Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Plan-nine and Preparation

Remember me? Worldcon is over, the kids are off to college, and things have calmed down for a few minutes. I apologize for being away for so long - hopefully, the column will be posted with some semblance of regularity. For a while, anyway.

This column, we'll focus on the planning process. What should you keep in mind when you are preparing to record that CD?

As far as I'm concerned, the initial planning is what makes the difference between a difficult experience and a really nasty one. Why do I say that? Because all the projects I've worked on that have started just with the "let's put out an album!" viewpoint have taken many, many months more than originally intended. The projects where the planning was well done have ... well ... also taken months more than originally intended, but it wasn't due to having to redo the things that were planned. They were less frustrating because we only had to deal with external delays rather than second-guessing work that was already done.

So, what are we going to plan?

Let's start with the basic decision of what songs will be on the thing. You will want a minimum of 45 minutes worth of material, and a maximum (for CD purposes ) of 74 minutes (note that the Red Book standard has been stretched by most manufacturers to allow 80 minutes on an audio CD, but this is iffy on older CD players). Older commercial releases were at around 45 minutes because this would allow a good grade of tape (for cassettes) and a reasonable response on vinyl - and because it was the minimum most companies could get away with for the money they were charging consumers. Today, recordings going straight to CD tend to average about 60 minutes.

In a later column I'll discuss tips for selecting material. For now, suffice it to say that the recording should be planned as carefully as a concert, with all the attendant attention to a good mix of tempo, key, mood, instruments, and so forth. You want to have more songs than you will end up using, so that you have some extra material in case another song doesn't work out.

Put the songs together in a list. You're going to take that list of songs and you're going to practice the heck out of each one. You're going to know every word and every lick the best you possibly can. In the studio, you don't have time to work out problems with your performance - you absolutely have to have things clean before you get there.

Don't just practice the music, either. Especially if you've never been in the studio before, take some time to get used to having a microphone in your face or pointed at your instrument. Best, obviously, is if you can get a recording engineer to work with you using the same mics and/or direct lines you'll be using in the studio. If that's not possible, just get an inexpensive tape recorder and some cheap Radio Shack mics. Hook up, play your stuff, and listen back.

Even if you have been in the studio before, get that tape recorder out and run through all your songs. This is an opportunity to listen for flaws in your performance that you've never noticed before. Better to find them now rather than after you've spent money on studio time. This is your scratch recording, and you'll use it in a number of other ways as well.

There isn't any need to come up with an actual running order (the order of songs on the final recording) at this point. There is one order that you should be concerned with, and that is the order in which you're going to record the material.

Jeff Bohnhoff makes an excellent suggestion that you should save your favorite material - the stuff you absolutely must have right - for late in the recording process. This makes sure that you are relaxed and familiar with the equipment and the processes. You'll be more in tune with the rhythms of the recording studio and thus much more likely to produce a good take. Start with the thing that you are least attached to - that way, if it isn't all there technically it can be discarded or recut without too much emotional stress.

I would actually take that advice a bit further. Analyze your song list and split it into the following categories:

  • Cut It By Mail: material you are so confident with that you're sure you can do it in one take, no waiting.
  • There But Open: material you know and are comfortable with but that you might want to do some fooling around with. These songs are going to take more time.
  • Challenges: material you have to do a few times to get right, material that stretches your own limits. These are probably your all-day suckers.

Ideally, everything should be in Cut It By Mail before you go into the studio. Unfortunately, none of us live in an ideal world. Given that, I'd plan the sessions something like this:

  • Start with a Cut It By Mail. Why do I suggest this? Mainly because it will allow you to focus on getting used to the recording environment while cutting a piece that you can do in your sleep. Of course, we all know that, as soon as you hit the studio, the number won't be quite as easy as you thought it was. Ahh, hubris.
  • Follow with a There But Open. This will give you and your engineer a chance to play with the possibilities. Especially if you have not had the opportunity to hear what the engineer can do, this is a great way to get to know him or her. Be strong and give yourself a time limit, otherwise this can get expensive. This is a good thing to slip in at the end of the day - that gives you a built-in time limit.
  • Don't do your Challenges until you are fully comfortable with the environment. The last thing you want is to finally get that 16th-note run done perfectly only to find out that you ruined the tack by tapping your feet too loudly.

Budget your time appropriately. If you can only afford 45 hours in the studio, then you are giving yourself 3 hours per song for a 15-song recording. That's not a lot of time. If you've done your homework on your songs, you'll know when one of your Challenge songs is getting bogged down, and you'll be able to switch to an easier song - thus putting yourself back on schedule and breaking some of the frustration that can come from being stuck on one thing.

Be realistic when planning your studio time. If you're honest with yourself, you know how skillful you are in different areas. If it will take you 15 takes to get something perfect (and you'll get some idea of this when working with your scratch recording!), then you'd better budget either more studio time or more practice before you hit the studio.

Finally, have a good idea of what you want your songs to sound like when they're done. Go through every song on your scratch tape. Find a song out there on some other recording that has something in common with how you want yours to sound. Look for things like the reverb quality (booming and echoed? Dry and harsh?), supporting instruments (strings, keyboards, lead guitar), and effects like delays or unusual EQ (passing 0-3K for a telephone effect, for instance). Let the engineer know what you're going for - this lets her make an informed decision as to what needs to be done when getting the track down. After all, if you're going to have huge amounts of percussion then that little tapping will be lost in the mix and therefore is nothing to worry about.

Next column: Choosing Songs for Concerts and Recordings

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly fairly regularly when time permits sometimes as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.