The Studio Essentials Checklist - 5 Must Haves for the Recording StudioDec 04, 2022
from Joshua Grange - The Echo Guild
If you're like me, then you have lists - squirreled away in notebooks, buried within apps and spread around the house on Post-It Notes.
Lists multiply. At times, our lists become an ever-blossoming lotus, where inspiration, good intentions, and accomplishment go to die.
Still, we love our lists, because they are an attempt to wrangle order from the perpetual chaos nature seems to favor. Lists are a simple way to thumb our noses at mortality. Yes our time is nigh, but first, baby carrots. ✅
Lists are also a cunning illusion of the promise of a better future, for who knows what golden fates lay upon our paths un-listed.
That said, you are about to read a list of absolute essentials to bring with you to one of my favorite places on the planet: the recording studio. I have spent the last 25 years making my living in the studio, and it is a magical place. Whether you're a session musician, artist, engineer, producer or beloved groupie, you won't want to forget these!
Studio #2 at Cello Studios, Los Angeles (now known as East West)
#1: RESPECT - ARRIVE ON TIME
I thought I'd begin the list with something easy and simple, yet for many people, this will be the most challenging thing on the list. Let me make it easy for you: Ask the producer what time you are expected to arrive (known as "load-in") and show up 15 minutes early. You're welcome.
📌 When it comes to sessions, there are two times to keep in mind: Load-In, and Downbeat.
- Load-In time is usually 30-60 minutes before the Downbeat. It is when you load-in and set up your equipment (or when your cartage service does it for you). For singers, this is the time to warm-up, vibe-out your vocal booth and prepare your various teas and potions.
- Downbeat is the time when you should be set up, ready to record and the session actually begins. Everyone is tuned up and ready to go. You don't want to be the person still loading in their gear when everyone else is ready for the downbeat (this person is called a "schmuck").
If you have any extra time after load-in and before the downbeat, you can use it to meditate in your car. Perhaps you want to read about the 10 words people need to speak the language of music. Or, grab a coffee/tea and catch up with the other people at the session. Ask them how they're doing. They've missed you.
By arriving a little early, you're letting everyone know that you are operating from a baseline of respect - most importantly, for yourself.
NOTE: Do not use the extra time to chat up the engineer! They will be busy tweaking the snare drum, because it is the most important element of the session.
Studio A at Sound Emporium, Nashville
#2: SENSE OF HUMOR
The recording studio can be a pressure cooker:
- Musicians are expected to create and perform flawlessly song after song, take after take.
- Engineers are in the hot seat, tasked with the technical job of capturing these performances as they happen live.
- Artists, who are often funding the entire endeavor, hope the recordings (and they themselves) live up to the music and artistry they envision.
- Producers oversee and balance all these different elements, shepherding the wandering flock into a cohesive work while managing egos, technical difficulties and egos (not a typo).
Without a sense of humor, things can easily get tense. Perhaps someone has a disagreement about a lyric, the length and quality of a guitar solo, or the right way to say "capo" (it's KAY-po). Perhaps there's a frustrating song that refuses to come together no matter how many takes, tempos, key changes, arrangement choices or snare sounds are attempted.
Fun Fact: If there's a choice between two people, one of them being slightly better at their job but not much fun to be around, the job will go to the more fun person. So, what makes a person more fun to be around, you ask?
The answer is: just be cool and fun and funny and don't talk too much. Simple. I have witnessed the most tense and unpleasant vibes diffused instantly with a simple joke. It's pure magic. When you see it done, take notes.
Do not bring your bad attitude into the recording studio. But if you must, immediately call attention to the fact you have brought your bad attitude to work that day, so that someone in your vicinity will make fun of you for it, thereby lightening the mood considerably.
📌 NOTE: The exception to this rule is singers. They are allowed to be as emotional and difficult as they want to be. After all, without them it's all just elevator music. It might also be part of their "process". Trust me, do not interfere in their process. Maybe I should make that #1 of the checklist.
And if you're a singer, just make sure your "diva level" never exceeds more than 20% of the sum total of your talent and experience less any applicable Dunning/Kruger offsets. (If you are unsure what this means, you are most likely NOT a diva, and are probably already extremely nice and pleasant to everyone you meet in the studio. Thumbs up.)
Bebe Barron and Louis Barron in their studio
#3: A TUNER
It's better to show up to the studio with a tuner and no instrument than with an instrument and no tuner.
🔎 (If you're wondering what a tuner is, it's a small electronic device that one uses to tune your instruments.)
