Recording your music

As musicians, at some stage we all want to record our music. For a painter he holds an exhibition to exhibit his work and for musicians, it is always the recording. Recording your music is the ultimate challenge to a musician. I have been fortunate enough to have recorded two recordings in professional studios. My first recording was done in 1995 at the JVC/Victor Studio in Tokyo, Japan. My second recording was made in Los Angeles in U.S.A. in 2002 at Barry Paul’s Studio. I am so fortunate to have as my producer one of the best guitarist in Japan and in the world Mr. Kazuo Takeda. I learnt so much about myself and about my music in recording studios, I made so many mistakes but I have also learnt a lot. I am no expert at recording, and I do pretend to be one, but I would like to share some of my experiences.


Work out all the songs before you walk into a studio

I did all my recordings abroad and I did not have the luxury of recording a few songs, go home, work for a couple more weeks and go back to the studio. All my recordings had to be done in a very short span of time, namely, a matter of days. The good thing about this is since the music was all done within a short span of time, there is a coherency to the music. If you spread your recordings over a substantial period of time, the songs will sound “different” at the end of the session. Guitar amps, bass amps sound different from day to day. All the effect levels and levels on the control board are different and it may all sound different at the end of the day. One other thing is your voice changes over time. You may not notice it, but when all is done you will notice the difference in your voice if you record your vocals over a period of time.

You should work out all the songs before you go to a studio. If you plan to do, say 10 songs, and you have only worked out 4 songs and walk into a studio to record them and hope to go back again when you have finished the remaining 6, the chances are you will never complete the project. In any event, the remaining 6 songs may sound completely different from the first 4. Always try to work out all the songs before you walk into a studio.

Pay particular attention to your singing before you record in a studio

The human voice is the most musical of all instruments. Unless you are a born singer, you might find it difficult to get used to your own voice. You might feel you are singing good when you play live. But you might very well have a very unpleasant surprise when you hear your recorded voice. I literally cringed when I heard my singing on play back at my home studio. These days, recording equipment no longer a priviledge of professional stuidios. You can get computer hard disc recording, MD recording and all the rest. Record your own vocals and listen carefully. Refine your singing until you are comfortable before you walk into a studio.

Are you really ready for it?

Are you sure you band knows all the songs well? Have you got all the bass parts worked out? All the guitar parts, piano parts worked out? Don’t go for a hit-and-hope approach. Chances are your are going to miss. There is enormous pressure in the studio and if you are not really ready, you will not be able to make it. Unless you are used to recording in a studio, you will feel enormous pressure in the studio. You may find you cannot play the guitar licks which you have played thousands of times to perfection in your band room, you may suddenly find your fingers are all tied up in knots and you just cannot play. You want to be sure you are 100% fit before you record because even if you are 100% fit you might find you are only to 50% of what you could normally do when you are sitting in the studio with a pair of headphones over your head.

How to record your music

How to record your music depends on what kind of music you play. For Pop or Rock or most kinds of contemporary music, the chances are the drummer will need to follow the click. If you are a drummer and have never played with a click before, you are strongly advised to try it out in private before you do the recording. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to be able to follow the click. If you cannot follow the click, you will end up spending hours in the studio just to record a basic 4/4 drum track. You are not going to be able to do it in the studio unless you have sufficient practise beforehand. After three or four bad takes, you will get nervous and the longer it goes on the more concentration you will lose and you will also lose your confidence. If you are not sure whether you can do it, most likely you have never tried before and you will not be able to do it in the studio.

For Blues, you might start off with the click for a few bars and you turn it off. For Blues you follow the clikc the whole song. If you do, you lose the natural motion of the music, it will come out stiff and stale. When I did was we have a click for maybe two bars to get the initial tempo right and after that the whole band just play the song and allow the music to carry the motion. But in order to do that, each member must have a good sense of timing, otherwise the song will pick up or drop in tempo very noticeably. This is another thing to watch out. If you are playing in 4/4 at tempo 120, I think it is alright if you pick up and end at around 130 or 135. Anything beyond that will stick out.

Listen to the overall music

There is a natural tendancy for musicians to listen to his own instrument. If you are guitarist, chances are at play back you will be listening to how your guitar sounds, whether the right notes are played. But what you need to do is to listen to your instrument as part of the overall picture. That applies to all each of the instruments. You will want to make sure that the is harmony between the instruments and they are all in synth. Don’t just listen to your own instrument.


Find out as much about the process

Try and find out as much about muti-track or computer recording before you start the recording. There are lost of books and literature around on the subject. Go and ask people who know about the subject. If you get the chance, go to a studio and see how the whole thing is done. If you have never been in a recording studio before, you may get over-awed and lose your feet in a professional stuido. Learn something about EQ, overdub and mix down before you walk into a studio. Engineers often push you round, telling you what can be done what cannot be done. The more you know, the less you are likely to get pushed around. It is you who is creating music, not the engineer. I have worked with some of the best engineers in Japan and in L.A. They are all musicians, they all know what it takes to create a particular kind of music and you don’t even need to tell them what to do. In Hong Kong, I am afraid we do not have this luxury. Not many engineers are musicians and hence they simply do not understand what are the essential ingredients in terms of sound for different kinds of music. Most if the engineers in Hong Kong spent their professional life recording pop music with programmed drum tracks. You will want to make sure you know your stuff so you don’t get pushed around in the studio.


Get a good producer

A producer must be a musician. Unless he is a musician, he simply does not understand how each instrument works, how to get a good band sound and what it tales to get the right groove. There are exceptions to this, but very very few. Anyone can talk about music, but it all comes down to delivering the goods. A producer must be someone of superior experience and musicianship to the band, he must be someone in whom the band has complete confidence, and he must have the final say in the ultimate mixdown. Try not to produce the project yourself. It is best to get someone who has an objective ear to produce the project. A good producer can improve the overall result of the recording, turn mediocre recording into a good one and a good one into a really good one.


Best of luck, we all want to hear good music and get away from the souless candy-coated Canto pop rubbish.