So you’ve been squirreling away for months (years?) in your home studio (Mum’s basement??) laying and editing tracks for your upcoming sonic masterpiece. Your rough diamond now just needs the final cut and polish that can only be afforded by a professional sound engineer in a commercial studio. What do you need to be aware of and how to best prepare so that when your opus is unleashed upon the masses, it sounds nothing short of awesome.
1. Choosing a studio/sound engineer
Word of mouth is the best indicator of quality of where you should be headed. If you are in a band and/or part of a local scene, talk to other musicians who share a similar style to you. Otherwise do some research and see what bands/musicians have recorded at these locations. Most studios will list notable previous clients and in many cases will have examples of works they have produced.
- Preparing your tracks
Be absolutely anal (or fastidious or you prefer) about this. Find out what file formats the are acceptable by the studio as well as frequency and bit rate of files. In 99% of cases the studio will be able to handle the industry standard of AIFF or WAV, 44.1khz, 16 or 24 bit, but it doesn’t hurt to double check this. 44.1khz is the best approach if you are intending to eventually distribute to CD format, although many artists these days do record at 48khz.
Are you using midi in your tracks? Depending on how much money you are prepared to blow on hourly studio rates, you could go in with the midi files and take advantage of whatever outboard gear/plugins the studio has to offer. Alternatively you may wish to save time and have all your tracks rendered to audio befor going into the studio. Personally, I have a pretty cool range of Native Instruments virtual instruments in my rig, so I have all my sounds sorted out at home. Saves a lot of time on mixing day as well, which is not a good time to audition hundreds of presets looking for the sound you want.
Always check your audio files after render/export. Most modern day DAWS are pretty robust but I had a recent incident with Reaper that required re-work. In one small section of the overhead stereo mic track, the audio had failed to render. It wasn’t easy to pick up on during mixing as it basically only cut out a crash cymbal half way (which made it kinda sound like a hi hat closing quickly). So this eventually meant we had to re-run the whole render process next time I went back to the studio, AND get the whole track re-mastered. See screenshot below.
Another big decision is how much processing and effects do you apply at home and how much do you leave til the day of mixing. Depends on a couple of things.
1 .How good are you on the tools? I mean audio engineering wise – do you know how to adjust an effect or do you just play with pre-sets til something cool pops up?
2. How good are your range of effects themselves?
My rule of thumb is that if a sound is fairly standard (clean vocal, drums, acoustic guitar, exotic-Mongolian-yak-horn-flute, etc..) I leave effects to the guy who is mixing the track. In my most recent experience when I had 2 tracks mixed, the studio had hundreds of plugins (many modeled after Neve preamps, API channel strips,Lexicon gear..etc….), and heaps of expensive outboard gear. So it makes sense to let them work with that, but I was assertive about what I liked and didn’t like, and guided them to the sound I was after.
If however you have a particular sound in mind, do what you can in your studio but leave things like reverbs and delays and anything that adds polish to the experts. For example, on one track recently I went for a compressed, saturated vocal sound in a particular section of the song. So I applied compression and then Soundtoys Decapitator at home and left EQ and reverb alone to be applied on the day of mixing in the studio.
- on the Day of mixing.
Prepare for all eventualities. As well as bringing in your tracks, bring backups in the rare event that there are issues with your primary files. I even went so far as to take a backup hard drive AND a laptop with the original project files. Other than that I prepared an xlsx file with all tracks, panning information, rough volume levels etc..The actual mix did not actually follow this religiously, but it was more a guide to the engineer as to what I was trying to achieve. If your tracks are fairly basic, this may not be needed, but I had something like 45 tracks with multiple layered vocals, guitars, synths etc..
On the day of mixing you are probably going to be on the clock, paying by the hour. Keep focused on the job, try to limit the partying vibe (I realise that being it a real studio is exciting), and don’t bring along your groupies/girlfriends/boyfriends/entourage. Save that til you’re as big as Wiz Khalifa or Susan Boyle and can afford to burn money on studio time.
A last thing to keep in mind, your ears will get tired throughout the session, especially if it is a long one. If you think the mix is awesome and is done and dusted, take a quick break before final review to rest your ears. It only has to be 10 mins or so, then come back and listen to the mix one last time before finally committing to it (or adjusting).