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.
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.”