That was an awesome take, now can you do one more?

The psychological aspect of record making:

You have great gear, an acoustically treated recording environment, the best coffee in studio history, and still, you struggle getting the right performance. When you’re recording artists and bands, you certainly need to focus on mic placement, gain structure, song arrangement, performance, etc. But a session can quickly go sour if you neglect the emotional side of the process. The psychology of recording.

You may ask yourself: ‘The emotional side?’ Let’s explain this a bit further. Because one thing you always need to remember: you are dealing with other human beings. And those human beings have emotions. In a creative environment – like a recording studio – there are many emotions (people) you have to deal with and can’t really control. Especially musicians! However, you can support them, guide them and stimulate their creativity. It’s important to know that creative people need a certain framework. Within that framework, they are free to unleash their creativity. Don’t try to restrain them though, because they will get stuck. But at the same time, when the sky’s the limit, there is no end. So finding the right balance (framework) is key!

This is where the psychological aspect of the recording process comes in and it’s important to keep that in mind. Every human being is different and it actually is the role of a good producer to be able to read the room quickly. Certain people might feel unleashed whenever they enter a studio and get in the zone quickly. Others might feel intimidated by the glass window, a bright light, or 5 people staring at them. There’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to a creative process.

The psychological aspects play a big role in capturing a great performance. It’s crucial for inspiration and we all know music requires a serious amount of that. The recording studio is a creative environment where inspiration needs to take place in order for a performance to reach its full potential. It’s your job as a producer and/or audio engineer to help the musicians reaching that potential, you have to be the person that brings the best out of all the people involved.

“There are so many different sides to being a producer [or engineer]. It’s a complicated process. You’re dealing with the psychology of it, the emotion of it, the technical parts. In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure what it was all about.” – Legendary musician & record producer Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones is making a reference here to the success of any good producer. It’s about having a proficient understanding of music theory and the ability to communicate efficiently with numerous musicians while playing the role of a psychologist to reach the desired results from a performance. Quincy says: “You need to be a psychologist in the studio so you know when to tell the artist to take a break or to keep pushing through.”

For this blog article we selected 7 important tips for creating the right space for your recording session:

Tip 1: Creating the right atmosphere and environment.

This not only includes the looks of the studio and the interior but also creating a non-disturbance environment. It’s an important aspect of the process because you want the musicians to feel comfortable. It’s about the lights, the mood, be friendly, welcome them, make sure everything is ready, be open to their (creative) input!

“There’s a very calm vibe here. Most artists don’t want to leave, and they find it a conducive place to get work done. When I say calmness, it’s a lack of outside distraction.” – Record producer Rick Rubin

Students who have been to the iconic Rockfield Studios UK with us, know what we’re talking about!

Tip 2: Knowing your place

Your ideas count, your opinion can be important but know when to say certain things. Make sure you share your ideas in a way that no-one feels offended. One of the most important roles of a good producer is knowing exactly what to say at the right time, and when not to say anything at all. Critically listening to the tracks and being able to point out specifics (whether good or bad) will let the artist know that you are in the moment and helping them.

Tip 3: Learn to think ahead

A bit related to the previous point, but almost knowing what the musicians need beforehand is key. Don’t expect yourself to master this skill right away, this comes through experience. But at a certain point, you know what the musician wants, and you will be able to think ahead. You will already have set up the extra channel in Pro Tools or you’ve patched in the right compressor, or have an idea they want to redo the take…it shows you are in it with them.

“The more I got into producing, the biggest aspect for me was the psychological aspect, and that entails understanding the band’s vision and trying to help them get there; getting them to relax, let their guard down and try things in the studio so they are uninhibited.” – Musician, songwriter, record producer and remixer Butch Vig.

Tip 4: Open your senses

It’s more than just making conversation: listen, pick up underlying needs, contribute where you can. Especially if you notice that someone is annoyed, or is having a bit of trouble, you have to play a bit of a diplomatic game. Try some positive reinforcement and try to let people shine. Maybe they are nervous, or experience self-doubt, which is of course only natural since being in recording mode can sometimes create a lot of anxiety or stress. Play with that, don’t judge them. You want a good recording, so it’s also in your benefit if they perform well. This also includes knowing when to take a break, try to sense that. And of course, listen carefully. Sometimes you may not directly be aware that there is an issue. But watch out, you don’t want to let yourself get dragged into band problems, by picking a side. That said, do be careful with the caffeïne intake (read: coffee).

Mix engineer Chris Lord Alge says: “your job is like 90% people and 10% engineering.”

Tip 5: Technical preparations

Tune in to the artist: listen to their music, think of the equipment you want to use and welcome them! If you have everything set up before they arrive, you are able to really focus on the person. Try to already set up all the mics, including music stands, all cables nicely arranged, Pro Tools ready, headphones ready, and even some water if necessary. Make sure this happens before the artist comes in. The last thing they want to see walking into a studio is a stressed engineer trying to figure out his or her signal flow.

The importance of a good headphone mix: the better the mix, the better the performance. In other words, a good headphone mix is crucial! Please give this the right amount of attention, since it improves the quality of the recording and vibe tremendously. And seriously think twice before stopping in the middle of a take.

Tip 6: Some psychological hacks

  • Put something inspiring in your studio.
  • Clear the clutter.
  • Put some motivation on your wall.

Tip 7: Cool heads prevail

If you lose your cool it will permeate into everybody else’s attitude. Lead by example and earn their trust. Don’t show you are freaking out, but stay calm. Show confidence but not overconfident. The bright side is the right side: be prepared and have fun! It will make a hell of a difference, trust us. Pitfall: Too much focus on the sound as an audio engineer and forgetting the musical element. Don’t ever forget that in the end, it’s all about the music!

These are just a few interesting tips we’ve learned along the way and by talking to other producers and engineers. In the end, we want to capture something special, a moment, an emotion, a collective energy of creative expression from an artist or band. And when you capture that particular moment, you will move thousands of other people. So let’s work on that!


Relevant article: Serious Sound Sessions with Matt Wiggins