My own life as a cellist has for a long time been dominated by recording, and with currently nearly 40 albums and box sets (more than 50 CDs) available, I think I know what I am talking about. In recent years, I am increasingly enjoying producing as well, but I never realized how fortunate I was to learn at a very early age and with the help of some great people how the process really works. So here is a step-by-step guide how I think it goes:
1. Recording has nothing to do with playing a concert or performing in general (just like TV or film acting has nothing to do with theatre).
2. Recording is teamwork: musician(s), producer, engineer. In that order. There are rare cases of engineers who are genius producers as well, but if you are not 100% sure about that: find yourself a producer who you trust musically. (This will be important later!)
3. Find yourself a studio/venue where you feel comfortable.
4. Come to the recording only when you know you won’t have to practice (or arrange or rehearse) there. And that includes all the „impossible“ passages.
5. Even if you don’t know the order of the tracks on the disc yet (that’s totally fine!), determine the order in which you want to record the pieces. If the recording involves other people than just you, this is essential. Nobody likes to sit around and wait – just like you don’t want to be ready to record without your colleagues being available. Never record the first track of the CD first, if you can avoid it.
6. Don’t overestimate your stamina. Yes, you can practice for eight hours, but unless you’ve done it before, you can’t record for eight hours on one day. Why? Because when you practice, you instinctively have phases where you don’t play 100%. Recording playing that is less than 100% is a waste of time and money. So: How long can you concentrate and play on a 100% level? That is the length of your sessions.
7. Prepare the music: Have your own music organized (bar numbers!) and an identical copy for the engineer/producer to scribble on. With the same bar numbers as yours (!), and avoid loose sheets, in your own interest. The better the producer’s music is organized, the less time you sit around in the session waiting for him/her to catch up with you. Any copy shop can produce a beautiful spiral-bound book, two-sided print, with all your music in it. In under an hour and for very little money - definitely less than losing one hour worth of recording time.
8. Avoid listening back during recording: First, try to get the sound right at the beginning of the session. Check until the balance is the way you want it, and then trust your ear. If you can’t control what you are playing while you are playing, you should not be recording anyway. And there is still a producer to ask and/or to help you.
9. Long pieces (ie longer than five minutes): Don’t waste time playing things through over and over. Ideally, you record one full version so that you and the team get an idea of what it should sound like – and how long it is. But then: break it up in sections that you can play perfectly without getting tired, both physically and emotionally. Repeat those sections as often as you need (if you need more than three repeats, well …) and then take out especially tricky bits if needed. If it makes you happy: record one more full version when you all think it is all in the can, just for fun.
10., 11. and 12. If you have successfully achieved 2., do your job! That means: Play as well as you can, and let other people do their jobs too. In an ideal world, the producer runs the session. He/she will know what was good, what wasn’t, if you are too fast, too slow, too loud or out of tune. Or if it was really, really beautiful. Trust them – or fire them. If you really want to repeat something of which the producer has said it was ok, do that – but at the end of recording the piece. Don’t constantly check with a metronome or a tuner, don’t talk too much, don’t practice or rehearse unless you clearly tell the team that that is what you are going to do. Be ready for the red light, and give your feedback when asked how you felt. Again: the team know something about it too, and every musician knows that sometimes one’s own perception is not what comes out of the instrument. Trust your team. So: let the the producer criticize you, and let them talk in clear words: Out of tune, too fast, too loud, too soft, too slow. No soft chit-chat. They have do that to make it a great product and to help you play at your best. They will also tell you when things go well.
13. When finished, let the others do their jobs. Don’t interfere with editing other than giving clear feedback. That means a clear list: part/voice XX, bar XX, note XX out of tune, not together, boring etc. No b***s***.
14. Provide the post-production team with clear instructions as to sound, balance, track order etc. Clear feedback, and always have in mind that any team has probably more experience recording than you have – and more than your recording to deal with at that time.
Recording can be enormous fun if everyone „on set“ knows what they are doing. A great recording is always teamwork, and everyone has to acknowledge that. Just as in the end, the designer comes in and the label’s marketing. Take your chance and enjoy the fact that you will have something to hold onto for the rest of your life!