OK, so your band has been really rockin’ it in rehearsals lately. You’ve got a solid 20 minutes of original material, which you’ve tracked in “pre-pro” on your bass player’s pirated copy of Logic Pro 7. You’ve played some gigs in which you’ve shown some class, and people patted you on the back for that. You may be thinking at this point: time to hit the studio, son!

Ha ha, hold the phone there, buster! We want your band to rock it and come out of your sessions with killer recordings as much as you do! (seriously, if you knew the number of poorly recorded, poorly performed demos our network of sites gets on a daily basis…) So we’ve gone to the trouble to assemble a list of Five Ways to Stop Sucking in the Studio. You can choose to not listen to these Ways, but if you do, You’re Gonna Have A Bad Time.

So get crackin, and stop sucking.

1) Know Your Parts, and Rehearse Them

It sounds silly, and I can hear you in the comments section already like “dude we practice like twice a week bro.” I’m talking real rehearsal. Shed your little behind off, both on your own and in band rehearsal. If you show up to band practice having not practiced your parts, and then drink two beers during the rehearsal, you’re probably not going to improve that much. You’re not Brent Hinds.

Having your arrangements as tight as possible (really, they should be 100%) is crucial to maintaining productive workflow during a session. If you have to pause to work out things constantly you’re going to waste time, money, and most importantly, energy. However, if you have your arrangements locked down, your songs will be much more malleable and amenable to changes that happen “in the moment,” since you will have a structured frame of reference for what it is you’re going to change.

In addition to practicing and rehearsing, demoing the songs on your laptop will help you better know your parts. It will help you hear the kinks in your arrangement, and will get you in the mindset for what you want your parts to achieve during the studio experience.

Which leads to my second Way.

2) Know What You Want, and Know How to Communicate It

Our friends in Cellular Chaos recently cut an entire album in under three hours. A dozen or so songs in three goddamn hours. I’ve seen sessions that take three hours to select a snare drum. When I asked guitarist Weasel Walter how the hell they were able to work at that pace, he told me something profoundly simple that I rarely see among Studio-Virgins (and occasionally, even with seasoned bands):

“We knew what we wanted to do.”

Knowing what you want to do before you go into the studio is so goddamn important. It’s what enables you to do things like… budget appropriately. Do we know that there is one song that is definitely going to take the drummer an entire day? Do we want to track live as a band, or individually? Do we know that this one section will have some element of improvisation, and therefore we won’t plan it? Do we have a rough idea of the guitar tones we want?

In the cinema world, one of the legendary mentor-mentee relationships was Quentin Tarantino and Terry Gilliam, pre-Reservoir Dogs. When Tarantino asked Gilliam how he was able to achieve a consistent authorial stamp on each of his productions, Gilliam’s advice was to stop worrying about everything and to have a clear vision, know how to articulate it, and then hire talented people to realize it. In the music world, the same rules apply. Identify a studio you want to work at because of the vibe, room sound, or reputation. Identify a producer who you are comfortable with. Identify an engineer whose track record and personality align with yours. And then communicate with those people.

In addition, having a clear vision of what you want will help you deal with two of the biggest session derailers: frustration with performance and frustration with mistakes. If you know what you want out of a session, and if you have a realistic understanding both of yourself as a player and your band as a unit, you will be able to watch “mistakes” and “accidents” fly right past you like vomit spewed forth from a girl on prom night.

Which leads to my third Way.

3) You’re making a rock album, and mistakes will happen

One the Great Lies about albums is that they are performed “perfectly.” The fact of the matter is there are “mistakes” on essentially every album you listen to. Most of the really good albums, in fact, are chock full of them. Many of the less good albums have less of them. Perfectly performed albums are boring. Spontaneity, personality, and fun (this is supposed to be fun, right?) in recorded music all exist because instruments are played by people, not robots.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should be OK with poorly performed parts. What it does mean, though, is that you should completely avoid poorly performed parts by coming into the studio ready to not perform poorly (if you follow Ways 1) Know Your Parts, and Rehearse Them and 2) Know What You Want, and Know How to Communicate It, you’ll find this won’t be much of a challenge). This way, you will be completely OK with “mistakes” that happen during the course of recording a well-rehearsed part in which you know what it is you want out of the performance.

People think there are rules to making music, and that one of the rules is that it needs to be played perfectly. Don’t believe this baloney.

Which leads to my fourth Way.

4) There are no rules, other than rules of physics

I’m stealing this one from Colin Marston, one of my favorite active musicians and engineers.

This is the subject of another essay, but one of my Big Problems with the way Our Generation learns about and understands art is through the lens of generally accepted, but hateful practices that have been handed down and talked about enough in venues such as branded media outlets such that they become codified truths that reign supreme over close listening. The rock music world holds some of the worst offenders of this disaster – from the vernacular of music criticism to the vernacular of the recording world.

The bottom line is that you are making art, and anything goes. If you have a focused mission and vision, i.e., if you 2) Know What You Want, and you also are communicating with an engineer who you trust, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t break a cardinal rule of how records are traditionally made.

Your engineer (or producer, if you have the budget) is the one who understands the rules of physics, acoustics, and what the tweeedily-knobs do, and has had X-years working with generally accepted practices to harness those rules of physics and acoustics to make albums. Consult them when you need to, challenge them when you need to, and defer to them when you need to. Unless you are a seasoned recordist yourself, I highly suggest the latter.

Occasionally your engineer (the talented person you hired to create your vision) will suggest something that might seem sacrilegious to you. Don’t worry about them “producing you” – just remember that they are the experienced audio professional and talented artist in their own right, who wants to work in YOUR best interest. Rare is the engineer that wants to derail a session. If some part requires a dirty ugly guitar tone that you could get out of a Metal Zone, then use that pedal. If a 5150III isn’t working for your solo tones, don’t be afraid to try a Vox, even if Tosin Abasi didn’t use that for his leads on the last Animals as Leaders album.

The amount of literature out there on how the Beatles wrote, broke, and re-wrote so many of the rules is overwhelming. I cannot recommend highly enough purchasing a book about the Beatles sessions, and then siting down and reading it while listening to their recordings on a decent sound system. Same goes for bands like Led Zeppelin, Zappa, Steely Dan, etc. The more that you listen to and study the great recordings, the more tools that you can stock up and bank for inspiration later. So pick one of your favorite records, figure out who the engineer was, study that engineer’s techniques and body of work, and try to get a sense of how the album was made. The further you go, the more you’ll learn that there is no one way to go about doing things – but the more you know about the physical universe you’re in, the more you’ll be able to exploit it.

This doesn’t lead to my fifth Way, but this is the most important Way.

5) Don’t smoke weed. Don’t drink beer.

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This should be obvious, but marijuana makes you feel weird, bad, and look dumb. For some reason there persists this myth among rock bands that the way to have a good session is to “loosen up bro” by toking on a dank spliff, ingesting Sacred Kratom and crushing a bunch of Tecates you just downed. It’s a goddamn lie. You don’t play better when you’re on weed. You play worse. The jazz masters of yore who showed up to sessions cranked out of their minds were… masters. The best metal players out there today couldn’t hang the way those guys could.

Look, if you want to enjoy a brew during a session, that’s your choice. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a band step out for a break halfway through the day to pick up some coldishes, only to return, take another 45 minute break to crack and sip, and then take 3 hours to track one guitar part because they’ve become soft. The studio is a place to get work done, not to party. The days of $250,000 album budgets, in which Van Halen could sit in the studio for four months playing with each others’ uncircumcised Gold Bond-soaked wangs are over. These days you need to be cutthroat, rehearsed, and focused; not frosty. Get tanked after the session.

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.