This is an old article I wrote in the early 90s. Quite a bit has changed since then, but most of the advice here still applies.
With the reworking of my site in 2012, I have gone through this article and made some additions and revisions to make it more relevant.
© copyright 1993-2012, DBAR Productions, LLC
This content may be downloaded for personal use only, and may not be reprinted in part or in whole in any form without the express written consent of Stephen Sherrard and DBAR Productions
This guide will show you how to get the best possible recordings from a limited budget, while helping you avoid the costly mistakes that many inexperienced bands and artists make when financing their own projects. Along the way, you’ll also learn about the overall recording process, from tracking to mixing to mastering and duplication.
The first step towards maximizing your recording budget is to define your goals for the project:
If all you want is a simple recording for friends and family to hear, then go for the cheapest studio that can get the job done, or use the money to buy some recording equipment and do it yourself. There are plenty of studios around that somehow manage to charge only ten to fifteen dollars per hour. If you are very careful in your selection process, you can probably get a recording that sounds at least a little better than putting a boom box in front of your band during rehearsal. However, if you are doing this simply for fun, why not spend the same amount of money and buy a four-track recorder and a few extra microphones, and learn to do it yourself. That way you can make all the recordings you want, and they might even sound better than what you might get at some of the cheaper studios.
If you want to make a demo for getting club gigs, you need a good quality recording of your best three or four songs. However, by recording a few more songs and getting your project professionally duplicated, you can sell CDs or download cards at shows to make some extra money. Booking agents will be more impressed with a band or artist that has produced a full length release. If this is as far as you intend to take your project, then you should go for a medium priced studio that can give you good results for your money. These studios usually charge in the $25 to $60 per hour range. You may even be able to get rates in this range from the higher-end studios if you book during the late night hours with "second" engineers or interns.
If you intend to use your recording to shop to major or independent record labels, then it better be top-notch professional quality! These people are used to hearing professional quality finished masters. Anything less might not get the attention it deserves. In order to get the best possible recording quality, you should use a top-notch studio but only record two or three of your best songs. Most A&R people won’t even listen past the first few songs anyway. Then, when you have more money, or if a label wants to hear more, you can go back to record more songs. If you record just a few songs at a time for shopping around to labels, you will have an album’s worth of material after just three or four trips to the studio. In the end, you get a full length album of the highest quality recordings that you can sell on your own if you never get that major label deal. The high-end studios usually charge at least $60 per hour, and can sometimes be over $200 per hour. Unless you have a major label budget, you probably won’t need to use the "world-class" studios that charge more than $150 per hour. Later on in this booklet, I’ll show you how to get the same premium quality product using a combination of high-end facilities and smaller, specialized studios.
Now that you know what you want to accomplish with your project, and the type of studio you should be looking for, it is time to go through the selection process. Search the internet to compile a list of as many studios in your area as possible. Then contact each one and find out what their typical rates are and request that they send you any additional info that they may have that's not on their web site. Use the information to narrow down the list to studios that fall within the price range you are looking for, based upon the goal you set for your project. Try to find other bands or artists that have done the type of recording you are trying to do and find out where they recorded and how they would rate the studio and recording experience.
The next step is to visit as many studios as you can to tour their facility and get a feel for the rooms and the people that work there. Be sure to listen to some of the projects that they have recorded in order to evaluate their technical skills. If you don’t have a great ear for this kind of thing, bring someone along who does. Also, if you don’t know much about recording equipment, you may want to bring along someone who does to check out the studio. Make sure that you talk to the engineer who will be working with you at the studio. If you don’t feel comfortable with the engineer, your performance will suffer, and all the best equipment in the world can’t make up for a bad performance. It’s not the equipment that makes the studio, it’s the people. It is very important to spend the time to find not only someone who is technically proficient, but someone who you feel comfortable working with.
An often overlooked possibility is that of an independent engineer. These are engineers that don’t work for any one studio. You will mostly find these independents in large cities that have a large number of recording studios. If you find a good independent engineer who you are comfortable with and who wants to work with you on your project, he or she can probably suggest a suitable studio for your project since they have probably worked in many different studios in the area. Sometimes these independent engineers may even have their own small facility where they can do some or all of the work for your project, depending on your needs.
There are some studios that try to do it all, and then there are studios that specialize in certain aspects of the recording process. Don’t think that you have to do your entire project at one studio. If you have a full band, you will need a big studio to do the tracking for your project. However, that studio may be too expensive or may simply not have the right equipment or atmosphere to do the overdubbing or mixing part of your project. There are many smaller studios that may not be equipped to track an entire band, but may be just perfect for doing the overdubs and mixing. In fact, there are many studios that are set up this way intentionally. Since they don’t need as large of a space, their overhead is lower and they can pass on the savings to you. It is exactly these smaller, specialized studios that are the key to maximizing your recording budget! This is such a key point, that it gets its own heading.
Find a smaller, specialized studio to do your overdubs and mixing at. The key here is to find one with the right equipment and the right person to do the job. Again, make sure that you are comfortable with the person and that they have the technical skills and equipment to get the job done to your satisfaction. These studios are often run by people who have worked as engineers at larger facilities and then went independent and/or opened their own business. You need to find the right smaller studio first so that when you look for the larger studio to do the tracking at, you can make sure that you find one that has the same recording format as the smaller studio (to avoid costly transfers between different formats). In many cases, the engineer at the smaller studio will suggest the appropriate larger studio for you, and will probably even engineer the session for you at the larger studio. It’s always good to try to work with the same engineer throughout your project, even if you utilize different studios.
Just because a studio is small, doesn’t mean that it can’t have professional equipment and people. Likewise, just because a studio is big, that doesn’t mean that they have great equipment and great people. In both cases, you still need to search for the right people and the right equipment for the job. But, it doesn’t make sense to pay for more studio than you need. If you have a three piece band, you certainly don’t need to rent out a studio that can record an entire orchestra if there is a smaller studio that has the same quality equipment and charges less. If you use real drums in your band, you will need a big enough studio to handle doing the basic tracking. If you aren’t using real drums, you may be able to get away with doing everything at the smaller studio. However, since most bands use real drums, we’ll talk about basic tracking next.
