The secret to successful and efficient recording sessions is one thing – preparation. The better you do your “homework,” the better prepared you are for the session; the smoother the session will go. Here are a few tips I picked up over the years, in no particular order.
Carefully plan your ensembles
Managing your ensemble can save you money. When having more than one session this means going through the music and figuring out if you really need the full orchestra for each sessions, or perhaps (as is often the case) you can have an A orchestra for the cues that require the full ensemble and a B orchestra for the cues that don’t need as many players. This will save you money as you can release musicians from one session to the next. I once saved a production about $20,000 by splitting our four 3 hour sessions into an A, B, C & D orchestras, each one smaller than the previous one.
Recording order matters
Start with a cue that is of decent duration (not too long, but not too short) and moderate difficulty, with a nice dynamic range. This allows the players to warm up and ease into the session, while allowing the recording engineer to tweak his/her settings and really hone in on the sound of the score. Next, the recording order can save you time and help you get better performances. Put similar cues using the same theme next to each other, with the longest of the group first. Once you get through the first cue in a particular style and/or theme the next will go much faster as the players are already in that mode and will automatically play accordingly.
I like to have the most challenging cues in the 2nd hour of the first session if possible. By that 2nd hour the musicians are well warmed up, the engineer has the sound all set and isn’t making any more adjustments (or just minor ones) but they are still fresh, and since I like to conduct my own work, by then I’ve had a chance to listen to some of the recordings in the booth during the first break. As the day progresses they get tired and so I like to keep the easier cues for later in the day. Finally when you have multiple sessions with multiple ensemble sizes figure out which cues must be recorded with the larger group and make sure they are scheduled for that session. You can then add more cues from the B orchestra to the end of the A orchestra session, or from the C orchestra to the b orchestra session, etc., that way if you’re doing great and have the time you can record some of those cues with the larger group.
Great music prep is key
Whether you’re conducting your own music or having someone else do it, make sure the scores are easy to read. This means bar numbers are nice and big and prominent so they’re easy to see and the same goes for meter changes. As much as possible have bars per page match musical phrases (or per 2 pages actually since you have 2 open at a time). Check enharmonic spelling and make sure it matches (for example you don’t want one instrument to have a G# while another has an Ab). Don’t be afraid to use a highlighter to mark important information such as tempo changes, or even musical entrances for solos and/or sections. And if you’re also conducting, rehearse at home with the score and your mockups if you have the time, imagining the orchestra in front of you. Like everything else, practice makes perfect.
Also make sure the parts are clear, that the staves and notes aren’t too small, making them difficult to read and as with the score try to space things out so phrases are easy to read. Double-check your harmonic spelling, especially for transposing instruments. Make sure you create tacet parts for any instruments that aren’t playing on a particular cue, that way there’s no question of missing parts. And when you place the music on the stands make sure it’s in sequential order so as you call out cues it’s quick and easy for them to find the cue. Don’t put them in your planned recording order thinking it’ll be faster, it won’t. I have yet to be on a session where things don’t change on the stand and when that happens if things aren’t in sequential order they take too long to find.
ProTools session prep
Make sure your ProTools session is pristine. I always print my clicks as audio as well as have a click track setup and muted, just in case we make any last minute changes on the stage. I print 8th note clicks whenever I have very rhythmic passages at medium or slow tempi and have those muted by default, but ready to go should the players or conductor request them. If there are tempo changes I always create pickup clicks into the new tempo on a separate click track and again mute it by default, but it’s ready should we need a pickup from the tempo change. And crucially important – always check the clicks and your meters against the score to make sure everything matches. Double check that bar numbers match the score and everything is lining up correctly.
Dealing with Problems
During the session itself, if something isn’t working out and takes more than about a minute to resolve (the score isn’t matching the ProTools session, the orchestration doesn’t sound quite right, wrong notes, bad transposition – whatever) simply pull the cue and move on to the next. Don’t waste time figuring out what went wrong on the stand, do it on the breaks and then recall the cue.
If you follow the above tips you’ll minimize the opportunity for problems during the sessions and have a smooth, successful, stress-free and enjoyable recording.