If you're like most of the musicians that we see coming into the studio, you don't have a major label financing the recording/mixing/mastering of your album. Most artists have to pay for the production costs themselves, and most of them have to work on a budget. Now, this seems like a pretty daunting task. You may be asking yourself, "How am I supposed to record and produce an entire album without having to take out a second mortgage on the house?" In all our years of engineering and producing albums, we have found a number of things you can do as an artist to make your time in the studio as efficient as possible.
1. Have your parts down perfectly
This probably seems obvious, but you'd be surprised by how many bands come into the studio to start laying down tracks for their album without fully knowing how to play parts of their own songs. If we had a dollar for every time a band stopped mid-song so that the guitarist can remind the drummer, "You're supposed to do that tom-drum thing after I do the solo," we’d be writing this blog from our personal tropical island that we purchased with said funds. It's very important to have all the kinks and intricacies of your songs worked out before you get to the studio. This will save you tons of cash that would otherwise be wasted figuring out your own songs.
2. Get really comfortable playing to a click
Along this same vein, you should really take the time to practice your songs with a metronome or click track. Not only will this help get your songs tighter for the studio, it'll also save time for the engineer when he or she is editing your tracks (because now that they've been recorded to click, all the tracks will line up nicely and be easier to cut). On top of that, doing this will also make it easier to overdub sections or combine different takes, as you know there will be no discrepancies in the tempo from each take.
3. Write everything out beforehand
When your goal is to save money on studio time, it's very helpful to have all the parts of each song figured out before the session. We see a lot of artists who come in the studio and try to write the vocal harmonies on the spot, or the lead guitarist wants to improvise his solo. This is all fine and good if you're not worried about spending hundreds of dollars on writing parts in the studio. For the rest of us frugal musicians, it's way more cost-effective to figure these things out beforehand.
4. Record your band rehearsals
Recording your band rehearsals, even with a simple stereo digital recorder (like the Tascam DR-05 for $99) is a great way to save money in the studio. How can that save you money? By recording your tracks, the whole band can listen back and have meaningful conversations and take notes about each of the songs. You can also share those rough recordings with your engineer and producer so that they have a better idea of what you're trying to achieve in the studio.
5. Schedule a pre-production meeting
A pre-production meeting with your engineer at the studio before the day you start recording is a great way to familiarize yourself with the studio environment you'll be playing in (and also how to get there). Meeting to discuss your project ahead of time can head off any unexpected problems and possibly simplify your session (like maybe you can use the studio's drum set instead of having to bring your own).
6. Give lead sheets to your engineer and producer
This is another thing that often goes overlooked by artists coming into the studio to record their albums. Some musicians don't even know what a lead sheet is. For those of you who fall into the this category, a lead sheet is a type of musical notation that outlines key elements of the song such as beats per minute (BPM), key, lyrics, chords, and song structure (ex. intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.).
Most musicians are nervous coming into the studio and are mostly focused on themselves, which is completely understandable! You're working on a budget, and you want your songs to sound as amazing as possible. Somewhere toward the bottom of your list of concerns is how to make the engineer's job easier. By taking the time to write out these lead sheets before your session, you're really helping yourself and your budget because now the engineer and/or producer knows the exact structure, BPM, key, and lyrics to your songs before you even finish setting up the drum kit. This will save the engineer/producer time asking questions like, "What's the BPM for this one?" or, "When does the bridge start on this song?" By saving the studio's time that would be spent on figuring these things out in the middle of recording, you save yourself some money!
7. Concentrate your efforts on just two or three songs per session
It can be very tempting to try and track everything in one marathon session. You may be thinking to yourself, "Black Sabbath recorded their first album in one day, so why can't we?" While this may sound easy enough, once you get into the studio, most artists find it's not quite that simple.
Let's say you're recording a 10-song album. For even the most well-rehearsed bands, it usually takes about two or three takes per song to get everything you need for the basic rhythm tracks (drums, bass, rhythm guitars, keyboards). This, mind you, does not include any flubbed takes that could happen in between the two or three keepers. If each song is about four minutes long, that's about two hours of session time just spent on tracking the rhythm tracks with no breaks. And let's face it, you're going to need a break or two in there to keep your sanity.
Now, we're talking about three hours down, and you still need to do your overdubs, which include vocals, harmonies, lead instruments, extra percussion such as shakers and tambourines, and each of these will often need multiple takes. You're probably looking at six hours, and it's time to edit all 10 songs you just recorded, which could take a couple more hours. After eight hours, it's finally time to mix, and everyone is burned out from a long day of listening to the same songs over and over again. While it can be done, this is not a recipe for a great-sounding album.
Ultimately, artists who try to record their albums this way end up back in the studio trying to fix things from the first session that they let slide in the marathon because they were too exhausted to notice or care about a bad vocal part or sloppy drum take the first time around. The most efficient way to record your album is to focus your efforts on only a couple of songs at a time. If you record two or three songs at once rather than the entire album, you're more likely to get quality takes for each song as your energy level will be higher throughout, and you'll be less likely to be fried by the end of the session, which is usually leads to wasted time, which leads to wasted money.
8. Hire the right producer
Some of you may be considering bringing a producer in to help you create your album. If this is something that will be in your budget, you need to make sure you bring the right producer in to do the job. Do your research! Check out what he or she has worked on before and see if the sound appeals to your sensibilities. Reach out to other artists who have worked with the producer and see what they have to say. If possible, meet the producer before the session. You want to make sure your personalities will mesh. The last thing you want is to be getting in a wrestling match in the middle of a session over snare sounds. The more you and your producer are on the same page, the smoother things will go in the studio which, in turn, will lead to less time (and money) spent in the studio.
Want even more tips on recording your album? Click here!
Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at email@example.com.