Last week my friend Kevin and his wife flew all the way out to Nashville from LA to record vocals for his album in my home studio. We had one week to track vocals for 13 songs.

Of course, we spent a lot of time just hanging out and showing them around Nashville, but 7 days was an ideal amount of time. It gave us plenty of time to focus intently on each song, and it also gave Kevin time to let his voice rest between sessions.

Many of us are using our home studios to record our own music, right? This has been especially true for me over the last few months, as I finished up recording my own album. But I’ve been itching to get some clients in here so I can take off my “artist hat” and put on ONLY my “producer/engineer” hat.

I like that hat. 🙂

After spending a week recording Kevin, I realized how important it is for us as engineers/producers to not forget the psychology behind the recording process. Music is a highly emotional event. When you’re recording a musician, you certainly need to focus on mic placement, gain structure, song arrangement, performance, etc., but a session can quickly go sour if you neglect the emotional side of the process.

Each musician is different, and if you don’t figure out how to create an environment he/she feels comfortable in, the rest of the process is going to be difficult. See Make the Singer Comfortable.

I know what you’re thinking….”Dang…Joe and Kevin must have had some big fights, eh?”

Not at all. In fact, the sessions went extremely well, and I think there are three main reasons for that. I’ll share those reasons with you as 3 tips for working with musicians in your studio.

1. Develop a Relationship with the Musician(s)

If you do this, you’ll most likely bypass a lot of issues later. Kevin and I were already friends before he came to Nashville, so this wasn’t all that difficult.

But we don’t always get to record our friends, right? Sometimes we’re recording complete strangers. In those cases, it’s important to find some “connection points” with the musician. Spend some extra time talking while you’re setting up microphones. Get to know the musician until you both feel comfortable.

THEN start recording. Take as much time as you need. You may feel pressed for time. “We’ve got to get started RIGHT NOW.” Trust me, if you rush into recording and skip over the relationship, it’ll only get awkward, and the music will suffer.

2. Set Goals

The goal with Kevin’s trip to Nashville was simple — record vocals. Kevin also wanted to work on other things, like keyboard parts, percussion, etc. However, we didn’t let ourselves work on that stuff until the last day or two.

I knew that if we recorded two or three vocals and started goofing around with percussion, we’d end up rushing through the rest of the vocals at the end of the week…then we’d both be kicking ourselves.

So what happened? We really only got to add percussion to one song. The rest of the time we were recording vocals. This was fine with us, because the primary goal of these sessions was to get the vocals recorded. Mission accomplished.

3. Set Expectations

This is a bit different from setting goals. What I’m really talking about is setting expectations for how much honesty is allowed in the session.

That may sound strange to you, but a lot of musicians can’t handle honest critique. You tell them that last line was a bit flat, and they just shut down. Musicians are an insecure bunch. (I’m one of them.)

So while you’re working on #1, developing a relationship, you need to have “the conversation.” Kevin and I had this conversation the first or second day he was here. He simply said, “The number one priority for me is a great-sounding vocal. I need you to be brutally honest with me.”

I love that. He told me he didn’t want his pride to get in the way of the process. So that’s just what we did. If there was a line that didn’t work well – or that I thought he could sing better – we recorded it again until we got it right. “Get it right at the source” was a bit of a theme for the week.

Some musicians will never be comfortable with this approach. If you start stopping them in the middle of takes and making them punch in and out, they’ll just wither and melt. You need to feel this out for yourself and decide the best approach. For someone like this, it may be best to just record 3-5 full takes and comp from there.

This is the part where you also determine if they will be comfortable with using tuning software like AutoTune or Melodyne to fix any pitch issues. If they’re not okay with it, then they need to go back and fix those out-of-tune sections.

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So…those are my three tips for working with musicians. What do you think? I’d like at least 10 comments please. I enjoy hearing your thoughts. 🙂

[Photo by CarbonNYC]

  • Edith Ballistics

    Great post. As a singer I equate recording one’s voice (especially on one’s own material) to naked public speaking. It can be a soul-baring exercise, so tact and decency and generosity are obvious basic skills. I wholeheartedly agree that it is VERY important to have “The Talk” before the first note is sung, not just to establish rapport, but to make sure everyone’s expectations are ‘on the same page’. I know that sometimes I can be unreasonable and demanding in an effort to get the best track, so I make a point of telling whomever I’m recording 1. what I’m trying to achieve, and 2. how we’re going to get there together. I think it helps to invite feedback: I directly say that if I cross the line (wherever their line is, as it often changes during the process), call me on it. For the time that we are together, we are a family/team and we’re all prepared to leave our egos outside as the art is more important.

  • Hi,

    First of all, sorry about being off topic, but your article came closer to addressing my interest than most others I’ve found in the past few weeks. I thought I’d risk an inquiry.

    Allow me to explain:

    In the winter of 2011, when it’s colder than bejezuz and we’re all tired of the friggin’ snow and can’t wait for spring, my wife and I are thinking of organizing a casual, two-day, weekend recording session for a friends and acquaintances here in Milwaukee, basically for something creative to do. The inspiration was Springsteen’s CD and DVD “We Shall Overcome,” as well as old r’n’r stories about The Basement Tapes and Big Pink.

