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15 Steps to Pulling Off a Stunning Performance in the Studio

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Pulling off an excellent studio performance can be difficult. The environment is, for most of us, daunting and cold, even if we’ve spent a lot of time in it. But there are many ways you can give yourself the advantage and improve your comfort with that environment. Give them all a shot, and what could go wrong?

Photo courtesy of rickyrhodes.

1. Assuming your producer is good at his or her job, trust them. Their job is to coax the best performance from you.

2. Be willing to go home and come back another day if, after several takes, you still aren’t getting anything right. You should be getting it mostly right and only fixing small issues, rather than needing to overdub every bar.

3. Really commit to knowing how you’re going to sing or play each minute little part of the song well in advance of the session and practice frequently. Do some practice on the day of your session; enough to remain confident that you can pull off a great performance, but not so much that you take the energy and edge of the performance away for that day.

4. Take care of your body. If you are a singer who likes to drink herbal tea with honey or something, make sure it is available. If you are a guitarist in a cold climate and you can’t play when your fingers are cold, wear fuzzy gloves even if your band mates are calling you a pansy cross-dresser, as some most likely will! Pulling off a good performance is 90% psychological; the rest is taking care of these physical factors, and practice.

5. Don’t be anxious; anxiety breeds negativity. Believe in your performance. Have some confidence. Sounds corny, yeah. But truly, if you don’t believe that you can pull this off, you won’t, which brings further emphasis on step 3.

6. Likewise, put yourself around people who make you feel confident. If there are negative people around you, you will take that negativity on yourself. Lots of people talk about “negative energy” and they’re just trying to get $5 from you in exchange for some crappy aura-cleaning “service.” In the studio, this negative energy stuff can become so real you can feel and taste it. Same goes for positive. Which one do you want to breed?

7. If you are sick, reschedule. Nobody can pull off a stunning performance when they’re wrecked; even if they can pull off a good performance, it could be much better with some patience and a new schedule. Remember, you (and your manager!) might want to get everything done now, but recorded audio can last decades, centuries, even. You want it to sound right.

8. Know your boundaries. I once spent 36 hours on the vocals for a song. I knew that after the first ten hours, I’d be useless and would not stand a chance of being relatively objective and recording a good song for months or years to come because I overdid the perfectionist thing. The best takes are in the first hour. Unfortunately I used the wrong microphones for the song in that first hour and insisted on redoing it; in the end, the takes with the wrong microphones sounded better than those with the right microphones.

9. You want to get in the creative zone, sure. Go for a jog or drink coffee. Don’t go the studio drunk, stoned, high or low. You might think your performance sounds great but nobody is agreeing with you.

10. Educate yourself. Know what’s going on. Ask the engineer and producer questions. Do you know what mic is being used, and why that particular mic has been selected over others? In the signal path, what’s between the mic and the DAW? Is it the smooth Avalon pre-amp or the edgier TLA? Knowing why things are the way things are can put your mind to ease.

11. Get to know the sound of the mic you’re using. You might be used to the sound of the Shure SM58 at gigs and in rehearsal, you might be thrown off at first when you hear your voice coming back in the cans through a Neumann U87. So get to know it in advance and you won’t have a problem.

12. If you need more reverb in your cans, ask for it. You might feel like a pest when you start asking for things, but the producer and engineer are there to help you get a great recording. They’re there to help. And they’re probably there because they’re getting paid, so ask for whatever you need to get a good take done. Plus, if it means you nail a take sooner rather than later, they’ll be grateful.

13. Know your weak points and your strong points in performing the song. Focus time and attention in the studio accordingly, or you’ll exert your energy in the wrong places.

14. Know in advance: do you sound best when you sing the song straight through from start to finish? Or does focusing on the song’s core components one at a time work best for you? Most of the time the producer will follow a pattern like: sing or play the song straight through three or four times, then start zooming in and doing takes of one verse, one line, and eventually, single words.

15. Be tactful and respectful of others: that means those in your band and those who are producing and engineering your track. If you start picking fights and being nasty to the people you’re working with, they’re not going to be excited about the work. They’re going to be bummed. Even if you sound excellent, the lack of energy in every other take because you’ve decided it’s time to be a prick is going to be apparent.

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