Tool of the Month

Get the most out of going into the studio
and... do you need a producer?
- by Bruce Kapham


It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. For the uninitiated, recording an album can quickly turn from being a high-flying joy ride to a bottomless pit of despair, filled with fractured feelings, emptied bank accounts and compromised art. Don't get me wrong, even after a couple of decades filled with almost constant studio work, I still love the process of creating music in the studio. But beware- good intentions can quickly evolve into wreckage. I've seen (been in…) bands that broke up during recording projects. I've seen egos fly out of control, I've seen people ridiculed and ostracized, I've seen player's self-images go up in smoke, and I've seen people go through piles of money as fast as if they just set the green stuff on fire.

Making a recording is a tangle of pragmatism, technology, alchemy and faith. As is the case with any creative venture, you cannot know what you'll get for your efforts until you go through the process; it's always a gamble. Having a plan and a budget can be really useful. Having the courage to change your plan and amend your budget as necessary can make or break a project for which the initial plan/budget doesn't seem to be working… Do you choose a professional studio and pay through the nose or go to your friend's bedroom studio and pay through the nose in a different way? Do you suffer through the dictatorial relationship with a producer or go it alone with a tyrannical bandleader or even more terrifying, try to approach it democratically?

For me, there is no musical experience more exciting than capturing the magic of the first performance of a newly written piece of music. It is this love of the creative process that has led me to migrate from being a musician who used to gig hundreds of times a year to being someone who now gigs very infrequently, but works in one capacity or another in a studio, almost every day. These days I'm much more comfortable in this creative environment than I am in the onstage/interpretative environment. But it isn't so for all musicians. For a band without much experience in the studio, there are countless opportunities for frustration and failure. How do you choose a studio? Do you need a producer? For that matter, do you even need an engineer?

Technology has certainly broken open a field that used to be closed to any but the lucky few who had somehow managed to get their foot in the door at a professional studio. These days, if you can afford a computer and a scant few other tools, you can open a recording studio, and call yourself a recording engineer. In fact, many people are making amazing recordings in their homes by doing just so. The technology has really helped reinforce that notion that it truly isn't the medium, but the message. On the other hand, there is fierce competition to make albums that sound interesting/good. And just because you own a computer, some music software, a mic or two and a couple of other pieces of gear, it don't mean a thing if you don't know what to do with the stuff. And even if you do own a couple of world-class mics and pres, and are adept at getting good sounds- do you have enough equipment to serve the project, as opposed to just enough gear to require recording the project in a less than advantageous way? For instance, can you cut your whole band at the same time? If not, and you go about recording one person at a time to a click, do you have any idea the toll that will take on the cohesiveness of your sound? Will the result sound anything like your band? For that matter, will the result even sound like music? My experience says rarely.

A bona fide studio with a creative, attentive engineer can be entirely worth what might at first blush seem like an awful lot of money per hour. You can take a well-rehearsed band into a well-equipped studio, play simultaneously into world-class signal chains, in a room with good isolation and good acoustics, with good headphone mixes for all and cut a whole album in one day. It's not just a good idea, it's been done many times in the history of music recording, often to stellar results.. But you have to be prepared to make it work this way, and if you've never recorded your band before you won't know if you're prepared or not until you're actually doing it.

Many successful producers have become so precisely by just being the person in the band who intrinsically understands how to oversee the process of recording. My personal opinion is that this is a skill that you're either born with or not. If you're in a band and one of your bandmates has this skill, the first hurdle is to find out if the band's socio-political chemistry will allow the person with the skill to do their thing without a major power struggle/ego eruption from one of the other band members who isn't this person. At least as often as not, a band's internal politics make it impossible to hand the producer's reins to one such member.

