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!