Prepping Your Songs for the Studio (Part I)

If you’re a musician who’s spent much time in the studio, you’re well aware of the myriad ways the studio experience differs from rehearsal and a live setting. These differences arise out of the studio’s microscopic (or microsonic, if you will) view of music, which diverts attention away from spontaneity and emotional expression.

Some musical elements notoriously stand out in the studio: audio bleed, tempo, precise playing, being in tune, etc. But others are not as well known. In particular, and to the surprise of many artists, the songs themselves may not work in the studio like they work conceptually or even live.

Because each song is a unique creature, it’s difficult to list universal tips for reworking them in the studio. Instead, think of songs as living, breathing beings that react to drastic changes in their environment. Be flexible enough to hear where an arrangement might be well-served by subtle changes like removing a measure or adding a turnaround.

The following are examples of how songs might be forced to evolve in the studio.

Fills and Leads
Probably everyone who plays music — myself included — has at least a touch of exhibitionism within them. Why else would we get up onstage and play music for as many strangers as we can? For most of us, message matters and communing with a sympathetic audience is often paramount. Yet there’s a definite jolt of adrenaline when you’re onstage and the audience is feeling what you’re laying down. If you’re laying down your favorite guitar lead or drum fill and the audience cheers, it’s even better.

Unfortunately, on tape, that same momentous measure may just sound out of place at best, obstructive at worst. For instance, if you’re playing your lead back-to-back with a singer as she wails the hook to a screaming audience, it won’t matter too much if her exact words are lost. In the studio, you’re going to want to hear those words. There is no one way to fix this hypothetical problem, but here are a couple of options:

Option 1: Ditch it. This is drastic and it can feel like a huge sacrifice. After all, this is the “official” documentation of a song you love. If you find yourself reflexively opposed to ditching a favorite lead or fill, try to think about the issue in terms of what the song needs. Is the song better served by the confluence of melodic leads (the guitar line and the singer’s line) or by clarity of message?

Option 2: Alter the instrumental arrangement. Does it matter which instrument is playing that lead? Can a mighty drum fill be replaced by a subtle conga line (rimshot!)? Can the guitar part be played instead by the keyboardist? Here, you can really use the studio to your advantage. Timbre (pronounced ‘tahm-ber’) — a sound’s “character” — is important live, but in the studio it can play an enormous role due to the microsonic lens. Sounds that might come off thin live can become integral parts of the studio mix while staying out of the way of a more important melodic element.

Next: Adapting Your Song Structure for the Studio.