    What I’m trying–hoping–to find online are Regular Joes and Janes who might have done this, or do this now. What were their experiences, what happened that they didn’t expect, did they post the results on YouTube or elsewhere, any suggestions…? That sort of thing.

    Any help or ideas would be appreciated.

    JG

  • Manuel

    Thank you for the article, I´m recording my debut album as a solo artist right now and I have to deal with this a lot. Working as an engineer, give me no that much trouble of building the relationship with the artist and all of that, the clients just keep coming back, but when it came to deal with recording myself, I have to call someone else. My cousin is a engineer too, and he is BRUTALLY honest. Before him I use to record with this other two guys, and it was imposible, I just couldn´t get it done, I when I did it by myself, I felt I wasn´t being objective and I need the opinion from other ears.
    It have been a learning experience all the way. Then I have this issue with my best friend who is studying in Manchester, recording engineering, and he is also a musician. He wants me to sing on one of his instrumentals. I send him the voices I record and I knew I have some parts out of tune to fix, buttttt, he just put melodyne all over it and make me sound like T pain, I was pissed, but well, that came as an experience also,
    thanks for the article jon.

  • Good article, Joe. I’m dealing with a similar situation right now. I am usually my client and I wear the artist/producer/engineer hat most of the time other than when my singer(s) are singing my songs – I even do that sometimes. Over the last few evenings, I’ve had a young lady (21 years old, I think – I’m 45 – almost) in the studio recording some R & B kind of stuff that she wrote. It’s sounding good and I think she will be happy with the finished product but the style is out of my area of expertise; I’m just trying to make it sound good and coach her (I coach basketball) and encourage her and provide constructive feedback.

    The funny thing is that she’s really shy so rather than sing in the control room with me as my normal singers do, she is the first one to use my vocal both – it’s not going to waste after all:)

  • LtLRec

    Really great and important post. The one of the big reasons that I love, recording, producing, engineering, is that I love creative and art people, especially musicians, and I can handle them because we are in the same boat. I did stand both sides of the microphone, knowing that pushing, rushing, cruedly being honest with the performance can be very destructive, or ebnergizing too.. but as a recordist/producer/engineer you must feel the moment, which one is working toward the quality of the performance, so you must know the person, so talking is a must before session, about anything music, people and some socializing activity such as drinking, eating or attending concerts togethet, can work very well.
    That’s why I love this engineering thing very much, cause it so complex and requires different areas of your mind, heart.

  • Kevin Blaine

    I can vouch for this post – COMPLETELY true! Being on the other side of the post today (I’m the Kevin Joe’s talking about), Joe couldn’t have been a more accommodating, skillful, or aware engineer. He was on top of his game. While I knew what I had to do while I was there (hence needing great takes), Joe gracefully navigated the narrow path as producer – giving really helpful criticism while still knowing when to call it quits when my ego was getting in the way of a good performance. True, there were times when I needed a break. Not only to give my voice a rest, but to give my pride a rest as well. A good engineer can’t just be a button pusher; he must be aware of and interact wholly with his recordee. And Joe had the foresight to know when to work and when to rest, which I think is really key to a solid working relationship with a singer.

    Joe also wasn’t afraid to take my up on my offer of brutal honesty. He told it like it was, and he helped me achieve the sound both he and I were looking for. If I bummed a note or a series of notes weren’t working, he’d stop and help me work it out, often rewriting parts completely that made the song better. In fact, as a great engineer, he prepped well and knew my songs inside and out, which allowed for him to help me get the best takes I could by offering great advice about vocal technique and song structure.

    I think there is also a healthy amount of pushing that an engineer does as well. Not excessively, but knowing when to push the recordee to do better. Support and encourage the artist in the ways you know how, and then push them to do better. Having a third-party willing to stop and say, “Hm…. You can do better. Try it this way,” can be tough at first, but as a singer, I WANT the best performance I can give. There were times when I thought I’d for sure nailed a take, only to have Joe Command + Period (destructively delete) the region we just recorded. Holding my jaw in my hands, Joe would look me straight in the eye and say, “Kevin, you can do it better – I just heard you do it in between takes! So come on, throw some energy and breath behind it and give me the awesome performance you know you can do.” And sure enough, with some more energy and breath (and a little healthy frustration 🙂 ), I would do the take better – all because Joe pushed me beyond my own preconceptions of what my voice could do. By taking the time to meet me where I was at and challenge me to go beyond my comfort zone, Joe helped each phrase become better than I had ever previously sang it. Like I said before, it takes skill and grace to navigate the producer hat, and Joe had plenty of it.

    All in all, we put in a solid week of work, and having our priorities straight from Day 1 enabled us to get a TON of stuff done. I am more than thrilled with our work from that week, and now I have some fantastic takes to work with now that I’m back in LA.

    Hats off to Joe for a ridiculously fun week!

    • Thanks buddy. You did an awesome job. This thing’s gonna be great.

