Ten Practical Tips for
Working With Pro Studios

It's easier than ever to work collaboratively with pro studios, but good practices still need to be observed—now more than ever.


By Fett
recording studio tips

Here's a great example of a before and after version of a TAXI member's song. Click here to hear the difference:

Before: After:

Michael Laskow was recently in Nashville to present a seminar on getting your music into film and TV. Azalea Music was the sponsor for the event, and since Azalea does so much studio work for TAXI members, Michael decided to stop by Azalea Studios to check out our operation. During his visit, we got into a discussion about how the studio world has changed in recent years, and specifically, how the role of the modern pro studio has changed for TAXI members. While the cost and accessibility of quality recording gear have improved dramatically for home studios, pro studios definitely still play a major role in the indie recording world. Among other things, they provide four key functions that are hard to get at home: access to top-quality musicians on a vast array of instruments and vocals, a wide selection of pro-quality audio gear, well-tuned recording spaces, and years of experience with many diverse styles of music and production.

At Azalea, our relationship with many of our TAXI clients is a collaborative one: part of the recording work is done at TAXI members' studios, and part of it is done at Azalea Studios. Although we still do a lot of TAXI members' projects (especially demos) from start to finish, we often find ourselves on the "finishing end" of the recording process, adding instruments or vocals, mixing, mastering—and very often, all three.

As we discussed this new style of "collaborative production," Michael asked me if I could provide ten tips for dealing with pro studios that would make the process more effective from the TAXI member's perspective. Here's what I came up with.

1. Provide a clean, well-balanced reference recording

Especially when you're having a demo recorded from start to finish, make sure to provide a clearly-recorded, well-balanced, minimally-produced reference recording (the "work version") of the song(s). A basic, guitar-vocal or piano-vocal recording is almost always enough for this purpose. Production is not important here, but the ability to hear the music—instrumentation, melody and lyrics—is. At times I've received a work version with the lead vocal so loud that it's nearly impossible to hear the musical accompaniment, or vice-versa. The key here is to record all of the parts so that they're clearly audible, because the work version is used by everyone involved in the process: players, singers, engineer and producer.



2. Provide electronic copies of lyrics, charts, etc.

On a similar note, not only is it helpful to provide as much documentation as you can in the way of lyrics, chord charts, etc. to save the studio and musicians extra work, it's important to provide them in an electronic format so that they can easily be manipulated and distributed among everyone involved in the project. For example, one of the first things I do with a song that we're going to demo from scratch is forward the reference recording and lyrics to the singer so that he/she can give the song a test drive and tell me their best key in which to record the demo. It's much easier (and takes less time) to send an MS Word document containing the lyrics than to have to scan them in from a sheet of paper and forward the scanned image that can't be changed after the fact.

3. Use modern media formats

When you send any recording (work version, final tracks, etc.), if at all possible, use a modern media format such as a physical CD, or better yet, simply send audio files in WAV, AIF, MP3 or other format as needed. If you send your work version on a cassette, for example, someone at the studio will have to transfer the cassette (in real time) to an MP3 anyway so that it can be forwarded to the singers and musicians. This takes extra time, for which some studios will charge a fee. With today's technology, even if you originally record your work version on a cassette, there's no reason not to transfer it to a computer as an audio file before sending it.

One of the best developments of the past couple of years is the emergence of convenient (and often, free) file transfer sites on the Internet that can handle large files. You're no longer limited to the few megabytes of attachment file size of typical e-mail systems. Today, you simply upload your large audio files to one of these sites using your Internet browser. The site stores the files for a specified time and sends an e-mail to the recipient, who simply clicks on a link in the e-mail and downloads the files directly from the site. No fuss, no muss. Since these sites can handle the typically large full-resolution audio files, gone are the days of having to send a CD or DVD with all of your tracks by snail mail. The file transfer site that I use almost daily (and highly recommend) is www.YouSendIt.com. Beyond their basic free service (which may be all you need for work versions and the like), they offer several very reasonably-price options depending on your needs.

4. Be clear about what's the latest version

When you're providing multiple representations of a song, be very explicit about which one is the latest version. I've received songs in the past where what's being sung on the reference recording and what's printed on the lyric sheet are entirely different, with no way to determine which takes precedence. This takes extra follow-up time on part of the studio and can delay your project.

5. Provide unconverted, unencoded files

If you're having a pro studio add parts to an existing recording that you've made, usually all they need is a good stereo mix of the song, rather than all of your individual tracks or your DAW project file. But there are a couple of "gotcha's" that are extremely important here. First, make sure that the stereo mix file you send is a "full-resolution" audio file (see #10 below) that hasn't been converted or encoded in any way, because that shouldn't be done until later, after you've added the shiny new vocals the studio has provided into your final mix. MP3 files in particular are notorious for being "just a little off" from their original tracks, and are very inconsistent timing-wise from one MP3 encoder to the next. If the new parts are recorded using an MP3 file as a basis, the resulting new tracks are almost guaranteed not to "line up" with your original tracks when you load them into your project.



