Guide to being recording studio ready and industry terms.
Working at AOO Studios as a producer and engineer I get many calls and emails asking all kinds of questions things so I’ve decided to put together this blog of common questions and terminology used in the studio. Hopefully this will help artists and bands when preparing to head into the studio. This goes from the very basic to the fairly complex to cover all basis, So apologies in advance if some of it seems obvious. It may not be to everyone.
Common Studio terminology
Tracking - This is the actual recording process. The bit where you stand in the studio itself and record your parts. Often as a band or as individuals. This all depends on the number of channels a studio can accommodate at any one time or live rooms to do so.
Live Room - Usually sound insulated area for recording loud instruments.
Control Room - This is the room where the main mix console, producer and engineer will most of their time.
DAW - (Digital Audio Workstation) This is the chosen platform (software) the studio or engineer uses. I.e protools, logic, ableton, cubase etc…
Mixing - This is the process where your chosen mix engineer will take the tracking session file and mix the audio into a stereo mix. Be aware that if you record in Logic and send your session files to a mix engineer who works in Pro Tools he or she may not be able to work on it if they do not work with logic. The same is vice versa for all DAWs. If that is the case you will need to look to have your files delivered as unprocessed audio stem files with a zero start point so they all match up in time on the DAW grid. Please be aware this is not usually a free service offered by studios. You should enquire about the cost of processing these files.
Recall - Most professional studios and engineers offer a recall service. When a mix has been completed, it’s sent to the band/artist for review. From there the band/artist makes comments after listening on various stereo systems and headphones. These comments are returned to the mix engineer to make amendments. An engineer will typically only offer a couple of recalls before saying any more will be extra charge. Please note not all studios offer this so check.
Stems - This can sometimes be confusing. Stems can be unprocessed audio or it can be the processed audio of separate instruments from the mix. Processed audio versions will have e.q., compression and will have been bounced down to stereo files of, for example, all drums or all guitars. These types of files are more often than not used by remix DJ’s or in the mastering process to allow more access to detail.
Mastering - This process is often regarded as bit of dark art and often misunderstood. The Mastering process is the last part of the production process for any recording ready to go off to be released and is usually undertaken by a very skilled mastering engineer. The mastering engineer will take the uncompressed mix and bring the volume up to match other commercially released material. The mastering engineer is also responsible for overall e.q. balance and file format delivered (usually a 44.1/16 bit WAV file). One thing to watch out for with mastering is that there are tonnes of people out there who claim to be mastering engineers. Make sure you do your research. Whoever is doing the mastering should be able to demonstrate their skill and not just run the stereo file through a basic pre-set on their DAW. Believe me it happens a lot! A good mastering engineer will have speakers worth over 25K and audio convertors in a similar price range. This is because they are doing extremely critical listening, much more than a mix engineer. One final note on mastering, a mastering engineer isn't a wizard they can only work with what they’re given, So if the mix doesn’t rock, the master won’t either.
Listening master - This is a master often offered by the mix engineer as one of two files delivered to a client. Along with the uncompressed stereo mix some engineers offer this as it helps listeners, be it artist or management, to hear the recording at a commercial volume and eq. These are sometimes used by bands but I wouldn’t recommend it. It is best to have it mastered properly by a dedicated mastering engineer.
Instrumental mix - An instrumental version or ‘vocal off’ version of the mix is sometimes supplied when requested by artist or management. This is simply a version of a track with no vocals. Back in the day this may have been used on Top of the Pops for the artist to sing karaoke over but more it is used in TV adverts or in films these days. Publishers will often ask for the instrumental version so make sure you have it to hand.
Studio research and preparing to record
Choosing the right studio - When looking to go and record your song, it is essential you know what to look for in a studio to avoid disappointment. Nearly all studios claim to be the best and some do offer a good quality service but a lot don’t. There are some serious differences between entry level studio equipment and pro equipment. Do your research. Check out what microphones they use, what preamps, what AD/DA convertors are used. All equipment can be checked up on online and you’ll very quickly know what level the studio is operating at. And before you say ‘it doesn't matter, we want to be lo-fi”, trust me it matters. Most lo-fi stuff is still done on serious gear.
Check the examples. Most reputable studios will have a page telling you what was recorded there and by what engineer. Remember, just because Artic Monkey’s recorded there in 1999, doesn’t mean their recording was released or even that it was recorded/mixed by the same engineer that you will be working with. Lots of large studios employ apprentice engineers on cheap sessions so make sure you check who and what you’re dealing with and ask for reference material if material is not available online.
The location and space. Studios offer various sized spaces. This comes down to preference and budget. But check the floor plan. Most places have one online.
Demo’s - If you’re heading into the studio, It is always wise to get a demo down first, even if it’s just a rough one done on a phone in a rehearsal. You should be able to listen back and be sure everyone in the group is pulling in the same direction. It also offers an opportunity to look at the song as a whole rather than just at your part. Try to be sensible about songs and their objectives. If you’re looking to get radio play on standard daytime radio maybe a 3 minute guitar solo intro isn’t going to work. If you’re working with an engineer who is happy to act like a producer too it really helps to have a demo in advance. The producer can be more objective about the parts and help you realise your goals. This will also give him/her the chance to think about the sound and make sure microphones are in the right places to achieve the sound you’re going for.
Equipment essentials - All too often people come into the studio with knackered old cymbals, broken guitars and amps. Please let me say from experience, if it sounds crap in the room, it’ll sound crap on the recording. Beg, borrow, steal the best equipment you can. Cymbals and snare are a big one that stands out in the mix. New strings on guitars and working leads go a long way too. If you’re taking the time to record make sure you take the time to sort your gear.