Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Studio 101

Some of you have asked questions about the process of recording a CD in a studio.

Quite honestly, I've never really thought about the fact that most people don't get much opportunity to see what actually goes into recording an album in a studio. Therefore, I thought it would be fun to highlight the process The Receders are currently using as we record our CD.

The Studio

The place we recorded at is called Rockhouse Productions and is owned and operated by the Vee boys - the sons of the infamous Bobby Vee himself. It's an old bank building in downtown St. Joseph, MN that was converted to a recording studio.

Instruments are set up on the main floor and the engineers sit upstairs and watch the band through a large window. The vocals are actually recorded inside the original safe.

set up and ready to rock as seen from above

The Options

There are many ways to approach a recording session. Some bands like the "live" method where the band simply sings and plays their tunes while somebody records them. This is the fastest and cheapest way to get your songs recorded, but it's also the least flexible when it comes to making corrections and getting a quality mix.

The other extreme is to record every single instrument and vocal separately, one at a time, and let the engineers and producers reassemble all the pieces into an actual song. This provides the most flexibility in terms of song manipulation, but at the cost of the live energy that can only be achieved by playing off of each other. This method takes the longest and is the most expensive way to record.

The Process

We chose a style in between those two. Our sessions followed these steps, completed in the following sequence:

1. Record the base track of the song using the core rhythm instruments - drums, bass guitar, rhythm guitar, and keyboard all recorded at the same time.

here our guitar player is sitting in an adjacent soundproof room so the sound of the drums won't get picked up by his acoustic guitar
2. While recording this, the lead singer also sings a "scratch" vocal track. This is a throw-away track designed to simply keep the band together so we know where we are while we're playing.

3. Record the lead vocalist alone.

4. Record the harmony vocals together.

belting out some harmonies in the vault

5. Record any additional rhythm instruments such as extra guitar, keyboard or drum parts.

laying down the keys with the vocal vault to my left

6. Record any instrument solos such as guitar or harmonica

The Mix

Once we had all the parts "in the can," it was the engineer's job to assemble them into a rough mix. This is the point at which he will take all the individually recorded tracks and blend them together to make a song. In our case he was generally working with the following tracks:
1 - 5. individual drums
6. bass guitar
7. acoustic guitar
8. electric rhythm guitar
9. electric lead guitar
10. piano
11. organ
12. harmonica
13. lead vocal
14 - 16. harmony vocals
That's at least 16 tracks he had to mix down - a relatively small task in the world of studio sessions. Imagine a band with multiple guitars, a horn section and several percussion instruments. This could easily require 35 or 40 tracks just for one song.

mixin up some Receders

The Session

On the day we were there we recorded 5 songs from top to bottom in about 8 hours. That's a pretty quick clip compared to some studio sessions I've been in. Back in '87 our pace with Livingston Fury was about one song per day - a much more standard pace for a full-length album project. Although when major record companies record national acts it can take months to finish a project. And if you think that's a long time, consider the fact that Bruce Springsteen spent over a year in the studio putting Born to Run together. The band was ready to commit mutiny by the time that album was done!

The Rough Cut

And finally - after leaving the recorded master tracks with the engineer for a few weeks, he will mix everything down to a final rough cut for us to review. This will be his interpretation of what he thinks we want to hear, and may include added effects such as reverb or digital delays to "wetten up" the sound.

This is exactly what you heard the other day with One Night Stand Again. Our take was that it was pretty close, but we will probably have him bring the background harmonies up a bit more and adjust some of the instrument volumes slightly - all of which he can do without us having to record anything additional.

The End

So there you have it... Studio 101. I probably won't post any more rough cuts and will wait until all 12 songs are completely mixed and on a CD before I post any more. But in the meantime, I hope at least a few of you found this interesting.

I know I enjoyed writing it!

20 comments:

Heather said...

Sounds like an awful lot of work to me! Congrats again on recording again! Again?

Elizabeth said...

Wow, I had no idea it was so complicated. OK, so now, how do you make a music video?

mom said...