When you are doing basic tracking, the most important thing is to lay a strong foundation. That means getting a great sounding drum track and anything else that can’t be recorded at a smaller studio (such as a real grand piano). Everything else can easily be overdubbed later at just about any size studio. Of course, most drummers can’t play the song all by themselves, and it wouldn’t have the same feel if they did. So, you need a big enough studio, with a good sounding room, proper isolation between instruments, plenty of good microphones, and a big enough console to handle tracking your entire band at once. Record enough takes of each song until you get one that has the feel you want and has the best drum track you can get. Bass, guitars, keyboards, vocals, and most other instruments can always be fixed or replaced in overdubbing, but drum tracks are tougher to punch-in and difficult to fix without resorting to time consuming digital editing in a computer. Once you get the killer sounding drum tracks you want, you can easily go back to the smaller studio to concentrate on getting the perfect guitars, bass, and vocals recorded.
Once all the tracking and overdubbing is completed, the next step is mixing. Hopefully the smaller studio you found has a great console and the appropriate outboard gear for the mixdown job. If not, you may want to go back to a larger studio, or try to find a studio that specializes in mixing. Next to the quality of the songs themselves, the mixing process is the most important part to making your recordings sound professional. Again, the secret to saving money is finding a smaller studio with a great engineer that can handle all your overdubs and mixing. Mixing can be a time consuming process, and the amount of time you spend on mixing is directly proportional to how good the mix will sound (up to a point). Don’t cheat yourself here.
Make sure you set aside enough time and money to do each song justice in the mixing stage. The biggest mistake that most bands make is not spending enough time mixing. The hardest part for them is done at this point (tracking and overdubs), and they usually want to rush through the mixing to save money and get the project over with. Depending on the complexity of the song, you should budget an absolute minimum of two to four hours per song for mixing. You could easily spend an entire work day on just one song, and may even come back to make more changes after that. The important thing is not to force it. Spend as much time per song as needed to get it right. Also, don’t try to do the mixing right after you just spent the whole day tracking. You need to give the engineer and yourself time for your ears to recover before starting the mixing process. Don’t try to mix for more than eight hours in one day, or for more than a couple hours at a time without a break. The ears get fatigued just like any other part of your body, and you need to take frequent breaks to give them a rest. When your ears are tired, you don’t hear things right, and what might sound good after an all night session probably won’t sound as good in a day or two after your ears have returned to normal.
One of the key things to look for when choosing your mixing studio is automation. An automated mixing console is almost a requirement for getting a great mix. Of course you need a great engineer with great ears and good equipment, but trying to mix a song with more than a couple instruments can be quite difficult without automation. Automation allows the engineer to work on smaller sections of the song and concentrate on one instrument at a time. In it’s most common form, automation can usually record any fader moves (volume adjustments) and channel status (on or off/muted). Every time the engineer turns a channel on or off, or adjusts the volume on that channel, it is recorded into the automation computer. The next time the song is played back, the computer recreates those events at the same exact time in the song. This frees up the engineer to concentrate on the next channel or the next part of the song. The engineer can also go back to fine tune or change any previous automation events that were recorded. This allows the engineer to "tweak" the mix until it is exactly how everyone wants it to be (as long as everyone agrees on how it should sound). Without automation, the engineer would have to make extensive notes on where to set each fader for each part of the song and when to turn parts on and off. For a complex song with many parts and instruments, this type of mix would require more than one person is capable of doing manually. Plus, if you make a mistake, you have to reset everything and try again. With automation, you work on the mix a little bit at a time until you get it exactly the way you want it, and then the computer does it all for you.
With many of the very high-priced mixing consoles, you also get "total recall" automation. With this type of automation, every aspect of the mixing console can be memorized by the computer and recalled at any time. This means that the settings of the equalization, pan, and effects sends for each channel is memorized along with the fader movements and channel on/off status. Most of the time only the initial settings are memorized and recalled since it is usually just the volume and channel on/off settings that change during the actual mix. With some console, especially the all digital consoles, you can even record real-time changes of effects sends, pan position, and equalization into the automation. With total recall consoles, you can work on a mix until you think you have it right. Then you can take a copy home with you and "live" with it for a few days. If you find you want to make changes to the mix, you can go back to the same studio, recall the mix that you have, make a few changes, and have your new mix done in no time at all. This is the way many big budget projects are done. It allows you time to check out your mix in the "real world" and to then recall the mix you had and make appropriate changes at any time after the initial mixing session.
It is now the end of the ‘90s [actually 2012 now, but the following is mostly still true], and advances in digital audio equipment and computer technology has brought this type of fully automated, total-recall mixing console into the reach of many smaller studios. Many pro-audio manufacturers have recently put out fully automated, digital consoles, that can interface directly with many of today’s most popular digital multi-track recorders. These consoles still cost about as much as an economy car, but they are not out of the price range of many of the smaller professional studios. One of these consoles, in the hands of a good engineer, with a good complement of outboard signal processing, good speakers, and a decent room to mix in can turn out results that sound just as good as recordings mixed on the most expensive consoles around. The advantage to you is that you save money working at the smaller studio with this type of equipment since that studio is not trying to make payments on a half-million dollar console or a room that is big enough to put an orchestra in. Plus, with one of these all-digital consoles, you get the previously mentioned advantage of total recall, so you can come back and make changes at a later time if you find you are not happy with your mixes.
[2012 update] Now days more and more projects are being mixed entirely with DAW software on a computer. These programs have built-in mixing with complete automation and total recall of everything. So, it's no longer necessary to have a hardware console with automation for mixing any more. However, many of the top professional mixers still like to split out tracks from the DAW and mix through the large format analog consoles, just to get that classic console sound. They often take a "hybrid" approach, doing some mixing and processing inside the computer, but still splitting out multiple tracks or "stems" to an analog console for additional mixing, processing with analog hardware, and final mix summing. All approaches are equally valid and it comes down to the skill of the mixing engineer more than the techniques used.
After the mixing is done, most inexperienced bands think that they are done. However, there is at least one more step to undertake before you can begin production of your CDs (or digital release). Your project needs to be sequenced and mastered. This is either a one or two-step process depending on your goals and your budget. Sequencing (not the MIDI type) is the process of getting your songs in the right order and adjusting the amount of space in between songs. If you mixed to analog reel-to-reel tape (old fashioned now, but some people still prefer that sound), this process involves a razor blade and tape. However, these days people usually mix right back into their computer's DAW system and do their sequencing in the computer. In addition to ordering the songs and adjusting the spaces between the songs, it is also very easy to clean up noise before and after songs, and to add fade ins or fade outs or even crossfades between songs in the computer. If you are totally and completely satisfied with the way all your songs sound together, or if you simply don’t have the budget for mastering, then this is the final step before production. A master CD or image file is prepared of the now sequenced project, and this becomes your Production Master to deliver to the duplicators to make the CDs from.
