Join Scott Jacoby for an in-depth discussion in this video Recording basic tracks in a live recording session, part of Music Production: Techniques and Concepts.
- Doing a recording session with live musicians is one of the best things you can do as a producer. So much fun and magic comes out of those sessions. Let's take a look at what's involved. First of all, when do you want to do a session that involves a recording studio and full live instrumentation? There's a few things that I like to consider with this. Number one is budget. Is there money in the budget to hire musicians, to hire a studio to do all the things you need to do to have a great session? Number two, is it genre-appropriate? And by that I mean is what you're doing, if you're making a hip-hop track that is going to be mostly sample-based, you don't necessarily need to, you know, record this in a live studio type of way, although you may.
So certain genres lend themselves very well to live recordings. Jazz, classical, rock, things like that. Other ones, not as well, if it's sort of very program-based. Another aspect is the interactions between the musicians. So in an art form like jazz, for example, where improvisation is key, it's very important for musicians to be able to spontaneously respond to one another musically, and that means they should be playing together at the same time and be able to see each other.
A lot of other music, when it's overdub-based, or you do one thing at a time, that's not so important. So here's some things to consider when you're planning out a live recording studio session. Number one, what studio are you going to work at? How expensive is it? Does it have the appropriate space for all the musicians that you want to bring in there? And is there sight lines between the different areas, so you've got the bass area and drum area, and guitar. Can everyone see each other and communicate whatever they need to.
So physical space is an important aspect of this. Number two, it's part of your job as producer to hire musicians, so that means that it's not just hiring the best musicians, for example. It's hiring the people who are most appropriate for that session, which is not just about genre and it's not just about their level of play. It's about who's going to get along with one another and make a cohesive group of people in the studio. Last thing to consider is the engineer. Many studios come with an assistant engineer who may or may not be able to help you get what you need to get in the studio.
Sometimes you'll have to hire an additional engineer and that costs additional money. So what's your role in these types of sessions? You might know what your role is when you're producing a song on your laptop and your DAW, but this is a very different context. I'll first say that the role varies a tremendous amount. There are some producers out there who get in there and micromanage every single thing. They're in there with the engineer and say, we need more beater on the kick drum, and this is what the exact pattern is that you're going to play, so on and so forth.
And then there are people who are just kind of like, hey, you guys do what you do, you know, just get relaxed and give us a good take. That one was too, you know, too fast. So it varies a great amount, there's no right approach. The right approach is just the thing that's going to get you what you need when you walk out of the studio. Another role that you have is to come up with parts. Now that's not necessarily something that you have to do. Might be that the band has it, or might be that the person that you're working with has some ideas.
But you're really there to kind of help come up with what each person is going to play, or to facilitate that with the different musicians. Another thing is to keep the vibe good in the studio. Might not seem so important, but that's one of the absolute key things in a recording session is that everyone is feeling good, everyone is feeling positive, and you're getting what you need to out of the session. Super-important aspect is the relationship with the engineer. And the engineer is going to help you take your references. Oh, I want the drums to sound like this Gnarls Barkley record and I want the bass to sound like this Frank Sinatra thing with the room sound.
It's all about communicating with the engineer and knowing the equipment and the microphones which might be the engineer's expertise and not necessarily yours, but to get what you need from all of the different sounds and instruments. Working on the drum sound, working on the guitar sound, it's a whole bunch of stuff to consider. The last thing here is to come up with the proper methodology for the recording session. And methodology, we're using that big word again. All that I'm referring to here is the proper sequence of things once you start recording.
Let's give an example of a not great sequence. Let's say you come in and you record acoustic guitar first, not to a click track, and then the drummer comes in two hours later, and they're about to lay down their thing, but the time is all over the place, and the drummer's there second-guessing, oh where, he's early here, late here. There's no way to do that. The proper methodology and an instance where you need to have the guitar play first for whatever reason is to have the guitar player play to a click, for example, and then when the drummer comes in, the guitar will be a little bit more in time and or the drummer can listen to the click track when he or she is recording their take.
A really subtle point here is that samples can be a great substitute for going in to a live studio with live musicians, and that's because the samples, everything is pristine and ideal with samples made of acoustic instruments. It's really hard to get your acoustic piano sounding as good as an excellent plugin doing the same thing, and that's because so much time, expertise, and money has gone into getting the greatest sounds from these piano samples, from drum samples, from whatever.
So the magic really is not always about the sounds, it's about the interactions between the musicians, so just you have to weigh that when you want to do a recording session because everything is primed to go right when you're using samples, and you've got a lot of variables against you, so you want to try to minimize those variables when going into a studio and working with real studios and real musicians. One such variable is the band's ability to play in time. Now if you go in there and they're not able to play in time, you're going to be spending so much in the editing room and doing so many takes that it might not be worth it to have had the live musicians in for that.
