Do Your Homework – Pre-Studio Production & Preparation

What to Know Before You Enter the Recording Studio

© 2012 James Hearn

This series explores things a band or artist needs to think about before spending time and money in a recording studio.

As a producer and audio engineer for the past fifteen years or so, I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of different types of artists, from solo vocalists to full bands, in a variety of styles. Throughout these sessions, I find that the artists that get the most out of their studio time always have a few things in common, and some of the most important things that any artist or musician can do happens way before they ever set foot in a recording studio.

Proper pre-production before your studio time can make the difference between getting what you want out of a studio and spinning your wheels by wasting time and money in a studio (which, incidentally, time and money are pretty much the same thing in a studio, but more on that later). Proper pre-production helps ensure that you go into your studio time with a plan of attack, and planning can make all the difference between a good outcome and a bad outcome. Imagine going skydiving and not planning out how to jump, when to pull the ripcord, or how to land safely. You always go through pre-jump planning and instruction to make sure you know the how, when, where, and why of your jump. You only get one shot at studio time, because when that studio time is up, you are paying for the time whether you walk out with a completed track or spend the entire session working out the kinks in your song.

Performance Issues

To begin with, make sure all the musicians know their parts. If you’re in a self-contained band, that means all the members of the band know the songs and can actually play what the song calls for. No “I’ll figure it out in the studio” work here. Most musicians that say they will wait until they get to the studio to figure their part or solo usually waste everyone’s time, with the band either sitting there, ready to record, or, if it is an overdub, the entire band doing absolutely nothing while the part gets worked out. Practice the song before your studio time and even spend some time working on variations of the song to decide what sounds best. This goes for vocalists too. Some vocalists do not even know the words to their own song while they are tracking vocals and, as a result, waste time and their vocal cords singing the same part over and over.

If you are hiring musicians to come in and play parts for you, usually the more explicit direction you can give the better. Write out the parts as specifically as possible. If you have Finale, Sibelius, MuseScore, or other music notation software, create the sheet music. Many DAWs nowadays include notation software, so if you have your parts recorded as MIDI data (you DO have your parts down, so you know what you want the song to sound like, right?) you can just export the score. Or, you can export the MIDI files and import them into some form of music notation software (MuseScore is an easy and open-source notation program for Windows & Mac both, so there’s no real excuse to not have notation software).

At a minimum, have copies of the chords and lyrics for everyone to use and keep in front of them while they record. Many times, a band will need to review a few minor details before hitting record, and it is a lot easier and quicker for the bass player to tell the guitar player “third chorus, the first A minor chord” rather than “you know, this chord in that chorus”.

Keeping the Beat

Make sure the drummer can (and does) play to a click track. Trust me, do not budge on this one. I understand that not all drummers can play to a click track. I understand that some very good music has been produced with no click track. However, if your drummer does not play with a click track, the tempo of your song is bound to drift by at least a few beats per minute. Think you may, at some point in time, want to remix your song? It is a lot tougher if the tempo drifts. Want to add a loop to your track? It will take whomever does that a lot longer to do it if the song speeds up and slows down throughout the song. Drifting tempos work in live settings, because people are not critiquing every little detail of your song. Recorded songs get listened to (hopefully) many times over, and a drifting tempo will make the entire song seem weaker and unsteady.

If your drummer is hesitant to play to a click track, gently remind her that good drummers are steady drummers, and she wants to be a good drummer, right? Practicing to a click track improves everyone’s ability and performance (which is why most music instructors suggest practicing with a metronome). And you DO have to practice with a click track. Many electronic metronomes have a headphone output for this purpose. Playing at a consistent tempo is not something that you can just do. It takes hard work, but will improve all facets of your music. Find the tempo of each song you are going to record and keep that information with the lyrics, chords, and sheet music.

Know Your Parts

Know what parts you want to record before you get into the studio. This process includes going over each song, before you enter the studio, and recognizing what instrumentation needs to go where in the song. This is known as the arrangement of the song, and plays an important but often-neglected part of your production. Most modern music productions do not include the entire band playing their instruments the same way throughout the entire song. Is your song Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Verse-Chorus, or Verse-Verse-Chrous-Bridge-Chorus-Verse-Chorus? Does the lead guitar need to play in all of the verses, or wait until Verse 2? Does the bass player follow the guitar player throughout the song, or go into syncopated 8ths and inverted chords in the Bridge?

All these questions need to be worked out before you enter a recording studio. Arrangements do not usually work themselves out, but plan on spending some time working on what goes where, who plays what where, and what each instrument’s role is in each part of the song.


If you plan on adding MIDI tracks to your song, you will oftentimes record those first. Make sure you have your MIDI tracks completed before you enter the studio. You do not have to have them recorded yet, but make sure the software you recorded your MIDI tracks on is available at the studio where you record. If your MIDI tracks are composed on a keyboard workstation of yours, make sure you bring that workstation so you can play the MIDI tracks and record the audio, or otherwise import the audio those MIDI tracks should produce into the multitrack. It may be worth a call to the studio you plan on recording in to make sure they can record those tracks properly.


Make sure your instruments are prepared for the session too. I cannot tell you how many total hours I have wasted as a musician, engineer, and producer on guitar and bass players re-stringing their instruments after they set up their equipment. The engineer’s ready to hit record, and everyone has to wait on the bass player to not only restring his bass but then break the strings in and retune. Again, a waste of time and money.

Same goes for drum heads. New drum heads, like strings, typically sound better than old, worn-out drum heads and strings. Replacing drum heads and breaking them in can take a half of a day, and if that half of a day is spent in a recording studio, that’s time you could spend recording another song.

Get your instruments into good playing shape before hitting the studio. Other big time-wasters include bad connections on a guitar amps, loose drum hardware, loose wires on pickups, and instrument cables that are going bad. You need to get those things fixed either way, so do it before your studio date, not during or after.

If you do your due diligence, you will be summarily rewarded with a successful recording session. Your session will flow easily and allow you the opportunity to really focus on the specifics of your music, getting into the details and nuances of your song, rather than merely focusing on just the basics, which will result in better-sounding recordings that showcase your songwriting and performance.

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.