Posted: Jan 30, 2017
**Guest post by Dane Myers, CEO of Custom Tracks, a virtual recording studio that offers low-cost session musicians and studios to artists around the world.
"Whether you're just getting started or you're a seasoned studio vet returning to make your next production, figuring out what a new album costs can be tricky. Here are some things to make the picture a bit clearer.
First, let's think about what really sets a budget. Before pricing out the cost of your chai mocha double frappa-whatever's and only stocking the green M&M's that will get you into the right vibe to record, think about what you're going to actually do with your album when it’s finally finished. How much demand is there for it? How much work will you have to put into your plan for releasing it?
The truth is, the plan for your album after it’s released sets the recording budget. If you're hoping to start by selling 20 copies to your friends, think about starting smaller in terms of production. If you’d like to tour, pursue album review press, and license some of the songs to television and film, your recording costs will likely be higher.
If you're a solo artist looking to have a ‘full band sound’ on your record, the first step to recording a new album is to arrange your songs. Typically, this is done with the help of a producer.
After working at my own studio in Orlando, FL for a few years, I found the biggest hurdle most newcomers and singer/songwriters run into is that their songs need to be arranged with production help, instrumentation guidance, and sometimes overall songwriting coaching before they’re ready to actually record.
While rates vary across genres and studios, our studio estimated it taking around 10 hours to arrange a song start to finish. Our hourly rate was $30/hr. You can use these numbers to as a guideline for now, or reach out to a local studio and get a personalized quote from an individual producer. If you're a band or if you don't need your songs arranged, you can assume that most of your time in the studio will be actually recording.
How many hours of studio time will I need?
The primary factor affecting how much studio time you’ll need to finish your album is how much preparation you’ve done.
If you’re a full band and are ready to show up and perform, you can get things done a lot faster than if you only have song-sketches. Reworking the same vocal take or melody in the studio could push your hours in the studio sky-high and blow through your budget faster than you can say auto-tune!
Overdubbing vs Live-Tracking
The number of hours you'll need also depends on how many instruments you're tracking at once. If you're going to record one instrument at a time, it will obviously take longer than if you can put all of the musicians in a room together and hit record just once.
Things to consider for live-tracking:
• A studio that's big enough to record everyone at once may be expensive.
• Scheduling everyone together may be complicated, so plan in advance!
Note: If you're going to track live with multiple people, make sure they can all play really well. If there’s a particularly tough part of a song you’re unable to nail, you're going to have to continue doing takes until everybody gets a great one together.
How many hours already?
If you're multi-tracking, you can comfortably record a song with a full band in 10 hours. If you recorded some MIDI instruments during the arranging of the song, you'll probably need less than 10 hours to track the remaining instruments you need.
If you're live-tracking with awesome musicians, you can probably finish a full song in half a day.
Studio time can cost anywhere from $30/hr to $100/hr. This often correlates to how big the studio’s tracking rooms are and is therefore representative of how many people you can record at once. It's OK to pay more for studio time if you're going to be able to track multiple instruments at once.
Just to drive this point home, if you're a 5-piece band, you're better to book a big studio that can record all of you at once and knock out a full song in half a day than to book a small studio where you pay $30/hr, but recording each part takes five times longer. If you're at a $100/hr studio with a huge SSL Console and 72 inputs, don't spend all day recording bass guitar.
Side Note: Acoustic Demos
If you're a solo artist just starting out, you don't necessarily have to have a band on your record. You could make an EP of a few songs, record them live, and have it finished in just a few hours.
Depending on where you live, you can find great session musicians to record on your songs in the neighborhood of $75-$100 per song. The real professionals can be much more expensive than this, especially if the session musicians in your area belong to a union, like in Nashville or New York.
How many takes will it take me?
One. Go into your session honestly believing that you're going to perform the song once and that it will make a great take. I know I'm harping on this a bit, but it really is the #1 thing that has the power to drag out the cost of your album. If you aren't a studio veteran, you'll probably end up doing more than one take, and that's totally fine. But if you're pretty worried about this question, wait until you believe you could get it in one take before you hit the studio.
You've got your songs tracked and everything sounds amazing so far. It's time now for mixing and mastering!
Mixing is combining the different instruments in a song to bring out certain qualities in the song. In this phase, things like EQ, compression, and stereo imaging can be used to make a song sound more clear, crisp, and compelling. Price for mixing is entirely open ended. You can find mixing for $50/song and you can find mixing for $500/song. It depends on who the mixing engineer is, how many instruments in your song need to get mixed, and the price of the studio where the mixing engineer is working.
I recommend looking at both the studio where you tracked your songs, as well as other mixing engineers you find in your town or online. The best way to find a great mixer is to find out who mixed the records you know and love and reach out. Obviously, this will likely lead to more expensive mixing costs, but you'll know that you're going to love what you end up with!
If it’s your first time recording in a real studio, I recommend budgeting $100-200 per song as a balance between budget and quality.
All the way at the end of the recording process is mastering. The simplest way I've heard mastering explained is that mastering is like car detailing. If you show up with a Mercedes Benz, it's going to come out as a really nice looking Benz. If you show up with a Chevy Impala (my car), it's still going to come out as an Impala, just a little bit cleaner.
LANDR is an online self-service automated mastering service. It also has to be the most controversial musical invention since auto tune. The service allows you to pay a flat rate of $39/month and create as many masters as you need. While it doesn't sound like a great mastering engineer would sound, those on a strict budget may benefit from mastering tracks with LANDR.
Expect to pay at least $100/song at a reputable mastering studio.
• Singer/songwriter: Records a song singing and playing guitar at the same time and records it live. No arranging needed, can be done in a $30/hr studio, no session musicians needed, $200 mix, mastering with LANDR. ~$250/song
• 5-Piece Band: This band plays their songs at gigs regularly and doesn't need someone to arrange their songs. They don't need studio musicians because they play their own songs. They rent a studio for $100/hr and record the music live, but overdub the vocals in a smaller studio which only costs $60/hr. $200/mix and use LANDR to master their song. ~$500/song
• Solo artist: Writes a song and takes it to a studio to get the music arranged by a producer and played by a session band. Arranging for 10 hours at $30/hr is $300. Then, 4 session musicians who charge $100/song track their parts in a studio that costs $100/hr. Spend $500/mix and masters it at a mastering studio for $100. ~$1,400/song
Obviously, these numbers can vary greatly, but I hope this gives you an idea of what to expect when you finally enter the studio! "
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