If you’re brand new in this business or even a seasoned pro, there’s no doubt that you've heard a recording referred to as a “record.” But what do industry professionals mean by this? As a producer, songwriter, musician, and an owner of a small indie label, I’ve grown to understand that there is a big difference between having your recordings sound good and having them sound like a “record.” In my opinion, the difference is a product that can stand up with what’s out there. Something that has a high sonic quality but also a unique character across the board, from the songwriting and musicianship, to the mix, and the master. There are no rules or regulations, but I hope I can skim the very top of what can make your recordings sound like a real product... A “record.”
For songwriters and artists, the recording process can be daunting. I’m not even going to get into the financial side, but I will say this: You will end up spending more money working with an amateur in the long run, than hiring a pro. Finding either a studio or a producer should be your first step. Some studios will provide a “producer,” (or an engineer with some producing experience) while some producers can provide a studio. My advice is to do your research. Go online and check out their websites. Listen to the work they’ve done. Not only make sure they offer things you need, but other things they bring to the table as well. Find the common thread throughout all of their work across multiple genres and be true to yourself as to whether or not it’s a color you want reflected onto your music. From there, schedule a meeting where you can see the studio or meet the producer. Trust your gut. Do you vibe well? Do you seem like you'd be comfortable working with them? Most importantly, will you trust them?
Preparation before finding a studio or a producer for either a single, EP, or LP should not be overlooked. If you can demo 30 songs and use people you trust as a focus group, you will slowly see which songs stand out. Pick what represents you best as an artist for your single. Show all sides of your inspiration and influences on your EP. Take the 30 songs and pick the best 10-12 for your full length. Being in the studio and being on stage are two very different things, but here are some helpful tips to be ready when you’re under the microscope behind the glass.
- Practice your songs with a metronome: Use the metronome as your friend. The more you use one, the more comfortable you’ll be with one. Learn how to play behind it or in front of it to convey a more live or natural feel.
- Tone and Dynamics: Guitar players and bass players should be able to pull up the sound they are looking for immediately, and they have it easy considering all the tone, volume, and gain knobs on their amp. Drummers and vocalists do not have the luxury of tone or volume knobs on their instruments but honing in on your instrument is what separates the men from the boys. For drummers, proper tuning and dynamics are essential in the studio and so is the tone, which is something many drummers overlook. Without changing how hard you're hitting a snare drum, you can get about a dozen of different sounds out of it. Most drummers utilize only three: Rimshot, no rimshot, and side stick. Try to move your hand about two inches higher than what feels natural so the shoulder of your stick is what’s hitting the center of the drum. You will automatically hear a big round resonating drum, without hitting it harder. What happens if you move your hand two inches lower than what feels natural? You will automatically start hearing more crack and a thinner snare sound, typically used in reggae or punk music. Sit down with your snare drum and experiment. Remember to PLAY FOR THE SONG. Approaching tone in a unique way behind the drum kit will actually give you more of a voice to compliment what the song is about, and it could even make you sound like a “melodic drummer.” Who would have thunk it?!?
The singer will make or break a band, but even great singers with raw talent overlook many different tone options. We all know the difference between head voice, chest voice, and falsetto but what other tones can a singer get of their voice? Here's a tip for certain words, notes, and especially background vocals. Try to sing your word or phrase with a different mouth shape. Smiling while singing will produce a thinner sound and also help remove that “sharp piercing” sound from many higher notes in your range. Singing with a round mouth will do the opposite. It will project more roundness and lower mid-range frequencies. Remember, there was a time before singers had the luxury of compressors, EQ's, and pitch correction. Try the tips above to better your natural, raw performance in the studio.
