Session Blog: 5 Tips to Recording Great Cover Songs

Photo Credit: Jonny Kearns – Enclave Design

I spent a cold Sunday in February 2013 tracking some cover tunes with Aisling Doolan, and Dane Franklin (guitarist for the Coyote Kids) and the results were pretty spectacular.

The version of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” that we put down that day was so epic, that Aisling won a cool $1,000 to spend at Long & McQuade Music – and all without a single social media post.

So what were the key elements that made this cover so enjoyable to the contest voters? Better yet, what does it take to make and record a great cover song?

I’ve played and recorded cover songs since the early 2000’s and in my opinion, there are 5 things you can do make your cover tunes stand out.

1. Stay True to Your Style

The best covers take a great tune and do something completely different with it – When an artist takes someone else’s song and plays it in their own style (as Zeppelin themselves were known to do) the results can be pure magic.

Aisling and Dane’s take on “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a great example of this:

Check it out below:

2. Stay True to the Original

So you need to make a cover your own – but at the same time you need to make sure that your version is still capturing the emotional energy of that great song you’re trying to pay tribute to.

Jonny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is a great example of this, and one of my favorites – Hurt is a song about (wait for it) PAIN!

Every syllable of Cash’s vocal conveys the agony he is feeling.

Maybe someone could do an upbeat synth-pop cover of “Hurt” and make it work, but I certainly wouldn’t want to listen to it.

3. Keep it Simple

This is a tip that I think applies to all elements of music production, but is definitely exemplified in both of the cover songs above.

When you play or record a classic song in your own  style, you should be careful not to clutter it up with too much instrumentation or production trickery.

The spirit of the original will have an easier time coming through with a minimalist approach.

The countless punk rock covers of polished pop songs that are out there are a testament to this approach.

4. Hire a Recording Engineer who Loves the Music

I had a blast working on this session, and when I’m having fun, I do better work.

This is another one that can be applied to your own music – If your engineer is a fan of the song, they will be able to help you produce it in a way that brings out the soul of the original and highlights your own stylistic impressions in a flattering manner.

Hiring a professional to help you record your music is an investment in your art – in fact, Aisling got a 10x return on her investment – she used a $100 Gift Card for this session, and brought in a cool grand with her contest win!

That said, your mileage may vary 😉

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Make sure that when you hire someone to record your project, you practice your ass off before you get to the studio – Be sure to check out these other Tips for preparing for your Recording Session (Part 1 & Part 2).

A crappy performance will result in a crappy recording, 100% of the time (unless you want to pay the engineer to spend hours on editing and post-production).

When you’re doing covers, this is even more important – people already know the songs, so they are going to hold you to a higher standard – make sure you’ve got it together before you hit the red button!



Tips for Maximizing Your Recording Time – Part 2

Get the Most Out of Your Recording Session

A few more words of wisdom for how to slay tracks during and after your session. This is a continuation of last months post on How to Prepare for your Recording Session.

During the Session

There are lots of things you can do during the session to keep the flow going strong, or totally derail the mojo – these tips will help you to avoid the latter:

Authorized Personnel Only

In order to keep the flow of the session going, only those persons critical to the recording process should be present at the session (i.e. no friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, fans etc). Having non-essential personnel in the studio can cause things to get crowded, and can really slow down productivity.

The Click is Your Friend (Part 2)

Click tracks will make your recordings sound better – the idea that they take all the magic out of music is a myth created and continued by lazy amateurs who aren’t skilled enough to lock in to a metronome – more on this here

Quiet on the Set!

Don’t jam or play between takes or songs. Tune up or sit quietly. In fact, tune up every few takes minimum (don’t worry, I’ll remind you).

Keep it Clean

Start takes clean – Keep strings muted or turn up your volume knobs etc. once tape is rolling. At the end of a song, let your final note sustain (or not, depending on the song) and resist the urge to cheer excitedly at the end of a wicked cut. Give it like 8 seconds at least.

Mix Things Up

Stage settings don’t always work in the studio – try to be open to trying different things, including changing amps, recording direct into the board and adding effects later, or whatever other craziness we come up with. Go with the flow and you’ll have more fun, and make better music.

Chill Out

Screw-ups happen. Just relax and try it again. If you’re not feeling a song after a few attempts, its probably time for a break. Be open to change as well, a “Screw-up” sometimes sounds awesome. Maybe you didn’t hit the note you wanted, but the one you did belt out sounded great!

Post Session Review and Mixing

Try to be as objective as possible when you listen to the first mix I send you after the session. Have a listen to bands in the style you’re going for and try to think about what sounds different.

Need more chest-punch to the kick? Less reverb on the vocal? Vocals too loud or soft? More edge on the bass? Move the lead guitar more to the left or right?

Take detailed notes, I promise to go through them and do what I can to get the sound you want.

BONUS TIP: Bring a CD or USB key with samples of your reference tracks to the session!

Tips for Maximizing Your Recording Time – Part 1

How to Prepare for Your Recording Session

A few words of wisdom for your preparation in the days leading up to your session. This is cobbled together from my own experience and that of older, grayer and wiser engineers.

Ground Rules

Here in the Red Room, I have a few rules which need to be followed at all times. These rules are meant to maximize the productivity of the session, and to ensure the health and safety of all involved. If you get kicked out for violating these rules, don’t expect a refund – These are pretty straightforward:

  1. Respect the Studio and all people, equipment, furniture, etc. within its walls. I’m happy to share my amps, guitars etc. as long as they are used in a professional manner. You break it, you buy it.
  2. No Smoking inside the Building or Studio – If you smoke outside, please clean up your butts (empty cans/bottles are great for this).
  3. Nothing wrong with having a few drinks during the session, but keep it reasonable, see the first point above, and don’t drink and drive.
  4. Rock out and melt faces like a boss.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are a few tips to get the most out of your session before, during and after the tape rolls:

Pre-Session Preparation

Getting your act together before the session is the most important part of any recording project – treat your session like its the biggest show you’ve ever played, and keep these tips in mind while you’re getting ready to go into the studio:

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice only the songs that you’ll be recording for at least 2 days before the session. Practice with the last two beats of your count in silent (i.e. “1, 2, …, …”)

The Click is Your Friend (Part 1)

If you’re a drummer, practice with a metronome or click – you can even get metronome apps for your smartphone like those listed here

Spare Parts/Strings

If needed, put on new strings and drum heads at least 2 days before the session. Bring extra batteries, tuners, strings, sticks and cables, just in case. I’ve usually got some on hand, but better safe than sorry.

Sleep It Off

Go to bed early the night before the session, eat a good breakfast that morning, don’t party too hard. On drugs and drinking; Some people play better when they’re wasted, some don’t. Check with the rest of the group to see which category you fit into. See Rule No. 3 Above.

During and After the Session

The next post in this series deals with how to successfully slay your session and mix reviews.

Check out Part 2