Mastering is the process of adjusting equalization, compression, and volume for each song to polish up the sound, correct any problems that may have been missed in the mixing stage, and to make all of the songs on the album work together. The high-end mastering facilities can charge $200 per hour or more to master your project, but it is exactly this high-end mastering process that makes the major label releases stand out from the low budget independent releases. A great mastering engineer can work wonders with a finished mix. Through the use of specialized equalization and compression, along with other tools, they can make your mixes louder, punchier, smoother, warmer, crunchier, or whatever the song happens to call for. They can zone in on certain instruments to make them seem louder or softer without you having to go back to remix a project. They can correct for problems with the overall balance of tone of your mixes that might have been missed due to poor studio monitors or an unfamiliar mixing environment. It is too hard to explain what a great mastering engineer can do, it is something that has to be heard. The best way to put it is that the mastering engineer makes the whole album sound right.
You don’t necessarily have to spend $200 per hour to get a good mastering job. Most of those types of facilities usually deal with major label releases anyway. Many duplication facilities have in-house mastering studios, and there are also many smaller facilities that only do mastering. Some large studios have small mastering studios built into them. Many of the smaller studios that you do overdubs and mixing in may also do mastering. Here again, it is very important to check them out personally and to use your ears. Mastering is an art unto itself, just like mixing. However, a good mixing engineer may not necessarily be any good at mastering. They are different skills. In addition, sometimes you may want to use someone else for the mastering to get a different perspective on the sound of your project from an unbiased set of ears. Other times, you may want to stick with the person who has worked the most on the project since that person may be more in tune with the sound you are looking for. In any case, there are all different levels of mastering studios out there at many different price ranges. Follow the same guidelines as discussed for choosing the studio that you recorded at. The important thing is to remember to include this step in your budget when planning your project.
The final step in your project is the duplication, or replication, of your CDs (unless you are doing a digital only release). For this step you will need to find a dedicated duplication facility since the majority of recording studios are not set up for making more than a few reference copies of your project. After the sequencing and mastering stage you should have received a production master CD, or disc image, plus a reference copy on CD that you can check out at home before you proceed with the duplication process. If the duplication house is making CDs from a production master tape (not CD), or if they are the ones doing the sequencing/mastering for you, they should provide you with a reference CD before actually starting the CD manufacturing process.
The majority of duplication houses are actually just brokers when it comes to making CDs, they do not actually manufacture the CDs for you. The CD manufacturing equipment is very expensive and there are a relatively small number of manufacturing plants. Since it is next to impossible to deal with the manufacturing plants directly, you have no choice but to go through a broker. Most duplication facilities make a "one-off" recordable CD (CD-R) of your project that is sent to the manufacturing plant. The manufacturing plant uses this CD-R to make a glass master of your CD, which is then used to manufacture however many CDs you ordered. It is important to note that most manufacturing plants do not make runs of less than 500 CDs. It’s just not economical for them to set up their machines for smaller runs than that. However, some duplication houses will allow people to order quantities as low as 250 or 300 CDs, and they simply throw away the extras from the manufacturing plant. Ordering this small of a quantity just doesn’t make sense economically, since they usually only charge an extra $100 or so to make 500. What costs the most money is the setup and the artwork for your CDs. The CDs come back from the plant on spindles, and the duplication facility only prints up enough inserts and uses as many jewel boxes as necessary to fill your order. So, the difference in cost between 300 and 500 CDs is usually only what it costs for the extra jewel boxes and inserts since the plants usually manufacture a minimum of 500 CDs per order. You will also notice that the cost for making 1000 CDs is usually only two or three hundred dollars more than making 500 CDs. Your best bet is to start out with 1000 CDs or more if you think you can sell or give them all away (promotions, etc.). With 1000 or more CDs, your cost per CD is much less than it is for 500 or less since it doesn’t cost the duplication house that much more to make the extra CDs once all the setup costs are completed.
CD-R drives and CD-R media have now made it possible to produce smaller quantities of CD-Rs. The media is a little different, but if you just need a small quantity of CDs for promotional purposes, this might be the way to go. Most studios that do sequencing and mastering have CD-R burners, and can make you small quantities (usually in the 1-20 range). Some duplication facilities have CD-R machines that can many copies at a time, and are offering to do quantities of up to 200 or more. In addition, there are low cost inkjet type printers that can print directly on these CD-Rs. The problem with CD-Rs though, is that most places are still going to charge you anywhere from $1 to $5 each depending on the quantity you order. So it usually doesn’t make sense to make more that 10 or 20 CD-Rs.
No matter if you duplicating CD-Rs or getting real replicated CDs from a glass master, you need to figure out what type of artwork and packaging you want, and then shop around for the best deal. CD duplication/replication is a very competitive business and you find similar pricing at most of the duplication houses. You have to be very careful to find out exactly what is included in each package. One duplicator may look like a better deal than all the others until you find out all the hidden charges that they tack onto the price. The biggest difference in price is determined by how many pages and how many colors you want on your inserts. In order to truly compare prices, you need to find out exactly what you are getting in terms of printing and artwork for each package offered. Most facilities offer in house graphic design artists who will help you with your artwork and layout. When purchased as part of a complete package, the duplicator will take care of everything for you. However, if you want to save a little money, you can find an independent graphic artist to prepare your artwork for you. If you are really ambitious, you may even be able to find a printer who will make the film and do the actual printing of the inserts for you. For most people though, the convenience of having one place handle everything outweighs the little bit of money you will save.
As with recording studios, you need to shop around carefully for a duplicator. Price is not the sole factor to think about. Some of the really cheap duplicators may save you money, but their artwork or printing or quality control may not be up to the standards of the true professionals. Word of mouth is the best way to figure out who the good duplicators are in your area. Ask other musicians and bands about their experiences and if they have a place they would recommend. In addition, your engineer or other people at the recording studio should be able to steer you towards a good duplicator in your area. Engineers and studio owners want anything they worked on to sound as good as possible, so you can trust that they won’t steer you to a second rate duplicator. If you are not in a large city, or even if you are, you may have to deal with an out of area duplicator to get the best deal. It might be a little bit harder to find a good duplicator that’s out of your area, but you may be able to save a significant amount of money by using a duplicator located in one of the major music markets (such as L.A., Nashville, New York, or Chicago).
