9. Visualize Murphy’s Law—and Make Peace with Murphy
Before I do a session, I usually know who, where, and what I’m recording, so I do the following exercise to stay vigilant:
If the microphone quits on me, what's my backup plan? If the preamp cramps out, what's the next best pre? If the patchbay goes down, what's the quickest way forward? As a faulty cable is often the culprit, will I have a spare on hand?
What if the computer goes down; how's my laptop running these days? Is my portable interface in working order? If that goes down, where's the field-recorder, and do I have a spare SD card for it?
This list goes beyond the technical: If the singer shows up inebriated, how do I handle it? If the producer and the artist have a fight, how will I settle it? Experience comes into play here, both overarching and specific: Is this the client who never sings on key? Should I have a harmonizer setup on the session for playback, leveled so that she won't know it's there, but the producer will find it listenable? And so on and so forth, until I've considered everything.
Don’t become paranoid in doing this; there's no need to be worried something will go wrong, because something will always go wrong (maybe that says more about me than you). But that's okay! In failure, there can be magic.
An example: A faulty cable once introduced arrhythmic pops during a take. Fortunately for me, the artist loved the sound. Of course, I swapped the cable anyway—we needed to get going—but chopped and edited, the pops became a dominant rhythm in the track.
Don't be paranoid. Be vigilant, accepting, and calm. When something does go wrong, you'll instinctively know the next and fastest move, even if you hadn't anticipated it.
10. Set Aside Time After the Session for Mix-Down
The client always wants to hear what they've just done. They also want to hear themselves in the best light. The best compromise is to leave yourself an hour or two after the session. Take a quick break, put up a good rough mix, and send it over within the day. You might also get yourself a new mix-client in the process; it’s certainly happened to me.
11. Cater Your Personality to the Personalities in the Room
On a good day, forty percent of this job is technical. The rest is psychological. A good deal of it is psychological manipulation. Here’s an example:
I’ve found that no matter the studio, clients often have a horror story about getting there, usually explaining why they were late. How I listen to this story invariably affects the quality of the session; if I'm brusque, unfeeling, and down-to-business, the performance is stunted, but if I take the time to listen and share (but not over-share), the resulting material is always stronger. Here’s where hot tea on a cold day goes a long way. Ironically, going straight to business ends up being less efficient because the artist is still stressed.
Think of it this way: Sometimes you have to pull out 3 kHz to make the vocal sound less nasal—and sometimes you have to nod your head and say “that’s awful” to even get the performer to the mic.
Also, remember that your client-base will be varied. I have worked with populations as disparate as secular scientists and Hassidic punk rockers, but there is always a common link between them: the amount of attention and respect they’re entitled to.
Your job is to orchestrate personalities, to leverage their quirks and mitigate their foibles, all in service of their material. Under no circumstances should you contribute to chaos.
Thus, it's a good idea to take a long look in the mental mirror and see what makes you tick. Don’t change who you are; that’s impossible. Instead, understand your quirks—your foibles—and then use them to your advantage.
For instance, I'm the voluble type, so here’s what I do: I pretend I have a two-second latency built in, during which I can mute anything I’m about to say that could be construed as untoward.
12. Don't Have Intern-Face*
What’s “intern-face?” Chances are you've had it, and if you've been to someone else's studio, you've seen it. It's a vacant smile that's desperate to please, a distrustful exuberance that only gums up proceedings.
A studio-intern once proudly told my (vegetarian) client the following: "They didn't have Pad Thai with tofu—so I got you chicken!!!" Guess what? He had intern-face. He also didn't have a job the next day (don’t worry, I didn’t fire him).
You don't want intern-face because it engenders the opposite of confidence. Look in the mirror and make a big goofy smile; tell yourself exactly what you don’t want to hear in the most ineptly cheerful tone you can muster. Now you know what you look like with intern-face. Now you know what intern-face feels like on your face.
Don’t have intern-face—especially if you’re an intern!
