Stretching The Budget
How to get the biggest bang for your recording studio buck
This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
Not so long ago, a recording project required a full-fledged studio. Things have changed now, and many projects are done entirely at home. But there’s still a place for a dyed-in-the-wool recording studio, and still plenty of reason you may need one.
This means money. No one’s recording budget is unlimited, so let’s talk about how to make that budget go as far as it can, without sacrificing quality.
You can save money at every stage of the production process, but the preparation stage, or pre-production, is your best opportunity to save money in the long run.
Recording sessions are usually charged hourly. Nothing makes a session take longer than doing take after take because the artist isn’t ready to rock n roll. It’s even longer if you never get a whole take and have to comp them together, and that’s seriously compounded if those comps have fluctuating tempos.
So, first and foremost, rehearse. Whether you’re a band or a solo artist, tracking sessions can be incredibly efficient if you’re well-rehearsed. Some things to do in rehearsals:
- Practice with a click – You’ll be asked to sync to one in the studio, and if you’re not used to it, it can be difficult to say the least.
- Practice in public – Preferably, you’re recording songs you’re already killing with on stage. In the studio strangers will be watching and when tape rolls, nerves can be a factor. Plus, if you’re recording well-vetted material, you’ll have fewer decisions to make later
- Practice as a group – If you’re a group, you probably want to record as a group, at least to begin with, so obviously you should practice together.
- Practice alone – The tape never lies. In the studio, you can’t hide behind the group, the crowd and the fleeting moments like you can on stage. So put your parts out there where you can scrutinize and perfect them.
- Practice recording – Even if all you have is the voice recorder on your phone, practice recording however you can. Roll on rehearsals and listen back, making notes and practicing the little things you wouldn’t have noticed.
Writing And Arranging
Even if you’re cutting new material, you should still be rehearsing and finishing songs ahead of time. Writing songs in the studio is a huge money waster.
Lyrics, song, and arrangments should be completely finished. Get feedback and edit songs in pre-production. Don’t pay money to send rough mixes to find out you should have sung “I love your mom” instead of “I love your man”. You can find that out with an acoustic scratch track or a lyric email.
The same holds for melodies, chord progressions, breaks, fills, everything musical. If you’re a band, work as much of the cool production stuff out live as you can. Bring your producer to rehearsal and implement their ideas. You’ll wildly improve your live act while you’re at it.
If your music is more sequencer based, you should be arranging everything at home. Get feedback on your home versions first, before going in the studio.
Once you’ve finished your songs, plan the sessions. Communicate with the studio ahead of time. Share your tech rider with the engineer and discuss mic choices, physical arrangement, song order, headphones mixes, everything. Anything you can figure out ahead of time when the clock isn’t running will make sessions faster.
If you can visit the studio beforehand so you know what they have, what you’ll need to bring, and who will be working on the project, do it! If you can have a pre-production meeting with your engineers, even better. You can even plan how many tracks you’ll need and what to overdub.
In any case, communicate everything you can with the studio, so they can be ready for you.
When the day comes to start work, there’s still plenty you can do to maximize your budget.
Use The Right Room
In pre-production, you should outline what you’ll record in the main studio and what you’ll do at home or in a cheaper studio. Higher-end facilities often have multiple recording rooms, and studio B or C might be cheaper than studio A.
Also consider booking time in different studios. You may be able to track a bunch of vocals in a small project studio that costs half the big studio, for example. Save the expensive rooms for work that can only be done there. Grand piano, full orchestras, or full band captures, for example.
You may be also able to do some work at home. If your music is sequenced, you’ll certainly do that work at home, but you may be able to do more. If you’ve got a simple interface and there are guitar overdubs that would work with a direct input, plan to do that at home. You may even be able to grab backing vocals at home, or keyboard parts. These audio files can be integrated into the main DAW project. You may even have enough home studio to track everything at home and save money for mixing and mastering.
Also ask about intern engineers. Studios often let the new guy record on off hours at significantly discounted rates. Just remember that the engineer is bearing the brunt of that discount, so be nice!
Finally, you may be able to save some money overall by booking a day or week-long lockout. That won’t be cheap, but it will remove the pressure of the clock.
Prep your equipment ahead of the session. Make sure strings are new, drum heads are in good shape, fingers and vocal chords are fresh, and anything else you need is ready to go. The clock doesn’t stop if you break a string, so be as ready as possible before you get to the studio.
Of course, your body is equipment too. Sleep well, eat right, and come to the session fresh and ready to go. The fresher you are, the fewer mistakes you make, which makes everything more efficient. And it should go without saying but being snot-slinging drunk will not get you your best performance.