Another thing to consider here is what you need to walk away with, and that's what's always in the back of your head. Okay, I need to make sure I've got the keys, guitar, bass, drums, or anything of those. Usually people need to walk away with the drums from a recording session because that's not something that they can record in their home studio, but it could be the guitars too, it could be, if it's a piano-based scenario and it could be the acoustic piano which is really the important thing.
Pay for better musicians. I can't overemphasize this. You might think you're getting a bargain by working with people who are not as expensive, but I guarantee you that if you work with professional people, they're going to be out of there in no time and you're not going to be spending tens of hours editing and chopping up and losing all of the feel of the human aspect when you don't have great musicians, so it's worth it to just get the right people and have them play. The last thing I want to talk about here is the psychological aspect of being a producer in these types of sessions.
You are the leader here, you're the commander, but that doesn't mean you need to be a dictator. It means that you need to get your orders out, but do so in a way that commands respect from people. If you're just barking things at people and you're not listening to anyone, you're not going to get the respect you need and people are going to kind of like go like this through the session and just can't wait to get out of there. That's not how to do it. The way to do it is to build trust with the musicians and with the artists, and make sure that there's a synergy going on where they want to give you a great performance as a musician, and the other part of this is is you are hiring the people, you need to trust them to do what they are expert at doing.
That make sense? You go in there and tell the guitar player you have to play exactly like this, and you're talking to an expert, that person is not going to want to do their thing for you. Let them do what they do, and it's going to be a much better situation. The last thing here is to establish a balance of getting what you need when you walk out of the studio, and letting people do what they do. So you can't have the musicians in the band completely overrule the stuff that you're doing.
You need to make sure that you establish a great environment where you're letting them do their thing, but within the confines of you getting what you need to get from that session. And please keep the morale high in the studio. It's not going to be a good session, it's not going to be good music if everyone wants to kill each other and we're all fighting. When it's high, people are going to want to perform and do great things for you. Let's take a look at an actual live session. This song is called "It's Better Now." We looked at it before, but this is the actual full session.
The band is Pressing Strings. Okay, so we got a live session here. Let's take a look on your screen and see how we laid this out. All the stuff in green here, those are all drums. I'm going to solo a few things and go down. These things over here, that's all different percussion aspects. That's timbales, tambourines, shakers. Scroll down, we've got bass here, and a secondary bass track, and then we've got a lead acoustic guitar.
Keep on going down, a guitar solo, and other guitars, other slide guitars, Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer, clavinet, harmonies, leads, background vocals. That's how I tend to organize my live sessions, I start with drums and I go down the list. Drums, bass, guitars, keys, lead vocals, background vocals. That's pretty much how it is. When I'm doing a live session, you see the drums here. I have different playlists, so if I click over here, there's all these different playlists. These are the different takes that I've used.
So we may have done 10 takes on the drums, or with whoever was doing the basic tracks. It might be bass drums and guitar playing at the same time, and what I do is leave the first one blank, and then when I pick the take that I want, I put it on to the one that's just the zero playlist, so to speak. So let's look at these drums for a minute.
So you can see that there's lot of different drums. Why do we need all these drum mics? These are really giving you different textures and colors that you can manipulate as you're going. I so happen in this song to have everything in at the same time, but let me just show you what a few of these things are in solo. This is the mono room. There's a little bit of that in the mix, and that's kind of a trashy sound, it kind of like gives this depth to the drums and a little bit of lo-fi thing. Far ambiance, which is basically room mics that are far away.
Okay, Coles are a type of ribbon microphone that we have that are about five to 10 feet from the drums. Have a very nice warm velvety sound, and those are compressed and gives it that extra flavor. And then we have more of our close miced things that you're used to hearing. Kick drum, in and out of the kick drum. Here we go, that's the three kick drums together. And then snare drum. Top, on them, and inside. So those are just a few things to look at.
We also have this technique on the bass, for example. We have three different signals that the bass signal is comprised of. We have direct signal. And we have the SansAmp signal. Little bit dirtier and pointier. And then we have the actual amp sound. Okay, and the three of those together create this nice full and multidimensional bass sound.
That's a technique that we use all over the place when you're doing guitars, when you're doing drums. It's really to give a lot of depth and dimension and different aspects to song. So when we recorded this song, we were up at a recording studio for five days doing an EP, and we were living, eating, and breathing music the whole time. It was amazing and, you've got a lot of obstacles to overcome when you're doing a live session and you want to make everything sound great, but if you do it all right, and you can walk away with what you need, then there's nothing like the magic that you can get with a real studio and musicians playing together in it.
- Picking the right song
- Choosing the right recording method
- Creating the demo
- Finding a tempo and ideal key
- Recording basic tracks
- Making beats
- Recording and editing vocals
- Editing the track
- Mixing and mastering the song