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  • Writer's pictureSteven Meloney

You Can’t Polish A Turd: How To Capture Your Best Performances In The Recording Studio

Whether you’re recording yourself at home or working in a professional studio, you want to capture your best performances. The better you play or sing, the better your recordings will sound. We’ve got an old saying in the recording biz: You can’t polish a turd. And it's true. No matter how amazing your gear is, you simply cannot expect to get a professional sounding result from a lack-luster performance. Before you even think about hitting the big red button, let’s work out a strategy that will ensure you get the best takes possible.


No matter how amazing your gear is, you simply cannot expect to get a professional sounding result from a lack-luster performance.

In this article I offer a set of easy and effective steps you can take to maximize your performance abilities during recording sessions. We’ll cover three basic categories:



The better prepared you are for the session, the more brain power you’ll have for your performance. I recommend you download the Music Production Planning Pack to help you plan for your production and prepare for your sessions. Let’s get some meters bouncing.


 

Man performs music during a recording session

Session Preparation


Define a Clear Goal


Having a clear goal will save time (and therefore money) in the studio because you’ll be focused on the things that are most important. Before you start your session, write a checklist of all the things you want to accomplish. If you do this, you will be far less likely to get side-tracked. This is especially important if you are someone who often finds themselves spending hours dialing in amp settings and reverbs instead of actually recording something.


Technical Preparation


If you’re recording yourself, you’ll have to be the engineer and the musician. This is a problem because now you have to split your focus between these two full-time tasks. If you really want to capture your best takes, you’ll want to put as much focus into your performance as you can, and as little as possible into things like creating tracks and setting levels. To combat this problem, do as much technical preparation as possible the day before. Create your tracks, set up the mics, get the levels, add the reverbs.. whatever you need to do so that you can focus on actually playing music when the session starts.


A Note On Headphone Mixes


It is incredibly difficult to get good takes when the headphone mix is out of whack. Take a singer for example. If their voice in the headphone mix is too quiet, they will naturally sing louder and harder in attempts to hear themselves through the mix. Conversely, if their vocal is too loud, they might hold back as not to overpower the mix. Both scenarios throw their sense for pitch and timing off. Musicians need to hear the musical cues of the other instruments that help drive the dynamics, rhythms, and pitches of their own parts. The better the headphone mix is, the easier it will be to perform naturally and organically, which will directly translate into a better performance.


Prepare a Song Map


Having a song map prepared to reference during the session will also minimize the amount of attention you put into things that are not actually performing. A song map is a simple written document that includes:


  • Tempo

  • Key

  • Song Structure

  • Chord Progressions

  • Lyrics


There is a song map template in the Music Production Planning Pack!


Instrument Preparation


This should be self explanatory. Change your strings, check your intonation, dial in your amp settings, tune your drums, etc.. BEFORE the session, not during.



Mental Preparation


Minimize Distractions


Potential distractions unrelated to your session include girlfriends, boyfriends, text messages, social media, roommates, the guy with the leaf blower outside… Take a quick note of the distractions you expect to encounter, and take some action to reduce or eliminate them.


Enhance Your Environment (Up The Vibe)


As a recording engineer, I am very concerned with answering the question: How can I help an artist deliver an emotionally impactful performance that supports the message of the song? Usually, making the artist more comfortable works. Sometimes I have to do the opposite. Many recording engineers are known specifically for the vibe they bring to their sessions, and you can do the same. Consider things like room temperature, lighting, and decor. These considerations greatly impact the performance that will be captured because they help you to get into the right headspace. Get a lava lamp, hang a tapestry, set up a tent in the middle of the room… whatever you have to do to create the right vibe for the session, do it.


Know & Accept Your Limitations


Recording time is not practice time. Typically as you warm up to a song, the takes get better and better. Eventually you plateau, and the takes start getting worse. Wherever you plateau, that’s as good as you’ll be that day. On any given day, you can only ever be as good as you are on that day. Knowing and accepting your skill set as it is on the day of recording will help you to know how many takes are necessary, and when it's time to move on from one part to another.



Physical Preparation


Sleep


Being well rested makes a difference. Shoot for 7 or 8 hours.


Eat


Eat something wholesome in the morning that will fuel your day and set the tone for recording. Plan for meals during the recording session ahead of time, or delegate it to someone else. Why do you think there are runners at pro studios? It’s because food matters, a lot. Hungry musicians = bad takes.


Exercise


Performing music is physical. This is true whether you're a singer, keyboard player, guitarist, or drummer. Doing something to get your blood flowing before a session is a great way to warm up the body, and will help you to get the best takes possible.



Summary


You can’t polish a turd. If your performance is a turd, no amount of gear or mixing expertise can make your turd sound pro. Luckily, there are many things we can do to ensure we capture the best possible performances while recording our music. Prepare for your session by defining your goals, doing the technical prep and set up the day before, preparing a song map, and making sure your instruments are ready to go. Get in the right headspace by minimizing your distractions, creating a vibe in your recording environment, and accepting your skill level as it is that day. Make sure you're physically prepared by getting the right amount of sleep, eating wholesome foods, and getting your blood flowing with a bit of exercise.


Download the Music Production Planning Pack and get the most out of your time and energy in the recording studio.


 

It is my goal to help you create the best sounding music possible. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please drop me a line.


Want to work with me on your next recording or mixing project? Get pricing here.

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I help artists capture pro-sounding recordings, mix and master them to commercial release quality, and make a meaningful impact on their listeners. People work with me because I understand the musical process from writing to recording to promotion to release (I’m a musician too!). Along the way I offer my 20 years of experience, access to professional studios and equipment, and my network of music industry pros to help you record and release awesome tracks, and further your development as an artist.

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