Monday, August 5, 2013

you should record at the Woodshed Studios in San Marcos, Texas

I think a lot of people might enjoy learning something about recording in a real studio. Too bad they'll never see this blog. -) I think I'll focus on someone like me: an amateur who does not have a band and will want to hire good musicians. But, I'll also assume you have almost no experience in serious performing with others.
Not counting a 4 channel cassette and an 8 channel digital work station (which actually added a lot to my recording education), I have recorded in six "real" studios: one each in Amarillo, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Nashville, and San Marcos, Texas. The first five were back in the tape days and I recorded solo all but once (Hi Richard). At the Woodshed Studios of Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos they use ProTools digital recording.
I recently looked into studios in the Denver area and I must say they have a bunch of fancy looking ones. Of course, so does Austin, just 35 miles from San Marcos. First thing I'd say is this. If you need a gorgeous setting to record your song you'll pay a lot more, but your song won't sound any better.
Now, I don't intend this to be an ad for the Woodshed, but most of what I've learned about what to expect I learned there. I'm going to start with the thing that bugged me the most - the damn click track. The pros I worked with just needed a simple click, click ... maybe an emphasis on the first beat sometimes - Click, click, click ... for a waltz. Now, from talking with Kent Finlay (owner of the Woodshed), I get the idea that most beginners go in and record what he called a "scratch track." This is you and your guitar (or whatever) playing and singing your song while hearing the click in your earphones. If you don't do this you probably don't have good enough timing to salvage the operation. You don't notice yourself speeding up and slowing down. You don't know that sometimes you slip from 1,2,1,2 to 1,2,2,1,2,1,2 and stuff like that.
So before spending the bread in the studio practice to a metronome or some computer simulation of one. If, like me, you get thrown by the click, try playing to a cheap drum machine (or computer simulation of one). Woodshed engineer Russell Tanner would play different sounds until he came up with a "cheesy drum machine" that I could play to. You don't want to be thinking too much about the click, but you must stay with it! If you do, when the pros come in they will do you a better job in less time.
Now, let's address the auto-tune misconception. A lot of people think that the computer program can make anyone sound like a decent singer. Not true. The most common auto-tune phenomenon makes people sound ALMOST like themselves. I think Cher had the first auto-tuned hit years ago and you know she can sing on pitch. Most pros using auto-tune today can sing on pitch; they use it as a special effect. You know it's auto-tuned when it's Cher and it ALMOST sounds just like her except she's been transformed into a Stepford wife robot.
If you want to sound like yourself the engineer will probably use auto-tune on a note here and a note there, not entire passages. I needed auto-tune on a low note that I was, like, a semiquaver away from and a high note that I kept missing by an inch. Russell would use as much as was needed unless it started to sound artificial, then back off to keep it sounding real.
Here's a more practical thing to do if you have pitch issues. While making the scratch track make sure your instrument is right on with the click and sing the song in your head. You can do this with practice. THEN lay down the scratch vocal track and use this trick I learned this from Moira Smiley (of VOCO) at a seminar. Moira was allowing those of us gutsy enough to go solo to sing for her critique. One young lady was very off pitch and had no clue. Moira said to the class. "Let's all sing this note to back her up. Hmmmmm" I think the song was in the key of C and she got us all humming a C note. The young lady sang in perfect tune then!
So, the engineer can put a note in your headphones. S/he can change that note if and as needed. It helped me get through an a cappella Scottish-like tune. Russell even made the note sound like a bagpipe!
OK you've got a scratch track. Both guitar and vocal are on beat and in tune. You won't drive the pros crazy! You're job is done for now.
I don't know about the situation of finding pros (or great amateurs) to be your sidemen. You can figure that out on your own or by asking people "in the know." If you are in San Marcos here's what you do. Ask Kent Finlay. He knows Texas music like Billy Graham knew the Bible. Tell him what kind of sound you have in mind -country band, rock band, whatever. Or just say, "Kent, I want a drummer, an electric bass player, lead guitar, a fiddler, and a button accordion player. I can afford to pay about x amount." When I asked him about getting a Mexican-style accordionist, he asked, "Would you prefer Flaco Jimenez or Joel Guzman?" That's like saying, "Who should I get for your religious needs Jesus or Buddha?" You probably know that Texas is kinda nonunion so he'll get you someone you can afford and they'll be good because you are in one of the heartlands of American music. If you can afford the best he'll get you the best. In my three years of recording at the Woodshed all the players worked by the song. I won't tell you how much I paid whom, but I'll tell you there were fantastic people willing to play for $35.00-$50.00 a song at that time. No kidding. The studio and engineer cost me a few hundred a day. Now, the musicians expect to come in and get the song done in just a few takes. Actually, they get most of it the first take and then "fix" (punch in) a note or phrase they weren't happy with. If you insist on playing along at the same time, as I often did, you need to be sensitive to when YOU are the one causing all the retakes and raise their fee accordingly.
There you are. You have a professional version of your song's background. It's just you and the engineer (and Russell is very convivial and helpful). Now you can sing your song over and over, or line by line, until you are happy or broke or too drunk to go on.
Then you sit on the couch, drink a Shiner and listen to Russell mix the song. He'll ask for your opinion, maybe like an eye doctor - "Now which sounds best. This? Or This. This? Or That." When that's done you'll have a decision to make. Are you going to take your master to a professional mastering studio (or pay, like CD Baby to master it)? That's the way it's done by Willie and Waylon and the boys. Mastering is a compression technique that sort of brings out all the sounds so they stand out to the ear. It's what makes a song sound best on the radio. Or you can do what I did which was to let Russell play with all his toys until it sounded damn good and as loud as a mastered CD. I liked that more natural sound. The engineer will need to know because s/he must not use certain tools from the computer kit if it's going to be mastered.
Last, but not least, ask what you need to bring for the engineer to load your digital master onto. I bought a portable hard drive for under $100.00 and it's still not full. I wanted ALL the files so they could be used by any ProTools engineer anywhere. Russell labeled the final mix so I'd know which one was the one to burn or send to CD Baby or whomever. They are WAV or AIFF files (right now).
Ta Da! You have a song for the ages and have had the experience of a lifetime!

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