WOW--in my wildest imagination, I never dreamt recoring was so complicated!!! I always thought you just all got together, sat down and played, and someone stood behing you and recorded it, and that would be that!!!What an eye-opener!!! Keep up the good work!

bon bon said...

hell, i've got garageband and an empty corner in the basement. why didn't you just ask?

the track sounds great, jeff!

VE said...

I don't see the green, red, yellow, blue buttons on that guitar in the pic...What the? Are you guys using real instruments? That's so old school! Thanks for the sneak into the process though...

Phil said...

Very nice, simple explanation.

I kinda knew most of that, but you put it all together for me.

One question... How much does studio time cost?

Also, where do your groupies hang out?

Gette said...

Looks like fun. Kinda cool how the Vee boys are officially no big deal in Cloud. Used to run into 'em around town all the time. I think their dad hit on my mother-in-law once many years ago. It was a favorite story.
Know where a gal can hire a session band? Used to be a joint in Burnsville, but it folded.

Ed (zoesdad) said...

Five in a day is quick! Have you guys considered a live version (studio live) of a song on the cd? I hear tell there's quite a few bands that are doing this these days.

PG said...

good stuff. i sorta knew it was a boat load of work, but man alive. did you have fun? or is it work?

Windyridge said...

Very interesting and exciting. Good luck! Will send this link over to my budding rock stars.

Michelle said...

Very cool to know the details behind this. I'm curious like that. But now that I know the details, I know I'll never have the urge to record anything :) Kudos to you!

Jeff said...

heather - Well you do have to work hard that's for sure, but it's a labor of love.

elizabeth - Sorry, I have no experience with that. But as near as I can tell, you play your song in the background, and then film something not related to the lyrics whatsoever. Or something like that.

mom - Well, there are people who do like to record like that. Live concerts are kind of done that way sometimes. But this is a pretty standard approach for the studio.

bon bon - We have Garageband too, but the studio has Garageband Plus!

ve - Our guitar player has never even tried Guitar Hero. Can you believe it? I would totally kick his butt.

phil - I think this studio charges $75/hr plus post production time. A pretty good deal considering the experience and skill set of the staff. Our groupies were at home with the kids.

gette - Hmmm, your best bet would be to call some of the studios and ask them that question. I'm sure there are plenty of them out there.

ed - We haven't really discussed doing a studio live take, but we're probably going to stick with this format for this CD. But who knows what the future holds?

pg - We had a great time. Even though it makes for a long day, when you do something you love, it doesn't feel like work.

windyridge - Have your kids read this story too. In the middle of the article they talk about this studio and they offer some good advice for young musicians.

michelle - Oh, there are tons of ways to record - from expensive studio time all the way down to those karaoke-style recording booths. If you want to get yourself on tape, you should be able to do it.

Mom Thumb said...

Wow, what a process. And to think you do it in your 'spare' time!

Babs (Beetle) said...

Although I have never recorded in a studio, it's just how I do our home recording - one track at a time :O)
You have wetted my appetite now, to do some recording. Haven't for years now!

Maureen said...

Wow, it is quite a detailed process. I recall while reading books on the Beatles about how Paul would sneak into the studio after hours and re-record Ringo's sessions. Ringo knew. He KNEW that wasn't him in the final mix.

Good luck Jeff! Can't wait until the final recordings are complete!

Roger said...

Thanks for the education, I did not know how complicated it could be, or at least appear to be.

Rickey Henderson said...

Nifty stuff sir. Sadly, thanks to the retraining order, Rickey's barbershop quartet is no longer allowed to enter a recording studio in the state of New York.

Windyridge said...

Thanks Jeff, will do.

unfinishedrambling said...

Well, actually listened to the track today. Nicely done, not that I expected otherwise...I haven't been following your blog that long so wondered where harmonicaman actually fitted in. Now I know. Keep on rocking. Look forward to hearing the album when it's released.

April said...

I don't think I've mentioned this to you, but I have some recording experience, too. I've sung lead, background vocals, and also associate produced a cast recording. (We generally did a compromise of the extremes, too.) Thanks for the trip down memory lane!