My Studio Recording Experience
The Recording Project
Producing an album is a multi-phase project. There are many ways to think about how to break down the main goal into steps. Here is basically the way my project broke out:
2. Choosing a Studio
3. CD Production and Distribution
Every decision you make will affect cost and your chances of success. That's why realistic and logical planning is vital. Following is a list of the decisions I made and how I made them.
What tunes do you want on your album? I wanted to record my own original music. This simplifies things because if you record only your own stuff, you don't have to pay anyone to use their stuff. Alternatively, you can use tunes that are in the public domain — folk songs, traditional music, and original music written before 1922 — that you are free to use... for free.
Each tune you choose will take time to record. The time it will take to record will cost money at an hourly rate. The better prepared you and your band are, the less time it will take to make a usable recording and the less it will cost. If you are well prepared you can budget 1-2 hours for setup and then 2 hours for each tune. A focused band can do four or five takes of a tune within the two-hour span, and even have time left over for a short break. If — and this is a big IF — you and your band can minimize the number of takes necessary to produce an acceptable recording on any given tune you will have more money left in your studio budget for post-production expenses like mastering, overdubbing or special effects.
Knowing how much time each track will take to record allows you to schedule the studio time and budget how much it will probably cost. It is best to over estimate.
My project started out to be much more ambitious than it was at the end. In the beginning, I planned to record as many as eight new tunes in ten hours. I would also include two or three pieces I had recorded in previous sessions so as to produce an album with thirteen tunes on it. As circumstances unfolded this number was cut in half, and I found a way to record four tunes in just four hours.
The musicians you use can make or break your project. For example, I had planned a ten-hour session with a group of friends. We had several rehearsals over a period of two months. Then, two days before the session a key member of the band told me they had to leave in the middle of the session to go play a gig. It was too late for me to find a replacement, so I was forced to cancel my session and I lost my deposit.
The bad news? Unless you produce your music alone in your own studio — as many artists do —this kind of thing cannot be prevented. Even your closest friend cannot foresee the future, and even your closest friend will probably not attend your session if they have a family crisis or home-related disaster to contend with. Life is life, and it comes with disappointments and the necessity to make other plans. Be prepared to do so.
But let's say everything is going to run smoothly and everyone is going to show up as they say they will. There is another factor. Each player costs money — some more than others.
The studio engineer will set up each of your musicians. If your musicians play electric instruments they can be plugged directly into the recording mixer. If they play an acoustic instrument they will need a microphone and they will need to be isolated so that their instrument is not recorded on the same track with any other instrument. Setting up each player takes time, and time is money. In the studio, time can be a lot of money.
If you have a drummer, you will pay the studio engineer for an hour or more at their hourly rate to set up the several microphones required for the drum set. That means your drummer will need to show up before everyone else to set up and be set up.
If you want real acoustic piano it is wise to have the studio's piano tuned for your session, which is another small expense to consider. Everything adds up. The piano may also need to be isolated, making the session more difficult to run. For these reasons, you might consider having your keyboard player play an electronic keyboard instead.
Because of my personnel problem I hired professional musicians to play with two of my most reliable non-professional musician friends to record my music. Professionals have a reputation at stake, so are far less likely to bail out of your session unexpectedly. Also I hired a percussionist instead of a drummer, avoiding the sixty or ninety minutes of studio time required to set up a drum set. Setting up his cajon and other toys took only fifteen or twenty minutes.
To me, it was important to have a human percussionist, but many musicians use an electronic drummer instead. This saves both setup time as well as the money you might have to pay a professional drummer.
My final personnel choices promised the best chance of success with less stress and cost.
2. Choosing a Studio
Studios range widely in price, equipment, and talent. I began planning my project with two studios in mind. I had previous recording experience with both. Each was affiliated with musicians with whom I play regularly. Both charged the same low rate. A brief survey of studios in my area shows rates of fifty to one hundred dollars per hour for digital recording. My studios were on the low end of this spectrum.
Initially, I went with the larger studio because I had already worked with a larger group there and space was an issue, given the up to ten-piece ensemble I would be recording with. But as the studio date approached, the studio informed me I would be working with a different engineer, not the studio owner as I had thought. Initial conversations with this new engineer were troubling, as setup times and post-production costs seemed to swell and he would not give me an estimate of what these additional expenses might be. But because I was too attached to my dream I continued with my plan to use this studio.
People know that you must be a little crazy to want to record your own music. Certain people know that they can make extra money off you by holding your love of your work hostage. If you experience this, I advise you to terminate the discussion and find a different studio. There are plenty of studios. You don't have to deal with one that is unable or unwilling to give you an estimate.
It was almost a blessing that my friend bailed out and destroyed my initial recording project.
After you have recorded, someone will need to master your recordings to optimize their sound. As mentioned above, this can be a chance for someone to really make a lot of money off of you. Special effects as mundane as reverb or echo can greatly enhance or ruin your music, and all take time to apply, and of course, in the studio time is money.
The best situation is the one I had for "Songs of Love, Despair, and Regret." I had an engineer I could trust who included post production in the overall price of recording. But because post production is such a cash cow for studios, you should not count on getting this kind of deal.
Alternatively, you can take your tracks and master them yourself in your home studio, if you have one, or using an online service like CD Baby's LANDR.
The important takeaway is to include post-production expenses in your budget so you don't run out of money before your project is complete.
3. CD Production and Distribution
These days you do not have to make CD's to get your music heard. Your studio can provide you with digital .wav format files for optimal quality or simple .mp3 files for your mobile listening devices. You can email your music to friends or share via online file transfer services like Dropbox, or put your recordings up for sale at CD Baby or Bandcamp, or put them on Soundcloud for free streaming access.
