Our 1st studio session: 10 things about recording

So as you all know, Saturday April 21st my band Thornfield (joined by Petras on drums) went to the studio. We had no professional recording studio experience and didn’t know exactly what to expect for the day, but we headed in with snacks, wine, tea, coffee, and instruments. And (unfortunately for me) a dry-clean only sweater that I proceeded to completely sweat through about 5 minutes before even arriving. And my outfit totally didn’t work without the sweater, so I couldn’t exactly remove it either (ugh! I hate being trapped by my own clothing selection!). Note for next time: wear layered, easily removable, non-dry-clean-only items.

I just wanted to toss a few things out there before we head into our second (and possibly final? possibly not?) session at the studio this coming Saturday. What was it like? What the heck did we do? Who, what, why, where, when?

Well, our band headed into Handwritten Recording at 12:15pm to tune up, warm up, and set up, with a start time of 1pm with our engineer, Rick. We fiddled with our guitars/piano/drums, sang annoyingly loud scales and vocal swoops by the bathroom, set up our big fat music binders, removed everything from the recording room (instrument cases, coats, purses) that wasn’t necessary, tested mics–and before we knew it, it was time to roll.

And now, onto bullet points–they save me the effort of making connective sentences. Thank you for understanding.

1. I really like our engineer. He was joking with us, super friendly, encouraging while honest, and focused on efficiency. I can’t imagine an experience working with an engineer we didn’t get along with–ack. So if you’re recording, find someone you like! Find someone whose personality meshes with yours, because you’re going to spend some intense hours with this person.

(Also, I found it inspiring that–shameless name-dropping alert–Rick has worked with Sufjan Stevens. He has a letter from Sufjan posted on the back wall–how awesome is that.)

2. We did all “basic tracks” for this first session. In other words: guitars, drums, piano. All the voice stuff and extras (cello, harmonica, bass, melodica, guitar riffs, egg shaker, tambourine, djembe, vocals, etc.) will come later. The reason: this is a one-room studio, and with everyone playing at once you’re bound to get “bleed” when you play multiple instruments simultaneously–sounds from the piano leaking into the guitar mic, the drum leaking into the piano mic, etc. So we wanted to save anything fiddly (like vocals, which we’re bound to be very picky about) or non-essential extras for an overdub track during the second recording session.

Also, on some songs we multi-task–and Petras can’t play the drums and the bass at the same time, for example. So this necessitates an overdub anyway. Though if he could just figure out how to pull that off . . .

Still confused on why we didn’t belt it out at the same time? Well, if we had tried to do vocals during the basic track part, not only would there be possibly unpleasant bleed into the vocal mic (which allows for less manipulation on the back end), but if someone isn’t pleased with how they sang that one silly word on the second chorus, the whole band would have to play the whole darn song again, from the top. Saving the vocals means that once we’re singing, there’s less pressure to get a perfect take the whole way through, and if we sing a couple takes and like different chunks of each, we can more easily pick sections we liked and ‘punch in’ other sections from another take.

This sounds really confusing, doesn’t it?

Hmmmm.

Anyway!

3. So the thing you’ve probably gathered about basic tracking: if you mess up, everyone starts again. I was afraid the pressure for this would completely wig me out and cause my fingers to become miserably wobbly and useless on the guitar–but it didn’t! Turns out I am MUCH less nervous in a studio setting than I am live. Go figure.

4. I learned a new term–‘scratch vocals.’ The gist is, if you’re recording a basic track and no one is singing, it’s very likely that people will get lost and confused. You really need that voice singing along to indicate to everyone where they heck you are in the song–like Carrie is doing here:

So for every song, someone sat out (I did this an awful lot), hung out by the mixer, and sang into a mic which played into everyone’s headphones.

5. Fig newtons can do wonders for restoring ones’ energies.

6. It’s easier to get it done all at once. Our end time was technically 6pm, but Rick suggested that we stay longer to get in the last 3 songs. Basically, it was better to just get it done while we had the set up already configured than to set it all up again in that same way the next time.