Just a few things to note when you get to the studio:
- Be early – Arrive at least 15 minutes early to the session. Once your booked time begins, small talk and intros cost money, so create relationships before and after the session.
- Be even earlier (and organized) – Next, be organized when you arrive and leave extra time for load in. If you can bring help to carry gear, that will make things quicker and leave the engineer free to set up. Aim for being in the room fully set up 5-10 minutes before the session start time, if possible. Many engineers won’t start setup until the clock starts, but if you can do anything to facilitate pre-session preparation, great. Just remember to be respectful of the studio’s time too.
- Warm up – You’ll be glad if you warm up before the session rather than on paid time. Run through scales or vocal drills at home, and then quickly when you’re waiting for the session to start.
- Bring documentation – Bring anything you wrote during pre-production like set lists, tracking plan, “stage” plot and the like and be sure the engineer gets copies. Give the engineer lyric sheets, too, with enough space for notes.
- Keep it professional – Just like in rehearsal, the more you jabber, the more time things take. But beware, being too tight makes performances rigid and leads to mistakes. So, keep yourself in the sweet spot between fun and focused. Say stuff, laugh, be creative – and be ready and able to shut it at a moment’s notice. You’d be surprised how much time this habit can save.
- Take breaks – Recording sessions can get grueling. It’s not uncommon for a session to drone on for 12 hours. Don’t do this. Break every two hours, eat a meal every four, and unless you’re trying to maximize a lockout, keep days to eight hours. You’ll stay fresher over the duration of the project, which will lead to better efficiency.
Oh happy day! You’ve finished tracking. Hopefully you’ve sought feedback on rough mixes, and you’ve been careful to throw away advice you can no longer implement (that lyric should have been edited in pre-pro, remember?).
Now you need a mix. Every studio on Earth will try to convince you that you need to mix at their studio, since you tracked there. Poppycock. That studio may be the best place to mix, and it may not.
In either case, we’re thinking about the money here, so you want to consider a few things to help you maximize the mix budget:
- Pay per song – Mixing can be involved and unpredictable, and it’s in your best interest NOT to pay an hourly rate. It just so happens that dedicated mix engineers prefer it this way too.
- Provide references – If you’re going for a certain sound, provide references to the mixer.
- Organize tracks – This is really the tracking engineer’s job, but don’t leave it to chance. Make sure the mixer gets well organized, properly labeled tracks. There shouldn’t be 34 guitar tracks labeled “eric” or “rickenbacker 45000 uptown one chicken fried awesome track”. Edit and comp tracks and label them plainly, ie: “electric guitar”.
- Pick a leader – The whole group should get to feedback, but one person should have final veto power. Otherwise things may never get done. If you have a producer, this is their job.
- Limit revisions – Most mix engineers (especially with a per song fee) will do this for you, but you should make sure there are only one or two revisions. You can tweak forever and never get done, and if you’re paying hourly, this will cost you severely.
If you’re on a budget, you may not be thinking about sending mastering out to yet another studio/engineer. This is ok. You can have your mix engineer put together a master, and that mix engineer might very well be the same person who tracked you. Maybe this isn’t the aural ideal, but It’s no crime.
If you do have a mastering budget, some guidelines apply:
- Don’t fix it in mastering – Never leave anything wrong with a mix for mastering to fix. If it can be done in mixing, do it.
- Organize songs – Similar to sending a mixer well organized tracks, the mastering engineer needs clean, well-documented material. Make clear filenames and include notes telling the engineer what’s where.
- Clear deliverables – Be very clear ahead of time what deliverables you need. Do you want CD quality files? A CD master? Streaming-ready MP3s? Provide a detailed list of deliverables so there’s no back and forth.
- Limit revisions – What’s true in mixing is true in mastering too. Keep the tweaking to a minimum.
The After Party
As you can see, maximizing your recording budget is often done in increments. Each time you add efficiency or cut something unnecessary, you stretch the budget. Yes, you can cut your budget to nothing by setting up your phone recorder and jamming out some tunes (call it lo-fi, it’ll work!), but what you’re really trying to do is create something awesome.
If you’re efficient, you can actually improve the quality of your recording, because you won’t have to cut corners after wasting a bunch of money – for example – drunkenly re-writing a song in the $250/hr main room at Ocean Way.
And if you do it right, you’ll have just enough left over for a few beers at your fabulous post-recording party!
I like to think of myself as the McGiver of recording. I “funded” my first CD by rebuilding a boneyard at the University Of New Mexico, dragging 80 pounds of gear there every Saturday, and re-tarring the roof of my mentor’s studio to earn mix time. Ask me about it on Facebook @AaronJTrumm – or email me aaron @ aarontrumm.com