But if you want them, there are many companies that manufacture audio CDs. I used CD Baby for this album. I learned a lot in the process and found their technical support and customer service to be excellent.
CD Baby offers production and distribution packages — a great tool for estimating costs — and when you are done you have a quantity of CD's to send to supporters, band members, and to booking agents to help get you gigs.
I am glad I elected to get CD's. I enjoyed creating the artwork and I am very happy to have them to give to the wonderful folks who gave me money to make this recording as a way of thanking them for their generosity.
I am also glad that CD Baby will distribute my music to many streaming and downloading sites like iTunes so that people can buy my music if they want. It is possible to arrange with all of these individual entities yourself, but personally, I just don't have time for that.
Now that you know what you are recording, who the musicians are, which studio you are using and what you will do with your recordings once you have them, you can begin to try to predict the final cost.
I used a spreadsheet program to create a budget for my project. I recommend this because you can set up your spreadsheet to add columns up automatically for you. So when you think of a new cost you can insert a new cell and populate it, and the spreadsheet will add it in to your bottom line automatically.
It is best to break down each cost into its smallest unit of measure. For example, if, like me, you hire musicians, you should not have an item called 'Musicians,' you should instead list each musician separately with the amount you intend to pay them. Of course, make sure this is an agreed-upon amount. As much as possible you need to know exactly what your expenses will be.
Another advantage to using a spreadsheet is that it puts the sometimes painful decisions you have to make right out there in plain sight. For example, it became clear to me early one that my CD release party would be me alone with a beer at home listening to my CD.
It was still a nice party. It just costed like two dollars instead of two thousand dollars.
Looking at your spreadsheet it becomes easy to see where you can cut costs if you have to to make your project happen. You can test the effect of losing a musician or an hour in the studio or a tune. You will do what you have to do to make that bottom line work. And if doing what you have to do doesn't cut it, you can go back to your spreadsheet and make a new plan.
If you have a few thousand dollars to spend on recording your own work, good for you! I didn't have enough money so I went to get some.
When I started out I wanted to record ten tunes with a ten-piece band and have a CD release party, and had a budget of about twelve thousand dollars to make that happen. On the advice of family and friends, I pared this down to a meager eight thousand dollars. Well, I did not have any eight thousand dollars, so I tried to get folks to help me fund the project through Kickstarter.
I hired a photographer/videographer friend of mine to help me make a video for my Kickstarter fundraising campaign. You can see it if you like. Just go to Kickstarter.com and search for me, Tom Rubenoff. The project was called "Notes from the Spirit." I followed their directions and created rewards, bios, and a sales pitch, and then launched the campaign. I emailed everyone I knew, took out ads on Facebook, wrote blog posts and a press release for my local press, and marketed my campaign with personal appearances at various venues.
But folks did not want to give me eight thousand dollars to record my music. In fact, no one who did not know me personally wanted to give me any money at all. Therefore my Kickstarter campaign was unsuccessful. Kickstarter campaigns are all or nothing, so if your project does not receive one hundred percent backing, you and Kickstarter get nothing, nada, zilch. So, out the price of the promotional video, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and solicited the folks who did pledge to the Kickstarter campaign, leaving Kickstarter out of the equation.
My conclusion about Kickstarter crowdfunding is this: it works well for:
- Established artists with large mailing lists
- Simple, cute, well-marketed products
- Projects that benefit an artist or entrepreneur with a disability or other obvious need
These kinds of projects have the power to attract funding from the general public. I was only able to attract funding from my personal friends. For that, I did not need Kickstarter. I could just ask them myself. And so I did. And I was successful enough with this "plan B" to go through with a smaller version of my original project.
Therefore, if you want to record your music and need money to do it, you might just ask your friends and family if they will give you some money to help you do it. Maybe they will.
Grant writing can be a successful way to raise money for your project. Writing grants is a skill, and unless you are a skilled writer you might consider hiring an experienced grant writer to do the work for you. Grant writers will not usually write grants for a percentage of the grant. They will want to be paid up front.
You will most likely have to find the grant(s) to which you wish to apply. This is no easy task because there are so many grants out there, and they all have a focus - that is, a target grantee. For example, if you play Rwandan music and have political asylum in the U.S. and you are under fourteen years old, there may be a grand just for you. But if you play Rwandan music, here on a working visa and are sixteen years old, you will not qualify.
I have periodically investigated getting a grant to record my work but have so far not found a grant for which I qualify.
Now that you have planned and funded your project you are ready to record!
In the studio, unless you have control of your schedule, time can run away on you and quickly bust your budget.
In my project, I had two challenging tunes and two easier ones. I was able to afford four hours in the studio divided over two evenings. Although I wanted to leave with four tunes, I could live with two. So I scheduled one challenging tune for the first session and the second challenging tune for the second session; I scheduled the other, easier tunes around these two more difficult tunes.
During the first session, we recorded good takes of the first challenging tune and both of the easier tunes, leaving the second session free to take as much of the two hours as needed to get a good take of the second challenging tune.
I was able to predict how difficult or easy recording each tune was going to be because I knew my tunes inside and out and I know my fellow musicians and the engineer all very well. Also, I was flexible when my musicians made suggestions or took liberties to improve my tunes.
Key to saving time in the studio is knowing what you are after — knowing in your mind how you want your tunes to sound — and being open to allowing your fellow musicians to help you make this happen in their own way. Keep your ears and mind open and your eye on the clock and you'll be fine.