CDs are slowly going the way of the cassette tape as more and more people are listening to digital files on portable digital players. Many people still like to have physical CDs, but for an independent artist, the cost of CD replication can really add to the total recording cost, and that money may be better spent in other ways if your music mostly appeals to the younger crowd that downloads music.
As an independent artist, there are many ways to sell (or give away) downloads of your music online. If you want your music in all the major online download stores, such as iTunes and Amazon.com, you'll need to go through a digital distributor. CDBaby.com, Tunecore, and ReverbNation are just a few that can get your music into all the major download stores.
There are basically two methods of paying for digital distribution. Some sites, like CDBaby.com, charge you a one-time flat setup fee per album, and then take a percentage of any amount you get paid from the retailers (who take their cut off the top before sending money to your distributor). Other sites, such as Tunecore and ReverbNation, charge some sort of setup fee, and then some sort of yearly maintenance type fee, but allow you to keep all the money they collect for you from the retailers. To figure out which one of these business models is best for you, you need to do some math and have a pretty good idea of how many copies you think you can really sell (and, the reality is that is almost always less than you think). If you have a huge base of fans that actually like to buy downloads (instead of downloading them illegally for free), and you can make at least a thousand sales of each album or single you release, then you'll make more money going with a service that only charges a yearly fee and gives you all the earnings (after the retailers' cut).
In the first year, it's better for ReverbNation since they give you that entire earnings for each sale, and the setup fees and yearly cost are about the same as the initial charge with CDBaby.com. However, after one year, you still need to pay that yearly fee to ReverbNation, whereas there are no more fees from CDBaby (just their small cut of the earnings). For simplicity, let's assume that you earn the same amount with each site. If you go with the current basic distribution plan of ReverbNation, that will cost you $35 per year. CDBaby.com takes 9% of your earnings, with no yearly fee after their one time setup fee.
So, at what point does that 9% become more than the $35 yearly charge of ReverbNation? The answer is $388.89 of income (or 556 single downloads from iTunes at the 70 cents you earn for each). However, this is not entirely accurate, since CDBaby.com distributes to many more sites than you get with the basic ReverbNation distribution. For the ReverbNation premium distribution plan, it's basically $50 per year, which means you need to earn at least $555.56 per release per year (794 single downloads through iTunes) to make that plan better than CDBaby's 9% cut with no yearly fee.
For one album with a short life span, plans like ReverbNation may be a better deal if you know you can earn at least that much from that one release each year. But, if you are going to have many releases and plan on keeping them active for many years, that yearly fee really adds up fast, and you have to pay that fee for each release, every year, no matter how old it is or how many sales it makes. For big catalogs that you plan to keep active for a long time, even as the sales dwindle, CDBaby may be a better deal.
However, there is more to it than strictly those numbers. You need to compare all the other features and services you get for your money. These companies are competing for your business, so they keep updating and changing their services. CDBaby, for example, is more than just a distributor. They sell CDs direct, as well as digital downloads direct through their site, as well as giving you store widgets and apps for selling your music through your own web site and Facebook. They also recently added deals with licensing companies to help you get your music licensed for use in film, TV, and internet videos. ReverbNation and other sites also offer a variety of similar promotional opportunities and other artist tools (some free, and some at an additional charge). So, you really need to shop around and compare what you are getting for your money.
I think both business models have their place. For some of my smaller specialty market products, I have gone with CDBaby, since these products make a relatively small amount of sales each year, but have a very long shelf life. For a couple of trendy artists that I work with, we set them up with ReverbNation since we believed they would sell a good amount of downloads in the first year or two, after which time we would pull the albums once they were no longer selling enough to make up for the yearly fee.
But, enough about distribution and sales, as that's a whole other book! Back to recording!
One of the biggest factors in saving money on your recording projects is to make sure that you are completely prepared before you go into the studio. This seems like a simple concept, but you wouldn’t believe how many bands don’t have their parts down, or haven’t even written them yet when they get to the studio. I once worked with a band where the singer actually hadn’t even written lyrics for the songs yet. He made them up about right before it was his turn to sing! Remember, when you are in the studio, the clock is running and you are paying for that time whether you are working or not. If you have never recorded in a big studio before, you may need to work with a producer to guide you through the process. I’ll discuss the role of the producer a little bit later. For now, let’s concentrate on things you can do before you get to the studio to make the most efficient use of your studio time and to maximize your recording budget.
Use a boom box, cell phone, ipod, or any other available recorder to make rough recordings of your songs. Try to listen to these songs objectively to find weak parts in your songs that need work, and then practice them until you can play them right. You want to make sure that you are tight as a group before going into an expensive studio to record. These recordings may also help you determine which are your best songs, or which songs may need some re-writing to make them better. In addition, when shopping around for studios, you can play these tapes for the engineers to give them an idea of the type of music you play. You want to find an engineer who likes your music and who wants to work on your project, so letting them hear rough recordings is a good way to narrow down your choices.
Unless you are really good at ad-libbing parts on the spot, you should have every part worked out ahead of time. This includes solos, doubled parts, overdubbed percussion parts, background vocals, sound effects, etc. The studio is usually not the best place or time to start getting creative and coming up with new parts. You need to know exactly what you are going to do for each song. If you think you are going to double your guitar parts for a bigger sound, plan out exactly which songs and where in each song you are going to double instead of just doubling everything and sorting it out later. Same thing with percussion or any other overdubbed parts. Don’t just think that you want to put a shaker in a song. Figure out ahead of time what type of shaker, what rhythm, and where in the song you are going to play it. Any one of these things by themselves may not seem like they would make much difference, but when you add them all up, it could come out to several hours worth of studio time. If you have it all planned out ahead of time, it could save you several hundred dollars.