So then, is it possible to produce a record democratically? I suppose it's possible, but having been a band member, engineer and producer, sometimes more than one of these roles at the same time, sadly, the occasions have been rare indeed when I've seen democracy serve any purpose other than to compromise a project's artistic integrity, slow it to a crawl and dig chasms in relationships. So if you're in a band that gets on famously and can let each member shine in their own right, and there's a budding producer among you, let them do the job. If this isn't your situation, then you probably need to begin pursuing someone outside the band- someone who can see the big picture, knows a good performance from a bad one, and knows how to capture the best performances. Someone who has a musical vision that matches the band's. This person can be found by reading liner notes of your favorite albums or by talking with your peers- asking around as to who might fit this description. This is a producer.

Is it imperative to have a producer? I believe the answer to this question is ultimately yes- production decisions must be made along the way and whether it is by one person or committee and whether or not this person or these people are explicitly being called "the producer" matters not. As a player, I love working on a project when a talented producer is at the helm. In such a condition, musical decisions can be made quickly and effectively and the project can move forward quickly and decisively. There's risk in choosing a producer- will their vision ultimately serve the band's music/career? Only time will tell.

The only thing better than working with a good producer is working with a good producer and a good engineer at the same time. There is a really good reason why throughout the history of recording, many of the best recordings have been made with a producer plus engineer team. Ultimately the two jobs are very different. Certainly it is possible for one person to do both jobs, but take it from someone who has worn both hats simultaneously - it is demanding enough to do either job well. Doing both well at the same time requires intense concentration and a lot of technical good luck.

Ultimately, it is usually a band's budget that is going to dictate the project's parameters. Is it better to spend $5,000 on enough gear to twist yourselves into a pretzel, using techniques determined by the limitations of the gear and its novice operator, or would it be better to hire a bona fide producer, engineer and studio for a couple or three days? Or does your success lie somewhere between? Without knowing the particular details of your situation, I don't have a clue what's best for you and your project. I'd need to talk it over with you and learn what's important to you- this is one of the first steps in any production in which I take part. If you're embarking on a project with your band, this is what you need to do amongst yourselves- start talking over these issues now.

Bruce Kaphan is a freelance engineer/producer, composes and produces music for CD (Slider- Ambient Excursions For Pedal Steel Guitar) and film (most recently Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous), and as a multi-instrumentalist specializing in pedal steel guitar has appeared or recorded with American Music Club, David Byrne, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., John Lee Hooker, The Black Crowes and others. For more information, go to



Get ready before you enter the studio
by PDG
Start talking
to people and
each other
You can get a lot of free advice from pretty much anybody in the recording industry. Look for engineers, studios, producers who really like your music. Talk with your band mates about options and make a plan.
Have a budget!
Having a plan and a budget is imperative (every business starts with a budget! Your band is a business!). Having the courage to change your plan and amend your budget as necessary can make or break a project.
Consider all the options and
choose carefully
You can go for the studio or the diy route, or for a mix of the two - you don't need to record everything in one place, but good studios do sound better and allow your band to play together - they often also provide precious advice.
Does your band need a producer?
A producer intrinsically understands how to oversee the process of recording. Some bands successfully produce their own music. Some others think they do so... Bad production = recordings that don't make your songs shine.
Do you need
to hire musicians?
Some artists (singer songwriters in particular) need to hire musicians to play their records. Remember this: pro session players are expensive but get the job done fast. Non pros are cheap but they might take forever and need a ton of editing. What is more convenient? hard to tell...
your sounds
Recording equipment is made to capture faithfully the sound coming out of your instrument. If that sound is bad, there's not much expensive equipment can do to improve it. Tune your drums! Change your guitar strings! Service your instrument! Tune up on every take!
your songs
You should get into the studio with your song 100% ready, as it's very hard to fix song or arrangement glitches while you're being charged $40/hr or more. Producers can be very precious at this stage.

your brain
Some musicians get really nervous in the studio and waste a lot of time because of mistakes due to lack of confidence. A little bit of psychological training can help.

"Having been a band member, engineer and producer, sometimes more than one of these roles at the same time, sadly, the occasions have been rare indeed when I've seen democracy serve any purpose other than to compromise a project's artistic integrity, slow it to a crawl and dig chasms in relationships."