8 Questions That Can Save Your Session

If more artists had post mortems as to why a recording session tanked, they might discover the winds of defeat can sometimes be blowing before anyone even steps into the studio.

By Teri Danz

If more artists had post mortems as to why a recording session tanked, they might discover the winds of defeat can sometimes be blowing before anyone even steps into the studio. Musical pre-production is often discussed as a necessity when making records, but it seems as if administrative and strategic plans are often given little consideration. Well, guess what? If you don’t address some of the “whys and hows” before you start tracking, the musical parts and production plans may be insignificant, because the project might die before it’s even born.

What Is the Goal?

This is an oft-forgotten, but very deadly question. Too many artists enter the studio without a clue as to why they are really there. Are you making a demo? If so, what is the demo for—managers, booking agents, label executives, or publishers? Are you making a master recording? If so, are you releasing the project on your own, having it distributed through a label, or handing the master to a bona fide record company? For example, C. Tricky Stewart defines his production role as “the liaison between a great song, the artist, and what the label needs.” You need to know where your project is meant to go.

Does Everyone Know His or Her Job?

Sometimes, democracies can be inefficient in the studio work. In order to maximize productivity—as well as to steer a project towards completion without spending funds indiscriminately—it helps to have a clearly defined chain of command. Be very clear about the roles of the producer, engineer, and various band members. Collaboration should still happen, of course, but it’s often best when all opinions and ideas are delivered in an arena of “managed collaboration.”

Are You Working with a Good Engineer?

You don’t have to be an accomplished engineer or producer to make a good record, but, if you’re not, then you need to work with one who can capture what you hear. This means that the engineer with the best hourly rate—or the one provided by the studio— may not be the best partner to realize your creative vision. Never be afraid to spend the time to get to know the person who will be twisting the knobs for you—and make sure that person understands what you are trying to do.

Are You Aware of What You’re Competing Against?

Learn what a “finished recording” sounds like for an acceptable demo, a rock record, a pop record, and so on. Compare your song to professional recordings and/or hits, and note all the differences.

Are You Building a Strong and Appropriate Foundation?

Depending on the genre, there are many ways to start a recording. In hip-hop and dance, the rhythm track rules. But for songwriters such as Jason Mraz and John Mayer, the recording may start from the foundation of a basic guitar and vocal track. Of course, songs can start all kinds of ways, but certain styles do tend to put more importance on one element or another, so make sure your work hits the style’s sweet spot.

Will You Allow for Spontaneity?

Let go of preconceived ideas and assumptions, and let pure creativity guide the process. You can always assess and edit the ideas later, but if you set rules at the beginning of the process, you may prevent something glorious from happening.

Do You Know When to Surrender?

“Learn when to let it go when it’s too hard to get,” suggests producer/songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall. For example, if a vocalist is trying over and over to get something you’d like to hear, but they can’t or won’t get it, then move on. Your choice is to have them practice the part and try again later, or just let it go. Sometimes, doing what is attainable is preferable to getting a less-than-great performance on a part you desire.

Will You Commit to Being a Solution—Not a Problem?

If something goes wrong in the studio—and it will— be professional. Things can sometimes get heated with the studio clock ticking and musicians or clients getting anxious. Keep your cool. If it’s your studio and you’re the producer, the solution will likely be your call, but calmly detail your plan for getting back on track. Don’t be too pushy or defensive or visibly confused or angry. If the person who should be in control seems out-of-control, then the whole session can spin into the abyss.