Spend the time to get your sequences sounding exactly the way you want them before you go into the studio. It’s easier to see how the real instrument parts and the sequencer parts will sound together when you’re in the studio if you have the sequences prepared ahead of time. If you're sequencing with a computer at home, you may want to record all the sequenced parts as audio before you go into the studio. If you're using software virtual instruments, it's very easy to render these to audio tracks or files within the software itself. If your sounds are coming from external hardware synths, you'll want to record the parts to audio tracks in your computer using a high quality audio interface, or renting out a smaller studio to help you with those transfers first. This way you aren’t wasting time trying to get you sequencer synchronized to the DAW at the big studio where it is more expensive. Plus, there is less gear that you have to bring, set up, and tear down, which will save you even more time.
The same is true for any parts that you may have worked on at home first. If you've been using your own computer and software to record and arrange any parts that you want to keep, it's best to render all your tracks to individual audio files that all start at the same point in time in the song (bar 1 or time zero). Put these files on a USB stick or burn them as data on a CD-R or DVD-R and bring them into the bigger studio. Then, no matter what type of computer or software the studio uses, they can simply import those audio files, line them up on tracks in their software, and everything is ready to go in just a few minutes! It's much more convenient and faster than bringing your computer into the studio and only then trying to figure out how you are going to get those parts from your computer to the studio's computer.
If you are using any computer or sequencer parts in your song, you will have to play along with a click track at the studio. Even if you aren’t using any sequenced parts, you will still probably want to use a click track for most songs to keep your timing solid and to make any overdubs or punch-ins easier. If you are not used to playing with a click track, make sure that you practice with one until you can do it comfortably. This is especially important for the drummer since he or she is the one that sets the tempo for each song. A good way to get "tight" is to practice to a very slow tempo click track. Playing tight at a slow tempo is much more difficult than at faster tempos. If your drummer can master this, then you are ready for just about any tempo song.
There are occasions when you get into the studio and for one reason or another you just can’t get a song to work out. Rather than try to force the issue and get everyone frustrated, move on to a different song, or try a song that you didn’t originally plan to record. You can always come back to the trouble song later once everyone calms down. In other situations, you may have booked a studio for an entire "block" to get the best deal, and then found out that with all your preparation, you still have time left over after recording all the songs you planned on recording. Since you have already paid for the entire block of studio time, you might as well use it. Put down some tracks for the other songs that you prepared. These may not be songs that you finish for this project, but at least you’ll have a head start on your next project and won’t have wasted the extra studio time. You may also find that some of the main songs that you worked on don’t sound as strong on tape as you had hoped. In this case, you will need to have other songs ready to record.
Make sure you are well rested before you go into the studio, and schedule your studio time accordingly. It can be tough to try to do an eight or ten hour tracking session after you have been working all day long. Try to schedule the studio time on a weekend if you have a day job, or see if you can get a day off work. If you aren’t well rested when you go into your session, it will take you more time than it normally would, and you may not get the quality of performance that you are looking for. Make sure that you eat well before and during your studio session. Don’t forget about your ears either, give them plenty of rest and keep them clear.
If you are in the habit of looking at album credits, you will find that in addition to the band members and the engineer(s), almost all major releases (and most of the smaller releases) have one or more producers listed. A producer can make or break an album, and some producers are so talented that they have achieved the equivalent of superstar status themselves. Most inexperienced bands don’t even know about producers, think that they don’t need one, or think that they can produce their own album. In some cases, there is no need to hire a producer. But almost every band or artist can benefit from the expertise of a good producer.
In order to figure out whether or not you need a producer, it is important to understand what a producer does. This is not a simple task though, as the role of a producer can be quite different from one project to the next. In all cases, what differentiates the producer from the engineer is that the producer has a much more creative input to a project than an engineer. An engineer’s job is to make sure that things sound good and to operate all the equipment, but doesn’t usually offer much creative input other than offering suggestions on sounds or letting people know if they are out of tune. The exception would be mixing engineers, as there is a lot of creativity involved in crafting a great mix, and a great mixing engineer can make a big difference in how well a song does. A producer, on the other hand, concentrates on the creative and emotional aspects of a project. In the simplest role, a producer functions as the objective set of ears in the studio. He or she will help to decide the best songs to record, which takes are good and which parts need more work, whether or not a certain sound or part is working for a song, if the sound of the mix is right or not, and other creative types of decisions.
Most of the time, the role of the producer goes beyond being just a set of objective ears. They will help to coordinate the entire project, making sure that everything is ready before entering the studio so that you make the most efficient use of your studio time. Once in the studio, they help to keep the project moving along efficiently and will act as coach or even cheerleader to keep everyone’s spirit up in order to get the best performance possible. Most producers are accomplished musicians and will often lend their expertise to a project through help with song arrangements or even adding or playing parts on the project. Many producers are hired for their distinct ability to take a song and mold it into something that the original artist might not have been able to come up with on their own. These producers in effect become another member of the band. Famous producers such as Dr Dre, Butch Vig, and George Martin have a undeniable creative contribution to the music they work on, and are often the main reason a project becomes a big hit.
Many producers start out their careers as engineers. As an engineer, they learn the technical side of the craft. The engineers with a strong musical background usually progress to production after they have mastered the technical side of things. When they become producers, some of them prefer to work with an engineer so that they can concentrate on the creative side of things while someone else handles the technical aspects. Others prefer to do it all themselves, acting as both producer and engineer, thus allowing them to get the sound they want without having to try to explain to an engineer what they are looking for. Producers work in many different styles, some are very energetic and always coaching you towards that perfect performance, while others are very laid back and prefer to quietly guide you toward the results you want.
[2012 Addition] In recent years, with the popularity of hip-hop, dance, and other forms of electronic music, a new definition of "producer" has been created, which is different than the type of producer I am talking about. In the rap and electronic music communities, the "producer" is the person who creates the music, or "beats" for a song. I prefer to refer to these people as composers and/or arrangers, although there certainly is some production involved for those who compose, record, and mix all the music themselves. However, these types of "producers" often only create the music, and don't have much interaction with the artists at all. In fact, many of them spend all their time just creating "beats" and trying to sell them to artists over the internet. While I don't have anything against these people, they are not really "producers" in the traditional sense of the word as used in the music industry.
