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Hitting the Studio: How Not to Get Nervous When They Press “Record”

Brett Milano is a Writer at Harmonix. He is an experienced rock writer/reviewer and the author of The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock and Roll. Brett has a Maine Coon cat and a ridiculously excellent record collection, and also has what appears to be a Tiny Tim bobble-head doll on his work desk.

When you make your first trip to the recording studio, there is just one thing you need to keep in mind: what you’re about to do could go down in music history, make or break your band, and change or ruin your life forever. Okay, now relax and have fun!

All right, so the odds are that nothing so momentous is really going to happen-- your first recording will probably be just one more step in your band’s rise to stardom. Still, there’s always that remote chance that lightning could strike: Who would bother making a demo otherwise? You could be like Elvis, who tried to make a record for his mom and wound up changing the world. Or you could be like all those guys who thought they were going to change the world, and wound up making records for their mom.

For expert advice we went to David Minehan, currently one of Boston’s busiest rock producers at his own Woolly Mammoth Studios. Thirty years ago, he had one of those studio sessions where lightning really did strike: his band, The Neighborhoods, was among the youngest and feistiest of the emerging Boston punk bands. During one of their first recording sessions with producer Rick Harte, the Neighborhoods cut “Prettiest Girl.” The song became an underground classic that not only bought the band a long-term career (they’re still packing clubs), but wound up selling 50,000 copies -- unheard-of for an indie single; and it’s still a song that every Boston band knows.

Whatever delusions of grandeur they had, the three teenagers who cut that record couldn’t have imagined they were doing something that would follow them around for three decades. Minehan says, “What did I do that day that was so special? Beats me -- maybe there were a couple of transcendent moments, but it was just one day in the life of kids trying to reach some goal. But it’s important to let people know that the banality of the day could yield something timeless. To some extent it’s dumb-*ss luck, but you might just hit it.”

Still, there are ways you can tilt the scales to your advantage. Here are a few pointers:

  • Stay focused. Once you get into the studio, you’ll discover all kinds of ways you can tweak your sound, and try to copy every record you grew up loving. Resist the temptation: you’re there to lay down a great version of the songs that slay your fans when you play live -- not to spend five hours re-creating the operatic vocals on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
  • You’re not in Spinal Tap, so don’t crank everything to eleven. Records don’t sound awesome because everybody’s playing huge stacks at Coachella volume -- they sound that way because the arrangements are sharp and the engineer knows how to capture it. “I’ve seen plenty of crestfallen faces when they come in to play their loudest, most ferocious version, and it sounds like amplified kazoos,” Minehan says.
  • Don’t party in the studio… too much. Let’s face it, everybody does it to some extent. If you’re inclined to freeze up and get self-conscious, your producer might overlook a little loosening-up behavior. But unless you’re a member of The Pogues, that’s hard to keep up -- you’d be surprised at how many of your debauched rock heroes kept themselves sober for sessions. Just do the math: let’s say you have eight hours booked to do basic tracks for your first CD, and you come barreling into the studio in the morning with three kegs. Any guesses how you’re going to feel when it’s 8 PM and you have to start doing the vocals?
  • Try to work the fine details out in advance. Extra touches like backing vocals and percussion can be a major secret weapon, but it seldom works to add those on the fly. If you’re going to try fleshing out a song beyond the live arrangement, come in with a game plan.
  • Don’t slack off. Many a good band has started to fall apart when the weak links come out in the studio. “There’s been times when I’ve helped a band break up,” Minehan says. “Not often, but there’s been times when I’ll say to the songwriter, ‘Look, you’ve got an album of great songs here that your drummer is just going to screw up -- and yeah, I know the drummer is paying for the session.”  Don’t get paranoid, you’re probably doing fine--but if you’re playing drums and you hear the producer say, “It’s okay, we’ll just take the best drum parts and loop them” -- well, there may be cause for concern.

Most of all, just treat your studio session like a good gig: stay sharp and remember that you’re there to show what you can do; so much the better if any lucky accidents happen. And have fun. Really.