(*I call it “intern-face” because I’ve predominantly seen it on interns. This is not to say, however, that all interns have “intern face”—some of my best friends are faceless interns…)
13. Know Your Role
Your role changes with the people in the room. If there's no producer present, and the vibe feels right, the artist might need you to suss out the best take. If the artist is cocksure, stay out of the way. A voice-over session will usually involve a director, so you better not step into that roll, or else you’ll undermine the director’s job, and what’s worse, confuse the talent.
…Unless the director asks for your opinion, which believe me, can happen—it actually happens all the time, because good directors are collaborative. The point is you need to read the situation and adjust your role accordingly.
14. Find Ways To Keep Yourself Motivated
There comes a moment in every session where you just want it to be over. To do your best work, you need to find ways to trick yourself out of this moment. I find that more than money, more than the big bowl of cereal I'll eat after the session, falling in love with some part of the proceedings keeps me motivated.
Key into some aspect of what you're recording and be grateful for its existence. If you don't like the song, try to admire the singer's voice. If you don't like the voice, admire the chain picking up the voice, the clarity of the microphone, the way you've angled the capsule to offset sibilance. The point is to stay engaged, because an engaged engineer is a careful, meticulous, and trustworthy servant.
15. Let Things Get Daffy, But Keep an Even Hand
Remember how I said that recording sessions have a tendency to go sidewise? Sometimes that's a good thing. I don't know why—maybe it's the vulnerability inherent to performing—but some of the deepest belly laughs are to be had in a recording session. As an engineer, you might think this is counterproductive, because giggles ruin good takes. You might want to kill the banter and “encourage professionalism.”
Fight this urge. It puts you in opposition to the creative flow, and what’s more, you're denying what might end up becoming great outtakes to be included later on, as well as a feeling of joy which helps any move session along. You’re also undermining the bond you establish with the client.
However, sometimes you do need to shut it down. If you've bookended one session with another, and you're legitimately running out of time, gently move the session along. Similarly, if you're the one causing the disruption, that's not good. A case of the giggles on your part is a great excuse for a bathroom break.
On occasion, the joking could go too far and make someone uncomfortable. Pull the offender aside and reassure them that, while you’re sure it was a joke, the talent might not take it that way. Don’t launch into a diatribe; you're here to serve the session, not a set of beliefs. There is a time and place for conversations regarding important issues, but this isn't it.
3 Quick, Concrete Tips for Working with Singers and Instrumentalists
16. Do Not Exhaust a Singer by Testing Mics
This will wear out their chops. There is no substitute for vibe, no matter how vintage the Neumann is. However, if you’re working on an album’s worth of material with a client—and if you have an extensive mic collection—it might pay to experiment with different combinations. Just don’t think you’ll get a great vocal if you record right after.
17. Learn to Comp Quickly
Whatever the instrument, you should develop the skill of comping takes on the fly. Don’t be afraid to use your judgment as what constitutes the best take; they are paying you for this as much as anything, and you want performers to hear the best version of themselves upon playback. This instills self-confidence.
18. The Old Misdirect
If you’re not getting the take you want out of a performer, but you don’t know what’s missing, try this old director’s trick. At the very least, it will elicit something different.
Just say this: “That was great! Can you do another take, but this time...ah, just do another take.”
Say this as though you’re interrupting yourself. And let it hang there. The performer might be confused. They might say, “This time, do what?”
If that happens, respond with, “I forgot—but let’s do another take!”
In this circumstance, yes, you are trying to confuse the performer. But if you go about this politely, the confusion will work to everyone’s advantage. The artist will attempt something different because of how you asked. Not knowing what you wanted will keep them on their toes. Being polite about the request will ensure no weirdness in the asking.
Nine times out of ten, when the performer tries something different in the subsequent take, you’ll get something worthy of keeping or exploring further.
These are all the tips I have for you at the moment, but if you like what you see here, let us know; we can always drum up some more.
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