Now that you have a very basic understanding of what a producer does, you need to figure out when you need to use one. If all you are doing is recording your songs for fun, you probably don’t need a producer. You also probably won’t need a producer if you are just recording simple demos of your songs to try to get club gigs. However, if you are trying to record a project for shopping to labels or a complete album to sell yourself, you will probably want to enlist the help of a talented producer. Most bands and artists think that their newest songs are their best songs, mostly because they get sick of, or too accustomed to, their older songs. Bringing in an outside producer can help you pick the best songs to put on your project and help to make them the best that they can be. If you are shopping for a label deal, you want to have nothing less than your best songs with your best performances, and a good producer can help you achieve that. Maybe you are just doing a project for local release, but are not very familiar with the recording process. In this case, you might find a producer to simply help guide you through the recording process. In most cases, you can probably find an engineer that also produces and simply pay him a little extra for his production expertise in addition to having him engineer the sessions. Having a producer for a project like this will usually save you money since you will be able to properly plan your studio time and work more efficiently. It’s cheaper to pay an engineer an extra hundred dollars or so to help produce the project than to waste time in the studio at a high hourly rate because you don’t know what you are doing.
If you have decided that you need a producer, the next step is to interview and pick a producer. If you are signed to a major label deal, the record company will often pick a producer for you. But the majority of us don’t have major label deals, and so we have to find one ourselves. This is actually easier than it sounds since you have probably already stumbled across many producers while shopping around for studios and engineers. You can also try looking in your local music publications or searching the internet for producers, or find bands with a similar style to yours and find out who produced their album. There are also professional directories in which many producers are listed. These are often put out by major industry magazines, or through local professional organizations, or on the web. Ask around at some of the bigger studios in your area, they probably have several of these directories in addition to their own database of producers in the area.
Next to the band or artist, the producer is the most important part of the project, so you need to choose one carefully. Make sure you find a producer that is well versed in your style of music. Make sure you listen to examples of projects the producer has worked on in your style, and have them explain what role they played in each. Most producers are musicians, and listen to and are familiar with many styles of music. If the producer is going to be hired mostly for their guidance and to be the objective set of ears, any producer that is familiar with your style of music will probably work well. However, if you need a producer that is going to help with your song arrangements, or even play some parts on your songs, then you need to be certain that the producer can also play music in your style. For example, if you are doing heavy metal music, then a producer whose principal instrument is the guitar, and who has done a lot of metal would probably be a better choice than a keyboardist who usually does pop songs, unless of course you are looking to add some keyboards to your music. That doesn’t mean that a keyboardist can’t be a great heavy metal producer, they just might not be right if you need someone to actually play some parts on your songs, although if they are into the style they probably know guitarists they can bring in if necessary.
As with the engineer, you need to be comfortable working with the producer you choose. Most of the producers that are any good can work with and adapt to a wide variety of people and personalities. However, most of them still have their own personality that comes through no matter who they are working with. Make sure to find one whose personality works well with you and your band. Ask the producer for references, and then be sure to follow up and ask those references what that producer was like to work with. Word of mouth is what makes or breaks most engineers and producers, and if that producer has been working for any amount of time in your area, chances are he or she has already established some sort of reputation in the community.
One of the easiest ways to choose a producer is to play them a rough demo of your songs when you first meet with them. After they have listened to your songs, have them tell you what they think the songs need and what they would do if they were hired to produce the songs. You will quickly find out much about their skills and working style by what they say. If you like the suggestions they give you, then they are worth checking out further. Listen to some of their work and talk to some of their references. Do this with several producers. Then make your decision based on who you felt most comfortable with and whose suggestions you liked the best.
The next thing, or maybe even the first thing, you are concerned about when hiring a producer is your budget. You might not think that you can afford a producer, but a good producer can often help you save money. We already touched on this briefly, but it is worth going into in more detail. As already mentioned, a good producer can save you money by helping you properly plan and use your studio time efficiently. In addition, producers are very creative people. This means that they are also usually good at coming up with creative solutions for projects with limited budgets. When interviewing a producer, tell them what the purpose of your project is, how many songs you want to record, and give them a ballpark figure on what your budget is. An honest producer will tell you right away if you will be able to realistically accomplish what you want with your budget. These are people that have worked in the business for a while and know most of the shortcuts to getting the results you want within a given budget. However, they can’t work miracles! You can’t expect to be able to produce a major label quality full length album on a budget of $1000 or less. That’s not to say that you can’t record a full album for under $1000, you just would have to do it extremely fast and not spend the time it takes to get it sounding right. A good producer will be familiar with many studios in the area and can help you find the right places to record in order to stay within your budget and still get the results you want.
The biggest way that a producer can save you money is that many of them have their own project studios. Since the majority of producers are musicians and many of them started out as engineers, chances are they have amassed plenty of equipment and put together their own studio for their own projects or projects they produce. While most of these producers don’t have large world class studios, they may just have the perfect project studio for doing your overdubs and mixing at. In fact, the majority of the overdub/mixing project studios are run by a single person who is a musician, producer, and engineer all in one. Not all of these people have the proper technical or musical background to do the job right though, so you need to be careful when interviewing and choosing one. Finding the right producer with a high quality project studio can save you money in another way. The producer may give you a discount while working in his studio, or may even give you a package price for the project that includes his production skills in addition to the time needed at his studio.
Just like studios and engineers, producers come at all different levels of experience, expertise, and cost. If you are just starting out on your own, you obviously can’t afford to hire the likes of Butch Vig or any other superstar producer. Shop around for producers in your budget range. If you are on an extremely limited budget, you may be able to find a producer that is just starting out and trying to make a name for himself. If he likes your music, he may be willing to work on it for next to nothing in order to build up his resume. If you are signed to an independent or a major label, or if you have really good contacts in the industry, or even if you have a really good network and a plan for selling your own project, a producer may work for less money up front and instead take a percentage of sales. In fact, this is the way that most professional producers working on label projects get paid. They usually get some flat fee up front, considered an advance, and then get royalties on sales of the album. The going rate for producers is anywhere from one percent for the lesser known producers, up to five or six percent for the superstar producers.
