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Plenty of experienced and capable performers, no strangers to the studio, still get the jitters when it comes time to record. For the relative novice, perhaps working with limited equipment in less than ideal spaces, any problems arising from the pressure of recording are compounded by the technical challenges.
In this article, I'm going to offer you some simple tips that can help you to improve your recorded performances and make your life easier when it comes time to edit and mix your songs.
An obvious one to start, but it's all too easy to overlook. Many hobby musicians' principle reason for recording is to make demos of their own compositions, and since many people write, or at least develop, their songs while recording, it can often be the case that you've never actually played the thing from beginning to end as a true performance.
No matter how good a musician you are, an unrehearsed performance will disintegrate under pressure. Even if your songs are well established and you know them well, it's tempting to record before you're properly rehearsed: a couple of rehearsals completely focussed on getting everything tight can save a lot of headaches when recording.
So, if need be, record while you write, but when you're happy with the song, spend some time rehearsing the final arrangement before recording final takes of your parts, either to the song's backing track or to a metronome.
Love it or hate it, the humble metronome is probably one of the most important pieces of equipment in any studio. And don't think that fancy-pants quantising and editing features in modern DAWs mean that the metronome is a dusty relic: no, no, no… now your metronome is more important.
In many DAWs, you can edit how the metronome operates – beat emphasis, the sound it makes, its volume and which beats it sounds – so don't be afraid to play around and find a metronome setting that works for you and the song. I often find that the default setting in my DAW doesn't work well for me, especially if I'm monitoring other instruments while I record.
Some people, in some situations, find that they just can't work with a metronome. If that's you, why not try either programming a simple drum pattern – say, just kick, snare and hats – which does the same job while sounding a little less mechanical and uninspiring. Alternatively, try monitoring only the fundamental parts of the drums in your track; again, kick, snare and hi-hat are good candidates.
Simplify the Mix!
Following on from the previous point, it's often helpful not to listen to the full mix of your song while recording, and this is especially true if you're multi-tracking guitars. Let's say you've recorded a track of rhythm guitar, and now you're doubling it to thicken the sound. It's natural enough in this circumstance to want to monitor the first track while you play the second, but doing this may well lead you to replicate or even amplify timing errors in the first track, as you'll instinctively want to match the first performance. By working only to the metronome, or a basic drum mix, you may well find that your overdubs mesh far better, and any time-based editing later down the line with Flex or Beat Detective for example, is likely to be much easier.
Keep It Clean!
While we're thinking about advanced editing with, for example, Beat Detective or Auto Tune, it's worth remembering that these things work best with a clean, tidy signal. Don't assume that these tools will work their magic equally well on any old performance. If you're recording with a microphone, and especially with amplified instruments, take the time to screen and/or filter out extraneous noise before you start committing things to "tape".
For guitar and bass, it might be helpful to use tape or rubber bands to mute unwanted vibrations from the strings, vibrato springs, etc. In fact, a bit of creativity in this area can work wonders. For example, I've heard of foam earplugs being wedged between unused guitar strings, unused strings being taken off, and, perhaps most bizarrely, tying a loose guitar string from a guitar's hardware to a spoon wedged in the player's sock to prevent hum. (I tried this and yes, it works… more or less!)
Keep It Tuned!
Following on from the last point, fixing tuning problems is much easier – or even completely unnecessary – if you keep things properly tuned in the first place. Again, don't assume that your DAW's various magic wands can cure anything. Stringed instruments naturally drift out of tune while being played, and factors like heat, cold and humidity can thwart even the most diligent efforts to combat this. If you're working somewhere unfamiliar to your instrument, and if you have the time, play it in for a while and let it acclimatise to the environment. Tune up often, and certainly get into the habit of doing it every time you prepare to press the record button.
One other handy tip, principally for guitars and bass, is to remember that what we call "in tune" is in fact something of a compromise. As a result, some things sound more in tune than others, even when the instrument is perfectly (i.e., imperfectly!) in tune. For that reason, it can be worth going through your song's arrangement and working out whether you can benefit from using "compensated" tunings for some sections of the song. For example, if your song uses a lot of open position cowboy chords in the verse, but changes to higher register fingered voicings in the chorus, you might well benefit from recording these sections separately with the guitar's tuning optimised for the parts in question.
In time, everyone develops their own approaches to recording, and I hope some of this tips above can help you in working out yours. The main thing is that, whatever you do, take your time, and when things are frustrating, take the time to get some perspective and think things out. Often, you just can't see wood for trees. If all else fails, try the online version of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. If it worked for Bowie… !