Having worked with bands and artists for 14 years I have picked up a fair bit of knowledge to do with the whole process of making an album. When you have worked in a specific role for so long you can quite easily forget which parts of the process are the basic, common knowledge areas and which need some explaining. I have decided to sum up the album making process in this blog to give everyone an idea of what goes on in a streamlined, honest way, without sugar coating anything. There is no set limit on how much you can spend on an album. I have worked on projects ranging from £1000-£20,000. I know it can be a daunting concept thinking of spending that kind of money, plus two years of your life, working on a single project but sometimes this is the commitment you have to make to achieve a decent result. I’m going to cover subjects such as budget and studio time, use of pre-production, recording, editing and mixing and touch upon parts of the process that don’t take place in the studio but are still very important, such as mastering and try to help you set yourself a realistic budget and give you an insight of the work involved in cutting an album.
Before recording I try to make it to as many of the band’s rehearsals and gigs as I can to get an idea of the band’s live sound and energy. I feel It’s important to build a creative relationship with a band before we begin working on the project so that I have an understanding of the bands musical vision and how I can best apply my skills to this end goal. After I’ve got a feel of the band’s aim with the album a basic recording is needed, which is the demo. The quality of the demo isn’t that important, it can be recorded by a student at a music college or even just on someones phone in the rehearsal room. Think of the demo as the musical equivalent of a rough pencil sketch that an artist will draw before applying any paint so that they can get the proportions and composition right before using any of the more expensive materials. From the demo we are able to assess the potential of the album and the musicians in one simple step. This allows us to work out any stand out parts of the album that should be focused on and any tracks that can be tweaked to work better as a part of the album. We will work out at this stage a basic track order which is important as this can affect the whole production. After this we can also work out whether it would be beneficial for the project to bring in session musicians, which backline and gear to use and whether to use analogue and/or digital. The more work put into the pre-production stage means the recording can run more smoothly instead of having to make drastic changes mid-recording which can cut into the budget and studio time.
The difference between pre-production and recording is the common difference between planning and doing anything. No matter how well made the plan is, something will always come up during the execution that will work better. The trick is being able to incorporate these new ideas on the fly. Whilst pre-production gives the overall vision of the album, things start to evolve once overdubs have been recorded as you begin to see the tracks come together and discover gaps in the recording. These gaps can be filled with things like percussion, vocal or guitar doubles, brass/string sections etc. During recording I tend to push the musicians as hard as I can in order to get the most material out of them as possible. Whether this is an overdub, an alternate take or just filler noises they all become useful during the mix when they can be used to build a more full and individual sound. Timing wise I usually say on average, for a normal five piece band, the rule of thumb is a day of recording for each track. If you’re recording a ten track album you normally start off with the drums and aim to have them all recorded in 2-3 days. This is usually the longest instrument to record as you have to set up the kit, set the click, tune the drums to each track if necessary and set up foldback for the performers before recording and then bounce over to Pro Tools from tape afterwards. A lot of this preparation is carried over to the other instruments too. Setting up amps and tuning guitars is much less work than setting up a kit. Bass could take a full day, two at a push and the same goes with guitars. Vocals however are a little bit more complex, a weak vocal performance or one lacking in emotion comes through heavily in the recording. Not to mention the physical side of straining vocal chords. So if we work this out that’s 3 days for drums, 1 for bass, 3 altogether for both guitars, 2 for vocals and an extra day for any other parts that come up, such as backing vocals, percussion and general tidy up, that’s 10 days.
By the time recording has finished I will more often than not have around 100 audio stems to work with per track. This may sound like a lot but when you consider that I’ve used 10-15 mics on the kit and 3 per guitar, along with overdubs and various takes, including around 20 just for vocals it quickly adds up. Some albums I’ve worked on have had in excess of 300 stems per track, sort of puts into context how widely ideas can evolve throughout the recording process alone. The next job is to whittle all of these stems down to the ones that will be used on the track. That is the first part of editing.
