Last month, I filled this space with advice for young musicians regarding how to behave in the studio, especially with respect to sound engineers and producers. The reaction among my engineer friends was largely favorable, many agreeing with what I had to say. Some even added their own interesting ideas about what is acceptable (and not acceptable) within the confines of studio walls. What I failed to realize was how one-sided the debate quickly became, with musicians fielding all sorts of odd requests from exacting engineers.
So on balance, I thought I’d turn the tables and throw a little advice on those local engineers about how to treat musicians who so haplessly wander into their places of business. Again, disregarding this advice can mean trouble – and fewer clients – down the line.
KEEP A CLEAN STUDIO
It’s a simple rule, but one that can carry great weight. Most musicians wallow in the filth of their rehearsal and performance spaces (garages, storage sheds, warehouses, dingy clubs, etc.) and aren’t used to clean working environments. But it is crucial that they feel, when they enter your studio, that they are welcome, respected and being offered a filth-free space to create. There is a difference between a cluttered studio and a messy studio, and clutter – the kind most musicians crave, with amps, guitars and other gear filling the space – is acceptable to a degree. But knots of cables littering the floor, empty food cartons and beer cans, stained carpets, and stinky furniture scream “cheap as hell” to musicians who are paying you (in most cases, well) to help them feel comfortable, relaxed and ready to get the job done. Help them do that by tidying up every once in awhile.
BE UNDERSTANDING OF THE INEXPERIENCED MUSICIAN
This may be the hardest rule to follow, but it is essential. Experienced musicians (read: jaded) are used to working under the pressure that attends studio sessions. They’re well accustomed to the time constraints, the money being spent and the speed with which things must be completed. (They can also be assholes about it – see below.) But novice players, unless preternaturally gifted, will take time to be coaxed into a relaxed state, which is so important to getting clean, usable, powerful tracks. I was working with a band that had a guitar player who melted down every time I pressed “record.” He just couldn’t handle the pressure of knowing he was going to be recorded. Rehearsals and run-throughs went fine. Press the Little Red Button, and he freaked, nearly in tears and shaking. The easy route would’ve been to ask if someone else in the band could play his part, but that would’ve been insulting, and could have created a rift within the band and made the rest of the sessions highly volatile. Instead, I asked everyone to leave the room and talked him through the parts. We did it in baby steps until we got it. When we called everyone back in, he was nonetheless shaken, but the parts were done, and we could move on without having him humiliated in front of his band.
BE UNDERSTANDING OF THE EXPERIENCED MUSICIAN
As stated above, experienced musicians can be assholes. Ideally, an experienced musician is what you want. They come in, understand the situation, budget and time constraints, and what needs to be done to get good takes. They’ve done this 100 times before, and whether or not they’re a hired hand or a member of a band, they understand the nature of the beast. But with this knowledge sometimes comes attitude of the worst kind. They may be quick to condescend, tire easily of waiting for ideas to be sorted out or technical glitches to be dealt with, and make it very clear that they’re above it all. Fine. There are two ways to deal with this: 1. Give it right back. 2. Default to diplomacy. The first option may put the musician in his or her place, but can alienate the musician and the band, and will certainly not help get things done any faster. Yes, you will have taken the asshole down a few notches, but at what price? At the end of the literal day, if you don’t have usable takes, you’ve failed. Better to smooth the situation by offering reasonable solutions. The word “reasonable” must be employed here, and you set your own standards in that regard. If you’re faced with a musician throwing equipment, physically or verbally abusing you or someone else, or the player refuses to play until demands are met, then we may have a bigger problem, but one that must be discussed outside of the studio – for everyone’s and your equipment’s sake.
REMEMBER YOUR JOB
Which is, to capture the best performance at a given time under the given circumstances. Too many engineers want to put their “stamp” on the music they record. But remember: You are not Rick Rubin or Quincy Jones or Ted Templeman or Glyn Johns. Those guys and their ilk were fortunate enough to enjoy a mix of raw talent, timing and earned credentials. Even if you feel you have similarly won your stripes, none of that matters when it comes to recording your next client. So don’t be the asshole you so despise in other musicians. Humble yourself to the cause, make the musicians in your midst feel comfortable, professional and ready to do their best. Give them your respect, help them when they need it, and otherwise allow the music to flow.