Another method of payment is for the producer to take control of the entire recording budget. The producer then plans out the recording sessions and picks the studios plus any session players or rental equipment. He pays for everything out of the recording budget. Whatever is left over at the end is for the producer to keep as his fee. The advantage to this method is that you know exactly how much the project will cost you up front. The producer has to decide if he thinks he can deliver the project within the budget and still make enough to pay himself for his time. If the project takes longer than the producer expected, then he makes less money. Obviously the producer will not allow you to abuse this method by deciding you want to re-record everything after you are halfway through a project. The disadvantage to this method of working is that you must really trust the producer. You don’t want to hire someone who is going to rush through a project and do a substandard job just to keep more money for himself. Most good producers are not going to try to rip you off, though. Their name and reputation is also at stake, and that means more than the little bit of extra money they could make by ripping you off. This method of the producer controlling the entire budget is usually only used by producers or production companies hired directly by a record label, and they still usually get a percentage anyway.
Finally, the producer can save you money by helping you get the results you want the first time! Going to a cheap studio and trying to do everything yourself may at first appear to be the most economical way to go. But what happens when the project is over and you have a CD that you can’t stand listening to or don’t feel confident enough about to send out to clubs or record labels. Having to go back to re-record or re-mix a project for any reason does not save you money. It is always better to spend the extra money to get a job done right the first time. Hiring a good producer to help you through the process so that you get the results you want will save you money in the long run. Maybe you don’t have enough money to do an entire album at a good studio with a good producer. It is still less expensive in the long run to do even just three or four songs at first. If you spend the time and money to do a few songs really well, you will have a better chance of getting a label exec or booking agent to listen to you. When you get more money you can go back to the studio and finish your album, which you can then sell at shows or use to get more club gigs or more label execs to listen to you. You can even sell the three or four songs as an EP to gain popularity and interest for your band and to build a market for your full album when it is finished. Plus, with even just one really good sounding song you have a better chance of getting radio airplay than with an entire album’s worth of bad or poorly recorded songs.
If you hire a producer, he or she will help guide you through the entire recording process. If you end up producing the project yourself, or still believe that you can’t afford or don’t need a producer, then these tips will help you make the most out of your studio time.
Show up at the studio early. Most studios will start charging you at the scheduled time whether you are there or not. In addition, most studios plan at least an hour between sessions for set up and tear down time. If you have a lot of equipment, such as a drum kit or huge keyboard or guitar rig, be sure to show up at least half an hour ahead of time to set up so that you can get started at or close to your scheduled time. Most studios won’t charge for set up time unless you have a really big set up.
Try to make the studio a comfortable place to work. You need to feel comfortable and relaxed in order to get a good performance. Don’t bring friends or other unnecessary people that could possibly cause distractions. Dim the lights, use candles or lava lamps, or whatever you need to make you feel at ease. Don’t bring, or turn off, your cell phone or pager on anything else that could distract you.
If you don’t have a producer, it is very important to go over your songs with the engineer to make sure that he or she understands the type of sound you are going for. Hopefully you checked out the engineer ahead of time and listened to other material he or she has worked on. Communication during the session between yourself and the engineer is very important to getting the results you want and to keeping everyone comfortable during the recording.
Try to record each song with as close to the same track set up as possible, (always put the basic instruments on the same tracks for each song, for example, bass on track one, drums on tracks two through ten, guitar on track eleven, etc.). If the engineer doesn’t have to change the setup of the console for each song, it will greatly simplify and speed up the tracking and mixing.
Make sure you put new strings on your guitars and new heads on your drums, and bring spares! Bring plenty of drum sticks, quality working cords, and picks. Know where the closest music store is and its hours just in case you need to make a run there for some reason. New strings and drum heads are essential for getting a good sound. For guitars, make sure you plan ahead to allow yourself time to stretch the strings out to avoid tuning problems. Make sure that you know how to tune your drum kit or bring along someone who does. If your instruments don’t sound good to begin with, no engineer is going to be able to make them sound great. If you don’t own good sounding instruments, consider renting them for the studio session. Everything starts with the source, and you don’t want your instrument or amplifier to be the weak link in the chain. If you do decide you need to rent equipment for the session, be sure that you take the time to get familiar with the equipment before you go into the studio. You don’t want there to be any surprises!
Keep in mind that it is emotion and feeling that make a great song, not necessarily technical perfection. If a part feels right, leave it alone. Working on a part over and over to try to make it technically perfect can sometimes destroy the emotional aspect of the part. If a part has a few minor mistakes, but has a great feel, it might be worth keeping.
If you make a mistake while recording, don’t stop and start over. You can always punch in and correct simple mistakes for most parts. Drums are the hardest instruments to do punch ins, as cymbal decay and tom resonances can often get cut off abruptly at the edit point. But, with modern DAW systems, piecing together drum parts from multiple takes, and even cleaning up sloppy drum performances, has become quite common. Most other instruments and vocal parts are easy to punch in and fix on any type of recorder.
Just because modern DAWs have virtually unlimited tracks, doesn’t mean you have to use as many as you can! Sometimes less is more. Don’t try to squeeze extra parts into a song just because you have extra tracks available.
[2012 Addition] Don't get lazy and leave it to the engineer to "fix it in Pro Tools". It's still usually much faster to sing or play the part again for a simple punch in than it is for the engineer to try to edit and clean up a sub par performance in the computer. Although modern pop and electronic music seems to be all about robotic perfection and involves heavy use of AutoTune and lots of tedious editing and quantizing of parts, the better you can make the performance in the first place, the less work there will be in the editing stage, which means less cost for you.
Reserve the most time for the part that is the main focus of the song. If it’s the vocals, spend the most time working on them. Build a strong foundation for the focal point of the song, but don’t waste valuable studio time sweating small details that don’t highlight the focal point.
Don’t rely on being able to "fix it in the mix." Get the sound you want while recording. You need to get the instruments sounding the way you want them to sound and make sure that the engineer chooses the right microphones and uses them appropriately to capture that sound.
Record individual tracks clean and add the effects later. It is hard to tell what each part will sound like in the final mix while you are tracking. If you insist on recording your guitar parts through a processor with tons of reverb and delay, you won’t be able to remove or change any of that reverb or delay later when you are mixing. What might sound great at the time might not work in the final mix once all the parts have been recorded. Too much reverb and delay can makes things sound distant and muddy, and if it is recorded that way there is nothing you can do except re-record it. All mixing studios have a large assortment of great sounding reverbs and delays that can be added appropriately during mixdown.
Don’t waste time double tracking everything. Plan out ahead of time which parts should be doubled. You need to have contrast in a song for it to be effective, and doubling a part can sometimes hide the subtleties that can give a song personality. If you are going to double vocals, try doubling them only during the chorus or bridge to make those parts bigger.
