There are a number of things to consider when you decide that your song is ready to be recorded. As a songwriter, you want the best representation of your song; a recording that makes it stand out without creating too many distractions or losing focus.
Before you make the decision to record a song, make sure it is in its final draft! I know it sounds obvious, but some songwriters are too quick to rush into a studio because they’re all excited about a new song. Does it stand up to the test of time? Have others who can give you some valuable feedback listened to it yet? If you’re a performer, have you performed it in front of an audience? Don’t rush the recording part!
If you have your own recording setup, you’ll recognize some of the terms I’m going to use in this article. However, I’ll explain or define them as I go for those of you who are new to the idea of recording. First of all, I wrote an article quite awhile ago on the recording process for beginners which you can find here, but that has more to do with the technical aspect of recording. If you are just about to go into the studio to record a demo, for example, you might want to think about what you want before you get there.
1. Intro Too Long – I can’t even count how many songs I’ve heard recorded by songwriters in their studios or as a demo that take FOREVER to get to the first verse! Don’t make the mistake of creating an intro that’s so long it’ll make the publisher hit the eject button! In fact, if you can manage to, don’t have one at all!
2. Do you need an instrumental break? – If you are pitching a song, a wailing guitar solo is unnecessary and may actually detract from the song itself. If you are a band, then by all means, put in the wailing guitar solo. Think about who is going to hear this recording and what will be important to them.
3. Out of Tune – this is something I mention in the recording article too…you’d think it would be obvious, but make sure that your instruments are in tune before you record! AutoTune (a handy little software device that corrects pitch) can do some magic, but often it can distort the sound of the instrument (including your vocal!), so don’t rely on that.
4. Leave A Little Room for Arrangements – As a solo performing songwriter, my instrument ended up being the whole band. Over the years I got better at playing my guitar so that it became the percussion (if necessary), the bass, and everything else I needed to fill the musical “space” when I was performing. But when I would go into the studio, I’d have to learn to play it less or simplify it so there was room for the other instruments! You may not be recording your instrument at all because maybe you prefer to leave it to more professional musicians. But if if ARE, you have to think of your instrument differently when you get into the studio. Let the bass player do the bass runs, let the drummer drive the rhythm, and unless you are an amazing instrumentalist and it is truly a part of your “sound”, let your instrument be present without being too dominant. You might consider spending some time with the other musicians ahead of time, if possible, to work out how everything is going to go together.
5. Keep It Tight – another problem I often hear in demos is when instruments and drums are too loose. You don’t want to over-quantize (another handy little software device that adjusts the timing of especially midi instruments), because then it won’t feel “real”, but you do want to find the pocket. I love that word, “pocket”. I heard Quincy Jones use it in reference to having all of the instruments hit the right note at the right time with just the right velocity (volume) and feel. Not easy to do, but worth the effort! One note to think about: let the drummer drive the rhythm. When people are recording instruments especially, they try to anticipate the beat of the drummer, and often play just the slightest bit too soon. Then the song feels off kilter and too loose. Practice with a metronome or a click track. Just Google “metronome” and you can find them online. When you’re working with one, let the click pull your rhythm…it takes a little work but it will improve your timing immensely.
6. K.I.S.S. – when in doubt, less is more. Don’t try to stuff too many instruments and bits and pieces in there…it’s about the SONG.
7. Lyrics Up Front – It’s about the SONG. Don’t bury the lead vocal in behind a whomping bass and crashing cymbals and wailing guitar. You want them to hear the lyrics, right?
8. When You Invite Friends To Play – of course, we all like the idea of having people we know play on our recordings. But recording isn’t like jamming, it can be very repetitive in terms of getting just the right sound and licks, fills, etc., and then repeating that until everything fits just right. It can start to feel a little mechanical after awhile. I once had a guitar player (not a friend, by the way!) come in to do some lead work on a recording. He had several guitars, lots of effects and certainly had some talent. But he could not repeat something he had done before or even remember what he had done! He really was only good at jamming. In the end I managed to catch a few bits that I could use, but it wasn’t very helpful in terms of adding some real texture to the recording.
Most of these apply, more or less, to a situation where you are singing and/or playing on the recording. However, some of you are not singers and would rather have someone else do the demo. There are plenty of demo services around, even online, where you can send a rough recording of the song and have them do it. It’s important to educate yourself enough so that you can ask for what you want. If you “hear” things, like instruments playing in particular parts, or you want a certain sound or feel (soft, energetic, etc.) then you have to communicate that to the people recording your demo. You might be too intimidated by the process and just want to give it over without any input, however you might not get what you expect in the end. Whoever is doing your demo will, and should, ask you lots of questions first in order to establish what will be needed. Here are some other tips:
1. Ask – for a demo or sampling of their recordings before you hire them, so you can assess whether or not they can do what you want. Make sure they are comfortable in the genre your song is in.
2. Trust Your Gut – If you’re not comfortable with the person you’re communicating with, then go elsewhere. It’s important to feel that you can say what you want, even if you don’t exactly know how to say it!
3. Educate Yourself – as I said before, the more you know about the process, the more confidently you can ask for what you want. If you don’t understand something, ask. There are lots of places on the internet where you can research what happens in a studio and the terminology that is used.
4. Everything Up Front – most studios will offer you a package deal, one price that covers everything that you want included. If you want some changes after the fact, you’ll have to negotiate that, but don’t let them nickel and dime you. Be sure that it’s clear what you are going to get for your money before you proceed with anything.
It’s exciting to hear your song recorded properly for the first time. If you take the time to consider everything I’ve mentioned above, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises and you’re ready for the next step…putting it “out there” for the rest of the world to hear :-).