Sunday, April 28, 2013

Session Prep: Getting your guitars ready for the studio

Recently, a close friend of mine gave me the idea to write about session prep for guitarists. This may seem slightly out of place for this little GTRMix blog but keeping up with the GIGO concept (or garbage in, garbage out), I feel that it is definitely worthy of a run-thru and will certainly help with tracking cleanliness and furthering your mixes in the long run.

After working in several music stores growing up and then much later, working with some incredible tech people, I have come to realize that absolutely nothing beats a freshly cleaned and set-up guitar. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't always clean my guitars like I do now. Once the comparison was displayed for me and I realized the vast difference in playability, intonation, and feel, it was absolutely impossible to not clean my guitars. The tie to recording/session prep is a very easy one: better intonation and playability = a better performance and a better recording. I cannot emphasize this enough . . . it does pay off and you WILL notice a difference.

Session prep for the studio starts long before any sort of recording is even conceived. It starts during your every day practice where your fingers become accustomed to a certain pattern on the guitar, or the response of a pickup, a new set of strings, and yes, a clean guitar. We should always practice how we are going to perform whether on the stage or in the studio. Practice with a clean and set-up guitar, perform with the same. Here are a few tips to work into your normal string changing/guitar cleaning sessions:

-Cleaning your fretboard-

This is usually one of the dirtiest parts of a guitar and contains the most build up. On your next string change (and maybe every other time, if not every time), use a little bit of #0000 steel wool on the entire fretboard to include both the wood and the frets. Be sure to put some muscle into the frets and shine them up a bit. They will look great and will regain their contribution to helping you produce a clean, crisp sound. Put a bit of muscle into the wood too, but be aware that it is wood and if you push too hard for too long, it will start taking off some of the wood. To reduce the amount of cleanup post-scrubbing, drape a paper towel over the pickups to keep the steel wool off of them. Steel wool tends to fly everywhere when used and since your pickups are magnetized, they will pick it up like glue if you don't cover them.

The next step in cleaning your fret board is slathering it with wood wax. I use SC Johnson's Paste Wax pictured below. You can find it at Home Depot.

Coat the entire fretboard with this stuff (both frets and wood), but don't let it sit on there. As soon as you coat it, be sure to wipe it back off. Use a paper towel or clean rag (I use blue industrial shop towels). Be sure to get every little bit, especially right along the frets.

Now you are ready to throw some strings on your guitar, check intonation, and then do some playing! Try to work this into your normal routine for guitar maintenance. You will get used to the feel and your guitar will sound ten times better and be much more consistent. This is one very important link in the session prep chain. 

-New Strings-

Even with a clean fretboard, older strings can cause a lot of issues within a recording context. Try bending overly stressed strings and see if it actually stays in tune. This a very simple one, but necessary nonetheless. Get yourself some new strings and throw them on your guitar a day or two before recording. If you are not in your own studio with all of your backup goodies, be sure to have some extra sets with you in the event of a string travesty.

-Checking you Gear-

It is really, really important for session prep to check your gear for crackles, pops, and unintentional noise prior to recording. Run through your signal chain starting with the following:

-Guitar - Knobs, switch, input jack
-Pedals - Inputs, outputs, knobs, switches, small patch cables
-More cables
-Amp - Input jack, all knobs, effects loop send and return, reverb can (if applicable)

It is essential to have good working gear when doing a session for someone else, or even laying down a few tracks in your own studio. In either case, you will save time and hassle if you check things first.

-Stuff to have on hand-

These may seem like no-brainers, but I've seen stranger things:

-Extra cables
-Batteries (if applicable)
-Backup guitar (Clean, freshly setup w/new strings)
*Note: I understand that not everyone will have a backup axe, but if it's feasible to bring one, do it.
-Extra favorite pedal
*Note: You know the distortion pedal that is just perfect for that new song you wrote? Guess what, it just crapped itself and you don't have an extra one. Sorry, I am a stickler for backups.

These are just a few things to do to get ready for the studio and there are plenty more, but following even a couple of them will definitely assist you in your recording efforts, make your life easier, and in the end, produce a much better product. Set yourself up for success!

What studio session prep routines/pointers do you have? Please share in the comments below!