A Guitarist's Guide to Studio Preparation

Making great records begins with great preparation.  Writing and rehearsing your songs are just the beginning of the preparation to record them.  Imagine how much preparation a pro athlete must do before a game.  Not only have they dedicated their entire lives to their craft years before the game, they have weekly and daily rituals as well, and they will do anything they can to gain an extra .01% edge over the competition.  This is the mindset that you must have when preparing for the studio.

 

It is quite common for recordists to use the same microphones and gear to record different artists, yet their records end up sounding very different.  For example, I once read about the engineer who recorded Eddie Van Halen telling a story about recording a local artist.  The artist wasn’t happy with the sound he was getting and asked for the same gear the engineer used to record Eddie.  Lo and behold, he WAS using Eddie’s signal chain—the difference was the player and his preparation (or lack thereof).

 

So how can you show up to the studio set up for success?  Let’s think about the signal chain of how a guitar makes sound:  Player holds the pick, pick strikes the strings, strings resonate over the pickups, pickups feed through any pedals into the amp, amp sends signal into cabinet, cabinet sends your sweet riffs into the microphone.  Every single one of these stages is super important to how your guitar will sound coming out of the playback speakers.  Any one weak link can wreck the chain, no matter how nice the rest of the links are.  Here are some things you can do to prepare yourselves for an excellent recording.

 

Now let’s look at some specific things you can do to improve each of these stages:

 

The Guitar Itself

  • I like to make sure that the instrument itself feels physically comfortable in my hands to play.  This will help you keep good technique and avoid bad habits to compensate for a bad or mismatched instrument for you.

  • I also like to make sure that the instrument sounds great completely unplugged.  If it doesn’t have great tone by itself, it’s not going to magically have great tone once it’s plugged in.

  • Have your instrument set up by a professional guitar tech.  He or she will address things like intonation, string height, neck straightness, and pickup height, to name a few.  The tech will address any string buzzing or other similar noises.  You don’t want your double or quad-tracked guitars to turn into double or quad-tracked buzzes!

 

The Pick

  • Similar to choosing your instrument, choose a pick that is comfortable to hold.  Personally, I like the Jim Dunlop Jazz II picks. They are almost the smallest picks you can find, and anything larger I just can’t seem to hold onto.  When I play guitar with regular sized picks feel like I’m holding the Sunday New York Times.  The point is, find something that is comfortable for YOU.

  • How you hold the pick and strike the strings can make a big difference.  If you’re a chugging style player, experiment with holding the pick at an angle as it strikes the strings for a more aggressive sound.
     

Technique

  • If you have chosen a good instrument and pick for you, you are off to a good start.  Great technique is a lifelong practice and far too complicated for the scope of this article, so I’ll just say that your hands should be relaxed when you play.  The more relaxed your hands are, the better your tone will be—you can’t make the instrument sing if your hands are cramped or if you are pressing too hard on the strings.  Not only will you SOUND better, you will also be able to play the long hours necessary in a recording session without fatigue setting in.


Strings

  • Use strings that are appropriate for your instrument and playing style.  You’ll need thicker strings if you have a longer scale instrument or tune down.  Different players like different brands of strings, so try out a few and see what you like.

  • CHANGE YOUR STRINGS!!!  This is possibly the lowest-hanging fruit of studio prep.  They are cheap and easy to change.  Some guys don’t record with strings that are older than ONE HOUR, so you get an idea of how fresh they need to be.  Feel free to wait until the day of the session or when you first arrive to record your parts to change strings.  Make sure to properly stretch them or else they will constantly fall out of tune.

 

Pickups

  • Use pickups appropriate for your music and style of playing.  Some pickups have a nice bite and are brighter.  Some need batteries and are called “active” pickups—these will send a louder signal into your amp and provide a more aggressive sound.

 

Pedals & Pedal Boards

  • Make sure you don’t have any noisy or faulty cables.  Troubleshooting pedalboards to track down that annoying buzz can be a nightmare in the studio.  Using batteries rather than plugging in to power sources (like a One-Spot) can help with noise.  Often times, I will bypass the pedal board for main rhythm sounds and only use pedals for parts that need them.

 

Amplifier

  • New tubes in your amp can make an amazing difference.  A guitarist recently changed his tubes to Genelex Gold Lions after we recorded and it made such a huge difference that we ended up re-amping.  The tone had much more depth in the harmonics and the top end was much smoother.  Those tubes are a little pricey, but you can’t put a price on amazing tone, can you?

 

Cabinet

  • It’s pretty common to record direct without a real cabinet these days, but if you are using one, then make sure it doesn’t have any loose screws and that the wheels don’t rattle when you crank it.  ProTip:  find the spot in the room where the amp sounds the best… it may not be where you think!

 

Your Mindset

  • It’s very common for your engineer/producer to throw new parts at you as you work on your song.  By the time you get to record your parts, you should trust your producer enough to be open to new ideas.  You may not have played or even heard his/her ideas before so it helps to practice guitar regularly enough throughout the year to be able to easily pull them off after a couple of takes.

 

The Music

  • Last but not least, make sure you know all of your parts!  Practice them to a metronome.

  • Make sure that you and the other musicians in your band are on the same page with the details of the music.  The more detailed you can get, the tighter your recording (and live show!) are going to be.

  • It also helps to warm up with finger exercises.  Practice scales to a metronome, for example.

 

That should be plenty to get you started.  No matter where you record, your tone should be great if you make sure every element in your chain is in top shape.  Check out my site or email me if you have any questions at mike@mbivens.com.  Happy riffing!

  • facebook

©2019 by Michael Bivens