Know when it is time to call it quits for the day. If you are tired or are simply having a bad day, it will show. Don’t try to force the issue.
Don’t bring guests to your recording session. They can distract you and may try to tell you how they think your music should sound. It’s your recording and your studio time. Don’t bring along anyone or anything that could possibly distract you and cost you valuable time.
Check your tuning often. There is no excuse for out of tune parts. Bring a tuner along with you and make sure it has fresh batteries.
Make backup copies after each recording session whenever possible. DAW systems are the recording medium of choice these days, and large/fast hard drives are very inexpensive compared to the reels of analog tape that we used to record with. Make sure the studio you use backs up your project after each session. To be extra safe, bring your own portable USB or Firewire drive, or even a high capacity USB memory stick, and have the engineer save a backup copy to your drive after each session, and then take that with you (in case of a fire or other disaster that wipes out the studio's drives).
Vocalists should bring water along with them but should avoid using ice since it can constrain your vocal chords. Hot tea with lemon and honey is a very popular drink for vocalists in the studio!
Be sure to get an accurate track sheet and take log from the studio for each session. 2012 Update - This is not so common now that everything is saved in the DAW software on the computer, and tracks and takes can be labelled within the software. However, it's still a good idea to get some sort of print out of what you have done for each session, or, at the very least, reference audio files you can listen to between sessions. Also, when your project is complete, you should get an archive of your project files to keep for long term storage. These archives should have all the tracks consolidated and exported to individual audio files, each starting at the same project time, and with clear file names, such as: kick drum, snare drum, lead vocal, harmony vocal, etc. At some point in the future you may want to rework a song, and the software you used at the time or the original recording may not be compatible with newer versions. Having consolidated audio files for each track makes it easy to import those files into any software, line them up, and have your project ready to go again in just a few minutes!
Bring along CDs that you are used to hearing on your home system and listen to them in the studio to get your ears used to how the studio’s system sounds. As you get close to finishing each mix, check your mix against a CD of similar material to check your song’s relative levels and sound.
Check your mixes at moderate levels in your car, on earbuds, and on laptop computer. This is how most people will hear your music, so you want to make sure it sounds good on these types of systems. Most mixes sound great when played at loud volumes on the studio’s system. But most people aren’t going to hear it this way. Make sure your mixes sound good at lower levels on other systems. In addition, monitoring at loud volumes in the studio will quickly fatigue your ears and distort the "true" sound of the mix.
Don’t try to mix right after a long tracking session. Your ears need time to rest and readjust. Take a day or two off and then come back in to do the mixing. You may also need to do the same when mixing. Sometimes taking a day off and then coming back to listen will give you a better idea of how your mix really sounds. Even when mixing at moderate levels, the ears will fatigue quickly. Take plenty of ear breaks and don’t try to mix for more than six or eight hours in a day.
When reviewing your mixes, make sure that you can comfortably hear each instrument, even on a small pair of speakers at very low volume levels. Makes changes to the mix until it sounds right and you can hear each instrument even at these very low levels on small speakers.
Quit when you start to get tired. You are much better off quitting a session early than wasting time while you are tired. You won’t hear things right when you are tired and you’ll just end up making a bad mix that will have to be redone anyway.
If you are not working with a producer, elect a member of the band to act as the producer ahead of time. This person should be the one to make the final decisions and to communicate with the engineer. An engineer getting opinions from every member of the band on how the mix should sound will quickly get tired or discouraged and will probably not do a very good job for you.
Trust the engineer or producer you selected to do the first mix of each song for you. Their ears are better trained than yours and they know how parts fit together in the sonic spectrum. Try to keep an open mind and wait until they get the first mix set up before making any comments. A good mix engineer or producer knows how different types of instruments will fit together in the mix and knows how to shape the sound of each instrument appropriately. Room has to be made for each instrument in the sonic spectrum, which means getting rid of frequencies in some instruments that conflict with the primary frequency range of other instruments. Most inexperienced bands want to hear each instrument "soloed" all by itself and then will add EQ at frequencies across the entire spectrum to make the instrument sound great by itself. However, when the instrument is placed back in the mix with everything else, it will not sound the same and will usually be covering up other instruments that also need to be heard. Trust the producer and engineer to get everything in its proper place in the spectrum first, and then you can give them general remarks such as to make an instrument brighter, beefier, warmer, darker, etc. The producer or engineer will then be able to make the appropriate adjustments to the initial mix they have set up to give you the results you desire.
Focus on the song and not the individual instruments. Decide what is most important in each song and make sure that all the parts support the focal point of the song. Most inexperienced band members are only concerned about their part and usually want their part louder. Each member keeps telling the producer or engineer that their part should be louder until it turns into a "snail race" and every fader on the mixing console gets pushed all the way up. Again, it’s important to trust the producer and engineer, or to at least appoint just one member of the band to be the spokesperson who makes the final calls. Leave your egos at the door and focus on making each song the best it can be rather than worrying about if your part is loud enough or not.
Plan ahead and budget for extra time. Most recording projects always seem to take longer than originally planned. There are any number of things that can cause unforeseen delays or setbacks. These delays can occur in any step of the project from tracking to the manufacturing of your final product. Give yourself plenty of extra time before your release date to cover these delays.
Hopefully this article has provided a few tips and alternative methods of putting together a project that you may not have thought of or heard about before. The most important thing to remember about any project is that the music comes first! If you start with great songs and then add to that good musicianship, good sounding instruments, and great performances recorded, mixed, and mastered by technically competent producers and engineers, you should end up with a product you can be happy with and should have no problem selling to your loyal fans or attracting the attention of a record label. If you start with songs that are less than great, creative producers and engineers may be able to help you out a little bit, but they will never be able to produce the results that they are fully capable of with great songs. Concentrate on writing better songs and on improving your musicianship, and let the talented producers and engineers take it from there.
Stephen Sherrard is the owner of DBAR Productions in the greater Seattle area. He has been producing and engineering projects since 1986, and has been playing music since 1972 (keyboards, trumpet, and guitar). He worked as a staff producer/engineer at one of the largest studios in the Seattle area, Triad Studios, for several years before his own business took off to the point that he had to quit his staff position and go full time on his own. He still does occasional work at other studios in the Seattle area, but does the majority of his work out of his own studio.
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