Going back to the artist analogy from earlier is a great way to understand the importance of editing if pre-production is the rough pencil sketch, recording is when the final lines are put down in ink and mixing is when the piece is coloured in, then editing is where all the rough pencil lines are erased. Going back to music, these tasks usually include taking out empty silence in a take, comping vocal takes to get the best result, fixing timing issues and fine tuning any other issues, such as tuning vocals and removing errors. Editing is all about balance, while it is easy for us to fix little issues there is also the danger of becoming too reliant on editing techniques and ending up with a track that sounds like it was juts made in the box with midi instruments, to combat this it can sometimes be a good idea to leave the odd mistake in, as long as it isn’t too distracting. A good producer will learn early on how to make a track sound tight but still human. The amount of time needed for editing varies a lot more than recording, it could be anything from half a day to a couple of days. The amount of editing needed relates to the quality of a performance, the better the performance, the less editing is needed
Once all of the overdubs and alternate takes are organised in to the final structure. it is time to start adding the details that make a fully produced album stand out from a live recording. The ability to make an interesting album that resonates with the listener on an emotional level is the difference between someone who knows how to mix a record and someone who knows how to adjust a fader. Saying that, automation is still a big part of mixing just as much as continuity is. Mixing ten tracks as a whole is a lot more complex than mixing a singular track. The ability to preserve and move the emotions from each track to the next is the important part. Whilst setting the EQ and adding the compression are the basics of a mix.
When it comes to effects I try to not over use them throughout the track and try to create high points that focus on the individual effect, rather than having too much going on all the way through the track. This stripped back use is often more effective than just having a track overladen with bells and whistles that wastes the chance to create an emotional response. I select the parts that have been recorded based on how they would fit in the track and place them at certain points to create an impact along with the dynamics. Mixing is very hard to explain on paper, it isn’t a step by step process that can easily be described. It varies too much between each album. It can be similar to the way that an amateur song writer has trouble relaying emotions with their lyrics but eventually figure out with practice, conveying the same emotions in your mix is hard to comprehend without a similar degree of practice.
Unlike recording there isn’t a standard rule of thumb for how long mixing can take. I’ve mixed a track in a day and then taken a week on the next one. It all depends on the complexity of the arrangement. Going back to the standard 5 piece band I tend to assign 2 days per track.
After spending so much time on everything up to this point mastering can either be the cherry or the foot on the cake. Mastering engineers may not always pick up certain things, such as mistaking a subharmonic bass end that has been made into a feature during the mix for an unintentional bass peak and fully get rid of it. I find it easier to give an as accurate mix as possible to the mastering engineer so that he has little to do that I haven’t taken the time to ask for, such as extra drive on certain parts or extra compression on the whole album. A mastering engineer will bring all the mixes up to the right level for the album whilst ensuring that there are no errors within the frequencies and trim the ends if need be. This is the final piece in the puzzle, the more fresh ears that hear the final album it before it is sent off pressing the less chance a mistake will slip through.
I make sure I’m constantly in contact with the mastering engineer so that I can ensure that none of the dynamics or feeling that I have intentionally put in will be lost. I make sure that I keep in contact with a wide variety of mastering engineers so that I will be able to use the person most suited to the style of the album. Mastering engineers usually charge between £30 and £55 per track. Instrumental versions, radio edits and vinyl mastering are normally charged as extra services, ranging from £2-£10 per track. The whole album will usually be mastered withing a week, depending on the engineers schedule.
Budget and how long:
I’ve briefly touched upon how much each stage can cost and how long they can take but emphasis should be placed on the word “can.” I’ve made it simple by sticking to the average cost of a five piece band working on a ten track album but many factors play into how the final cost. If a band are well prepared they can cut down the given times and save money. Discounts are often given for longer projects as well. It is part of my role to work out the best result I can get from a particular budget. It is always best to be upfront, honest and realistic.
Another thing to think about on the money front is that this doesn’t have to all come out of your own pocket. Thanks to today’s technology I have personally worked on a few projects that have been crowdfunded through websites like Pledge Music and Indiegogo. A smart band will also keep a shared fund, all the money earned from gigs shouldn’t go on drinks at the bar after your set, make sure you put a portion away for important things like recording. As much as we all love music we have to remember that if you’re at the stage where you want to record in a professional studio then it is also a business. While this may sound expensive it is important to think of making a record as an investment, at the end of the day this is a product that you will sell to people and hopefully receive royalties from. Always remember the old saying, you’ve got to spend money to make money and a higher quality product will generally make more money. The more you put in, the more you get out.
Lets sum up a basic 10 track album:
Recording: – Drums=3 days Bass=2 day Guitars=3 days Vocals=2 days Extras=1 day Editing: – 5 days Mixing: – 15 days Total Days = 30 Cost per day = £300 Cost = £9,000 + £500 for mastering
The cost of pre-production is usually worked out separately by the band and producer and can be treated as a sort of consultation fee. However this isn’t usually a very large amount and can be decided upon rather informally.