and playing guitar is a right-brain situation. The more left brain you have going on, the more it takes away from the right brain. Guitarists should just think about playing and singing, and the engineer can take care of the technical side. Doing it yourself is not a good idea. A good engineer can be very helpful.”

“With Pro Tools, you can move three seconds of music one millisecond forward, do endless editing and get it just the way you want,” says Burleson. “But with a good engineer, you don’t have to think about the technical stuff. Just immerse yourself in the music you’re cutting.”

How do you find the right person for the engineering job? “When somebody is recommended, that means something,” says Kulick. “No matter where you are, someone in your city or state has a reputation for getting the sounds.” Do your homework, check references, reputations. Once you find someone, remember that you’re paying for their knowledge and expertise, so listen carefully and keep an open mind. That said, don’t hire on name alone. “The wrong producer can take a project in a direction that isn’t you,” says Kulick. “There are so many variables in the way that something is created, molded and shaped in production. It takes a visionary person to make it special. Listen to someone’s work. If you like a couple of albums they produced, or they like you and they give you a CD to listen to, whether it’s an entire album or 10 tracks by different artists, you will get a sense of their sound. Something should click in you instinctively that says that this person can do something for you.”

Be forewarned: quality isn’t cheap, but it will benefit the outcome. “Recording in a professional studio is very expensive,” says Kulick. “However, I believe that the end result of using a real studio, if you have a gifted engineer and a visionary producer, will give you amazing results, if you have the budget. Not all studios will break the bank, but make sure you know whether it’s a day rate or an hour-by-hour rate, so that you have everything lined up.


Bruce Kulick at Stagg Studios recording BK3.
“If budget is a problem, you might consider having them just do the two or three key tracks of your record, the tracks that can make a difference between the entire album being popular or not,” he says. “We live in a singles age, anyway, so those two or three key tracks matter. Musicians always talk about whether they’ve had a positive or negative experience with someone, or why someone made a project special. That’s the reputation again. Also, when you hire someone with that good reputation, they know how to bring in a good team to make things great. This is a very competitive business, so those things are important.”



On Time and in Tune
Whether you’re a platinum-selling artist or a first-time client, a producer will expect you to conduct yourself professionally. Some basic studio etiquette: punctuality, sobriety, courtesy, having functioning gear and knowing your material.


John Leventhal. Photo by Gabi Porterfield.
“The instrument should be in top shape,” says Wagener. “There is nothing worse than getting in the zone and your instrument craps out on you or goes out of tune. You’ve got to maintain your instrument very well or you will kill the groove if you have to deal with those things while tracking. It’s a nuisance. Your instrument should be set up perfectly for playing. If you have to stop and tune every two seconds, it stops the flow of creativity. Of course, I’m still a big believer in pre-production. We go in, work on the songs, and when we’re in the studio everyone knows what they should be playing.”

“The producer has to be a leader in a strict yet kind way,” says Kulick. “He wants the band to be on time, for you to have your strings, be in tune, have your tools. Have more than enough tools. Bring extra drumheads and an extra snare. There’s no reason not to be very, very prepared, because in the studio everything is under a magnifying glass. The producer expects you to be well supplied and prepared with simple things that you might not even think of, like printing out neat copies of your song lyrics. Bring everything you can and more. You might suddenly decide you want to try a 12-string on a song; it would be foolish not to bring your 12-string in case that happens. Amps too. You love that one Marshall, but if you need a simple sound to layer guitars, you don’t want the other amp to have the same complex sound with its overdrive. Bring your Fender amp, your Orange, bring it all and let the producer paint a picture of what it’s going to sound like. You can never be over-prepared.”

If you’re hiring session players, again, opt for the best. “A great drummer is imperative,” says Kulick, “whether he’s playing to a click or not. He is your basis for getting all the overdubs to feel great. When you look at the most revered bands—Led Zeppelin, The Who, Van Halen—the drummer is really special. Your bass player… it’s nice to have a Paul McCartney, but that’s not as critical as the drummer. I’ve worked with a lot of famous producers, and it’s very, very hard when the drummer isn’t talented. He’s your most important weapon for a great-sounding track and having the day go smoothly. He’s the foundation of the music. The first day in the studio is about the rhythm section. Everything else can be overdubbed and you can figure it out later.”



Play Well with Others
When it’s time to cut your parts, keep a few things in mind: 1. Now is not the time to unleash your inner EVH; 2. If you have involved other musicians in this project, let them be heard; 3. There’s beauty in simplicity; 4. Silence speaks volumes.

“The guitar initially is a tool, a map to find a way into the song, and not always the primary tool,” says Leventhal. “I am a guitar player, that’s how I started, and I have some facility on the instrument, but I never plan to play more guitar or take more solos. My playing has economy to it in records I produce, and my records don’t have a lot of solos. Guitar playing shouldn’t be self-indulgent. It should feel like an organic part of the songs.”

“When we’re talking about doing a new record, we sit in a circle, pass the guitar back and forth and sing to see which songs might work with the band,” says Burleson. “The song indicates its arrangement, tempo and which of the vocalists is best suited for it. Our saying is, ‘The song is the boss.’ It happens pretty quickly for us because there are no huge egos as far as who kicks it off. Everybody is open to let what happens happen and no one is offended if someone says, ‘This song should be a mandolin kickoff, not a banjo.’ We all know what to play behind the featured vocal or instrument. No one overrides the primary focus of the song. You have to listen and support each other, not drown each other out.”


Mickey Raphael in the studio with Willie Nelson.

Raphael knows a thing or two about how to fit, when to play and when to step aside. “I weave the web around the pocket and thread it together,” he says, “and if it gets too crazy, I don’t have to play. If it’s too far out there, I shut the fuck up and listen. That’s something Willie taught me: It doesn’t hurt to sit back and listen. You don’t have to play all the time. When you’re in the studio, or onstage, you’ve got to be able to listen and work with other guys. When you’re a young player and still learning, you want to play everything you know as fast as you can. Again, it’s like Willie says: Less is more. Genre to genre, you have to listen to what the song needs and what you can contribute. I’m concerned about playing one note with great tone rather than a solo with all the licks I know. You don’t talk when someone else is talking. It’s the same thing with music. When the singer is singing, stay out of the way of the lyrics. People want to hear what the singer and the other players have to say. If it’s not your turn to play, watch the other guys and be gracious. It’s a team effort.”

“A lot of people are terrific players at home and in their bedrooms, but they can’t work with a group, take direction or apply themselves to what it takes to fit into a collaborative effort, which is what a band is,” says Kulick. “Everyone has their own approach. You learn how to fit in, and that’s a key element. Some people are talented but have no social skills, or no understanding of when it’s time to extend themselves and when it’s time to sit back. Each situation has its own dynamics, and you have to understand those dynamics in order to make it work. That’s been a key to keeping me successful and keeping me working.”