Hip Hop (Un)Scene: Turn My Headphones Up

Recording do's and don'ts

Sep 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Suge Knight used to whoop an engineer’s ass if he rewound the tapes too far during the recording sessions of 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me. Kind of extreme. And most likely not the most conducive working atmosphere for an engineer.

One thing I tried to stress in my last column was the importance of knowing the other person’s job and how it pertains to you. This month deals with the engineer-artist relationship. As the artist, the studio is your home. If it’s in your home, that makes it easier. But unless you’re installing an official studio in your spot, you’ll still have to hit the real thing for your final mix and mastering, if not your final vocal cuts.

Engineers usually charge per hour, so you’re already under time pressure. I don’t always like this because it can stifle the artist’s creativity and freedom. To counter this, it helps to be prepared in a few different areas:

Feel out the vibe of the studio when you go in. The engineer sets the tone for the spot and as an artist you need a vibe that nurtures your type of creativity. You need an engineer who can work fast and ride your creative runs. It makes all the difference when it comes down to the growth of your vocals and delivery and how your final takes come across for the song. It’s the difference between a dope song and a classic. If you’re not reaching for classic, what’s the point?

If you write your lyrics out, have them prepared before you hit the booth. It helps to have them memorized or even pre-record them in a home studio. Know how you want your delivery, tone and flow to sit in the beat. Try to think about how the engineer mixes your voice on tracks, and record with that in mind.

Watch everything the engineer is doing when you’re not in the booth. Ask him what equipment and software he’s using. Ask him to explain what he’s doing with your vocals if you don’t know. Don’t bug the shit out of him, but don’t be afraid to ask.

Don’t fill the studio up with a whole bunch of yes-men friends who just want to go smoke the spot out. Bring people with you who know your style and aren’t afraid to tell you when a vocal take is garbage or how you need to stop rapping like Lil’ Wayne ‘cause a million other people already do that.

Get on YouTube. Get DVDs. Study studio sessions from the greats. Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Pharell, Dr. Dre. You’ll notice a scrawny little white dude (not always white or scrawny, but hilariously almost always) sitting in the corner turning knobs? That’s the engineer. Study how emcees conduct themselves in the booth and with the engineer.

Learn studio language as well. Though some words change, the basics for Hip Hop artists are:

• 2-Tracking: Using the instrumental in full to record and/or mix your vocals.

• Tracking out: Separating out the individual tracks of an instrumental to mix.

• Doubles/Adlibs: Tracing your main vocals with another vocal track for accent.

• 16: Standard verses are 16 bars, hooks are eight. Know how to count your bars so you can tell the engineer where you need record on the track.

• Punch-In: If you messed up the second half of a verse, but the first half is flawless, a punch-in let’s you come in off your first run. It helps to know how many bars in you need to punch in to communicate with the engineer for a more efficient run.

(One piece of thought about doubles and adlibs: A lot of rappers do a lot of doubles/adlibs. It tends to suffocate the personality on a track and acts like a safety blanket for any insecurities the rapper may have about how their voice sounds. All the greats — except Young Jeezy, who actually sounds doper with a lot of adlibs — use one vocal track and occasional adlibs.)

When you leave, you might need to take your session with you, so bring a flash drive or some blank CDs. This is just another little thing an engineer will dig and remember you for.

The more you can communicate in an engineer’s language, the quicker things go, the more you’ll get along and the more money you save. One thing I’ve learned over the years is, most engineers get so sick of dealing with folks who have no idea what they’re doing and don’t come prepared. You’ll stand out.

By no means is this everything you need to know about how to work in a studio, but it’s a good start. I’d recommend checking out books and going online for further knowledge. If you have a producer, check with them as well. Producers use a lot of the same programs engineers do and there is a natural synergy between the two.

So far we’ve knocked out producer/artist chemistry and artist/engineer chemistry. Next month we’ll start jumping into DJ/artist/band chemistry.

ILL POETIC is a multi-tasking Hip Hop producer/performer whose "Hip Hop (Un)scene" column appears here once a month. Check out his latest activities at illpoetic.com.