7. Getting in the groove takes time–but no panic needed! We started our session with the basic track for “Trust Me to Stay.” This is one of our oldest songs, and probably the song which we have performed the most. I felt confident that we could get two clean takes back to back (yes, our goal was to nail 2 clean takes of everything). HOWEVER–surprise surprise, it took us close to an hour to get this dang track right. An hour. At this point we were tempted to freak out, because if it took us an hour to get every song right, 19 songs (enough for 1 album + 1 EP) were bound to take us . . . well, twice our budgeted studio hours just for basic tracking. BUT we didn’t lose it (thank God), and everything seemed to go waaay fast from there on out. We got clean takes of the second song (Dinosaur) almost right off the bat (go Eric and Peter!), and so forth. Once we got into our groove, we were just spewing out clean takes right and left. It was gratifying, energizing, and Rick actually couldn’t believe it. =)

8. I suspect the 2nd session will go more slowly. I just have this feeling. We have a lot of extras to add. I suspect a 3rd session might have to happen . . . but we’ll see. Either way, I’m not sweating it.

9. Fast. It happens fast–and has to. If someone messes up irreparably and stops the group, you wait 5 seconds, count everyone in, and start again asap. Losing minutes between takes could be so easy–but we all kept each other on task. From the moment we started at 1 until we walked out after 7, it was practically non-stop. Except for the time it took to chew a Fig Newton . . . or three.

This is my justification for the ridiculously few pictures. I thought I’d have all this time to be snapping artistic shots of everyone right and left, but it turns out that there just wasn’t time to pick up the camera, take a picture, and set it down again. I’ll try harder during our second session.

10. I loved it. I love my fellow musicians, I love making music with them, I love seeing and hearing us succeed in this venture that seemed so intimidating, I love the crazy energy that comes even when exhaustion is shooting through your brain. Kind of like the surge of caffeine during an all-night cross-country drive. Your brain is mush, but somehow your body just keeps going. And it feels . . . good. Like a drug.

To all of you who said a prayer on our behalf–thank you! We were truly blessed during this first session, and I can’t wait for session #2!! (keep praying!)

13 thoughts on “Our 1st studio session: 10 things about recording

    1. Jenna Post author

      The devil??? Are you kidding–I love those things! From what scarring childhood experience does your hatred emanate?

      Reply
      1. Liz

        Fig Newtons are a Ragland/Nowell road trip staple. Along with peanuts, Diet Dr.Pepper and Pecan Sandies. I doubt two ordained ministers would eat them if they are the devil. =)

      2. Jenna Post author

        Oh good! Ordained ministers behind the Fig Newtons cause definitely proves their heavenly provenance (that of both the Newtons and the ministers, heh heh). =)

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  2. Suzie

    All that sounds intimidating but I’m glad it wasn’t. Sounds like you got a lot done too. Looking forward to your next one :)

    Reply
  3. Veronica

    So wonderful it went smoothly after the first track so that you don’t have to spend more money! I imagine it’s pretty expensive per hour. Very much looking forward to purchasing a finished album! :)

    Reply
  4. Carrie

    Wow, now *that’s* a classy picture of me, with my tongue hanging out (and mind checked out) in utter exhaustion. Looks like you’ve finally captured the truest expression of me. 😉

    Reply
  5. Joanne

    Might I suggest wearing a dri-fit running/workout shirt next time? it’ll wick the sweat right off of you so you won’t even know it was there in the first place!

    I recording some of my piano music at a studio back in high school when I was at my peak and it was so.much.fun. And I didn’t even have a Jenna there to eat fig newtons with! Imagine if I had…

    Reply
  6. Kimby

    So excited for you and Thornfield! This was a major accomplishment — hard work, but worth it. Glad you found a compatible engineer — looking forward to your next write-up! I’ve only had two recording studio experiences (one to record all the songs in my head (on piano) so I don’t forget them (!), and one where I accompanied another musician. The second one was actually easier, even though the first one was “informal.” (Does that make sense?) Anyway, congratulations!!!

    Reply
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