One great tip I learned long ago, was this: Before you play a single note, MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN TUNE. I know you're very excited to be in the studio and it's tempting to begin playing right away, but take 2 minutes to tune up and avoid being that person who sounds bad, and who makes other people (who have just tuned up) sound out of tune. It's a mark of deep professionalism.
If you're a keyboardist, you can start noodling immediately. Congratulations. And if you're a drummer, I realize you probably didn't hear a word I said because you have spent the last 20 minutes tuning the all-important snare drum. Please continue. (Yes, drums are tunable!)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Let's all take a moment to make sure our attitude is in tune.
Sylvia Moy and Steve Wonder at Motown Studio, Detroit
#4: BRAIN FOOD
Working in the studio is basically a marathon for your brain. Song arrangements are modified, keys can change constantly, and you'll need to remember many small tweaks and changes from take to take.
The studio requires sustained concentration and intense focus for hours at a time. Your brain will get a major workout, and you'll need brain food to keep your focus and positive energy up.
🧠 Here's an interesting fact: While the brain represents just 2% of a person's total body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body's energy use.
That means your brain consumes a lot of energy, even if you're just sitting down making music.
So, what is brain food?
Some people think coffee is brain food. Other people think that water is good brain food. I think they're both right. Coffee makes me feel like crap, but being in the studio has me craving endless cups.
Walnuts are good brain food. It's been said that any brain shaped foods are good for your noggin, but that would also include brains. One should probably refrain from eating a big bowl of brains in the studio, but I'm not here to tell you how to live your life.
Trail mix, granola/protein bars, dried fruit, beef jerky, a healthy lunch.... go crazy. You know yourself better than I do. Bring whatever you know to work best. But bring something.
Beatles in Studio #2, Abbey Road Studios, UK - They loved lots of tea and toast for brainfood!
Imagine that you are a guitarist on a session. You, along with the rest of the musicians on the session, have just heard a rough version of a song (called a "demo") and have written down the chords of that song. You're now expected to play guitar on that song, improvising rhythm parts, melodies, signature hooks, and solos.
How do you approach this?
It will be up to you to decide what to play and how to play it. Though it would be natural to assume that a person would simply play what their instincts dictate, a curious thing happens over time.
When they are first starting out, musicians will tend to play what they are feeling inside, which we will call 'their style". But invariably, a producer will ask them to play something different. Perhaps they will be asked to play something very simple, or to copy what is on the demo recording.
In many cases, they will be asked to play in the style of a certain band or musician, and may have been given a helpful reference such as "play like George Harrison had a baby with Radiohead".
To become a session musician means a person learns, over time, to morph into what is needed to make someone happy. In most cases, the person you want to make happy is the producer of the session. This ensures you will be called again for the next project they produce.
So, what about the "YOU" on our list... What has happened to this entity?
- Can you be "you", while trying to make someone else happy?
- Have you forgotten who "you" really are?
- Are you used to being told to stop being "you" so many times that you've found it's just easier to be someone else?
- Um, are we still talking about music?
- Hold on, if we're not talking about music then what are we talking about?
I want you to remember that your most valuable asset is that there's only one of you, and there will only ever be one of you. Please, never let the many trials and disappointments of the world keep you from expressing yourself.
There will be many voices telling you that it's not possible to be "you" while still living within a society, or being a member of a recording session. They are wrong and you have my permission to ignore them.
Yes, you will find that you may have to conform at times, but look for the many opportunities in your day to show the world who you are.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the world depends on it. We need you.
Bassist & badass Carol Kaye at Gold Star Studios, Los Angeles
In closing, I'd like to let you in on a little secret: The recording studio I mention so reverently in this article is actually a metaphor for life. Live with respect for people, show up on time, have a sense of humor, be in tune, take care of yourself and let your freak flag fly.
And if you're interested in expressing yourself creatively through music, check out our course designed especially to teach you to make your own music, that sounds like you.
See you in the studio!
Joshua Grange - The Echo Guild
The author in the studio - can you find the coffee mug? 📸 Neal Casal
About Joshua Grange
Joshua Grange is a touring and studio musician, record producer, and songwriter for legendary artists k.d. lang, Lucinda Williams, Beck, Dwight Yoakam, Sheryl Crow, The Dixie Chicks and many others. His unique music education site The Echo Guild teaches people to unlock their creative potential by using their greatest asset—their individuality. His new course: Creative Music Theory I teaches anyone to write and improvise their own unique music. For your free creativity pack, sign up below ⬇︎
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