Being a recording artist isn’t easy. There are only a few short seconds for an artist to command attention and convince listeners that their song is worth hearing. Capturing a great performance is the most important aspect of creating competitive recordings. And it is the producer’s responsibility to make sure that the artist reaches his/her greatest potential. Catering to the psychological and physiological needs of an artist will help ensure the best possible recordings. Factors like comfort, encouragement, and positivity can make or break a recording session.
This might seem obvious to some, but I cannot stress enough the importance of a comfortable working environment. Climate control is often overlooked, but it can affect your vocalist’s performance greatly if your room is too hot or too cold. Lighting is another undervalued factor. Some people find it difficult to feel creative under harsh florescent lighting, regarding it as sterile. I like to set a soft, comfortable vibe by using candles or light switches with dimmers. But be warned, changing lighting or temperature mid-session can alter a singers intonation. Learn to get familiar with what each artist requires to feel the most comfortable, and in turn perform their best in the booth.
Organization also contributes to comfort. Make sure your studio is clean and void of clutter. A clean studio represents professionalism, which goes a long way, especially for inexperienced engineers. Put in a little extra effort to keep your studio clean, and artists are more likely to give you repeat business.
Adequate space is also necessary. Having a large room not only sounds better acoustically, but also accommodates larger bands and their entourages which makes for happier artists. Having a separate lounge area from your control room for “hanging out” will help decrease noise and distraction. Conversely, if space doesn’t allow, it might be worth noting to an artist it’s not always in their best interest to have lots of people around during the recording process, as it might stunt the progress and flow of things.
Now that the physical environment is covered, it is time to get into the psychological comfort of your recording artist. First, it is important to be calm and patient. Realize that the artist is vulnerable while they are caged like animals inside of the mic booth. Performers put their pride on the line and risk exposing embarrassing imperfections. Inexperienced artists usually need more comforting than veterans. I often tell timid singers, “Go for it. This is the place to make mistakes. I can edit them out. On stage I would maybe understand being reserved, but now is the time to let it rip and give it your all. Don’t be afraid of messing up. I won’t hold it against you.” I would rather record 99 takes of a cracked note to get one great, energetic take, than record 100 “safe” tracks.
Another useful tool that has helped me foster lasting relationships with artists is realizing that the singer’s job is more difficult than the engineer. Of course, engineering requires spending countless additional hours in the studio compared to being an artist, but during the actual recording session, it is much easier to push start/stop/record than it is to perform a song, so treat the performer with the priority that they deserve, even if it means catering to their ego now and again.
Additionally, you never know when you might get a good take, so always be recording from the moment the artist enters the booth. Even if the artist is just warming up, they might be brainstorming ideas that they would like to reference later. I’ve worked with veterans like Kurupt and Inspectah Deck, and they especially like capturing the first take because the energy is most authentic. Also keep all of your takes. In every session, I designate one track to muted out-take files and I leave them there even after I finish my mix. I can’t stress this enough. More often than not, I find myself going back through this archive for a better pronounced syllable or note, and handily splicing in the one word that I am looking to replace.
This leads me to my next point. Treat every session like it could be the last time you are getting that artist in the booth. Get the most out of them and never settle for mediocrity. No matter how good of a mixing engineer you are, nothing will make up for a bad performance. Be critical, but also use positive reinforcement.
I always like to err on the side of getting extra takes, rather than not enough. One of my favorite lines to use is “you sound great. I really like what you’re doing, but I think you could do it better.” Another good line is, “that was great, ill keep that, but it sounds like your starting warm up. Let me get a few more takes.” A good rule that I learned in grade school is to say something positive that you like about a performance before criticizing it. Also, it’s important to not just criticize something, but also suggest specifically what they could do to improve.
These tips could go a long way, especially for engineers that are just starting out in their career. During the beginning of my career, I had many clients return to work with me because of my ease of work flow and customer service, even when my mixes were not very good. A comfortable working environment will make up for lack of experience, so be sure to keep this in mind, and you will be more likely to generate repeat business.