For The Record: 9 Rules of Recording Studio Etiquette
Life has many rules. Look both ways before crossing the street. Put the toilet seat down. Pay your taxes. There’s stuff you just gotta do. In the studio, maybe there aren’t “rules” per say, but “strong guidelines” at least, or think of it as “shit you should do if you want someone to work with you again.” Some of it sounds like common sense, some of it sounds unnecessary, but trust me, it’ll all make life in the lab smoother. This is for both engineers and artists, so share this with the next rapper who comes in and spits — literally — all over your mic.
1. Timeliness is next to godliness
Respect people’s time. In the studio industry, as most others, time equals money. There’s no such thing as fashionably late to the studio, and keeping someone sitting around is inconsiderate.
Artists – On stage you’re famous. Great. In the studio, you’re there to work. Even if it’s a home studio, there are other things the engineer could be doing besides waiting for you. If they setup ahead of time (as they should) that means they’ve stopped doing everything else and devoted their attention to you. Don’t take that for granted.
Engineers – Setup ahead of time. In theory, an artist should be able to walk through the door, step behind the mic, and record immediately. The headphones should be up and tested, software open and ready to go. If the client is there and your mic isn’t set up (provided they told you in advance what you were doing that day) then you are late.
The client walking in means the session has started, and the clock is running. That means it is not the time to take a half-hour blunt break. I’m not going to address whether you should drink or smoke while you work, that’s a personal choice, but milking the client for that extra time so you can get high is unprofessional.
2. Cleanliness is next to timeliness
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s not. Studios are relatively small, enclosed rooms. It should go without saying that sharing this space with a funky person can range from unpleasant to unbearable. I know some folks believe in staying natural, and that’s cool, but please be aware of those around you.
Additionally, before you pick up that sandwich with the extra onions and garlic mayo, are you about to record vocals? Grab that pack of gum too. Pop filters will retain that smell, and the next person coming to record really doesn’t want to share your lunch with you. Engineers – clean that pop filter from time to time, your clients will appreciate it.
If you are a studio owner — especially if it’s a home studio — feel free to clean up before artists arrive. Do the dishes, change the cat litter, dust a little bit. If you respect your space, others are likely to as well. On the flip side, artists, try to leave the studio how you found it. If there’s no staff of interns at your beck and call, you should probably throw away your own trash.
3. A penny saved…
As an engineer, quite often you will be working on an hourly rate. Mathematics states that the longer you work, the more you will make. However, purposely running up the bill is shady. Taking the scenic route to do your editing, or the long way to a certain effect does little more than expose you as an inefficient engineer. Working effectively will bring clients back again and again, and make you more money in the long run.
That said, artists, this stuff takes time. If you want a ten-minute mix, that’s what your album will sound like (and that’s not a good thing). If you are investing in your music, that means that you most likely want good results, so let your engineer work without you standing over their shoulder tapping your watch. No one works well that way. If you think things are taking far too long, politely ask the engineer what they’re working on, and ask for an estimate of completion. Because…
4. Communication is key
No relationship works without communication (at least that’s what the books tell me) and the interaction between an artist and engineer is most definitely a working relationship.
Artists, learn some engineering terms so you can guide your engineer to what you want. Few things in life are more frustrating than hearing, “It doesn’t sound ‘brown’ enough. It’s way too ‘orange’.” No one knows what you’re talking about when you say that, and I don’t have a “brown” plugin to turn up.
On the other hand, engineers, when someone is performing on the mic, they don’t want to hear all about kilohertz and decibels. They just want to rhyme. If you have input to give, think about how you deliver your message. (Also, here’s an extra pro tip: After a take, talk to the person on the mic. Even if it’s to say “that was cool, give me one second to talk to the producer.” Say something. That awkward silence after a take can be confidence crushing.)
Also, listen to what the artist has to say. No two albums are made the same way, and no one likes the asshole engineer who responds to everything with, “this is the way I do it, so too bad.” Be flexible and work with your clients.
Making records is a collaborative process, and if it doesn’t come out the way you want because you didn’t speak up, you have no one to blame but yourself.
5. You break it, you bought it
That coaster your beer is on — the one with the flashing lights and buttons — is actually a preamp that cost me a thousand dollars. Those headphones you dropped on the floor after you knotted the cord all up? $100.
All this fancy stuff in the studio we engineers use to make you sound good doesn’t come cheap, and it’s hard to keep making you sound good when you accidentally spill that beer all over my gear. If you even have to wonder if it’s ok to put your drink somewhere, you probably shouldn’t, or at the very least — ask.
If you do happen to damage something, please act like an adult and let the engineer know. Accidents happen, and can be worked out, but if I find something broken months later and have to backtrack to find out what happened, I’ll likely be far less reasonable.
6. Enough is enough
Engineers, you must be aware of your role in the recording process. I’ve mentioned earlier in this column that engineering is a service industry. Your name is not going to be on the front of this album, no matter how good it sounds.
In practice, this means be careful what you say and when you say it. Some artists readily welcome input, some would rather not hear criticism from the engineer. Your basic job is to make things sound good, the producer is hired for the commentary. If there’s no producer in the room, I prefer to ask the artist how involved they want me to be with feedback.
If you happen to be an intern or an assistant, your creative input is generally not wanted unless specifically asked for. Sounds crappy, but there are people in the room who have paid dues and are getting paid for their opinion; your time will come. (Early on in my career, I’ve even been kicked out of a session for giving unwanted critique. Music is personal, and people will take critique quite personally.)
7. Got me workin’ day and night
In this world of Blackberrys/iPhones/whatever, people are infinitely more accessible than ever. That in no way means you should call me at 2 a.m. to book a session, unless I specifically tell you that’s okay. Even if you know I’m awake, very few people accept calls at that time. An email or a text is much less-intrusive and is the preferable way to reach out at that hour.
On a related note, public forums like Twitter or Facebook are not really the best place to book a session. It’s just a little awkward.
8. The $
From time to time, studios may give you a break on the rate, for various reasons. Maybe you’re booking a large block of time, maybe you’re a repeat client with a low-budget project. Basically, good clients are eligible for the hookup, same as in any business. Just a couple guidelines to go with this:
1. If we have never spoken or met (not to mention never worked together), don’t act like the studio owes you any kind of discount. I don’t care how real you are or how much the streets love you. This is a business. If you’re not willing to invest in your art, why should I be? (Also, if all your raps are about mow much you’re hustling/grinding, why do you need a discount?)
2. If you do get a hookup, it is extremely bad form to go around town saying “if you ask enough, they’ll give you the time for x-amount less.” If anything just say something like, “Green’s a good dude, he’ll work with your budget.” Undercutting someone’s rate like that is akin to taking money out of their wallet.
3. If someone is willing to work with you on your budget, be reasonable. You don’t do your job for dirt cheap or free, why should the engineer?
4. If you can’t get a hookup, don’t be mad. Just because you did last time doesn’t mean it’s possible this time. Sometimes the market can’t bear discounts.
9. Your momma taught you better
There’s a myth in the entertainment industry that you have to be ruthless to get where you want. This is 100% incorrect. At the most basic level, no one wants to work with an asshole. Period. You may be able to make some headway with that attitude, and perhaps have great success, but the road will be much easier and enjoyable if you’re able to get along with people. Jerks never get a break on the studio rate, but I’ll accept a call from a good client any time of day.
Get FamiliarJ. Kennedy
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