6. Make sure all of your files start at zero!

The other terrible "gotcha" that I see often with home studios is that audio files we receive at Azalea don't start at the zero location (also called "bar one, beat one") of their original project. This usually happens because the music for most recordings doesn't start right away; there's usually a count-in or some other space at the front of the song. When mixing a song for a publisher to listen to, for example, you'd normally want to remove that extra space at the front so that the song starts right away when it is played. This is usually accomplished by moving the "left marker" or "start point" in your DAW project to a point just before the music starts before exporting the mix. But if you're sending the song to a studio to have tracks added to it, if you remove the space at the beginning, then the new tracks will be out of time by that amount. So, before you export original tracks or a mix to send to a studio, make sure that the left and right markers are at the very beginning and end of your project file. If not, the tracks will have to be lined up later by ear—a tedious process at best, and sometimes just not possible at all.

7. Don't trim heads and tails / no fade-ins or fade outs

It's important not to remove the beginning and end (called the "heads" and "tails") of your recordings, even if they're final stereo mixes that you're sending in only to be mastered. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that some audio processing software (even the high-end, expensive stuff) can clip the very front of the audio if there isn't a little space before it. And especially when mastering, you'll want to leave off any fade-ins or fade-outs and let the mastering engineer put them in for you, since they may need to change to be more musical once all of the songs have been mastered and sequenced in the final order. So just leave out any volume changes at the heads and tails of your files. If you're very particular about the length of the fade-out of a particular mix, or a cross-fade between two mixes, then provide a reference version for the mastering engineer to hear, and let him/her re-create the same fade from your original, "heads-and-tails-open" files.

8. Clean up your files in advance

While it's important to leave the beginning and end of your tracks intact, that doesn't mean you should leave in a lot of noise in the middle that you know needs to be removed eventually. For example, when you're sending in all of your original tracks for a pro studio to mix for you, if there's a bunch of coughing and other noises on the vocal tracks between the verses and choruses, make sure to clean up those parts of the tracks before exporting the final versions to send to the studio. If you don't, someone at the studio will have to do it. In addition to taking extra time for which you will likely be charged, this process puts the mix engineer into "fix-it mode" (a left-brain activity) rather than "mix mode" (a right-brain activity), taking his/her focus off of the music. You should complete this process for all tracks that have extraneous noises (not just vocals); otherwise they might be missed or understood to be intentional and end up in your final mix!

9. Consolidate your files in advance

One of the biggest benefits of modern, computer-based recording is that we don't need to worry as much about track economy or running out of tape. As a result, we can free ourselves to focus on the music and record a musical part in many passes and as many pieces as we need to get it right. The flip side is that the end result can be a lot of little snippets of audio that, if not well managed, can become confusing ("which of those 30 takes of that vocal line was the right one?"), not to mention taking up unnecessary disk space. While all those pieces of audio lying around give us maximum flexibility in deciding what to use, those decisions do need to be made eventually before the final result can be produced. If you're running your own mix, that's not a big deal; your DAW program is more than happy to play back all of the right snippets of audio and MIDI in the right places without your having to physically consolidate them. But if you're going to send your files to a pro studio for mixing, it's important to make those decisions and export each track as a final, consolidated file to avoid potential errors, both technical and musical. Usually, the consolidation process requires some final cleanup so that all of the snippets play correctly without any clicks and pops. Why not do that process yourself so you know it gets done the way you want it to, rather than paying the studio to do it instead (there's that "fix-it mode" again)?

10. Provide files at highest possible resolution

In addition to unconverted, unencoded files, any files you send to a pro studio should be left at their original, highest audio resolution, even if that means the files are huge. If you recorded your project at 32-bit float, 96 kHz resolution, then leave all of the individual files that way when you consolidate and export them. That gives the studio the most to work with, and will guarantee you the best-sounding audio you can possibly get in the final result. Note that this is just as important for a stereo mix that is only going to be mastered as it is for individual tracks that are going to be mixed. Specifically, don't dither or resample the mix file to make it 16-bit, 44.1 kHz to match the "CD standard," for example, because that kind of processing shouldn't be applied until the very last step in the process.

There are plenty more tips than these, but they're a good starting point. The bottom line: do as much as possible to prevent potential mistakes and unnecessary work for the studio, so all of the people involved in your project can focus on making your music sound the best that it can.

If you're interested in studio services (recording, mixing, mastering, etc.) from Azalea, feel free to contact me directly at studios@azaleamusic.com. Make sure to mention you're with TAXI, since we offer exclusive discount rates to TAXI members. And check us out on the web at www.azaleamusic.com.



Fett is an independent producer and engineer, owner of Azalea Studios in Nashville, and former Technology Editor for Performing Songwriter Magazine. He has worked in the music industry for more than 25 years, as a touring musician, session player, manager, booking agent, songwriter and music photographer. He has worked with clients as diverse as Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international recording artist Clive Gregson. Fett is co-author of the Songwriter's Survival Kit audio education series. He hosts numerous panels and seminars at music industry events each year. He holds a degree in International Studies from The American University in Washington, DC.

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