      • I want to hear it. What style of music is it?

  • Bob Sorace

    This is great advice, advice I wish I had a few months ago when I was recording some teenagers who wanted to cut some hip hop tracks.

    This was my first attempt to record someone other than myself and the results were mixed to say the least. The kids were not prepared at all, thinking it takes about 3:30 minutes to record their song which after reading your article on pre-production would have made a huge difference in the flow. They also didn’t take my critiques very well. I did know these kids from the neighborhood, but feeling them out first would’ve made a big difference. I learned alot from the experience; maybe not directly telling one of them that they have alot of work to do if they even want to be on the song, being a little over the top with my “I’m doing this for you for free, so please respect my schedule and be here when you say you’ll be here!” They were kids after all, and I was out of line a few times which put them in a bad place.

    The good thing? I LOVE recording other people and wearing the Producer/engineer hats! As a musician myself I know how it feels to have someone tell you that what you just did sucks, and that there is always a better way to get the best out of someone than making them feel like crap.

    It’s like being a teacher, a good teacher will feel the students out, responding to each students strengths and weakness individually and not as a whole.

    Great article Joe!

  • I’m eager to be a producer for someone else, but the opportunity doesn’t really present itself at present with my meagre setup.

    I’m helping a friend with his ambient material though, he gave me a preview and I gave him some arrangement tips; I absolutely LOVE arrangement. I don’t know how good I am at mixing, mastering, referencing, or any of those things, but one thing I am very comfortable with is arrangement, which is why I would love to wear the producer hat for once.

    • Yeah, the producer hat would fit you nicely. 🙂

  • That’s right, Joe. I’ve experienced it not long ago when I was recording demo for an amateur band. Good mood and atmosphere is a key that you can work for many hours non-stop. Nice article.

  • In addition to your good points I’d like to add about vocals, specifically: every other performer “puts away” their instrument. Signers live with their instrument; it is always with them; it is a part of them. Offering criticism to a vocalist is much more personal than any other kind of performance, in my opinion. Which makes communication and vibe all the more important in a recording session.

    • I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re totally right.

    • I’d just like to add that, as a vocalist who’s been on the other side, this is entirely true.

      I’m not an accomplished vocalist by any means – recording my band’s stuff at the moment with another producer (also called Joe Gilder, would you believe!) and we’re still finding time to track more vocals, but what I’ve heard back so far I just want to redo.

      Any vocalist is always inclined to hate what they hear – we’re all our own worst critic and we always hate the sound of our own voice – but I personally would rather have someone saying “That was rubbish, do it again” and being encouraging than just getting the same “Yeah…that was good. Wasn’t it? I think its ok, shall we move on?”

      The last demo I did with my band was never finished, but whilst tracking the vocals our producer went so far as to come with me in the vocal booth, giving me images to conjure up of being on stage, egging me on and really firing me up. Our drummer was manning the console (just hitting record etc) whilst he was in there with me, but it made it a whole lot easier. I do feel self conscious in the booth a lot (the last session I did was facing away from the control room window with the lights off!) but when its with someone who’s got a real connection to the music and who you trust, it makes it a LOT easier to get comfortable.

      As it stands with our current recording, since its hard to book time at the studios (its a University facility) our producer is saying we should rent the mics we used (EV RE-20 and a U-87!) and track at his house. I’m more inclined to track at home with my SE2200a/Duet setup, simply because I’m more comfortable in my own studio and I’d much rather have a better performance than pristine sound quality. Plus, when you’re on a time schedule it really doesn’t help with pressure acting on your performance – at home I can take my time, listen back objectively and be comfortable with what I do.

      Excuse the waffly post, I think I said what I was meaning to say somewhere in there…

  • christopher [chrisw92]

    number one is very hard for myself although im trying to “fake” my way through it. see I don’t build relationships very well, it takes me a while to settle down and talk. Its not like im shy because, well im just not… think of it more like nervous.

    Anyway what I mean by faking it is that I try to talk as if I already know them or as if im talking as a presenter (like a front-man in a concert), it will do until I somehow overcome this slight problem.

  • Hey Joe,

    Nice post. Though I think I might caution that the “psychology” of recording often depends on the kinds of artists you have and your physical location.

    These factors often set the tone of a clients expectations. Which may or may not be accurate for the session.

    -Aufhausen

  • Mark B.

    super important stuff. i remember when i was at the Recording Workshop (Chillicothe, OH)they DID make a point of assessing your ability to communicate with and relate to the guinea pigs, er i mean musicians who we were torture-experimenting on, er i mean recording. yeah, they didn’t really teach it per se, you were just expected to think about it naturally… anyway, i’m a people person, generally, but i do tend to try to rush things, get impatient, etc, like alot of others do, i suppose. i think learning to relate personally to your clients can be a natural extension and enhancement to your ability to relate positively to everyone everyday. i personally struggle with it, so i appreciate being reminded by this post that it’s something to keep up front. thanks.

  • Thanks for this. While the headings seem obvious, it’s the details under those headings that make or break a session.

  • F. Sean

    Great advice! I agree 100% with all 3 points!