Number One, Always: PRACTICE
There is no substitute, truly. There’s more to it than just run throughs too...break down certain sections, check the transitions, examine your tempos with a fine tooth comb, play with that annoying click until it disappears (yeah that’s a thing). Get a warm-up routine going to stretch out your minds and muscles...vocalists especially. If you find a particular type of herbal tea helps, for example, build a ritual to help you get comfortable and in the zone.
Pre-Production: Record Before You Record
Pre-production recordings are a great way to examine how your live and rehearsed music will come together into the definitive version you create in studio. Talk to a producer about your songs, instrumentation, tones, etc. all before going into the studio for the final recording.
Change Your Strings / Heads / Tubes / Sticks / Batteries / etc.
Have your instruments intoned by a professional if you don’t know how to do it yourself (most people don’t). We can’t stress this one enough. A guitar can be tuned and still be out of tune with itself, which in other words shows up and makes getting the instrument tuned very difficult and time-consuming.
Did you know you can get better at piano just by thinking about it? Here’s a fun, difficult and rewarding challenge: think your way through the song from start to finish, and notice your imagined playing...notice how it sounds when you’re creating your performance only in your mind. You’ll gain insight (maybe unconsciously) on what to do when you go back to the real instrument.
Be Your Audience
Who is going to be listening to this recording? In the same way that you can visualize playing, put yourself behind your audience’s specs. Find new perspective about your music...how does it sound? Some insight can be gained here but don’t forget to get real opinions from real people too, without sugar coating.
Examine Your Influences
What “sound” do you want the recording to have? Consciously or not, influence is ubiquitous in any artistic endeavor. But there is the sonic quality to think about as well. Do you write like Dylan and want the record to sound authentic too? Or do you want your record to take advantage of the clarity and space that we have with modern recording tools? Let the recording engineer and producer know, and share some examples that illustrate what you’re going for.
Click, Click, Click...
Even if you don’t use it in the actual recording, this is of massive benefit for all your songs’ performances, live too. It is true there is a lot of music out there that has been recorded without a metronome, but listen carefully...there is still that pocket, the place you want to be and the reason you use the click in the first place. It’s a secret weapon, use it, and the click will serve you even when you’re not using it.
Tone It Down
Plan to take a little extra time in the studio to find the right tones. The sound that works on stage and in the practice room may not sound the same under the recording microscope. Part of this is that the environment you are used to playing in has different acoustic properties than the more carefully controlled space in studio. It’s a common thing, something that usually needs to be compensated.