Pre-Production is also very valuable time to spend before entering the studio. If you’re working on your own, demo your songs and be critical on yourself. If you're working with a hands-on producer, they will want to be around for this process. They will help you with things from arranging and creating accompanying parts, to even co-writing with you or developing your overall sound. Use this time wisely! Make sure you're on the same page with the people you're working with on every front so that problems do not arise in the studio. Play the producer or engineer some recordings you’d like to use as references. Play them all of your material, even the stuff that you think sucks. They might see it differently. Make sure you know what instrumentation will be used. These are all things that should be taken care of before booking your studio dates. A producer or an engineer never likes hearing uncertainty arise during a session, and usually this will just end up costing you more money.
Figure out exactly what your market is because this will reflect on what the mix engineer will need to do. If you're trying to be the next top 40 star, you will want a slick recording. If you're looking to have your songs placed in TV or movies, your mixes may need more space and character. If you’re working on electronica or hip hop, your sounds have to be on the next level of what's currently out there.
Recording & Session Musicians: I'm a little biased when it comes to this topic because I am someone who started as a session musician first. Even when I produce, I prefer working with solo artists. Having pro session musicians on your session will make a world of difference. Nine times out of ten, the band you hear on the recordings is not the same band you see live (excluding the singer), and this is usually because the producer wants to make sure the musicianship is at it’s best, without having to spend countless hours on takes, editing, beat detecting, sound replacement, etc. If you’re a solo artist who plays multiple instruments, do not be afraid to let other people in. Especially if you’ve hired pros who have worked on hundreds of recordings before you.
It’s all about attitude in the studio. Both when performing or on your break. Always be positive, convey confidence but with an open mind, have a good time (without partying), make everyone around you want to be more helpful and accommodating, and when it’s time to hit the record button, be ready to clear your mind and fill your heart with what you're singing or performing. In my opinion, honesty is the most important thing that should be translated onto a recording.
Home Recording is usually the quickest way to hear the difference between a recording and a “record.” I receive hundreds of submissions per week from artists who are recording great material in their home, but it’s almost always missing that special something. Things like live drums or real amps are luxuries most people do not have when recording at home, and without that natural air being pushed through the mics and into your DAW, your recordings will almost always sound like a demo. Thanks to the internet, many pro session musicians, as well as myself, offer tracks via FTP. It's a great and easy way for people recording at home to bring their recordings to the next level. I personally, have been offering tracks via FTP for several years and it's allowed me to work with great independent artists worldwide. My tracks via FTP process is designed specifically for independent artists who need to add real musicianship to their songs at an affordable rate, easily and without extensive recording/mixing experience. With tracks via FTP it’s possible to record your vocal and an instrument at home, send it off and within a few days, receive an entire band on the recording. Depending on the genre, this will make a world of difference, and it will beat sampled drums, or midi programming any day. It will make your recordings sound real... Like a “record.” For more info on my tracks via FTP, click here.
Last but not least I’d like to bring up when to deem your product finished. In this digital age, we can tweak, alter, change, re-do, and, undo for years. Recording and being in the studio is something that should be practiced, and the more you do it, the less you will nitpick at things that only you are hearing. There’s a difference between being a perfectionist and procrastinating, and you should make sure you’re approaching your final mixes from the listener’s standpoint. Remember not to get sucked into the things that have changed so drastically throughout the years. The “loudness war” for example, is ridiculous. Sure, it’s important to have a master that's as loud as the other stuff on your iPod, but your mixes shouldn't be squashed, flat, or losing any space and character.
“Perfect is the enemy of good.” Not everything has to be perfect. You shouldn't be quantizing, beat detecting, and pitch correcting everything. Just because it’s there doesn't mean you need to use it. Don’t be so focused on the notes being perfectly in time and don't forget that the real character lives in the space between the notes. That's where the feeling is, that's where the honesty is, and most importantly, as f**king human beings making music, that's where the imperfections are; The only thing every single person on this planet can relate to.
(Matty Amendola is an American musician, producer, songwriter. Amendola is a Brooklyn native. He began playing drums at age five and was a professional drummer by age 13. Amendola founded 825 Records. He is well known for his artist development work throughout the years with various independent artists, has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, and has written, composed, and performed for both corporate events and worldwide broadcast commercials for corporations such as MetLife, IBM, & Nike.)